Rocherty UMC April 25th, 2021
Really Good News: “Love Leaves the Limelight” Mark 1:35-45

            It won’t be long now, just a few more months, and I’ll be celebrating my second anniversary as Pastor here at Rocherty church. And in that time, I think you’ve gotten to know me a little bit by now. And one of the things I think you know about me is that I’m a student of history. But for me, history goes deeper than just the study of random events that happened in the past. Instead, for me, studying the events of the past is a window on the people of the past. Although I consider myself to be a naturally introverted and fairly private person, I actually love people. I love learning about people, what makes them tick, what they did and why they did what they did.
In this love of studying people, I’m not alone. While some, like me, turn our eyes backward and want to study people from the past, many people enjoy learning about people who are living now. Some people, like anthropologists and sociologists, actually do so for a living. But the unique thing about the time that we live in is that finding out something about a person is just a remote button or mouse click away.
Technology has really made our world so much smaller. Just think about it. In our parents’ and grandparents’ generation who were the famous people? Well, judging from conversations I had with my great-grandmother and grandmother, the people who were most famous in their generation were those who they read about in their school textbooks and perhaps in the newspapers. My great-grandmother who was born in 1897 grew up in the days when the Wright brothers made front-page news. In the days when business moguls like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller graced the pages of the New York Times and other nationally-known media outlets.
But today, it seems like just about every one is out to get their so-called “fifteen minutes of fame.” To be truthful, I’m not even sure we give them that long in our day and age; indeed, that expression comes again, from an earlier generation. No, in today’s fast-paced media landscape, people seem to get about fifteen seconds of fame, and then they evaporate from history, never to be heard from again.
I don’t think its an overstatement to say that we live in a time when people are obsessed with fame and their public image. While many of us have social media accounts like Facebook that we use to connect with friends and family, some people have used these platforms to make millions of dollars. People who weren’t even a blip on the world radar screen yesterday can suddenly “go viral” and tomorrow be all the rage in society. For just one example, over a decade ago, a young Canadian teenager placed a few videos on YouTube. Fast forward a decade and now Justin Bieber is a household name—at least if that household contains a few young people—or those who are young at heart.
But celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just think of what happens to people once they become famous.  Yes, there is money. Yes, there comes a great deal of fame and press. But also, along with fame comes a great deal of sacrifice. I once heard about a celebrity who was very honest in an interview. This celebrity is known the world over. He’s often on best dressed lists and has won countless awards for the films that he’s in. But he confessed that celebrity wasn’t something he’d wish on just anybody. About that money? Yes, he had enough to live comfortably. But here’s the thing—celebrity has a huge price tag. In order to find a babysitter who wouldn’t spread his family gossip around to the tabloids, he had to dish out loads of cash. To protect his family, boatloads of cash. To hire lawyers to prevent stalkers, more heaps of cash. Again, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be to find yourself thrust into the limelight.
You know, when we talk about Jesus in church, I’ve often heard some interesting phrases. One of the phrases that has always hit me a little askance is this one: “Our church exists to make Jesus famous.”  I totally understand the sentiment behind this phrase.  The church who uses this as their tag line has their heart in the right place. They want people to know about Jesus. They want people to know that Jesus has brought the kingdom to bear in our lives and opened the way back to God.
But I have to admit, I really have an issue with the phrase “making Jesus famous.” Something about that just rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s giving too much to today’s obsession with our fifteen minutes of fame. It’s too much American Idol and the Voice and too little connected to the Jesus we find in the gospels.
In fact, if Mark is any guide, and I certainly think it is, I’m not quite sure that “fame” is anything that Jesus was seeking for himself. As a matter of fact, as we take a look at our passage for today, I think we’ll see that in fact, Jesus shied away from fame. He shied away from drawing excessive attention to himself. There were so many good opportunities for Jesus to be made famous throughout the Roman Empire. But every time people tried to place Jesus on a pedestal or elevate his stature you know what he did? He ran away. He slipped through their fingers. He moved on to the next town.
And as our passage opens, Jesus has just completed a grueling day of ministry. If you remember last week’s message, Jesus, on the Sabbath, as was his custom, found his way to the local synagogue. And, being a travelling teacher, he was asked to give the message. People marveled at the authority that seemed to seep from Jesus’ teachings. Unlike the teachers of the law who were charged with passing down a carefully cultivated tradition, Jesus taught on his own authority; his own thoughts, his own spin. In short, he taught about the Kingdom of God and not the tradition of the elders.
