29 And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31 And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39 And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
The late Henri Nouwen was an interesting and insightful Christian writer who achieved a great deal of success in his life. I recently watched a lecture he gave in which he was talking to the audience about how, when he was at Harvard Divinity School, he began to feel deeply discontented. He made the intriguing comment that he came to realize that his career was stifling his vocation. So he went to live at L’Arche Daybreak outside of Toronto and there he helped to take care of a severely handicapped man named Adam.
It is a fascinating story, and one that I have only sketched in the briefest of terms here. What is interesting, however, is Nouwen’s idea that a person’s career could stifle a person’s vocation. That is, what a person was good at doing, what a person could, say, make a living doing, is not necessarily what a person has been called to do or what a person should be doing.
To be sure, careers and vocations converge for some fortunate souls. Even if they do not, part of living in the world is caring financially for your family and earning money so that you can eat and live. So the fact that one’s career may not be one’s vocation does not mean that one should immediately jettison the former. Sometimes that is not an immediate possibility. Nonetheless, living out your vocation is an important goal, and one that most people, one would think, would like to do.
I would like to propose, if you will allow it, that this career vs. vocation dynamic can help us understand what is happening in Mark 1:29-39. Jesus would not, of course, have spoken of having a career. That is a very odd though indeed! Jesus had a vocation and a commission, we might add. He had a mission. He came for a purpose. Even so, in this fascinating episode concerning Jesus and the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, we find the suggestion of a temptation presented to Jesus. It was the temptation to abandon His vocation in order to develop something like a career, something that He was, to use our admittedly inaccurate language, “good at,” to stay in one place and achieve fame through a ministry of miracles. To do this, however, He would have to abandon His vocation. This was the temptation with which Christ was presented.
Jesus marvelously demonstrates the power of the Kingdom but the devil uses it to tempt the people with consumerism and to tempt Jesus to abandon His mission.
Our text begins with a miracle, a demonstration of Kingdom power.
29 And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31 And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
The miracle account is straight forward enough. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with fever. Jesus comes to her, lifts her up, and she is healed. Significantly, immediately after her healing, “she began to serve them.” I say this is significant because it shows what our right response to the benevolent kindness of the Lord Jesus should be: adoration and service. We have all been healed by Christ, and of a sickness greater than mere fever. We too should serve Him and His people.
As a result of this miracle, Jesus’ popularity exploded and the house was soon surrounded by those who were hurting: the sick, the dying, and the demon possessed. And Jesus continued to work great miracles in their midst. Such is the compassion and love of Christ. He desires to help the wounded and suffering.
This is indeed a beautiful thing, but we must understand that something else is happening under the surface. “Listen closely to the text,” writes Michael Card, “and you will hear not a word of Jesus’ preaching or teaching. Not a single word. The crowds have come only to receive his gifts, not to hear him.”
This is true. It is abundantly clear from the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus that He came to preach and to demonstrate Kingdom power through the working of miracles and through other means as well. Thus, Christ’s ministry might be said to have consisted of these to elements: proclamation and power. Both were centered on the Kingdom of God, the righteous rule of God Himself. Christ’s preaching was Kingdom proclamation and Christ’s miracles were Kingdom power unmasked.
Both of these elements were extremely important and both constituted Jesus’ vocation. This is what Jesus was called to do.
Why, then, does Michael Card’s point matter? “Listen closely to the text and you will not hear a word of Jesus’ preaching or teaching. Not a single word.” It matters because the popularity Jesus was faced with in this instance was centered on only one aspect of His calling: power. It did not have room for proclamation.
This meant something for Jesus and it meant something for the people. For the people, it meant the temptation to consumerism, to the commodification of the divine, the reduction of God’s power to the status of a product. Religious consumerism is the using of God’s power for personal advancement. I do not say that these poor people who came longingly to Jesus were pernicious. Heaven forbid! Were I in the neighborhood I would have brought my sick loved ones as well. My point is that even well-intended devotion can quickly morph into religious consumerism if the totality of what God is doing is missed because of an overemphasis on those aspects of what God is doing that most directly benefit me and my well-being.
