February 7, 2021 – 5th Sunday after Epiphany – Sermon by The Rt. Rev. Donald Phillips

   by Yanna Courtney

Let us bow our heads in prayer.  Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of your presence in this time and place and within each one of us in our various locations.  Help us now to open our minds, our hearts, our whole lives, to receive the gift of your living Word for us this day; and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

I want to begin this morning by looking at today’s Proper Prayers – the term used to refer to the Collect, the Prayer over the Gifts, and the Prayer after Communion.  If you take a look at them, all of them refer to us being able to live in a state of peace.  And when they refer to peace, it doesn’t mean simply a lack of war or conflict.  It is much more positive than that.  The Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’ – meaning a sense of wholeness, rightness, harmony, and reconciled relationships. 

Well if we were to look back over this past year it has been anything but a year of peace!  There has been the Covid-19 pandemic; frightening civil dynamics in America and its election and transfer of power; huge financial hardship for segments of our society; overt and systemic racism; avoidable deaths of several persons of colour; and the challenges of living with restrictions and uncertainty – anything but peaceful!

Today’s 1st reading from Isaiah 40 was written during a dark, uncertain, and largely-hopeless time for the nation of Israel.  They had been in exile for 40 or 50 years in the distant land of Babylon – far from their homeland – far from the God of their homeland.  And this prophet admonishes them and says to them – there is only one God, the Creator, the God of Israel, who has not forgotten you.  Though they had lost all hope the prophet challenges them and says to them, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

And then what does the prophet tell them?  Does he say to them, “Try harder!”, or “Clean up your act!”?  No.  This is what he says to them, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  Wait for the Lord – focus on the Lord.

Today’s psalm (Psalm 147) has some similar statements.  We read toward the end, “But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favour.”  And when it refers to ‘fear’, it doesn’t mean ‘being scared’.  It’s referring to respect – honour – viewing God as God. 

We’re told to ‘wait for the Lord.’  What does than mean?  Just as it did for 6th century BCE Israel, so does it for 21st century Manitobans; it means hit the ‘PAUSE’ button in your life.  Step back from worry, frustration, disappointment, fear, anger, unmet expectations.  Step back from your own failings, your own mistakes, your own sin – and look in God’s direction – and wait.  Our stillness, our openness to God, our willingness to admit that on our own, our efforts to change our situation are futile – this allows God to act in us – to grant us pardon and peace.

Hitting the PAUSE button in our lives is not an easy thing for us to do.  Often, if we are the ones who have been injured, we want to retaliate, or build a ‘wall’ around ourselves and withdraw.  If we have injured others, or have seen another hurt, we often want to rush in a ‘fix it’ as quickly as possible.  But the prophet says wait – wait upon the Lord – for the Lord’s forgiveness, for the gift of the Lord’s peace, and for the opportunity for God to act, while we patiently and peacefully wait. 

But this ‘waiting on the Lord’ is not just for us personally!  I want to move our attention to the Gospel Reading from the 1st chapter of Mark’s Gospel.  Just a quick review of how Mark tells that story – after Jesus’ baptism by John and testing in the wilderness by Satan, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee – the northern part of Israel.  Mark says, “He begins proclaiming the good news of God (the message) – the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the good news.”  He then begins calling disciples to work with him.  He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath (that’s Saturday, of course); proclaims this message of God’s Kingdom in his teaching; and backs it up with miraculous works of power.  Last Sunday we read of him casting out an unclean spirit that was tormenting a man in the synagogue.  Today’s reading, later the same day, he goes with Simon and Andrew, and James and John, to Simon’s house – probably for supper.  Simon’s mother-in-law is not well.  Jesus heals her and enables her to provide the hospitality to them that she would definitely want to be able to do.  Mark says that many ill and evil-tormented people were brought to the house that evening.  He healed them – witnessing to the authority and power of the message about the Kingdom of God.

The next morning when Simon and the other disciples find Jesus praying on his own, Jesus tells them, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” – proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom – and let God confirm that Good News, its power and its love, by doing powerful acts of healing and restoration.

This was also Jesus’ intention for his disciples – all of them – then and now!  After Jesus resurrection, we read in John’s Gospel, the first thing the Risen Christ says to his disciples is, “Peace be with you.”, – God’s shalom.  Then Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”, and Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work.

So first, the disciples of Christ have the assurance of God’s peace – waiting upon the Lord – and then the grace and power to act according to God’s will.  For us, hitting that PAUSE button and waiting on God first is essential!  Because with the gift of God’s peace comes freedom – freedom to act as God needs us to – freedom to act for the best outcome in the challenges we face – healing, reconciliation, restoration.

That great Christian disciple, St. Paul, talks of this freedom at the end of today’s 2nd Reading, and shows us why that freedom is so important in communicating the message of God’s love and truth in every and many different situations.  He writes, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law so that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”  Paul was grounded in the peace and forgiving love of God.  That freed him to be present in whatever way God needed him to be, in order to effectively share the message of God’s love and truth in each situation. 

In our life, as disciples of Jesus Christ, it begins with ‘waiting upon the Lord.’; receiving the gift of forgiveness and peace that sets us free to be agents of God’s love and truth.  As we will pray in one of our final prayers today after Communion, “Eternal God, in you we find peace beyond all telling. May we who share in this heavenly banquet be instruments of your peace on earth, in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord.