For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
-Romans 12:4-5

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

In a Solitary Place

OCMC 1/26/14
Mark 1:35-39
            Today we are continuing the sermon series called “Empowered by the Spirit”.  In this passage that Lyllian read for us, we see Jesus at the end of a period of intense ministry.  A lot of stuff has happened in Mark chapter 1.  One of the things that makes Mark’s gospel unique is the fast pace of the storytelling.  Mark moves from one event to another using lots of action words and giving the impression that things are moving quickly.  Mark focuses a lot on Jesus’ power in doing miracles and his authoritative teaching that also held power.  Jesus is like a superhero in Mark’s gospel.
            We can see this in chapter one which begins with John the Baptist coming and baptizing people in the wilderness while making it clear that there is another coming who is much greater than John who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Then in verse 9 Jesus appears, coming from Nazareth and being baptized by John.  As Jesus is coming out of the water after being baptized, we have this exciting description of heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Jesus and a voice speaking from heaven, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  Wouldn’t that have been something to see?
            Then immediately after that, the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tempted by Satan and where angels attended him.  Mark doesn’t go into any detail about what happened there choosing instead to move quickly on to Jesus beginning his ministry and calling his first disciples.  After Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing jobs to following him, they go to Capernaum.  That’s a lot of action in about 20 verses.  But when Jesus gets to Capernaum, Mark focuses on the happenings of one Sabbath day and goes into more detail about what Jesus did. 
            First Jesus and the disciples went to the synagogue and Jesus taught there.  The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught with such authority.  There was a man there possessed by an evil spirit who cried out “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (v. 24).  Jesus orders the spirit to be quiet and come out of the man and it does.  Again the people are all amazed because Jesus is exhibiting such spiritual authority both in his teaching and in his casting out the evil spirit.  So the news spreads quickly over the whole region.
            After they leave the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples go to Simon and Andrew’s home where Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever.  When Jesus finds out she’s sick, he goes to her and heals her.  It’s the Sabbath day so the people aren’t supposed to be doing work.  But when evening comes and the Sabbath is officially over, the people from the town begin bringing all their sick and demon-possessed people to Jesus so he can heal them.  Mark says that the whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed the sick and drove out the demons. 
            I’m tired just reading about it.  I can imagine how Jesus must have felt after the last person was healed and everyone finally left for the night.  He must have been exhausted.  When I go home this afternoon, I will not be good for anything for a few hours.  After spending the morning teaching, preaching and tending to all the details of Sunday morning, I will be wiped out for a while and will most likely take a nap.  Most pastors are the same way.  Sunday is our high energy day, where we put out a lot of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy in a short amount of time and it wipes you out.  Just to give you an idea of how much energy and sweat is expended, I once weighed myself before coming to church on a Sunday when I was scheduled to preach.  After I came home I weighed again and I was 3 pounds lighter.  Bethannie said that must have been how much the Holy Spirit weighed.
            The point is Jesus was very intensely engaged in ministry here and he must have been physically exhausted.  Yet very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and apparently while everyone else was still sleeping, Jesus went off by himself to a solitary place where he prayed.  This isn’t the only incident where Jesus went off to pray after an intense time of ministry.
 In Matthew 14 Jesus received word that John the Baptist had been beheaded and so he withdrew by boat to a solitary place.  But the crowds followed him and, when he landed there was a large crowd already waiting.  It’s like going on vacation and finding out your boss is staying in the room down the hall from you.  Jesus took compassion on the people and healed their sick.  When evening came the disciples wanted him to send the people home because they needed to eat but Jesus ended up miraculously feeding them with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Then Jesus made the disciples get in the boat to go to the other side while he dismissed the crowd.  After sending the disciples and the crowds away, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.  In this story, not only is Jesus expending energy healing, teaching, and performing miracles, he’s also grieving the death of John the Baptist. 
I hope you are getting the picture here that Jesus’ preferred method of self-care is to go off by himself to pray.  It’s not to take a nap, it’s not to chill with friends, it’s not to veg in front of the TV, or eat junk food, or take a walk, or go to a spa, or read a book, or any of the other things that we like to do to recharge our energy.  It’s to go off to a solitary place and talk with the Father.  I think one of the reasons why this was so important was because, alone with the Father was the one place where Jesus could get his needs met.
How many incidents in the Bible can you think of where someone came to Jesus and offered to do something for him?  There are two incidents recorded of women anointing his feet with perfume and a few times where people had a dinner in his honor, but these were mostly in response to what Jesus had already done for these people.  And the only place I can think of where Jesus ever expressed a need was on the cross where he said he was thirsty.  That doesn’t mean it never happened, but it’s not recorded anywhere. 
