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December 15, 2013–A Step Forward or Backward?

Contributed by Brian Hiortdahl, Overland, KS


Warm-up Question

What are you hoping for this Christmas?  What are you expecting?  Are your hopes and expectations the same, or are they different?

A Step Forward or Backward?


photo by marco rubino /shutterstock

Last month, a coalition of powerful world nations struck an initial deal with Iran, setting limits on its nuclear program while easing economic sanctions against the country.  Reaction to this breakthrough step has been mixed, with some praising it as a step forward toward stability, transparency, and peace, and others condemning it as a step backward that allows Iran to become more volatile, establishes a worrisome negotiating precedent, and makes the world more dangerous:


Discussion Questions

  • Do you think this historic deal is a step forward or backward?  Why?
  • What do you think Jesus would have to say about this development?
  • Is there a comparable situation in your local community?  Who or what threatens peace and safety in your school or your neighborhood or your church?  What should be done about it, and who needs to talk together to work on a just solution?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 15, 2013 (Third Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

John the Baptist wasn’t sure whether he could trust Jesus or not.  John held high ethical standards of righteousness and high expectations of a purifying Messiah who would clean house, clearly and decisively separating good from evil.  John’s undiplomatic clarity helped land him in prison when he preached against the adulterous shenanigans of the royal family, so he was unable to experience Jesus’ ministry firsthand.  He did get rumors and reports, however, of Jesus’ teaching and healing, which were full of power but not punishment.  John focused on an ax lying at the root of the trees; Jesus preached about sowing seeds.  John warned about a winnowing fork and a consuming fire; Jesus blessed the humble and warmed the heart.  John’s preaching was direct and confronted political power brokers; Jesus told strange stories that invited people without power into mysterious hope.

John sent his students to Jesus, therefore, with a typically direct question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Jesus sent back a typically indirect, what-do-you-think reply:  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to themAnd blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  He then praised John to the crowds and pointed to a new reality, “the kingdom of heaven,” which would surpass anything John could imagine, even though he was the greatest prophet ever to prepare its way.

John is left to wonder:  Is Jesus a step forward, or a step backward?  Is his bottom up, lift the lowly approach the surprising way that God has chosen to right the world, or is it an exercise in naive futility?  Is he bringing peace or being too soft?

Discussion Questions

  •  Read Matthew 3:1-17 and 4:12-23.  What do the preaching of John and Jesus have in common?  How do they differ?  What does each preacher teach us about God?
  • Would you rather have Jesus or John at the negotiating table with Iran?  Why?
  • How is Jesus portrayed in media and popular culture?  What are our present day expectations of him, and are they realistic?
  • If someone asked you about Jesus, what would you tell them?
  • Traditionally, the season of Advent stresses the second coming of Jesus.  What do you think Jesus will look like when it happens?


Activity Suggestions

  • As a group, make a list of typical holiday expectations.  Do these lead to hope and joy or to disappointment?
  • Write a letter to your senator expressing your opinion about the deal with Iran, grounding your position in your Christian faith.

Closing Prayer

Come, thou long expected Jesus.  Prepare us for the kingdom of heaven, set us free from misguided expectations, and open our eyes to see the surprising gifts of grace you bring to us and to all the world.  Amen.

November 25, 2012–Leader of the Free World

Contributed by Dave Dodson, Shalimar, FL


Warm-up Question

Who do you consider to be a good leader?

Leader of the Free World

Three weeks ago, the longest election cycle in United States history ended with the re-election of President Barack Obama.  The race received a great deal of media attention, not only within the United States, but worldwide.  Even citizens of European, Asian, African, and South American nations often favored one candidate over another and followed the race from their own countries.

This seems a little much, doesn’t it?  After all, the President does not have absolute power, even in the United States.  His power is balanced by powers given to Congress and the Supreme Court.  The President cannot pass laws on his own; he can only ratify or reject laws approved by Congress.  Why, then, were so many people, both inside and outside of the United States, so very invested in the result of the Presidential election?

To a large degree, the Presidential race matters because it represents the United States as a whole: what the majority of our citizens believe, what values we hold to be most important, and what we’re willing to fight for.  Since the Cold War, the President of the United States has often been given the nickname “Leader of the Free World”, suggesting that his leadership defined the values and actions of democratic countries around the world.

