Category Archives: Epiphany

Do You Know Your Purpose? Sermon on Mark 1:29-39

2/4/2018
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Mark’s gospel sometimes seems a bit rough around the edges. Mark wastes no time telling his story, and his urgency comes through, even when we divide his writing into short passages to examine them one by one. In the first chapter alone, we’ve already found Mark’s favorite word “immediately” twelve times.

There is so much activity packed into this first chapter, it’s hard to remember that most of these events all happened on the same day. We get the impression that the people who were following Jesus had a hard time keeping up, too. Here’s what has happened so far in Mark’s gospel – and remember, we’re still in chapter one:

  • After his baptism and 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus heads to Galilee, where he calls four fishermen to follow him; they leave their boats and nets
  • They go to Capernaum, a small fishing village, where these four apparently lived.
  • On the Sabbath, Jesus goes to the synagogue and teaches with unusual authority. A demon-possessed man stands up in the middle of the synagogue and challenges him, and names him as the Holy One of God – in other words, the Messiah – but Jesus silences the unclean spirit and tells it to leave the man. It obeys immediately.

This brings us to today’s passage. It’s still the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples have just left the synagogue. Four distinct scenes will occur over the next few hours. The story continues in the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, beginning at verse 29. Scene One:

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

Maybe they went to Simon’s house because it was closest to the synagogue, or it had the most room for guests. However they came to Simon’s home, we learn something about him that we didn’t know before. He has a family to support, and his wife’s mother is sick with a fever. Simon tells Jesus this “immediately.” Maybe he’s hoping that this Jesus, who has just shown authority over an unclean spirit, might also have the authority to drive out a fever.

And that is exactly what Jesus does. He doesn’t say a word. He only puts out his hand and takes the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law. The fever is gone. Immediately. As Jesus brings her to her feet, the verb is the same one Mark will use in chapter 16 to describe Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. He lifts her up.

And the mother-in-law’s response to this miraculous healing is also immediate. She gets busy serving. In essence, Simon’s mother-in-law becomes Jesus’ first deacon, reminding us that Jesus saw himself as a servant, too.

Later in his ministry, Jesus will tell his disciples, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

And this brings us to Scene Two, beginning in verse 32:

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured 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.

You just can’t keep a secret in a small town like Capernaum. By now, everyone knows what happened in the synagogue, and many people will have already heard that Simon’s mother-in-law is no longer sick. As soon as Sabbath ends, a stream of people makes its way to Simon’s door, asking for healing, asking Jesus to do on a large scale what they’ve already seen him do on a smaller scale.

Notice that there is a clear distinction between healing and exorcism in Mark’s gospel. Mark will maintain this distinction throughout the coming chapters. The most important aspect of this difference is that Jesus never touches someone to expel an unclean spirit, but he often heals through the power of touch.

Human touch in scripture represents a particular level of intimate relationship.[1] God created us to be close to him, and that is why Jesus became human: to make God’s love real and tangible, to make God touchable. And this, as P. C. Ennis puts it, is what “makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people,
we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.[2]

God not only calls us into service through his Son, God calls us into community with those who long for that connection we all crave, that nearness to God made possible through Christ. The story continues in verse 35. Scene Three:

 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up
and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 

Jesus goes off to be alone in prayer only three times in Mark’s gospel. Luke describes several instances of Jesus seeking solitude, but in Mark, we only read about Jesus going off alone to pray, first here, then after he has fed the five thousand, and finally in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed by Judas. These are pivotal moments in Mark’s story, and they all share one common element: darkness.

Darkness and wilderness are closely linked here. Jesus goes off to some deserted location, reminding us of his time in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, when he was tempted by Satan. After feeding the 5000 – also called the miracle of multiplication – Jesus will send his disciples off in a boat so he can spend the night in prayer (6:46).

On another night, in a lonely garden, Jesus will pray, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (14:32–42) The darkness of Christ’s times in solitude is the very darkness where he questions God, where he faces fear, and where Jesus submits to his Father’s will.

Even Jesus struggled to find his purpose at the beginning of his ministry, but he knew how to discover it. He prayed. The one who knew God’s heart better than anyone still set aside time to be alone with his Father in the darkness, to seek God’s will in extended times of prayer.

Being alone in the dark wilderness wasn’t the safest place to be in the first century. There were no streetlamps to light the way, no motion activated floodlights to scare off the wild animals. There were no cell phones to notify others if something went wrong. There was no GPS to help you find your way back to town if you got lost.

For Jesus, though, it was the only place where he could talk one-on-one with his Father, without interruption. Well, almost without interruption. The story concludes, beginning in verse 36: Scene Four.