Coming to Jesus for healing is a natural thing to do, and Christ honored the faith of those who came. But the reduction of Christ to a miracle-worker for one’s own personal benefit is a crass thing that is ever and always lurking around the corner of our own self-centered hearts. One must beware the lure of consumerism!
Historian Mark Noll has made the point that the absence of government endorsement of religion in America inadvertently led to the creation of a religious marketplace in which religious consumerism thrived.
The national government refused to support any particular denomination. The consequences for the churches were immense. They were now compelled to compete for adherents, rather than being assigned responsibility for parishioners as had been the almost universal European pattern. The denominations had to appeal directly to individuals. They had to convince individuals, first, that they should pay attention to God and, second, that they should do so in their churches and not elsewhere. The primary way the churches accomplished this task was through the techniques of revival — direct, fervent address aimed at convincing, convicting, and enlisting the individual. As Finke describes it, this process led to “a religious market that caters to the individual and makes religion an individual decision. Though religion is still a group phenomenon, which relies on the support, control and rewards of the local church, the open market stresses personal conversion and faith. Once again, the religious decision is an individual decision set in the context of a religious market with a wide array of diversity — a diversity that is assured by the diversity of the population and the lack of religious regulation.”
Christian consumerism is therefore now advanced by churches who are all competing for the allegiance of the consuming public. The temptation is now for the Church to offer goods and services to meet the perceived felt needs of the population. This perpetuates consumerism and distorts the entire mission of the Church. Dallas Willard described it like this:
But spirituality in many Christian circles has simply become another dimension of Christian consumerism. We have generated a body of people who consume Christian services and think that that is Christian faith. And spirituality is one more thing to consume. I go to many, many conferences and talk about these things, and so often I see these people who are just consuming more Christian services.
Furthermore, Calvin Miller quotes Erwin McManus as saying:
We both expect and demand to be treated like consumers. “If you want my patronage, you had better cater to my needs.” This type of ideology has become a reality for the church. In both traditional and contemporary churches, the member became the customer to whom the church was tailored.
To which Miller adds, “The odd thing about this view of member as consumer is that few see anything odd about it.”
In ways they perhaps did not understand at the time, the people’s overemphasis on the power aspect of Jesus’ ministry was opening the door to consumerism, to the commodification of Jesus. This has ever and always been a temptation for the people of God. In its most grotesque form, churches do not even hide the fact. I am speaking of churches that simply acknowledge they are offering a product. “Give me your credit card number and God will bless you! Sow a seed and God will heal you!” This is consumerism. This is commercialism outright.
In its more “sophisticated” form, consumerist churches eschew such overt blasphemies but still treat the congregation like consumers to be placated instead of a body to be encouraged to Christlikeness. So preachers avoid anything that might offend people or preachers show favoritism to the wealthier members, the members who have the most potential to help them personally. Or churches invest inordinate sums to offer attractive products in the ways of programs and comforts and amenities. None of this is to suggest that there is not a place for programs in the Church or that these programs should not be well done. Rather, it is simply to suggest that consumerism comes in various guises, and most often it is disguised behind things that, in and of themselves and in appropriate measures, are not bad.
For the people, then, the healing ministry of Jesus could easily be reduced to consumerism. But there was a temptation for Jesus as well, and it is to this dynamic that we consider Nouwen’s career vs. vocation distinction. The fact that there was a temptation for Christ in this becomes clear in the next verses.
Jesus returns to the wilderness, rejects the devil’s temptation, reasserts His purpose for coming, and presses on.
Jesus has just performed an amazing miracle. His fame spreads. The people begin to come to him en masse. In response, Jesus heals many of them and casts out many demons. He has demonstrated Kingdom power and it is to this that the people come. The next verses are telling.
