Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXTS: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c and Mark 1:29-39

Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told [Jesus] 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. (Mark 1:30-31)

Simon’s mother-in-law. Just think what it would have been like to be her. There she lay, sick and afraid and burning up with fever. Back then, long before the development of antibiotics, fevers were serious business. Even today, they are concerning. But Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up—and her fever left her.

Imagine how the others in the house must have felt, as they watched this. As many times as I’ve read this story, I  still find myself moved by it. I’m guessing you are moved by it also, because we’ve all known suffering in our lives, haven’t we? How we long for Christ’s presence in our moments of grief and distress. How we long for him to take our hand and lift us up, whenever we find ourselves brought low.

And that’s what Jesus does. That’s what God does. We may know this from our own experience, but the Scriptures tell us this, as well. In the psalm prescribed for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary, we read that “The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground” (Ps. 147:6). Another psalm proclaims that:

The LORD sets the prisoners free;

   the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.

The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down. (Psalm 146:7-8)

God does not hesitate to take the side of those who have no one else to help them. When we find ourselves at our lowest, we can depend on God.

That’s the way it was with Thomas Dorsey. Remember him? Are you sure? Because I’m not talking about the 1940s-era big band leader here. No. I mean the African-American Gospel musician of the same name. Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993) was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s. He’s known today as “the father of black gospel music.”

This was the man who wrote the well-known hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” And behind that song, there’s quite a story. Thomas Dorsey wrote “Precious Lord” very shortly after the death of his beloved wife Nettie in childbirth and the subsequent death of their newborn son. Those were the circumstances under which he penned the words to this beloved hymn.

Later, it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Those of you who are of my vintage may remember that Mahalia Jackson sang it at Martin Luther King’s funeral. The first verse goes like this:

Precious Lord, take my hand,

lead me on, let me stand,

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

through the storm, through the night,

lead me on to the light:

take my hand, precious Lord,

lead me home.*

Even if you don’t know the story behind the hymn, Dorsey’s words are a powerful meditation on the Saviour’s abiding presence in our moments of grief and pain. They exude unshakable faith that, no matter how bad things may get, Jesus will lead us home. Whatever trouble we face—however beaten down we are by the world or by our fellow human beings—Jesus has been there before us. In the words of another great spiritual: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”

If we but call on him, Jesus will come and be our guide. He will show us the way.

Certainly, Dorsey’s words were birthed from the particularities of his own suffering. Moreover, they are deeply rooted in the tradition and historical experience of the African-American Church. However, they transcend even that.

Like any classic text, they have in fact become universal. Dorsey’s lyrics appeal to all Christian people, regardless of their race or colour. They apply equally well at a deathbed or in a prison cell. They can soothe a broken heart or console a grieving parent. They provide hope and strength for us in times of loss, danger, and struggle—whenever we are tired, weak, or worn.

Just like Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus takes us by the hand and lifts us up—but that’s not the end of the story. It continues: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

So it is with us. When Jesus heals us and becomes our Saviour, he calls us into his service. There are times in our life when it is enough to be near Jesus, when the only thing we need do is bask in his love. But Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer him, so that we could stand still. Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer him, so that we could live only for ourselves.

The call of Jesus is a call to serve. Indeed, he himself said that he came “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). When Jesus lifts us up from low places, he also sets us free to minister to those around us. Following Jesus means going wherever he may lead us. To touch on a theme of the Epiphany season, Jesus is the star who goes before us as we walk the pilgrim way. And we do so gladly, because he has set us free.

That’s not to say the path Jesus lights up before us is an easy one. After all, when he walked it, it led him through the valley of the shadow of death. All too often, the path of Christ is strewn with suffering and loss. Yet, even there, his light shines, illuminating even the grave—and revealing it to be the gateway to eternal life. With Jesus at our side, we can face anything. Here’s another verse from Dorsey’s hymn:

When the darkness appears,

and the night draws near,

and the day is past and gone,

at the river I stand,

guide my feet, hold my hand:

take my hand, precious Lord,

lead me home.*

That’s the Christian hope, isn’t it? That we can cross safely over Jordan—over the frontier that divides life from death—without fear, without resentment, without regret. The hope of the believer is that nothing—not even death itself—can separate us from Christ’s love. We stand at the riverbank with him, confident that he will lead us home.

This is the hope we have. And, in this hope, we can continue to put one foot in front of the other, day by day, and do the work we’re called to do—no matter what the cost; no matter how tired or afraid we may become; no matter what dangers or doubts may stand in our way. Through every trial and tribulation, the love of Christ urges us onward.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


* © 1938, Unichappell Music, Inc. (renewed). Assigned to Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp.

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