Jesus was constantly serving others but he had needs as well.  He was fully human just as we are.  But like Mark, we tend to think of Jesus in superhero terms and forget that he got hungry and tired and stressed just like we do.  And it seems that when he was drained, what recharged his energy was to be alone with the Father.  
You know we talk about needing prayer for ourselves, meaning we need other people praying for us about certain things.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  It’s important that people are praying for us.  It’s encouraging to know that others are thinking about us and asking God to help us or to meet a need we have.  But do we think of needing some prayer like Jesus needed prayer?  What we see from this episode in Mark 1 is Jesus needing to do the praying.  He needed to get away and talk things over with the Father.  We don’t talk about needing prayer in that sense.  But that’s exactly what we do need.  There are times when we just need to be alone with the Father, to be in His presence, just experiencing His peace and His strength, listening to His voice and letting Him interact with our spirits for a bit, renewing our strength and giving us direction.  This what we mean when we say “empowered by the Spirit.”  It is in the place of prayer, the place of solitude with God, that He fills us with what we need to fulfill our mission. 
Look at the front of your bulletin where our mission statement is printed and let’s read it together.  “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we present Christ’s message of hope in the Oxford Circle neighborhood and beyond; by appealing to individuals to be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus, and by living out this peace and wholeness in relationships in our diverse church body and the world.” 
We can’t do this if we aren’t all spending some time in the place of solitude, talking things over with the Father, receiving the energy, direction, power and creativity that He gives.  This is what Jesus is talking about in John 15 when he tells his disciples “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  A branch that withers is one that no longer is receiving nutrients from the vine.  It dries up and wilts.  How many of you have felt sucked dry before?  The demands of job, family, life, the stress you face have just left you feeling empty and dry.  That’s when we need some prayer, some time alone with the Father, letting Him fill us back up with His life.  We have to remain in Him if we hope to have enough life in us to bear spiritual fruit and that comes from a regular practice of being alone with God in prayer.
Another thing that strikes me in this story of Jesus going off to a solitary place to pray is that, when the disciples find him and want him to go back with them to where they were before, because everyone is asking for him, Jesus says he must go on to other places.  A lot of people would have stayed there in Capernaum.  He already was experiencing success there. The whole town had turned up at his door the night before with the sick and demon possessed.  He could have planted a church right then and there.  But after being alone in prayer, Jesus left and went on to other places.  Being with the Father in prayer gave Jesus the direction he needed and he walked away from a place where he was experiencing success to go on to other places, because that’s what he was there for.  No one could ever accuse Jesus of seeking after worldly success.  If the gospel writers were trying to describe a successful messiah, they never would have told the story of the crucifixion.  Jesus wasn’t about success as we think of success.  He was about faithfulness in doing the Father’s will.  Success would say stay here in Capernaum where they love you and build a ministry here.  But Jesus knows the Father wants him to go on to other places, even places where he will be rejected. 
Success in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like success in the world.  Yet when it comes to prayer, we have a mindset of wanting to be successful.  We think if we don’t pray for a certain length of time, we are not successful.  We think if we pray for something and it doesn’t happen we aren’t successful.  We think if we pray and we don’t “feel” anything, we aren’t successful.  But success has nothing to do with prayer.  Emilie Griffin wrote “You should have it firm in your mind that prayer is neither to impress other people nor to impress God.  It’s not to be taken with a mentality of success.  The goal, in prayer, is to give oneself away.”  And Henri Nouwen wrote “…what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.” 
The prayer that Jesus modeled in the place of solitude is a form of relationship.  It’s about being with God and talking with Him.  It’s about receiving life from Him, being renewed in our own strength.  It’s about submitting to Him, being willing to lay out our own plans and thoughts and dreams and ideas and letting Him sift through them and shape them as He knows best. It’s sharing intimacy with God, being real with Him and learning about Him. God wants to be real with us about who He is.  That’s an incredible thought.  We have the privilege of getting to know personally the God of the universe.  And that happens in the place of solitude in prayer.
As a congregation, we are a body made up of many parts.  Each part of this body is a branch on the vine, in going back to Jesus’ words from John 15.  Each one of us needs to be spending time in the place of solitude, seeking life from the Father, if we as a body are going to be empowered.  This is so important.  Nothing we do at OCMC is done apart from prayer.  To try to live out our mission statement without prayer would be like trying to grow a plant with no roots.  There would be no way to receive life. 
