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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Year B
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11,20c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Year B


ISAIAH 40:21-31                        This passage is one of the most 
majestic in all of the Old Testament.  Its rhetorical questions confront 
us with great theological issues and answers them with a far-reaching 
faith.  The images and metaphors of these poetic lines may seem dated and 
even quaint.  Yet they still speak to the most scientifically oriented 
minds of a Creator of this vast universe who is ever present and powerful 
to those who faithfully wait for God to act.  Written during Israel's 
exile in Babylon, it offered hope for oppressed refugees longing to return 
to their homeland a thousand miles away.


PSALM 147:1-11,20C                     One of the five songs of praise 
ending the Psalter, this psalm reflects the same mood of waiting in faith 
for God to act.  It celebrates what God has done throughout Israel's long 
history of a covenant relationship based on God's steadfast love.


1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-23                  Paul here speaks very personally of 
his difficult relationship with the Corinthians.  The heart of the matter 
appears to have been his authority as an apostle and the support the 
Christian community in Corinth gave him.  His only purpose was the 
proclaim the gospel so that as many as possible might come to know Jesus 
Christ as Saviour and Lord.


MARK 1:29-39                           Healing the sick and disabled had 
an important place in Jesus' early ministry in Galilee.  It did not seem 
to matter who needed his help.  He cared for everyone of whose need he 
became aware.  He did not perform these miracles for any reason other than 
to proclaim the reign of God's love in human affairs.  To maintain this as 
the one goal of his ministry, he needed to be in constant fellowship with 
God through prayer.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ISAIAH 40:21-31   This passage is one of the most majestic in all of the 
Old Testament.  Its rhetorical questions confront us with great 
theological issues and answers them with a far-reaching faith.  The images 
and metaphors of these poetic lines may seem dated and even quaint.  They 
still carry much weight for the modern searcher for truth who will look in 
faith beyond observable facts and manipulative human reason.  

For instance, vss. 22-23 depicts God as a supreme potentate seated above 
the earth in the three tiered universe common to biblical cosmology.  God 
looks down from this height so that human beings appear like grasshoppers.  
(Or like people on the street seen from the observation decks of the CN 
Tower in Toronto.  The God this poet sees has power to roll out the sky 
like a curtain.  The image is recalls other curtains sacred to Israel's 
religious tradition.  When Israel was in the wilderness after the Exodus 
from Egypt, the tabernacle (i.e. tent) in which the Ark of the Covenant 
was kept was made of ten finely woven curtains.  In the temple in 
Jerusalem a great curtain separated the most sacred space, the Holy of 
Holies, from the court of Israel where the congregation assembled for 
worship.  

The rulers of nations do not reign eternally as God does.  Their 
impermanence parallels that of crops that are sown and soon wither in a 
drought or are swept away by a storm (vs. 24).  God has no equal as the 
whole created universe declares when the stars can be seen at night (vss. 
25-26).  The mystery of creation still speaks to the most scientifically 
oriented minds of a Creator who is ever present and powerful to those who 
are faithful.  Despite all the marvelous devices with which we can now 
scan the farthest reaches of the universe, no one has been able to say 
conclusively how it all began.  Scientific hypotheses remain statements of 
faith in cosmological research, but do not deny the creative mind of God 
behind it all.  On the other hand, creationism, intentional design and the 
biblical accounts of creation are religious and theological statements, 
not a scientific theory.  They cannot displace the efforts of science to 
discover what lay behind the "Big Bang" that cosmologists posit as the 
initial force with which the universe began.  Some scientists and 
theologians still work to bring together the conflicting concepts of the 
origin of our universe.  (See The Metanexus Institute at 
http://www.metanexus.net/metanexus_online/index.asp .

Written during Israel's exile in Babylon, this passage offered hope for 
oppressed refugees longing to return to their homeland a thousand miles 
away.  They waited in hope although some had wandered away from their 
historic faith doubting that God even knew where they were or what they 
were doing (vs. 27).  This makes its message doubly relevant in our time 
when millions of displaced people huddle in foreign lands far from home.  
The passage ends with a magnificent recital of how divine grace 
effectively empowers those who wait faithfully for God to act.


PSALM 147:1-11,20c   One of the five liturgical songs of praise called the 
hallelujah psalms ending the Psalter (Pss. 146-150), this psalm reflects 
the same mood of waiting in faith for God, the Creator and Sustainer of 
the universe.  It celebrates what God has done throughout Israel's long 
history of a covenant relationship based on God's steadfast love.  
Probably it was sung during New Year's celebrations or at the Feast of 
Tabernacles.

The psalm shows influence of the unknown authors of Isaiah 40-66 who wrote 
during and after the exile in Babylon.  Vs. 4 almost repeats word for word 
part of Isa. 40:26.  Vs. 2 indicates that the psalmist also knew of the 
rebuilding of the temple during the period of Nehemiah and Ezra.  Thus it 
must be regarded as of relatively late date, no earlier than the 5th 
century BCE.

Vss. 7-9 with their emphasis on the providence of God seem to fit the 
Feast of Tabernacles, a time of thanksgiving for the harvest.  Vss. 10-11 
recall Psalm 33:16-17 which may well have been composed in the same 
period.  Both psalms recall Israel's long history of subjugation by more 
powerful nations and of the need to put their trust in God rather than in 
military strength.

The final shout of praise in vs. 20c may be confusing to those who read 
this psalm during public worship and could well be omitted.  