Certainly, the President has a very important political position.  To the rest of the world, though, he is also a very powerful symbol of the will of the citizens of the United States.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of any other leaders, political or otherwise, in recent world history who have exemplified the values of their followers?  (Prompt your students to “think outside the box” if need be!  Examples could be political figures, such as Nelson Mandela or another US President.  They might be ideological, like Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama)
  • Should we hold political leaders to a high ethical standard?  What about leaders in other fields, like music, sports, and business?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 25, 2012 (Christ the King Sunday)

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

When Pilate stands before Jesus to question him, we can tell that he desperately wants to put some sort of label on him.  Jesus has been accused of no specific crime against the Roman Empire at this point.  The Pharisees and their followers have simply dragged Jesus before Pilate, insisting that he be put to death, without giving a reason.  Pilate isn’t concerned with Jesus or the Pharisees.  All he wants out of Jesus is a quick answer so he can label him, pass judgment, and dismiss him.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”  Pilate wants Jesus to simply confirm that he is on some power trip, trying to gain control of the nation of Israel.  If Jesus says “Yes”, he can probably be dismissed as a crazy person, found guilty of no crime against the Roman Empire, and released.  If he says “No”, he can be written off as a victim and, again, probably released.

Instead, Jesus’ answers to Pilate’s questions indicate that he is not the “King of the Jews”, but is a king in a far greater way. Jesus is much more than a worldly king.  His kingship extends to more than just the nation of Israel.  His power passes far beyond that of a political ruler.  And most of all, his message of peace and love is for absolutely all people everywhere.  Jesus is clear about this when he answers Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

Sometimes, Christians and non-Christians alike have been guilty of the same mistake that Pilate makes.  We want to put a single label on Jesus so that we can dismiss the fullness of his mission and ministry.  We want to limit Jesus’ message to just the parts that make us comfortable or help us win an argument.  We want Jesus’ words to make us feel good all the time, and we ignore the parts of Jesus’ teachings that challenge us.  Sometimes, we even seem to forget that it isn’t just Christians who are part of God’s people — that Jesus’ message is for all people everywhere.

Let’s learn from Pilate’s mistake.  Rather than trying to make Jesus fit our expectations, let’s open our minds up to hear his teachings again, and let him tell us about his kingdom!

Discussion Questions

  • Jesus is the ultimate example of a faithful leader.  What sort of traits did Jesus have that we should emulate?  How does this differ from the values of secular culture?
  • How do leaders in your church follow Jesus’ example in their actions and ministries?

Activity Suggestion

Create crowns from posterboard (or gather cardboard crowns from a local fast food restaurant).  On the crowns, write the attributes and attitudes that Jesus modeled through his words and guidance (peace, forgiveness, love, faith, etc).  Decorate the crowns.  (If you wish, invite students to make a gift of the paper crowns to church members who exhibit these traits in their congregational leadership.)

Closing Prayer

Almighty God, you gave us a magnificent world and abundant blessings.  Help us to be good leaders in your world and spread your love and blessings to all people.  Let us be your hands in a world that longs to feel your touch.  Amen.

October 21, 2012–Ut Prosim

Contributed by Bill King, Blacksburg, VA


Warm-up Question

Think about a challenge which you have set for yourself.  What drives you to succeed?  What motivates you when the going gets tough?

Ut Prosim

On August 20th, after 60 hours in the water, Diana Nyad had to abandon her latest attempt to swim the Straits of Florida, a distance of 103 miles from Havana to Key West.  The 62 year old endurance swimmer holds a world record for the longest ocean swim—102.5 miles from the Bahamas to Jupiter, Florida—but the challenges she faced in the Straits proved insurmountable.  After the first night, her lips, arms, hands, and neck were painfully swollen due to jellyfish stings.  At the end a lightning-filled storm blew her off course and made staying in the water extremely dangerous.

Nyad has made four attempts to swim the Straits since 1972.  She has been foiled by jellyfish stings, an 11 hour asthma attack, a shoulder injury, adverse weather, and strong currents.  Nyad swims without a shark cage and depends on boats, divers, and electronic shark repellant to keep the predators at bay.  But no good tools exist to deal with jellyfish.  Nyad admitted that she was naïve not to anticipate the problems from jellyfish, because they are proliferating throughout the world’s seas.

