'In people’s worship of success, they make an idol out of the one who is successful. And they demand continued success out of that person, until the person either cannot produce success or wishes to do something else. And then they turn on the successful person, casting down their idol for faults real or imagined. Jesus will not allow himself to be made into our idol. He will give them no more than the message, yes, confirmed by signs, but the signs go elsewhere and the message remains. Even as he resists temptation, he leads us not into temptation by refusing to pander to our every whim.'
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
February 7, 2021
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
The story in the Gospel of Mark picks up from last week. It’s the same Sabbath day that Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast out an unclean spirit from a man. Now we come to that afternoon, and Jesus is still busy. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law from her fever. Jesus, the ultimate vaccinator! Then, after the sun sets and the sabbath is over, the entire city of Capernaum comes to the door of the place where Jesus is staying, and he teaches them and casts out their demons, who are suddenly mute in his presence.
We would think that Jesus would deserve a long and comfortable sleep after such a hard day’s work. But Jesus is up before the dawn, alone, praying to his Father. And after his disciples find him and let him know everyone is looking for him, he does maybe the most important thing he does at all:
He leaves, and there are many things we can say about this moment, and why it is so important.
First of all, it is very significant that Jesus is praying just before his disciples find him. It is not simply that Jesus is physically, mentally, and spiritually drained and needs to recharge, to spend some quiet time alone with God. Many times, we find Jesus at prayer at important times, key turning-points, of his life. And this is no exception.
In just two weeks we will read Mark’s telling of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, before all of these events happened. Unlike in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, Mark does not tell us the devil’s words. Instead, we must deduce the content of the devil’s temptation from the story itself. And after this day of triumph, Jesus is vulnerable, as any of us are vulnerable after a success. He’s vulnerable that he will make an idol out of success, make his ministry about being loved rather than faithful.
The people love him, the disciples tell him. They want to know where he is, so that they can receive his miracles some more. Maybe they want to make him king. Who knows? The important thing is that the people are searching for him. In the disciples’ report of this, there’s even a breathless anxiety. We might imagine that the people were quite angry at the disciples when they couldn’t produce him and had to go hunting for them.
But Jesus leaves. He leaves behind the adulation and the praise and hits the road. And why? To proclaim the message. ‘The kingdom of God has come near: repent, and believe the good news.’ This was the message he preached in the synagogue in Capernaum. But there’s a temptation to confuse the success of the messenger with the success of the message. And so, after Jesus’ first day of public ministry, after his big breakthrough, he leaves. To risk coming into another town, and another, where they don’t know him, where the message may not be as well received.
We don’t know the content of Jesus’ prayer to his Father. But we do know the result. He is able to resist temptation to stay and try and build on his success. He leaves, in his words, to ‘do what he came out to do.’ Perhaps the prayer was the same prayer he taught his disciples to pray, the prayer he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, ‘Thy will be done.’
But what of the people? we may ask. It might be good for Jesus to leave the people, but is it good for the people? All well and good for Jesus and the people of the other towns, but after all, he’s going to leave them eventually too. What of those who weren’t healed, or who are to get sick later, or who have not heard enough teaching? What of their needs?
Picture ourselves among the people at Capernaum. The great sage, the powerful hero, has come…and he is gone. We experience bitter disappointment, all the more sharply felt for the fact that according to this Gospel at least, Jesus has a home in Capernaum. We go back to our humdrum, drab, perhaps miserable lives, at least until he comes back to give them color and light again.
Yet the message remains. ‘The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.’ The teaching reverberates upon our lips and in our minds. The man from whom the evil spirit had been cast walks free among them. And all of this goes to confirm the message Jesus brought: ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’ And in that message, perhaps, there are more miracles contained than any that had yet been seen.
There is another reason it’s good for the people for Jesus to leave them. If the messenger has to be careful that success doesn’t get in the way of the message, then the people need to be even more careful not to make an idol out of the successful hero. For look around these days: people don’t worship God nearly as much as they worship success. People are drawn to the most successful in sports, the most successful in business, the most successful in the arts; the most successful in politics, the most successful in religion. ‘Nothing succeeds like success.’
But in people’s worship of success, they make an idol out of the one who is successful. And they demand continued success out of that person, until the person either cannot produce success or wishes to do something else. And then they turn on the successful person, casting down their idol for faults real or imagined. Jesus will not allow himself to be made into our idol. He will give them no more than the message, yes, confirmed by signs, but the signs go elsewhere and the message remains. Even as he resists temptation, he leads us not into temptation by refusing to pander to our every whim.
Before he was drafted second in the 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, the great Penn State running back Saquon Barkley got some advice from former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin. Martin thought Saquon had the ability to become the best running back to ever play the game, but warned him that he was about to come into contact with three substantial influences: money, fame, and power. Martin explained that if he ever had an enemy he wanted to conquer, he would give him all the money, the fame and the power that he could, then sit back and watch him self-destruct.
Imagine if God belonged to us, that he would give us whatever we wanted. Want is an itch that can never be scratched; there never becomes a time when we’re satisfied. We would eventually reject God for someone or something that we imagine could really give us our desires; and that’s what happens in a lot of situations when people lose their faith.
Jesus has to leave the people at Capernaum…for their sake as well as for his. Refusing to belong to us, he makes it possible for us to belong to him. Remaining free from us and our incurable wants, he remains free for us in order to give us what we need: the message. The kingdom of God has come near, and not because suddenly the world is our oyster and we have everything we could wish for. It is because that God has come alongside of us in the person of Jesus. In him God himself has entered into our story and into our suffering, into our world of sin, and pain, and temptation, and death, and has emerged victorious. This is the message, the good news, for which he has come to give to all people, even to us.
 Baskin, Ben. ‘Face of the NFL? Saquon Barkley Has a Plan,’ in Sports Illustrated, April 18, 2018: https://www.si.com/nfl/2018/04/18/saquon-barkley-2018-nfl-draft