This story of Jesus seeking a place of solitude for prayer comes at the end of a time of intense ministry.  But it also comes at the beginning of a time of intense ministry.  Jesus leaves the place of solitude and meets a man with leprosy and heals him.  This man spreads the news about Jesus so far and wide that Jesus can no longer openly enter a town without being mobbed.   Jesus had to have a rhythm of ministry and prayer, of being with people and being alone with the Father.  It was how he was able to sustain himself and keep going.  We also need that rhythm of doing and being, of living life and receiving life.  We can’t give out to others what we haven’t received ourselves.
Prayer is our lifeline.  We can’t let go of it.  It’s the place where we get to know God, the place where we are known by Him.  It’s the place where our needs can be met, where we can receive life.  We have to make the commitment to regularly spend time in the place of solitude, in prayer, if we truly want to have life.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Already, But Not Yet

Isaiah 7:1-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 1:18-25
            A couple weeks ago I was with the preschoolers during the sermon time and it had started to snow.  When we went into the preschool room, the kids got so excited because it was snowing outside and they all gathered around the windows and were saying “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!”  They thought it was already Christmas because it was snowing and we had to tell them, “Not yet!” 
            In some ways it is Christmas already and has been since about Sept. 30th  when stores had Christmas merchandise out.  Retailers would have us believing its Christmas as soon as school starts back in the fall.  But even though we already have decorations up and snow on the ground and presents under the tree maybe, it’s not yet Christmas.  It’s still Advent time, the time of waiting for what is already a reality, but is not yet here.
            In that sense Advent is a lot like pregnancy.  When a couple is expecting a child, they are already parents, but not yet.  The child exists.  It’s growing in the mother.  Two have already become three and you’re already setting up a nursery, gathering clothes, diapers, and all the supplies that the baby will need.  You’re already in love with the child and making decisions that will benefit the child.  You are in many ways already acting like a parent.  But the child is not yet born. 
            All of the scriptures we’ve read today are stories of already, but not yet.  Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth tells us that Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married but they had not yet come together.  They were making preparations to start married life.  Joseph would have been preparing their house and Mary would have been making the things she needed to set up housekeeping. When all the preparations were completed, Joseph would come to take Mary home and the marriage would be celebrated and consummated. They were already a couple pledged to each other and it would have taken legal action for them to break that pledge, but they were not yet husband and wife.  But before their preparations were complete, Mary was found to be pregnant.  Joseph assumed she had been with someone else because he knew she hadn’t been with him.  But because he was compassionate, he decided to just quietly divorce her.  And then an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to go through with the marriage because Mary was carrying the Son of God, the Messiah.  So Joseph took Mary into his home.  He let everyone believe that he was the biological father of the child and shared with Mary the burden of the social stigma of becoming pregnant before the wedding.  So Joseph and Mary lived together, kept house together, planned for the birth of their first child together, but did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born.  They were already a married couple, but not yet.
            In the passages we read from Isaiah 7 and Psalm 80, there are other situations of already, but not yet described.  In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz of Judah has a problem.  Two other kings are plotting together to invade Judah and  Ahaz and his people are afraid.  So the Lord sends Isaiah to the king to give him the message to not be afraid and to keep calm because the Lord has already determined that this invasion plot will not work.  The Lord tells Ahaz to ask him for a sign that God means what he says, but Ahaz refuses to ask.  But the Lord tells him anyway and we have a prophecy of the virgin being with child and giving birth to a son.  When God is speaking to Ahaz, he tells him not to be afraid of these kings who are plotting against him because within 65 years, they won’t be a threat anymore and He says “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”  (v. 9)
            When I read the verse that in 65 years these guys would no longer be a threat, I thought “that’s not really a lot of comfort.”  To God, 65 years is a blip but to a human 65 years is a long time.  I don’t intend to still be alive 65 years from now and that’s probably what Ahaz was thinking when he heard this as well.  But God takes the long view of things.  He knows these nations will not succeed in their threats.  Judah will not be overthrown by these enemies.  God has already determined deliverance and is willing to give a sign to reassure everyone of this.  Deliverance is already, but not yet.
            In Psalm 80, the people of God are crying out to God from a desperate place.  God is angry at them.  He has turned his face from them.  They eat the bread of tears and drink tears by the bowlful.  That sounds like a country western song doesn’t it – drinking tears by the bowlful.  Their enemies mock them but they still cry out to God to save them.  If God will hear and answer their prayer, then everything will be okay.  They cry out to God and ask for restoration because they know God has the ability to restore them.  All they need, God can supply.  He just needs to answer their prayer.  The solution is already there, but they haven’t received it yet.  They pray and cry out to God in expectation that God will hear and will give a good answer.