Nyad says she continues to feel vital and is prepared to try again.  She hopes that her efforts will inspire others her age to push their limits.  “When I walk up on that shore in Florida, I want millions of those AARP sisters and brothers to look at me and say, ‘I’m going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I’m going to go work in Africa on that farm that those people need help at. I’m going to adopt a child. It’s not too late; I can still live my dreams.’ ”

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think of Nyad’s goal to swim the Straits; is this an appropriate use of time, money, and energy—both her own and others?
  • What do you think most motivates her?  The article contains one answer; what are some other possibilities?
  • How do you judge her failure to anticipate the jellyfish stings, particularly since she had encountered them in previous attempts?
  • What is the difference between making a wise decision and just being a quitter?  How do you know when to just “push through the pain?”

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 21, 2012 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 53:4-12

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

Motivation matters.  As the disciples and Jesus travel toward Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week, there is no reason to believe that James and John are anything but sincere in their desire to follow Jesus.  Perhaps, as the ironic exchange about drinking the cup suggests, they do not fully understand what it will mean to walk with him.  But they have no qualms about calling Jesus Lord and teacher; they are hitching their fate to his.  The problem is their motivation.

Despite Jesus’ repeated efforts to make them see what is coming, they still have images that are more about coronation than crucifixion.  They see themselves as prime ministers in the new regime.  In short, they are focused on all the benefits of a close association with Jesus.  Their motivation is at bottom self-interest.  Like campaign contributors shrewdly calculating who can do them the most good, they have decided to back this candidate—and they ask for “assurances” that their loyalty will be rewarded.

Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) is the motto of the university at which I serve as campus pastor.  I have always liked that motto because it emphasizes to students that the education they receive here is supposed to be more than the passport to a very lucrative job and to the faculty that their research has a higher goal than personal resume building.  Even in the heat of the college football season I would never suggest that God is a Virginia Tech Hokie, but in my more whimsical moments I can image Jesus handing James and John a VT T-shirt, with Ut Prosim emblazoned across the front, and saying, “Guys, think about it.”

Ut Prosim.  There are a lot worse summaries of what following Jesus means.  There is nothing wrong with giving thanks for the sense of peace we find in knowing we are loved beyond measure.  We ought to rejoice when the community in Christ gives us a sense of belonging and purpose.  Of course our hearts swell in thanksgiving for the salvation offered us in Christ.  But finally, we are blessed to be a blessing; we are filled up so that we can be a reservoir of living water for others.

Virtually all the people reading this mediation are incredibly privileged.  Compared to the rest of the world we enjoy the untold advantages of wealth, education, opportunity, and a peaceful homeland.  Most of all we know what it means to walk in the company of Jesus.  So how will we use those gifts; what is going to motivate us when we step outside the church and into a messy world?  I am sure that Diana Nyad, in our opening news story, is driven in large part by a personal need to succeed, but I believe her when she says she also wants to inspire others.  If we can achieve even that amount of mixed motivation, we are on the road to understanding what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Discussion Questions

  • If you had to sum up what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in four words or less, what would you say?
  • James and John are inappropriately focused on the benefits of following Jesus to the exclusion of understanding what it means to serve him and to serve others in his name.  Can you think of contemporary examples where this is the case?
  • Talk about what motivates you to be part of your youth group, to attend church (let’s be real about this), to go on service trips, to volunteer?

Activity Suggestions

Using the answer you gave to the first question following the gospel reflection, consider making a T-Shirt which displays your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.  You can either come to a consensus and make one for your whole group or have each person make his or her own shirt.

Closing Prayer

God of unlimited blessings, we remember with thanksgiving all that we have received from your hand.  Make us keenly aware that gifts are given in trust, that we may reflect your love for the world and ease the suffering of your children.  We pray in the name of Him who modeled a life of service, Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

September 23, 2012–Self-Esteem

Contributed by John Hougen, Melrose Park, PA

Warm-up Question

Think of times when you felt great. What caused your positive feelings about yourself and your situation?


As the boxer Muhammad Ali was rising through the ranks toward becoming heavyweight champion of the world, he was famous for strutting proudly, speaking about himself in laudatory poetry (long before hip hop), and proclaiming, “I am the greatest.” He did not have problems with low self-esteem.

