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Mark 1:29-39 “Wow. Thanks. Help.”

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 2:14 pm on Sunday, February 4, 2018

A sermon preached on February 4th, 2018 based upon Mark 1:29-39, entitled “Wow.  Thanks.  Help.”

Jesus brought about a whole bunch of miraculous healings in what was essentially his first day of ministry.  We hear these stories, and we in turn are inspired to pray for healing, for ourselves and for others.  Reading through the healing stories in the Gospels we may look for a formula to follow in the hope of assuring our prayers will evoke the healings we desire.   In certain places there are instances in which Jesus commends people for their faith with the implication seeming to be that it was their faith that brought about healing.  So, we wonder is receiving the healing we pray for a matter of having great faith?  But we know too many instances where all kinds of people — presumably many with “great faith” — have prayed for the healing they longed for and did not receive it.

And conversely, in these very first stories of healing, there is no mention of faith at all.  Jesus just decides to heal people.   Jesus casts out an unclean spirit, leaving him calm and whole, and at Simon Peter’s house Jesus takes the initiative to go and heal his mother-in-law in bed with a fever.  When the sun sets marking the end of the Sabbath dozens of people are brought to Simon Peter’s front porch and Jesus heals them, again without any mention of faith.  These miracles simply occur out of the blue as surprising signs of God’s grace.

At this point in the story if you were reading along for the first time it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Jesus’ primary mission was to heal the sick.  Considering all the suffering that takes place in this world as a result of sickness and disease, who could argue with that?

At some point late in the evening Jesus dismisses the crowds.  Perhaps he said “enough is enough”.  It seems likely that he hadn’t healed everybody in town because the next day you get the impression there were more yet waiting to be healed.   But then a peculiar thing happens.

Very early the next morning, well before the sun comes up Jesus quietly gets up careful not to wake the others asleep in Simon Peter’s house and slips out of the house.  He goes beyond the edge of the town into nearby wilderness where he can be confident of being alone, undisturbed. There in the silence of the wilderness he spends the next several hours praying, until finally the disciples find him.  Apparently along with the rest of the town ever since the sun rose they’ve been searching for Jesus.

They clearly have come to the conclusion that Jesus mission is to heal the sick, cause they want him to come back into town so he can continue laying hands on more sick people. But Jesus says no, that’s not what they’re going to do.  He tells them that they are leaving Caperneum to go to the other communities in Galilee to proclaim their message and to cast out demons.

As this Gospel proceeds it becomes clear that although Jesus’ healing ministry is a part of what he does, it’s not the center. His healing work was a sign of God’s love for the people, but it wasn’t the thing on which he wanted people to focus.

And what was the message?  That you and me and every single person are loved by God more deeply than we know, that we are here to be a part right now of God’s blessed community which is all about God’s overflowing love that inspires us to love God in return and to love our neighbor who God cherishes. That the most important thing is to live out of this wondrous love, to trust this love, to share this love.

My attention is captured by the extensive time Jesus spent alone in prayer in this story, which I think we can assume was a pattern for him throughout his ministry.  What specifically was Jesus doing during that time of prayer?  How did he pray?  Mark doesn’t tell us so we can’t say for sure.

But since Jesus was fully human like you or me, even though he was uniquely Spirit-filled I think we can assume that the series of encounters with people that he had experienced that called forth his power to heal left him exhausted and depleted.  He needed time to be restored, to reconnect with God and God’s will for his life.  Perhaps the words of the psalm guiding him, “You maketh me to lie down in green pastures, you leadeth me beside still waters, you restoreth my soul.”

So I’ve been thinking about prayer particularly as we are approaching the season of Lent, a season that calls us to prayer.  In relation to this passage, one of things that occurs to me is that for most of us, the thing that most often moves us to pray is the same thing the people were looking for Jesus to be all about –  sickness, often for others, sometimes for ourselves, and problems, our own, and also of others.  This is appropriate and understandable, particularly given all the pain in this world.

But there is more to prayer than this.

When the primary focus of our prayer is crying out to God to heal sickness or to solve problems we or somebody we know is having, something can go awry in our relationship with God.  We can begin to feel as though God needs to be persuaded to care – to be talked into relieving the suffering of the illness or the distress caused by the problem.  It is as if we imagine God as far off in heaven and we need to coax God to come down to earth and be present to us in our suffering.

But God already does care, and God already is present.

We do believe that mysterious blessings are wrought when we open up our hearts in prayer, but what is easy to lose sight of is that the primary purpose of prayer isn’t to change God, it is to change us.

The author Anne Lamott provides a very simple way to think about prayer that is based upon three simple words. The first word is “Wow.”

If we are paying attention, there are these moments that come to us in the course of our days that lead us to say, “Wow!” — moments that evoke speechless awe and wonder before the mystery of God’s presence in this world.  These moments come in an endless variety of forms, big and small.  By definition “Wow” moments are out of the ordinary, breaking the unavoidable times of monotony and boredom that is a part of daily life.

