Archive for February 7th, 2012

February 5th, 2012, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

When I am preparing for worship each week, I start on the previous Sunday by reading the next week’s lectionary readings, which are printed in the bulletin so that you can do the same, should you be so inclined. Last week, when I was reading, the sentence that leaped out at me was from the Gospel reading. Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
Even though Jesus gathered his disciples around him, and even though he – better than most – understood the importance of a faith community, he still needed some time alone to pray. And this is something we all need, as well. We need to take time alone to pray. People say to me: I just don’t have the time every day to talk to God. Well, I am going to tell you a story which may change your mind.
The story is told about how Satan called a worldwide convention of demons. In his opening address he said, “We can’t keep Christians from going to church. We can’t keep them from reading their Bibles and knowing the truth. We can’t even keep them from forming an intimate relationship with their saviour. Once they gain that connection with Jesus, our power over them is broken. So let them go to their churches; let them have their Pot Luck Suppers and fellowship events, but steal their time so they don’t have time to develop a relationship with Jesus.”
“This is what I want you to do”, said the devil. “Distract them from gaining hold of their Saviour and maintaining that vital connection throughout their day!”
“How shall we do this?” his demons shouted.
“Keep them busy in the nonessentials of life and invent innumerable schemes to occupy their minds,” he answered. “Tempt them to spend, spend, spend, and borrow, borrow, borrow. Persuade the wives to go to work for long hours and the husbands to work 6-7 days each week, 10-12 hours a day, so they can afford their empty lifestyles. Keep them from spending time with their children. As their families fragment, soon, their homes will offer no escape from the pressures of work!
“Over-stimulate their minds so that they cannot hear that still, small voice trying to talk to them. Entice them to play the radio or cassette player whenever they drive; to keep the TV, i-Pods, and their PCs going constantly in their home; and see to it that every store and restaurant and elevator in the world plays music constantly. This will jam their minds and break that union with Christ.
“Fill the coffee tables with magazines and newspapers. Pound their minds with the news 24 hours a day. Invade their driving moments with billboards. Flood their mailboxes with junk mail, mail order catalogues, sweepstakes, and every kind of newsletter and promotional offering free products, services and false hopes.
“Keep skinny, beautiful models in the magazines and TV so that husbands will believe that outward beauty is what’s important and they’ll become dissatisfied with their wives. Keep the wives too tired to love their husbands at night. Give them headaches too! Make them dissatisfied with one another so they begin to look elsewhere. That will fragment their families quickly!
“Give them Santa Claus to distract them from teaching their children the real meaning of Christmas. Give them an Easter bunny so they won’t talk about his resurrection and his power over sin and death.
Even in their recreation, let them be excessive! Have them return from their recreation exhausted. Keep them too busy to go out in nature and reflect on God’s creation. Send them to amusement parks, sporting events, plays, concerts, and movies instead. And when they do go out on the mountains or to the shoreline – get them do it on their day of worship – and make them so active in what they do there that they don’t have time to pray, time to think, time to remember their God or thank him for his goodness.
“Keep them busy, busy, busy! And when they meet for spiritual fellowship, leave them with troubled consciences. Crowd their lives with so many good causes they have no time to seek power from Jesus. It they must talk to God, make sure that they don’t take time to listen to God. Soon they will be working in their own strength, sacrificing their health and family for the good of the cause.
“Do this and it will work!”, Satan concluded.
“It will work!” His demons replied.
So they the convention ended. The demons went eagerly to their assignments causing Christians everywhere to have little time for their God or their families. Having no time to tell others about the power of Jesus to change lives and to meet their real needs.
I guess the question is, has the devil been successful at his scheme?
You be the judge!
Private prayer is something that we all do – at least a little bit. For some of us, it is as simple as thanking God for the day as evening draws in. Other people start their day with prayer. Martin Luther insisted that private prayer was an absolute necessity in order to live the way God wanted him to. In fact, on those days when his life was over-scheduled, when he had meeting after meeting after meeting, he would take an extra hour of prayer first thing in the morning, so that he could be ready to cope with the demands of his day.
But, you know, prayer is a two-way street. We pray to God, and then we need to take the time to wait for his reply to our prayer. And we cannot do that when there are distractions. The only time we can do that is during the time we spend alone. Now, if you look at Scripture, you will see some contradictions concerning solitude. In Genesis, we read that God saw that it was not good for man to be alone. (Gen 2: 18) But, almost as a counter to that, in Daniel we can read: I was left alone and saw the great vision. (Dan 10:8) And Elijah, who was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel, did not hear the voice of God in either the fierce wind or the earthquake, but in the silence which followed. Then he heard the still, small voice of God. And we cannot hear this voice with everything else clamouring for our attention.