Not many of us have the supreme self-confidence of Muhammad Ali. Most of us struggle with low self-esteem for one reason or another. There are under-achievers who think they are unable to succeed and sabotage their own efforts. There are over-achievers who are always disappointed because they fall short of perfection. There are those who buy into cultural stereotypes of inferiority (of race, social status, economic class). There are those who, in childhood, come to believe discouraging messages from critical parents, teachers, or peers. There are those who start out with confidence, but have it shattered by failures in the “real world.” There are pious Christians who believe that the Bible’s emphases on sinfulness and “humility and meekness” mean that we should not love ourselves.

In our culture, where so many struggle with low self-esteem, there are both unhealthy and healthy ways to come by a positive self-image. One example of an unhealthy way to improve one’s self-image is through drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol promise “good feelings,” but their effects are short-lived and usually are followed by a crash into lower self-esteem. Another unhealthy road to high self-esteem is to seek fame at any cost. Cravings for “fame” and “celebrity” can lead people to do stupid and self-destructive things just to get noticed by their peers or claim a few moments on TV.

On the other hand, there are many healthy ways to foster positive self-esteem. Loving, affirming parents and teachers help. Close friends help. Setting and achieving realistic goals helps. Maintaining a balance between work and play helps. Attending to the health of body, mind, and soul helps. And, the Christian faith can help, too. God has affirmed our worth by creating us, watching over us (Psalm 139), by dwelling within us, by forgiving our sins (repeatedly) and giving us fresh starts (repeatedly), by becoming one of us (Jesus Christ “became flesh and lived among us” John 1: 14), by sending the Spirit to love and guide us, and by promising to welcome us into a heavenly home after our life is over. The more intimate our relationship with God, the more we sense that all these teachings apply to us, and the more our faith bolsters our self-esteem.


Discussion Questions

  • Can you identify the factors in your life that have helped your self-esteem and those that have hurt it? What are they?
  • Has your experience as a Christian been that Christian faith makes you feel worse about yourself or better?
  • How do you cope with the temptations to bolster your self-esteem with dangerous, stupid, or self-destructive behavior?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 23, 2012 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)


Jeremiah 11:18-20

James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Jesus and his disciples walked wherever they went. In Mark 9: 30 – 37, they are walking to the fishing village of Capernaum, located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. They talk as they walk. Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that trouble is ahead. He will be betrayed and killed; human depravity in the form of disloyalty, lying, false accusation, and murder will end his ministry and his life. However, Jesus adds a note of hope, saying that after he is killed, he will rise again in three days.

The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is saying and “are afraid to ask.” (Verse 32) Perhaps it is impossible for the disciples to imagine such betrayal and violence while walking together on a scenic road to the seashore. Perhaps they had been expecting a triumphant Messiah and cannot wrap their heads around the idea that the Messiah will be killed.

When they reach Capernaum, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about on the way. It turns out they were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus responds by teaching them about the source of true greatness: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In other words, to be great and have substantive, authentic, positive self-esteem; you must give up other ideas about how to be great, and see greatness in service.

Then, Jesus illustrates what he means. He lifts up a little child, and holds the child in his arms. In Bible times, children were of “low status in society,” and considered “weak and insignificant.” (Quotations from the marginal note to Mark 9: 36-37 in the Lutheran Study Bible.) Jesus teaches that to serve all, one must be willing to serve those of the lowest status, such as the child he is holding.

Jesus also uses the child to teach his disciples that he and the one who sent him (God) are in solidarity with those who are weak and insignificant. They are united in spirit with the weak. They dwell in the hearts of the insignificant. Their unity with the weak is so profound that Jesus claims, Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9: 37) (See also Matthew 25: 31 – 40) True greatness and authentic, positive self-esteem come from serving; and they also come from welcoming God into our lives. As noted above, the more intimate our relationship with God, the more our faith bolsters our self-esteem.

