Worship Resources for February 4, 2024—Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Narrative Lectionary: Death of John the Baptist, Mark 6:1-29 (Psalm 122)

Isaiah 40 is considered the beginning of Second Isaiah, a prophet who witnessed the events at the end of the Babylonian exile. King Cyrus of Persia, having come into power, allowed the exiles to return home. This was a chance to start again with God as God’s people. In this passage, the prophet reminds the people that they know this already. They’ve heard this from the beginning of time. God is over all creation, over all the earth, and the rulers of this world have no power over God—they are temporary and will pass. Some of those hearing these words may have been alive when they were taken into exile and remember what they have lost; they will recognize God’s faithfulness. There is no one like God. God questions the people as to why they say that God has ignored them. God’s response is that God has been there since the beginning, renewing and reviving the people. For those who are young in their understanding of God will struggle, but those who know how to wait (those who have lived through the exile to the return, or those who held on to the promise) will find their strength renewed. God is with them, and God will help them to soar like eagles.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c is a song of praise to God who has gathered in the outcasts, those scattered, and brough them home to Jerusalem. God is over all creation, including the stars, and yet God cares enough for the people to lift up the downtrodden, and cast down the wicked. God is the one who provides for all and doesn’t look to strength and might for favor. God does consider those who live in God’s ways, are in awe of God, and have hope in God’s everlasting love.

The Epistle readings continue in the series of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Paul was entrusted to preach the Gospel to the gentiles. There is no reward for this, but by preaching the Gospel with no charge, he can be true to the Gospel and not to the rewards of wealth. Paul has become all things to all people—seeing cultural differences as a gift, not a dividing tool, to sharing the Gospel.

In Mark 1:29-39, Jesus continues the beginning of his ministry with his first four disciples. In last week’s reading, he taught for the first time (that we have recorded) in a synagogue and cast out a demon from a man. In today’s reading, he left the synagogue and went to Simon and Andrew’s house, and cared for Simon’s mother-in-law who had a fever. Once the fever left her, she got up and began serving Jesus. Everyone from the city came to Jesus at Simon and Andrew’s home, bringing those who were sick or possessed with demons. Jesus ministered among them, but early in the morning went off by himself to pray in the darkness. Already, Jesus needed to take some time for spiritual renewal. The disciples went and “hunted” for him, and when they found him told him that everyone was looking for him. However, Jesus told them it was time to go on from that place to the neighboring towns in Galilee, for that was what he came to do. Jesus was not mean to stay in one place.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the death of John the Baptist and Jesus’ rejection in his hometown in Mark 6:1-29. In contrast to the RCL reading where Jesus is beginning his ministry, at this time, when he returns to his hometown synagogue, he is met with rejection by his neighbors. They all know him, know his family, know where he came from, so who does he think he is? Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. So, Jesus refocused his ministry. He went out into the countryside to teach, sending out the twelve two by two to minister to those in need. Jesus told them to not take anything with them but to simply rely on the hospitality of others. When King Herod heard of Jesus, as his reputation grew, he wondered if it was John the Baptist come back to life, for he had John beheaded. Herod had arrested John, for John denounced Herod publicly for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod actually liked John, and knew he was a holy man, but had to have John arrested because he said such things in public. Nonetheless, in a rash oath to his daughter, Herod offered her anything she wanted, and she asked for John’s head on a platter. After Herod had John killed, John’s disciples buried his body in a tomb.

The supplementary verses of Psalm 122 contain a short prayer of peace for Jerusalem, a song for those pilgrimaging to the holy city. The psalmist declares that Jerusalem is where the thrones of judgment are set, the thrones for the house of David. The psalmist concludes by praying for peace and security and wishing peace upon all.

Living faithfully to God has its consequences. We know that God’s steadfast love endures forever. We’ve been taught this in the scriptures, we’re taught this in our songs and prayers. Yet, when we look at the world and see the horrors of war and violence, repeated generation after generation, and we know that poverty and homelessness are social concerns we could end if we had the political power to do so, we may wonder why God doesn’t intervene. Or we may question how God can exist when such terrible things happen. In the stories of our ancestors, we remember God’s faithfulness, and that the exiles did not lose their identity as God’s people even when they were away seventy years. Jesus knows if he stayed in the same place, he could go on and on healing and teaching, but nothing would change. Through time alone with God and prayer, Jesus knew he must go on, and continue the work in other villages. Eventually, Jesus would call other disciples, and have helpers in his ministry. But it came with a cost. In his own hometown, he was not received. John the Baptist lost his life speaking out for what he thought was right. There is a cost to living faithfully in God’s ways, but the promise of God to our ancestors, and the promise of Christ to us, is that we are not alone, and God will see us through.

Call to Worship (Psalm 147:1, 3-5, 7, 20c)
Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God;
For God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
God heals the brokenhearted,
And binds up their wounds.
God determines the number of the stars;
God gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
God’s understanding is beyond measure.
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God.
Praise the Lord!

Prayer of Invocation
God who names the stars, You have also named us as Your beloved children. May we hear You calling our name in this time of worship. May we be open to the movement of Your spirit. May we discern Your wisdom and deepen our understanding of Your wondrous love. Lead us and guide us as we worship You. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of Steadfast Love and Mercy, we confess that at times we give up. It’s all too much. It’s too hard. There’s too much suffering and pain and loss. Too much grief. Too many balls to keep in the air, too many responsibilities, too many bills. Sometimes the world just feels so heavy. We confess that we need to know Your love more deeply, O God, and we call upon You to remind us of Your love. Help us to turn to one another in our time of need. Remind us that You have called forth not only ministers but teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, coaches, and others, for seeking our physical and mental well-being is as important as our spiritual care. You have called us to love You with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. May we remember most of all that we are not alone. In Your name we pray. Amen.

Isaiah 40:31: “But 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.” Know that the most difficult thing you go through is not the last thing you will go through. Know that even in the most difficult times God’s love is with you. It is imprinted in your heart. You are precious to God, and God will renew your strength. Go and encourage others, and you will find yourself encouraged. Amen.

God of the Dark, You are the giver of dreams and visions, the One who sits with us in the quiet, who accompanies us in the loneliness. As Your Son ventured out into the darkness to pray, may we also find times to seek You without the distractions of the world. May we remember how expansive Your love is, like the endless stars at night. May we listen for Your word in our heart, and may You grant us a dream and vision for our own lives, to seek You, to love You and Your ways, and to share Your love with the world. May we know that periods of loneliness are temporary, for we are called into community to journey together. Sit with us in the dark as necessary and guide us back to our beloved community. Amen.

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