Just think about it for a minute. How often are you alone? Really alone? With nothing and no one to take your mind away from your Creator? Yes, there are times when we need society, when we need others, which is why God created more than one person. But there are still times when it is important to be alone. And I go back to my question. How often are you really alone? It may be easier to say when you are not alone. Because you are not alone when you are at work. Even if you are isolated in a cubicle, there are people around you, and constant noise and activity. You are not alone when you are on the phone. Even though you may be physically removed from the other person, you are still very much together. You are certainly not alone when you are waiting for a text message. Even if the other person takes a long time to reply, you are still connected to that person; your mind is still focused on something else, so you cannot be thought to be alone. You aren’t alone when you are sitting in front of your computer, taking part in e-mail, social networks, or any of the other various things which keep us ever-connected to the “other”.
So, truthfully, how often ARE you alone? How often are you intentionally cut off from all outside influences and can claim to be genuinely alone? Actual aloneness is about as readily available as imported glacier water. It is a commodity you CAN get, but you must be willing to pay the price. And for many of us, the price is too high.
Of course, there is a difference between being alone or choosing solitude, and being lonely. The first is a state devoutly to be desired while the second is not one any of us would want. Many times in the Gospels we are told that Jesus withdrew from the crowds following him, so that he could have time alone. Even he needed this time to commune with his – and our – father. Even he needed solitude. To use an Old Testament expression, Jesus needed to wait upon the Lord. In our reading from Isaiah today, we read: those who have hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint. In other translations, this is rendered: those who wait upon the Lord, and, to me, this version offers much more of what Jesus wants us to do. We are to wait upon the Lord. We are not to demand quick answers, nor expect to hear him while we are busy with other things. We are to be still, and wait. And this is probably one of the most difficult things for us to do. I am reminded of the person who prayed: God, grant me patience – NOW!
We know, as members of a faith community, how important corporate worship is. We know, as members of a faith community, how much we can help each other. We know, as members of a faith community, how much strength we can draw from each other when we come together each Sunday, be it here in the sanctuary, or in the Kirk Hall during our time of fellowship. But we often forget that we can also gain strength from being alone with our God. We forget that we can renew ourselves during a time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, away from the “other”. We must make the time for God to inhabit us, to fill us, to restore us, to make us once again his beloved children. We must make the time to listen to his voice, so that we will know what it is that he wants us to do, who he wants us to be. We need to remember who we are and WHOSE we are. For we are his creation, and we belong to him and him alone. But if we don’t spend time alone with him, we will forget this.
The message from Isaiah makes it clear that we are not the only ones not to listen to God. But it also makes it clear that we – as well as the Israelites – are not being given this as an option; that we must listen to God. “Do you not know?” asks Isaiah. “Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” These four questions are a call – to the Israelites AND to us. And each time I read these questions, I am struck anew with a sense of urgency. I can hear the prophet in my heart, for I know that he is speaking to me. He is reminding me to remember my God, to remember how he has helped me in the past, and how he will continue to help me. But even more than that, it is calling me to come to God, so that I CAN understand who he is, and how we are connected. Remember, it is by staying connected to God that we can put everything into its proper perspective with everything else.
Again, Isaiah said: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. And what does God do for us, when we take the time to be with him? Looking back at what we just read from Isaiah, we find out that he will give us the strength we need, and will increase our power, as long as we wait on the Lord.
We know that Jesus went to the synagogue every week, just as we come to St. Andrew’s every week – or almost every week. We know that he went to the Temple in Jerusalem when it was required. He knew the importance of worshiping in community. But we also know that he removed himself from society at times. We know that he withdrew from his disciples and the crowds to go up into the mountain – to pray. We know that he went to the garden alone – to pray. And now, we know – or we should know – WHY he did this. He did it so that he could hear God’s voice, so that God would help him keep focused on what his mission was. He did it so that he would be given the strength he needed to do what he did.
Just as God had a purpose for his son, which was to redeem us all, so, too, God has a purpose for us. But we have to listen to learn what this purpose it. It is good that we make our own plans, but we need to be open to his, for he is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one who knows what is best for us. In our Book of Praise, hymn # 57 paraphrases Psalm 91. The chorus is like this: And I will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of my hand. And all we need to is to take the time to listen to his voice. Thanks be to God.

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