“Freedom: From and For”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 4, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31 & Mark 1:29-39
Well, friends, tonight is the night! It is the match-up of the year! The players have put in the time, no expense has been spared. The competition is going to be fierce and the whole world will watch. But I’m not talking about the football game, I’m talking about the commercials!
That’s really why we watch the Super Bowl, right? The commercials are the main attraction. Who can forget the Budweiser frogs or the Clydesdale Horses or the parents in the delivery room coaxing their baby into the world with a bag of Doritos? Or the commercial that shows surveillance video of a Coca Cola delivery man sneaking a can of Pepsi, or the Volkswagen commercial where a little boy, dressed like Darth Vader, raises his hands to the front of his dad’s new car and the engine roars, all while dad is inside the house using the remote start feature. Another classic is the talking baby from the E-Trade commercial in 2008.
But of them all, the Duracell Battery commercial in 2014 has stuck with me. It shows Derrick Coleman of the Seattle Seahawks being bulled, picked last for teams, harassed by coaches, and even missing been chosen in the NFL draft. Derrick Coleman lost his hearing at an early age, and struggled to keep hearing aids in his ears during games—he couldn’t hear the coaches, others players, or even the crowds. He says in the commercial, “Everybody told me to quit. They told me it was over. But I’d been deaf since I was three, so I didn’t listen.” The last scene of the commercial is of Coleman entering the Super Bowl arena and saying, “And now I’m here, with a lot of fans cheering me on, and I can hear them all.” If hadn’t welled up in your eyes by that point, you see the end of the commercial where Coleman is putting Duracell batteries into his football-proof hearing aids.
That’s a good commercial, right? It’s good because it is full of possibility, potential, empowerment, and freedom. Derrick’s story is an inspiration because we hope that it is our story, too—rising up to be the people we know we are meant to be, regardless of the odds.
Are there places other than a Duracell commercial where we might get that same feeling? I’m know we do at home from supportive parents and spouses. I’m sure we do at work from good colleagues. We certainly do on the athletic field from coaches and teammates and fans. And I know that at school, with caring teachers and friends, the cup of possibility and potential and empowerment and freedom runneth over. How about at church?
Consider today’s reading. We continue today from where we left off last week, with Jesus at the start of his public ministry. Jesus began his public ministry not by teaching and preaching but by casting a demon out of a possessed man. Today, that pattern continues. Instead of a demon-possessed man in the synagogue, it is Peter’s mother-in-law who meets the healing hands of Jesus. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and immediately she is restored to her community and to her vocation. And it is not only this one woman, either—Jesus heals and cares for and restores countless people, setting them free from illness and possession. This is also a continuation of what we saw last week in Jesus’ opening act—Jesus came into the world to oppose everything that keeps the people of God from being who they were created to be. A whole city is set free Mark tells us, but the work is so draining, so costly, that Jesus gets up early the next morning and prays in a deserted place. He cannot stay there long, though; soon the disciples find him and they are off once again into the wilderness where there are more people to heal and bring back to life.
This isn’t just the message of the first chapter of Mark, but rather the message of all of Mark’s gospel and the entire New Testament. The message is that God wants us to be free. Jesus came into the world to bring us to that freedom and show us how to use it. Sin causes us to be shackled—shackled to doubt, shackled to fear, shackled to self-destruction, shackled to endless consumption and violence. Sin does to us what it did to a man living among the cave tombs. In Mark 5 Jesus arrives by boat to the country of the Garasenes and as soon as he steps out of the boat, a man rushes him from out of the tombs. The man had lived there for decades, because no one could restrain him any longer. The only thing that could hold the man—and presumably keep him from hurting himself or others—were chains embedded in the cave walls. So he was just left there to rot and die, with no clothes, no food, no regular contact with the world.
