What evil forces cause you to question either God’s power, or God’s attention and concern for your life?
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-11; Mark 1.29-39
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace to you and peace from the One who does not forget you, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It can be so easy to forget. I forget all kinds of things all the time…where I put things, passwords, where I park, birthdays. When there are really important things I need to remember I write them down or I ask someone to remind me about them. When I really really need to remember something, I write it in ink on the palm of my hand.
Our Scripture readings today speak about forgetting. In our Gospel reading, Simon Peter forgets that Jesus has a mission and a message to proclaim. It is understandable that Simon wants Jesus to stick around his home community healing people. Who wouldn’t? But Jesus reminds Simon that there are others who are in need of hearing the good news of God.
The reading in Isaiah also speaks of forgetting. God asks God’s people: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Remember…God says. “Remember that I have created all that is (Isa. 40.26, 28); Remember that I have knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139.13); Remember that I give you this day to live as a gift.” In the face of suffering and exile, God’s people forgot who God is. They have heard and know…it’s just tough to remember and believe it sometimes. It can be so easy to forget.
God’s power and presence were forgotten again and again by God’s people. All kinds of things got in the way of people remembering and feeling the goodness of God and God’s love for them. Things that are not so different from the reasons we forget as well. What evil forces cause you to question either God’s power, or God’s attention and concern for your life?
Here are just a few of mine: Shootings in Beulah, a kidnapping and murder in Montana, drug abuse, nuclear conflict with Iran, chronic illness, depression, religious persecution in Nigeria, suicide, and famine in East Africa, just to name a few of the world’s challenges. How can we continually see these realities and not grow weary? Or, at least wonder how we could possibly have faith and believe in a God who is doing something about all of these things?
A number of years ago, I was living and working in inner city Denver. During that spring, I trained for my first and so far my only marathon. I feel like all I did for four months besides work was run. I got up almost every morning and ran. Every Saturday I did a long run and spent the rest of the weekend recovering. For some reason I was not built for long distance running.
If I had enough energy at the end of a Saturday, I would drag myself down the stairs and eat a bowl of Ramen Noodles, and drag myself back up and go to bed. I often wondered why in the world I was putting myself through such a thing, but three of my friends were training with me and I wanted to find out if I could really do it. I also had this friend I had grown up with my whole life encouraging me to try.
Now I just have to tell you a little bit about this friend of mine. After high school he got involved in heavy drug use and drinking. After finally hitting rock bottom, he checked himself into rehab. He went through every step of the 12-step program and started his life over again. Part of starting his life over again meant picking up some new habits, one of which was marathon running. He had been clean for over a year and I wanted to run the marathon really in honor of him, the amazing person he was, and everything he had been through.
The marathon I had signed up for was in Steamboat Springs, CO, which meant a grueling 26.2 mile run through the mountains. Because we had to run on a mountain road, no spectators were allowed on the course, so for almost the entire 26.2 miles, I didn’t see anyone I knew and I ran mostly by myself. It was so hard. At around mile 22 I started to really wonder if I was going to make it. Never in my life did I want to quit so badly. I thought, if I just lie down right here on the side of the road, who would know…who would care?
I was nearing the top of a mile long hill at mile 23 when I heard, “Come on, Renee! You can do it!” I looked up and there was my friend at the top of the hill, cheering me on. When I reached where he was, I said through my tears, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it. I am too tired.” He then began to jog along side of me. He said, “How many mornings have you gotten up and ran 3 miles? You just have 3 more miles left! You have worked too hard to give up now.”
In my fatigue and physical pain, I had forgotten how many mornings I had gotten up to run. I had forgotten that my friend meant more to me than quitting. I am not sure how I finished the race that day, but I did. I had worked so hard all spring and had so many reasons to finish, but when my weariness and struggle took over, it was easy to convince myself to give up. It was only when my friend showed up to remind me of why I needed to keep going, that I had the strength to finish.
It can be so easy to forget. I know not everyone here has run a marathon, most certainly, but I do know that we all have faced and will face various struggles in our lives in which we’d almost rather give up than keep going. Many of you here today are working hard towards a number of goals: like getting your black shirt, getting through treatment, and getting to go home.
Yet all of us here know that life off this campus and outside this house of worship has all kinds of things that can make us forget the goals and hard work of schooling and programs, as well as words from God in Isaiah, like, “God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength (Isa. 40.29, 31).”
When we get to the middle or end of the week in which we are tired and stressed out, or when we finally get to go home and things aren’t quite working out, we need God to say, “Remember what you’ve heard…Remember what you know.”
We gather together each week to remind one another of who God is because it is so easy to forget. We have a God who says, “Lift up your eyes on high and see (Isa. 40.26)…see that I have made all things, that I have made you and love you.” Here we have this text in Isaiah that paints a picture of God that is so vast and inconceivable, where God “sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens like a tent (Isa. 40.22).”
And it is here we can convince ourselves that God is too far away and could not possibly know me, love me, care about me. Yet verse 26 ends with the words, “not one is missing.” When I read about the careful attention God gives to each one of us, I think about the story of Jesus and the lost sheep, where Jesus compares himself to a shepherd that has 99 sheep present and accounted for, yet he leaves the 99 in order to go and find the one that is lost. It is not just our task to ‘come to Jesus.’ Jesus comes and finds us in order that not one of us might be missing.
The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 147 reminds us of the God we have who “gathers the exiles of Israel, who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, who counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names (Psalm 147.2-4).”
Even though you and I may forget that this is the kind of God we have in the midst of suffering and weariness, God promises to not forget you. Isaiah 49:14-16 Where God’s people say, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." And God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” God says, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
You are written in the palms of God’s hands. God cannot forget you and will not because God has made you a part of God’s self. And it is all out of the love and grace of God for you and for this world.
We often make the mistake of thinking that evil (the laundry list of awful things I named at the beginning of this sermon) and God have the same amount of power and we don’t know who is going to win. When we think this, we forget about the death and resurrection of Jesus…and then we also forget that we are promised to share in the same resurrection after we die. Evil cannot and does not stand in the presence of God. Death does not even have the power to win us over.
The Gospel writer of Mark reminds us of this over and over again, especially in our reading from Mark today in which hear about Jesus incredible compassion and ability to care for and heal all who come to him. And not only those who come to him, but as Jesus reminds Simon in our reading today, his work is also in the neighboring towns…Jesus is constantly on the move to find those who are feeling lost in order to strengthen and renew them in this life.
It is in God, in Jesus Christ in which your strength and mine is renewed and in which we are reminded of who God is and how much God loves you and me. Even when we forget this, God does not forget us. You are written in the palms of God’s hands.