At the same time Jesus teaches his disciples that true greatness comes from being close to God and serving those of low status in society, he is preparing his disciples for the future: the future he predicted on the road to Capernaum. To continue to worship and serve Jesus as he suffers and dies, and to continue being in relationship through Jesus with the One who sent him, the disciples will have to ignore public judgments about who is the greatest. For, as a criminal on the cross, Jesus – the one they consider great enough to worship and follow – will occupy an even lower status in society than the child Jesus holds as he teaches. (See Philippians 2: 3 – 8). The disciples will have to see greatness in one who serves until it hurts, who serves the weak and insignificant until death stops him, who serves until his only hope for future service is placed in hands of a God who will raise him from the dead. And, the disciples will have to learn that if they want to remain Jesus’ disciples, they too will be called to follow Jesus’ path, and to serve the weak and insignificant until their only hope is in a God who promises to raise them from the dead.

Discussion Questions

  • Are you willing to be a disciple, to worship Jesus and practice his way of serving? What exactly does that mean?
  • Before you encountered this text, what was it about Jesus that made him great in your eyes? Was it his miracles or his being raised from the dead? Was it because prayers in the name of Jesus have helped you? Was it his teachings or the fact that Christianity claims more believers than any other religion? Was it his sinless life or his ability to forgive his enemies? Did you ever think Jesus was great because of his unity with God and his solidarity with those who are weak and insignificant?
  • Do you think it is possible to raise your self-esteem by serving others? Why or why not?
  • Have you had experiences in which you felt God’s presence while serving people in need? Describe the experiences and the feelings.

Activity Suggestions

  •  Children are valued much more in our society than they were in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day. If Jesus were telling us we must be the servant of all in our society, who or what would he bring into our midst in order to illustrate what he meant when he said we should be the servant of all! Make a list of those of “low status” in our society. Include those who are considered “weak and /or insignificant.” (Are any of those on your list mentioned in Matthew 25: 31 – 40?) Then list the kinds of service needed by the “weak and insignificant” in our society.
  • Make two more lists: entitle one “Ways I Bolster my Self-esteem” and the other “Opportunities for Service.” Choose the least healthy “way” in your first list and the most attractive “opportunity” in your second list. During the month ahead try to replace the least healthy way you bolster your self-esteem by replacing it with the most attractive service opportunity. Share with your group your progress toward becoming great in service.

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, help us to see that those who serve are the greatest among us. Give us the courage to be different from all who seek greatness in power, fame, wealth, and prestige. Guide us into lives of service for those who need it the most, and help us to discern your presence within them.  Amen.

February 5, 2012–Helping People in Need

Contributed by John Hougen, Melrose Park, PA

Warm-up Question

Do you believe political leaders can make a difference in the lives of people who are sick, hungry, homeless, and fearful?

Helping People in Need

As the Republican Party selects its nominee for President and President Obama makes his case for re-election, many campaign sound-bites are about “creating jobs.” We are hearing very different ideas about whether government or the private sector should take the lead. Voters must decide: who has the best ideas and experience that can be used to put people to work.

Candidates say or imply that creating jobs is the best way to help people in need. They want us to share their belief that if jobs are created people will earn salaries and have the means to feed and house their families, pay the doctors’ bills, send the kids to college, and take care of other problems.

While the debate about jobs goes on, the rising tide of human needs which will not be solved by job creation gets brief attention from the candidates, and is reported on the inside pages of newspapers, late in newscasts, and below the headlines on the internet. In the state and city where I live, the number of people relying on food banks is dramatically up and food stamp recipients have to meet new and stricter criteria to qualify. The number of people with disabilities who receive Medicaid has been cut, and the waiting list of persons with disabilities who want to be considered for Medicaid has increased by tens of thousands. Too many people are homeless or living in substandard housing. Too many people are trapped in their homes by fear of violence on the streets where they live.

We can hope and pray that new jobs will be created and contribute to helping people in need, but there are people in need who can’t wait until new jobs are created; and there are people whose needs cry out for other kinds of help: help that will not come with better employment statistics. People of faith are called to address such problems with thoughts, words, and deeds.