And after his sermon, Jesus noticed a man in the crowd who wasn’t well. In fact, he was possessed by a demon. Jesus, having compassion on him, drove out the demon and commanded it to flee. Again, the people were astonished that even the demons fled. And what’s more, he didn’t do any elaborate ritual or use any magical potions or incantations—he said go and the demon left.
And that was quite a day for Jesus. But it wasn’t over yet. He retired to his home base at Peter and Andrew’s house, but it wasn’t long before Jesus was once again called on to help. This time it was Peter’s mother-in-law who was the one in need. He healed her of her fever. That’s a lot in one day, but he still wasn’t done. People spread the news about this new teacher and wonder-worker in town. People came out in droves and brought all who were sick and demon possessed and Jesus, once again having compassion, healed all who came. I can imagine Jesus staying up way past his bed time to heal and drive out demons. Not to make a name for himself, but because he loved people. He loved them because God loved them. He loved them because they were afflicted. There’s nothing that sorrows God more than people in distress.
But Jesus knew that he could not keep going at this pace.  One thing I admire particularly about Jesus—and this might sound a bit odd—is that he knew his limitations.  Now, I’m not saying that in some way Jesus’ powers were limited or that he wasn’t God. He was indeed, as the creeds say 100% God. But I also believe the creeds when they say that Jesus was also 100% human. He wasn’t some weird hybrid. Jesus needed sleep. Jesus got tired. Maybe, Jesus sometimes got burnt out from ministry—I know that feeling.
And, like any pastor is taught in seminary, when Jesus felt burnt out, he knew what to do. He had to get himself some alone time with God. But because he made so many waves in town, Jesus couldn’t just find a quiet place in the middle of the day. The crowds would flock to him. So much so that he couldn’t even think straight. Instead, as our text tells us, Jesus gets up well before the first light of day and sneaks off to find a lonely place to pray.
Yes, God needed to pray. Jesus needed to connect with God. To feel connected to the Father and the Spirit. To rest, renew, and recharge. And if prayer is so important that even Jesus prayed, then how much more important is it that we pray. I can tell you from my own experience that the times when I am most overwhelmed in life are times when my prayer life is scanty.
But today’s sermon isn’t a sermon about prayer, though I could camp out here for a while—but that’s a sermon for another day. No, today, I want to move past this point and see what happens after this time of prayer and preparation. Some time after his prayer session, Jesus is interrupted by Peter, Andrew, James, and John. I think you can sense a little exasperation in their comments to Jesus. They say: “Jesus, we’ve been looking all over for you. And what’s more, those crowds that gathered yesterday? You know what? They’re still looking for you too.”
If Jesus was looking to get famous, here was his chance. Look what he had, a ready made PR circuit. The crowds were amped up, all ready to see more signs and wonders. And if this was a Hollywood A-list celebrity, they’d be all over an opportunity like this.
But not Jesus. Instead, he looks at his eager comrades and says, “Thanks, but no thanks. It’s time to move on to other towns and villages and preach the kingdom because that’s why I’ve come.”  I can imagine the look in the disciples’ faces. I can imagine the disappointment. While being a celebrity has its challenges, there are folks who hang around celebrities—their “entourage”—that often reap nothing but benefits. In exchange for their friendship they get to eat fancy food, see lots of people, and do all the cool celebrity stuff without the cost. They get their fifteen minutes one step removed, but it’s a nice life if you can get it. Maybe that’s what it was like at this time for the disciples. Jesus was getting famous in Israel. Maybe it wouldn’t be long before he was invited to some pretty swanky digs. Got fed some pretty fancy meals. Got introduced to some pretty high up people. And the disciples? They’d get to enjoy it all by proxy, all because Jesus chose them to be part of his posse.
But again, Jesus doesn’t play in to the celebrity game. He’s not here to see how much free swag he can get because he did some tricks in town. And maybe the disciples are disappointed. And maybe Jesus is disappointed that they are disappointed. We have to read between the lines on that one.
But if we still had any doubts about Jesus’ motivation, this next story we encounter puts them to rest. It appears that when Jesus was travelling around, a man with leprosy approached him and asked to be healed. We’ve heard this story a million times, and it sort of goes in one ear and out the other. Of course Jesus healed him, that’s what he does, right?