The invitation to experience these moments can easily be overlooked so a certain curiosity is required on our part – a willingness to let our attention be carried along by our curiosity. The classic story in this regard is the story of Moses and the burning bush.  Moses, going about the monotony of the daily grind of his job shepherding his sheep through the wilderness notices an unusual sight in the distance, a bush that appears to be burning but isn’t being consumed.  He could just keep his mind on his job and keep on walking, but he decides instead to take a little break from his job to turn aside and investigate, and in doing so he encounters the great mystery of the living God who identifies God’s self as the great “I am”

Most Wow moments are less dramatic than Moses’ burning bush, and yet there is nonetheless something very important involved in our openness to these moments.  In the book, which was also made into a movie, “The Color Purple” the title comes from a line of one of the characters in the story who says it pisses God off if we walk pass a field of purple flowers and don’t pause to stand in wonder of the beauty.  I don’t know about the pissing God off part, but the point being made is true. God gives us invites us to experience “Wow” moments that can help restore our souls, and it is our job to notice them and allow the natural awe and wonder arise within us.

Maybe it’s

…an unexpected rainbow appearing at a particular moment when you need a sign of reassurance.

…a bird that lands near you to pay a visit.

…the face of a little child enchanted by the world.

…a peculiar coincidence such as a friend calling at just the right time which when noticed and responded to with wonder becomes a God-incidence.

In the story of Jesus’ first day of ministry, wow moments occur rapid fire:  Jesus heals the man with the unclean spirit bringing him to a place of quiet calm followed by his healing of Simon Peter’s mother in law of the fever that has confined her to bed.   Soon after that Jesus heals all those people who came to the front porch.

These are “wow” moments, the proper response before which is one of awe and speechless wonder, but sometimes our temptation is to quickly move past the “wow” in order to try and figure out how we can take control of the experience and reproduce it on command.

That seems to be what the disciples and the people of Caperneum try to do.  They move from the realm of wow before the extraordinary mystery of Jesus’ healing power to trying to figure out how they can make these healings routine, ordinary.   Let’s get Jesus to open up a walk-in clinic in Simon Peter’s house so that whenever somebody gets sick, all we have to do is take them over to Jesus and he can fix them up good as new.

Tunnel vision – that state of consciousness we get into when all we can see is the next thing that needs to get done — makes it hard to be open to “Wow” experiences.  I expect that one of the things that led Jesus to rise early to go out into the wilderness alone is that after having been presented with this non-stop stream of sick people placed in front of him to cure was the pull of tunnel vision. He goes out to pray to restore his capacity for “wow!”

So part of prayer is restoring our capacity to notice the Wow moments in life, and to give ourselves to these moments of awe and wonder without moving on to the “next thing” too quickly.

Anne Lamott’s second word in prayer is “thanks”.

It is said that evolution has hard-wired we human beings to pay attention to what might go wrong — what might present a threat to our survival — in a word, to be worriers.  In a simpler time, this was particularly important. If there was predator out there on the Safari looking to eat you, it was important to see it early so you didn’t end up its dinner.

When the instinct is in control there is no time to count our blessings.  As the centuries passed and life got more and more complex with the potential dangers out there more subtle and more numerous time for blessing counting becomes all the less frequent.  The result of this is we take on a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset. Our cup may be overflowing with abundant blessings, but with ten things going right our brains get stuck worrying about the one thing that could go wrong.  We never reach a posture of gratitude for all we have received and a confidence we will encounter abundance in the future.

So the prayer of “thanks” essentially re-wires our brain as we intentionally take time to take note of the good things we’ve received, intentionally resisting the gravitational pull of the survival mode — the scarcity mindset – in favor of an abundance mindset.

And the third word is “help”.  Pretty simple.  It is perhaps the place we most often turn to prayer.  All the sickness and problems out there.  And it is right to reach to God for help.

But again, it is important to remember that the God we know in Jesus isn’t one who has to persuaded to care about us.  So when we find ourselves facing something scary, something that threatens to overwhelm us or the people or the world we love, it’s not God we’re trying to change.  It’s ourselves.

In the act of reaching out to God for help in the scary places, we find a little trust, and a little courage.  Our cry of “help” to God pokes some holes in the wall of darkness that is the fear that threatens to overtake us.  We resist the temptation to close down our hearts and minds so we can pay attention to the leadings of the Spirit and resist the compulsion to blame someone, whether ourselves or others. We ask for help to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.  We reach out for the capacity to see the blessings hidden inside this hard thing we are facing, the opportunities to be — like Jesus — an instrument of blessing in the midst of suffering.

When we cry out for help, perhaps we catch a tiny glimpse of the truth that the worst thing isn’t that the feared thing will come to pass – the worst thing is to lost soul, our connection to God and the love in which we live and move and have our very being.

Wow!  Thanks!  Help!  It’s not complicated.  The primary thing to remember is the purpose of prayer is that we are changed.  God is already more near to us than breath itself.

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