            The Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth, is the story of already, but not yet.  It teaches us that God fulfills His promises.  The people of Israel had waited a long time for God to send the Messiah who had already been promised but had not yet come.  The people prayed for God to fulfill His promises and He heard the prayers of His people.  He remembered His covenants with His people and He fulfilled them.  But God takes the long view.  It took a long time for Jesus to come.  And there are many other promises of God that are already but not yet.  Many prophecies have been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus but not all.  There are still promises and prophecies that are outstanding.  But Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:8-9 “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  In answering our prayers, in fulfilling His promises to us, God takes the long view.  We need to keep this in mind and not get discouraged.
            Jesus has already come, but not yet.  The kingdom of God is among us, within us, around us, but not yet.  There are many miracles that have been done, many prayers answered, many mighty works of God the world has witnessed.  But there is so much still waiting to be fulfilled.  The season of Advent is the time we wait.  We wait for the coming of a child, a Savior, a Deliverer, one who leads us out of darkness into light.  But all our time is Advent time.  We still wait for Jesus to come again.  We wait for the answer to our prayers, for the miracle we need, the healing, the restoration of relationship, the meeting of that financial need.  Whatever it is, we wait for it and we cry out to God for it because it has not yet arrived.
            As we wait, we need to remember that God is seeing with the long view and He’s saying to us, “It is already done, but not yet.  If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”  Mary and Joseph had to stand firm in their faith as they waited for a child to be born that they did not make.  They had to believe in the provision and protection of God as that child was threatened with death and they had to leave the country to protect his life.  They had to believe and stand firm in their faith as he grew and they wondered about what kind of child is this who debates with the teachers in the Temple.  Mary had to stand firm in her faith as Jesus taught, ministered, and did miracles all over the country.  And she had to stand firm in her faith, believing in the God who keeps promises when her son was crucified and placed in a grave.
            God has given each one of us promises just as He gave to Mary and Joseph, to Isaiah and King Ahaz, and to the people of Israel whose prayer we read in Psalm 80.  We can cry out to him in prayer because He has promised to hear and answer us when we call on Him.  He already has answers to our prayers, but we have not yet received them all.  We have to stand firm in our faith in the God who keeps promises, or we will not stand at all.
            When Jesus was born, he wasn’t born blind, deaf, and mentally deficient.  We don’t serve a God who can’t see, hear, or understand our condition and our needs.  No we serve a God who is also our high priest and who, according to Hebrews 4,  has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin.  Our God is able to sympathize with us, He gets us.  And we are told that we can approach His throne of grace with confidence, not with fear of rejection.  It is in Him that we receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need – as we go to Him with all our need.  God has already determined to help us, to overthrow every enemy, to heal this world of every injustice.  And because He has determined it, it is already done.  But not yet.  We wait in Advent time until Jesus comes again and all things are made new.
            What is it you are waiting for in this Advent season?  What prayers are you offering that have not yet been answered?  What questions are you asking that haven’t been answered yet?  What breakthrough are you hoping for that hasn’t arrived yet?  The message to us today is wait for it.  Wait in confidence that God is working all things together for our good as He knows it needs to be.  He is acting on our behalf.  He has already determined to hear and answer our prayers or we would not have the scriptures that tell us to come to him with confidence.  We must commit ourselves to continue to wait in prayer for whatever our need is.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote, we are to “strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, ‘be strong, do not fear; your God will come…he will come to save you.’”  It may be years in the future that God’s answer will come.  It may be this afternoon.  No matter how long it takes for the answer to come, will you be faithful to wait and to pray for what is already but not yet?
            I’ll invite the worship team and the prayer team to come forward.  As we close our service, I’m inviting us as a congregation to commit to wait in faithful prayer and faithful living for the things we are hoping for that have not happened yet.  Maybe you are like Ahaz and are facing enemies that are pretty scary.  It can be hard to stand in faith when we see no answer and we are in the grip of fear.  But God is always on time.  He has promised not to leave us or forsake us and He will not give us up to be destroyed.  We have been promised life everlasting.  Maybe you are like the people of Israel who cried out to God in Psalm 80, feeling that God is angry at you or has turned His back on you.  Take courage from their example and cry out to God to turn back to you and to restore you to right relationship.
            Maybe you are like Mary and Joseph, facing things that seem overwhelming but trying to remain faithful.  Continue in that faithfulness and remain strong.  I want to give us the opportunity as a congregation to commit ourselves to stand together and wait for the promises of God to be fulfilled among us, to strengthen our feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.  The prayer team is here and prepared to anoint you with oil and speak a blessing over you.  As the worship team leads us, I invite you to come forward and receive this anointing and blessing and to once again, offer up to God the burdens and worries you carry, knowing that He hears and has already determined to answer. Commit to wait in faithfulness and in confidence that God will complete His good work in you, in your family, in your neighborhoods, in this congregation, and in our world.  Would you come?