February 8, 2015 – 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
What do you do when you’re being pulled in a thousand different directions, and then someone comes and drops a crisis in your lap and asks you to take care of it?
One Saturday morning, Jesus went with his disciples to the local synagogue, where he taught a lesson on the scriptures. He was well-prepared, and the congregation was amazed at the quality of his message. In the middle of the service, however, he was interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit—a demonic possession—and Jesus stopped what he was doing long enough to attend to the man’s spiritual infirmity. In dramatic fashion, he cast out the spirit, an authoritative act which caught the attention of the congregation, who immediately began discussing amongst themselves how amazing this Jesus was. By the time he left the synagogue, word had already leaked out to the wider community, making Jesus quite the celebrity-du-jour.
In the afternoon, Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue and retreated to Simon Peter’s house, where they could eat and enjoy some Sabbath rest. That Jesus was exhausted, however, did not seem to matter to anyone because, as soon as they walked through the door, the disciples told Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law, who lay in bed with a fever. “Um, Jesus?” they asked, tentatively. “We know you must be tired after a long day, but would you mind taking care of this sweet woman who has been sick for a while?” “Of course,” Jesus said, not wanting to be rude, and he took her by the hand and healed her.
As soon as the sun set, the Sabbath was over, and any time Jesus might have taken for rest had expired. “The whole city,” Mark tells us, “was gathered around the door.” All who were sick or in need of deliverance were brought to his doorstep, where he met them and “cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons.”
I don’t know when the crowd finally dispersed, but Mark lets us know that Jesus didn’t get any downtime until the middle of the night—“in the morning,” he calls it, “while it was still very dark.” Quietly, when no one was looking, Jesus snuck out of the house and fled out into the wilderness, where he could be alone to pray. Even then, however, he could find no peace because, when the disciples awoke and discovered that their master was gone, they went out and hunted for him. The word translated as “hunted” literally means “chased down” or “stalked” in the same way that a hunter tracks down its prey. In other words, they had a need that could not wait, and, when they ran up to Jesus, out of breath, they panted, “Master, what are you doing here? Everyone is searching for you.”
I get tired just reading this passage. Maybe I feel particular sympathy for Jesus because I am a busy preacher who struggles to find enough time to pray, but I doubt that the clergy are the only ones here who can identify with that sentiment. Clergy who whine about how busy they are exasperate me. Y’all are just as busy as I am. We’re all busy. None of us has enough time to tend to the important, quiet needs of life. But the lesson Jesus teaches us here isn’t just that we all need to spend more time taking care of ourselves and our prayer life. We don’t need Jesus or any other preacher to remind us of that. We already know that. What we need—what I need—is for Jesus to help me figure out how to do it. And I think his response to the disciples is the key to making that happen.
What do you do when someone comes to you with an urgent need? How do you handle the crises of others? What is your response to those who are desperate for your attention? The disciples were hunting for Jesus. “Master!” they cried out, “Everyone is looking for you!” And what was his reply? Jesus looked at them and said, “Alright, it’s time to move on. We’ve got other work to do. They’ll figure it out. I’m needed elsewhere. I can’t do everything. Pack it up. Let’s get moving.” If I didn’t know him better, I’d say Jesus was turning his back on people in need. But that can’t be right. Jesus would never do that, would he?
Jesus teaches us that there’s a difference between responding to someone with an urgent need and letting someone’s urgency need your response. Sometimes the best thing to do for both of you is to let it go and keep walking. How much of your life is controlled by the crises around you? To what extent are you held hostage by the urgency of the day? Bouncing from one emergency to another has an effect on your faith. You cannot see what God is doing in your life and in the lives of those around you when your perspective is limited to whatever crisis is right in front of you. So what should you do when it seems like your focus has shifted from the big picture to whatever need is right in front of your face? Do what Jesus did: find a quiet place and say your prayers.
Prayer is a powerful thing. How we pray says a lot about how we’re handing the urgencies around us. And how we pray also has the power to shape the way we handle those urgencies. Think about your prayer life and what your prayers sound like. Are you so focused on the immediate needs in your life that you’ve forgotten how to look for answers in places where God might be trying to surprise you? Or are your prayers open to the belief that God is already in control of the situation and, no matter what happens, will always take care of you?
When we are held hostage by urgency we cannot see the big picture. When we are dominated by an immediate need, we cannot know what it means to trust fully in God. Under the tyranny of the urgent, our prayers become simplistic: “Lord, I know that this is exactly what I need, and my hope is tied completely to your ability to answer my prayer in this specific way.” That isn’t faith that God will take care of us no matter what. That is letting the urgency of a situation defeat us and rob us of real hope.
As Christians, we believe in the power of the resurrection. That means that we’re supposed to believe that our true hope is not bound by the needs of today but is fulfilled in the promise of new life in Jesus. The cross and empty tomb show us that nothing can stand between us and God’s victory for us. Faith in God does not mean that God will give us exactly what we ask for. It means that God will take care of us no matter what we ask. Faith isn’t found in those who simply bring their needs before God. Faith belongs to those who trust that God will meet their needs even when their prayers go unanswered.