Jesus did not simply offer this poor man a blessing and go on his way; Jesus did not teach the man scripture or pray with him, either. Instead, Jesus chased the man’s demons into a herd of pigs, who stampeded down the banks of a cliff into a lake where they were drowned. When the towns-folk heard of what had happened, they rushed to find Jesus and Mark says they were amazing, not at Jesus, but at the man who had been shackled to the tombs. Mark says they found the man ‘clothed and in his right mind.’ The crowds responded with fear, but can you imagine how the man felt? Can you imagine how it felt to be free from having to live among the dead? Can you imagine how it felt to have the chains falls from your arms after so many years? Can you imagine how it felt to see the world for the first time in a long time? That is what Jesus offers, to the man shackled in the tombs, and to you and me: freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from destruction, freedom from the idea that the world rises and falls on our shoulders, freedom from thinking that we have to be ‘on’ or ‘with it’ all the time. This is the good news of Jesus and the Gospel he preached.
But is that all? And I know that is a ridiculous question, but is that all? Of course it is abundantly more than we could ask for or imagine, but is that all Jesus promises us as his followers? Is Jesus just about freedom from illness, freedom from disease, freedom from whatever else keeps us from living into the abundant life of God? Peter’s mother-in-law testifies to a bit more.
In today’s passage, Peter’s mother-in-law is restored to her community and to her vocation. As soon as Jesus came and took her hand, the fever left her and she began to serve Jesus and the disciples. Now I know that is a little problematic—this woman has just gone from bedridden to serving Jesus and his disciples, but we need to remember a little context here. Illness was more than physical in the time of Jesus. Not only did illness prevent a person from earning a living or contributing to the well-being of a household, they were also unable to take a proper role in the community. This meant that their value as a member of a household or village or community was in serious jeopardy. In these small towns were Jesus traveled, everyone had a role, and that role defined who you were…no one could call out. If you are I call out sick one day, it is likely that things will go on as normal and we won’t lose our identity. This was not the case with Peter’s mother-in-law. Illness cut her off from doing those things that integrated her into the world. If she had no place in the world because she was sick, who was she? In that time, bedridden with a fever, she was no body.
Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law from the fever and in doing so he freed her for a life of community. In this way, by restoring this woman to her rightful place in the community, Jesus restored her full value and her dignity. She lived this out by serving Jesus and his disciples, but it could have been something else: she could have gone on to teach in the synagogue school, she could have gone on to feed the hungry or comfort the dying, she could have become one of Jesus’ followers who carried on his ministry after he was gone. She could have done anything, and she could have done anything precisely because Jesus freed her from illness for a life of glorifying God.
Think for a moment about all the people Jesus healed in the three or so years before he went to the cross. What did all those people do once they were freed from the various ailments of mind, body, and spirit? Some, I imagine, were simply so grateful to be made well that they returned as quickly as possible to their old lives and routines and relationships. But some, I am willing to bet, recognized that they were free not only from something, but that they were freed for something, Peter’s mother-in-law included. These folks knew that they had crossed the very threshold of heaven, and there on the other side nothing could be the same. They knew that once you touched the hands and feet of the Lord, you are changed forever and for good. These people, I’m sure, went on to live lives of meaning and purpose, of service to their neighbors and generosity like never before. Healing in the story of our faith is not a ending, but a beginning—the beginning of a more meaningful, a more purposeful, a more holy life for you and me and every person we encounter.
So let’s go back to where we started…Super Bowl commercials that inspire us with possibility and potential and empowerment and freedom. All of it is right here in the Scriptures of our faith if we are willing to look for it, and it will last a whole lot longer than 30 or 40 seconds. The Lord has taken each of us by the hand and has lifted us up from the bed of our sickness; he has told our demons to scatter, leaving us clothed and in our right minds. We have been freed from everything and anything that would hold us down or define us in a way other than who and what God says we are. Our task, then, is to find what we have been freed for; it is in these things that we realize even more how dignified, how valuable, how holy we have been created to be. The American theological Fredrick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It might be in teaching children; it might be politics; it might be in ending waste of all kinds; it might be in preaching or praying or visiting the sick; it might be in raising a family; it might be in music or in the garden—there is something in this world that delights you, sets your heart on fire. Whatever it is, we have to do something; we cannot come so close to Jesus and pretend that everything is going to be the same. In and through these things, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God can and will use you to change the world.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, receive this good and enduring new today: Christ has set us free for a life that glorifies God. May we each find our own unique and special ways to bring glory to God, and may the Lord use us in the ongoing transformation of them world. Amen.