35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39 And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Verse 35 is critically important. We see that Jesus (1) went out into the dark, (2) went to a desolate place, and (3) prayed. Let us begin our consideration of these verses by first noting Ronald Kernaghan’s observation that Mark’s account of the wilderness temptation “is striking on two counts: it tells neither how Jesus was tempted nor how he fared,” which suggests that “Mark wanted his readers to see the temptation as something that continued throughout Jesus’ ministry.” This is important. In Mark’s gospel, the wilderness is an open-ended reality, something that was ongoing. The devil was always and ever trying to tempt Jesus.
To what was the devil trying to tempt Jesus? Ultimately, he was trying to tempt Jesus to abandon His calling, His vocation, we might say, the mission which He came to fulfill. To be even more specific, the devil was always trying to keep Jesus from going to the cross. The gospels are filled with the numerous ways that he attempted this. Regardless, if the devil could keep Jesus from going to the cross, he could keep Jesus from accomplishing His primary purpose in coming.
That is an observation from Mark as a book, but there are specific aspects of our particular text that need to be considered as well. New Testament scholar William Lane has pointed out some very interesting things about this:
- Mark describes the place where Jesus went in v.35 as literally a “wilderness place” though “the description is inappropriate geographically, for the land about Capernaum was cultivated during this period.”
- Mark uses this terminology of Jesus retreating to a wilderness place two other times (in 1:45 and 6:31-33). In both of those cases Jesus goes to the wilderness place (1) after He has done something miraculous and (2) “from the multitude which seeks his gifts.”
- Mark’s gospel depicts Jesus praying only three times (1:35, 6:46, 14:32-42) and in each instance the prayer is at night and alone.
Once we put all of this together, we begin to understand what is happening at a deeper level in our text. Here are the bare bone facts:
- Jesus performs a miracle.
- The people come in droves asking for more miracles.
- Jesus performs more miracles.
- Jesus arises in the dark.
- Jesus goes to the wilderness.
- Jesus prays to the Father.
- The disciples come and tell Him to return to the expectant crowds.
- Jesus refuses and says they must leave.
- Jesus asserts that He has come not only to demonstrate power but also to proclaim.
- They leave the waiting crowds behind and He continues to preach and perform miracles.
My contention is that there in the darkness, alone, back in the wilderness, Jesus does battle with the devil once again, refuses the temptation of Satan, recommits once again to the Father’s will, and then leaves the place of temptation behind. And, in particular, what Jesus was leaving behind was a “career” (to use our terminology) that would have stifled His vocation. That is, He was tempted to stay in one place, to be a highly acclaimed and successful worker of miracles, to have His needs provided by Peter’s grateful mother-in-law, and to live out His days in comfort and fame.
Could Jesus have done great things staying there and healing the sick and possessed who came to Him? Indeed He could have. But would it have been the greatest thing, securing the salvation of all who would come to Him? Most certainly not. For that, Jesus had to move to the cross.
We are here because He refused to stay there.
The temptation to stay and heal was a temptation to do half of His ministry and to make of it a career. He refused.
“Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”
Time and again, Jesus refused to abandon His vocation, His calling, His mission.
William Lane said it well when he said that Jesus’ “purpose is not to heal as many people as possible as a manifestation of the kingdom of God drawn near in his person, but to confront men with the demand for decision in the perspective of God’s absolute claim upon their person.”
The devil wanted nothing more than to keep Jesus from Calvary because thereby he could keep Jesus from Easter morning. If Jesus comes out of that tomb, the devil’s greatest weapons are destroyed. To that end, the devil tempted Jesus to rest on His laurels, to stay in one place and become famous and revered. But Jesus saw a greater calling: the calling of the cross.
The world did not need a magician. The world needed a Savior. And the Savior needed the cross.
Praise God for the obedience of the Son! Praise God that Jesus pressed on the cross! For this, truly, is why He came! Which is to say, He came not to offer us a religious good. He came to offer us Himself. He came to offer us life, and that abundant and eternal and joyous!
 Michael Card, Mark. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p.38.
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Highlight Loc. 988-996.
 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 52.
 Calvin Miller, O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? (Nasvhille, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), p.50.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.49.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark. The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Gen. Ed., F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p.81.
 William L. Lane, p.82.