1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-23   Anyone who thinks that congregational life and 
ministry is easy only has to read Paul's Corinthian correspondence.  We 
may have only part of the exchange of correspondence that went on after 
Paul had completed his mission there.  A great deal of scholarly energy 
has been spent trying to decipher how the present two letters can be 
reorganized so as to make a cohesive and orderly whole.  It would appear 
that the heart of the matter lay in some very divided loyalties to several 
apostles who had visited Corinth at different times.  In vss. 5-6 just 
prior to this passage Paul names Barnabas and Cephas (Peter's Aramaic 
name) in particular.  Earlier, he had also included Apollos (1:12).

Here Paul speaks very personally of his difficult relationship with the 
Corinthians.  The specific issue was whether or not he had the right to 
claim the support from the Christian community in Corinth.  They had given 
it to others.  Why not also to him? The issue must have disturbed him 
greatly for he became so emphatic as to be almost incoherent.  The Greek 
text is very difficult to decipher.  

What he seems to be saying is that as an apostle he could have claimed the 
same support they gave to others, but he did not.  His only purpose was to 
proclaim the gospel so that as many as possible might come to know Jesus 
Christ as Saviour and Lord.  He did so without making any claims 
whatsoever on the Corinthians.  This could have been grounds for boasting 
(vss. 15-16), but he chose to do this of his own free will (vs. 17) 
because he had been commissioned as an apostle and sought only to do his 
duty.

In vss. 19-23, Paul introduces what has been for some a very confusing 
example of how he had carried out his commission.  He had become all 
things to all people so that he might "save some" (vs. 22).  How far does 
that kind of freedom go? For Jews?  For Gentiles?  For the strong?  For 
the weak?  Was he just being hypocritical? 

Boswell told a story that Samuel Johnson also acted like this.  When a 
country clergyman complained that the people in his congregation were so 
dull that they could only talk about runts (small cattle), one elderly 
lady retorted that Samuel Johnson would have learned to talk of runts too.  
He learned to speak the same language they spoke so that he could talk to 
them on their level.

Paul had one factor that controlled all his behavior.  He had to be 
totally committed to Christ's law of love.  That alone determined how he 
behaved in any given situation.  As he said in 2 Cor. 5:14, "For the love 
of Christ urges us on (KJV - "constraineth us"; RSV - "controls us"; NRSV 
"urges us on"); because we are convinced that one has died for all." The 
success or failure of every ministry depends on this and this alone.  Yet 
this is not a mandate for every free agent pastor to ignore the 
institutional constraints most modern denominations require of their 
pastors.  There are boundaries to free will.  


MARK 1:29-39   Healing the sick and disabled had an important place in 
Jesus' early ministry in Galilee.  It did not seem to matter who needed 
his help.  He cared for everyone of whose need he became aware.  In this 
passage, he healed Peter's mother-in-law, then a whole host of people who 
crowded around the door of the house at sundown.

I have visited the presumed site in the restored village of Capernaum 
where a modern chapel shaped like a large boat stands over the site 
designated as the house of Peter.  One can easily imagine the scene.  The 
news of Peter's mother-in-law being ill had cast a pall over the town.  
Then suddenly someone saw her fully restored to health, bustling about 
getting a meal ready for her visitor.  How could that be? The name of the 
visitor spread even faster.  Jesus of Nazareth had come and had made her 
well.  The town was abuzz.  Any and everyone who had something wrong 
hastened to Peter's house to see what Jesus could do for them.  Before 
darkness settled over the town, everyone who needed it had been given his 
full attention and had been healed.  

A recent biography of Sir William Osler by Michael Bliss (University pf 
Toronto Press, 2002) gives details of how such a ministry of healing 
revolutionized the whole structure of medical services in the late 19th 
and early 20th centuries.  The son of a rural Canadian Anglican clergyman, 
Osler brought one special gift to every patient who came to him and every 
hospital where he served.  He cared about people who were sick and their 
need for better health.  In the Montreal General Hospital, in John Hopkins 
Hospital in Baltimore, and as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford 
University, he had one mission: Why are these people sick? How can they be 
helped to be made well?  The patient was the most important person in the 
whole system.  Attending to their need was the one mission for which the 
medical system functioned.  He gave special attention to children who were 
frequently ignored or pushed aside by medical practitioners and 
institutions.

Without saying it in so many words, Bliss leaves the impression that Osler 
was the living embodiment of Jesus Christ, the Great Physician.  
Governments, health insurance companies, hospitals, every person engaged 
in health services and every part of the most modern health care system 
need to be reoriented toward this mission of sharing the love of God by 
helping the sick get well.

Jesus did not perform miracles of healing for any reason other than to 
proclaim the reign of God's love in human affairs.  To maintain this as 
the one goal of his ministry, he needed to be in constant fellowship with 
God through prayer.  In vss. 35-39 Mark included a beautiful little 
pericope about Jesus getting up before dawn and going out to a deserted 
place to pray.  That is where he got his power to do what he did.  His 
relationship with God was the key to everything he could ever say or do.

When the disciples found him and reported that all the good folk of 
Capernaum were looking for him, he told them he must push on to 
neighboring towns to "proclaim the message there also." It wasn't enough 
just to stay and bask in the praise of what he had done yesterday.  There 
were countless more people in many other places who needed to hear what he 
had to say: that God loved them and wanted to help them have a more 
abundant life.

So off he went throughout Galilee proclaiming this message by word and 
deed to all who would listen and share in his mission.  We have only to 
follow in his footsteps in the cities and towns and villages where we live 
and work and play.  Whatever we say or do either proclaims or denies this 
same message.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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