Discussion Questions

  • What kinds of human needs do you see in your community? To supplement what you know firsthand, search the internet for statistics to discover the scope of the problems you see. For hunger/food insecurity, you might start with, and then see what you can find out about hunger in your city, county, or state.
  • Share stories of how you or people you know respond to hunger, homelessness, and other human needs. From your examples, pick out two or three “best practices,” and talk about why these responses are effective.
  • Have you supplemented personal and congregational responses to human needs with “advocacy?” Within, search for “Advocacy.” You will be led to information that begins: “ADVOCACY is how the ELCA works to overcome the effects and root causes of hunger and poverty through administrative, legislative, and judicial actions in the public sphere, as well as through corporate actions in the private sphere.”  Discuss whether you think advocacy will contribute positively to meeting human needs.

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, February 5, 2012 (Fifth Sunday After Epiphany)

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

In the Gospel text assigned for last Sunday (January 29: Mark 1: 21 – 28), we heard Mark’s report of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Capernaum. There Jesus taught “with authority” and cast out “unclean spirits” (demons). Onlookers were amazed. Not only did Jesus come across as more authoritative than recognized authorities (the scribes), but an unclean spirit spoke through a man it possessed and said to Jesus, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The onlookers believed the testimony of the spirit, for, in those days, people thought one supernatural being – such as an unclean spirit – could recognize another supernatural being – such as “the Holy One of God.” Last week’s Gospel text prepares us to see the significance of this week’s text, which immediately follows. Jesus is authoritative. Jesus is Holy and “of God.” We should pay attention.

What Jesus says and does in Mark 1: 29 – 39 provides a good model for helping people in need. He surrounds himself with trusted friends (verse 29 mentions the disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John). Working with others is almost always more effective in meeting human needs than working alone. Next, Jesus responds to the need that is closest at hand. After Jesus enters Simon’s mother-in-law’s house, he cures her fever. We also should respond first to those in need who are close at hand. And, Mark’s narrative reveals the purpose of all healing and helping: “[Jesus] lifted her up, … and she began to serve them.” You and I and all people in need are (in God’s intentions) healed, forgiven, and helped so that we may serve others.

After Jesus heals his hostess, word spreads, and others who are sick or possessed are brought to Jesus for healing. Jesus doesn’t stop with one act of kindness; he expands his efforts to help others. However, he recognizes that he must have balance in his life, so after curing many, he suspends his helping and healing for a time. He sleeps; and “In the morning, … he went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.” He took care of himself, both physically and spiritually. Even though there were still more people to help in Capernaum, Jesus seems to be at peace with not helping everyone. Instead he moves on to other towns and synagogues beyond Capernaum, expanding his efforts to the region (both “proclaiming his message” and healing). We, too, should link proclamation and helping in our efforts. And, we could follow Jesus’ example and develop a regional (and even global) approach by cooperating with other houses of worship and participating in advocacy for more compassionate public policies.

To summarize: a good strategy for helping others is provided by Mark 1: 29 – 39:

  • Surround yourself with trusted friends.
  • Respond to needs that are close at hand.
  • Equip those you help so they may serve others.
  • Expand your efforts, helping people beyond those close at hand.
  • Practice self-care: enhancing your own physical and spiritual well-being.  
  • Be at peace with the fact that you cannot help everyone.
  • Help others both locally and regionally (even globally). 

Discussion Questions

  • Which steps in this model for helping are you confident you can do? Which steps seem most daunting?
  • The other texts assigned for Feb. 5, especially Isaiah 40: 21 – 31 and Psalm 147 praise God for acting creatively and compassionately in this world.  Do you think it is possible for people to become God’s allies in some of the divine actions mentioned in Isaiah 40 and Psalm 147? Which ones? If people are able to cooperate with God in doing praiseworthy actions, what do God and people need from each other to  make the cooperative effort successful?

Activity Suggestions

  • Create a scenario or two in which your group (trusted friends) follows the steps outlined above, selecting a specific need close at hand, figuring out how you would help meet it, and how you could move beyond it, practice self care, and so on.
  • Follow through with one of your scenarios, checking in with the group after each step to see whether you are following the strategy suggested by Mark 1: 29 – 39, or if you have wandered off the path pioneered by Jesus.

Closing Prayer

Open our eyes, Lord, so we may see human needs which are close by. Open our hearts, Lord, so we may be filled with your gift of holy compassion. Open our hands, Lord, so we may be generous, giving of ourselves as we help others. Fill our imaginations with wisdom, and energy, so we can be creative and effective allies for you. With you and others whom you inspire, enable us to serve people in need. Amen.