But if we pause for a minute, we’ll see that what happens right now is striking. First, let me share with you some ancient leprosy facts. In the Bible, the term leprosy was used for a variety of skin diseases, not just the one that has body parts rotting and falling off, what today we call Hanson’s disease. Secondly, lepers weren’t supposed to even be in polite society. In Israel, lepers were to live outside the community. They were to grow their hair long, cover their faces and when people even thought about getting near them, they needed to shout out “unclean! Unclean! That’s because a person with leprosy was permanently cut off from the community—permanently separated.  That is unless they were healed.
But there’s a problem. The Bible records the number of times leprosy was healed in Israel. The number? Exactly two. The first time was Miriam, Moses’ sister—the one God gave leprosy to in the first place as a punishment for her grumbling. And the other one you heard this morning—Naaman. But wait…Naaman wasn’t even from Israel, he was a Syrian, so, the number of times leprosy was cured in Israel? Once.
And did you hear the kings frustration when the King of Assyria sent Naaman to be cured? The king looks at the messenger and says, “who am i? God?” Because of all the things that God did in ancient Israel, there was only one thing that was even close to raising someone from the dead in terms of ranking miracles. And that was curing leprosy. In that culture, a leper was as good as dead, and only total healing would make them whole.
And that’s what Jesus did. Jesus raised the leper to new life. He made him clean. But Jesus gave the man two clear orders. First, go to the priests and offer the sacrifice of Moses. And secondly, see that you don’t tell anyone about this, but let the miracle speak for itself as a testimony to those in power. Each of these deserves some brief comment.
First, Jesus wanted the man to follow the existing religious laws of the day. But I thought Jesus came to do something new you might be thinking. Well yes. But, there’s a catch. There was only one way for this man to ever be accepted into society again, and that was to be declared clean by a priest.  Yes, Jesus has made him clean, but only a priest of Israel could declare him clean so that others would accept him back into the community.
And secondly, Jesus has no interest whatsoever in being made known to the community or the religious authorities. In fact, it wouldn’t be a false statement to say that Jesus didn’t come to make Jesus famous, but that he came to make the Kingdom of God famous.
The Kingdom of God, the life of the new creation, the time when sin and death have been dealt the final blow and the kairos moment has come for salvation. That’s what Jesus came to announce. And, and this might be shocking, I think Jesus would have been fine if people he taught, people he healed, people he loved forgot his name, forgot his face.
It wasn’t about Jesus for Jesus. It wasn’t about how to make a name, build an empire, create a brand. It was how to bring heaven to earth, how to make the broken whole and the leper clean. That’s the kingdom of God.
But then, why do we humans spend so much time trying to make a name for ourselves? Why are people trying to make Jesus famous instead of announcing the kingdom rule of God?
I think it comes down to trying to fit in with the culture. And I have to admit, I’m pretty comfortable in our culture. I like a lot of things we have going for us here. But, I also have to admit, that there are parts of our culture that are just wrong. Things that go against the grain of the kingdom.
And this constant obsession with fame and fortune is one of them. We often hear the old chestnut, “You can’t take it with you!” But boy, do people try. I’ve heard the phrase “he who dies with the most toys, wins” more times than I can count. And I’ve even seen something like that play out in churches.
During this pandemic, I’ve seen it happen also—even among United Methodists. I’ve seen churches crow that they’ve had more people attending during COVID than before. I’ve heard people celebrating the fact that they’re getting more people to come in than the other churches.
This is behavior that is unbecoming in the kingdom. If Jesus were here, he’d run away from those churches and go to another town.
Folks, we live in a time, like it or not, when the world tells us that in order to be successful, you need to be well known. But let’s learn from Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to make a name for himself. Rather, he came to bring about the kingdom of God. And that kingdom doesn’t work on the rules that makes society tick. It doesn’t reward popularity, it rewards humility and service. Didn’t Jesus say not to even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing?
And for each of us, and us as a church community, we need not be worried about making a name for us. It’s ok if no one knows that Rocherty exists. But what want them to know that the love of God exists. We want them to know that the Kingdom exists. After all, we don’t pray that thy church come but that your kingdom come.
Let’s keep working to make the kingdom known. Let’s keep working to help all we meet know their worth, to us, but more importantly, to God. Amen.