And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Maybe Simon and his friends hoped that Jesus would just keep on doing what he had done so far – healing, driving out demons, meeting whatever needs were presented to him. So far, the plan had seemed to work pretty well. Fishing for people wasn’t so bad, if all you had to do was control the crowds that kept coming to see Jesus perform his miracles.

But Jesus tells them something they weren’t expecting to hear. “Let’s go to the neighboring towns so I can preach there, too. That’s my purpose.” This created a moment of decision for the disciples. There would be many more like it. Each time, they would have to decide, “Do we keep following?”

And that is the choice we face each day, too. Jesus says the same thing to us that he preached in Capernaum: Repent, turn away from your old ways, and believe that the Kingdom of God is here now. Be changed. Be transformed. Find your purpose and decide to live it.

Jesus found that his purpose wasn’t becoming just a local healer, but reaching as many people as possible with the good news of God’s love for them. Jesus never went out looking for people to heal. That wasn’t his primary mission.[3] People came to him, seeking his healing touch, asking for his help, and he had compassion on them. Some of them did believe. Some did repent and follow Jesus, and their lives were changed forever.

Like Simon’s mother-in-law, they responded by serving with gratitude. The disciples learned that you can’t be a true follower of Jesus by sitting in the comfort of your own living room. You have to get up, as Simon’s mother-in-law did, and join with others in the work of the Kingdom of God. Because for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.

We may not be the only ones who will satisfy their urgent, physical needs, but we are the only ones who will welcome them into the family of God.

  • We are the only ones who will help them recognize their need for a Savior.
  • We are the only ones who can show them what it means to be transformed into Christ’s image through the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible study, service and sacrifice.
  • We are the only ones who can show them what it means to decide every day to keep following Jesus.
  • We are the only ones who can love them as Christ loved us, who can make that love tangible and touchable for them.

We are the only Jesus they will ever meet.

So, how do you find your purpose the way Jesus did?

First, Get Close to God.

We have to go into the dark wilderness to get close to God in prayer. This is where we meet God, and sometimes our fears, face to face. It is in solitude and darkness that we find our purpose and learn to trust completely in God’s will.

The disciples would probably have preferred for Jesus to stay in Capernaum, healing from his home base, and theirs. But Jesus leads them out into their own dark wilderness: the unknown territory of introducing others to the Kingdom of God and leading them to repentance. If we want to get close to God, we have to go away from the noise and bright lights of our busy culture, and head into the dark wilderness.

Second, Focus.

“Everyone is looking for you, Jesus,” the disciples said when they hunted him down. Everyone wants a piece of you. But Jesus knew he couldn’t be distracted from his primary purpose by spending all his time and energy on a secondary goal. He had to focus on what his heavenly Father was telling him to do, even if it meant disappointing the people in Capernaum.

Pastor and author Carey Nieuwhof notes that people don’t generally come knocking on your door to help you achieve your purpose. Most people aren’t too interested in helping you “complete your top priority. They will only ask you to complete theirs.”[4]

That’s what the disciples were doing. They saw all those people from Capernaum whose number one priority was getting healed or having their demons exorcised. None of them had even stopped to consider what Jesus’ number one priority might be. It would have been easy for Jesus to get caught up in the healing miracle circus, because he had compassion. But he focused on what his heavenly Father had asked him to do: proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom had broken into our world.

Third, Silence the Demons

What demons haunt you? What are the things that cause you to worry? What are the sins that keep creeping into your life, even after you think you’ve repented and turned them over to God? What are those nagging voices in the back of your mind telling you? You know the ones I mean. The voices telling you that you aren’t good enough, or you aren’t rich enough or smart enough or thin enough or … whatever your “not enough” might be. Those demons are the ones Christ came to cast out of your life forever. Those demons that shout at you, “I know who you really are!” are the demons Christ came to silence. So let him. Silence the demons, so you can get on with fulfilling your purpose as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Finally: Practice Small, Multiply to Scale

Notice how Mark frames this story. Jesus performed a single exorcism in the synagogue. Later in the day, he performs a single act of healing in his friend’s home. Then Jesus does the same thing on a much larger scale. The private home becomes a public space, as Jesus heals and casts out unclean spirits for the many who come to Simon’s door.

Whatever your purpose is, however God calls you to serve, it’s going to take some practice on a small scale before you can be effective on a large scale. The biggest mega-church in America started with a dozen people meeting in a two-car garage. When we start small, we give ourselves a chance to develop our gifts and refine our understanding of the purpose God has in mind for us, before we can grow and develop the ministry we are given.

So if you want to know your purpose, the plan God had in mind for you from before time began, now would be a perfect time to start asking God to show it to you. As we approach Christ’s Table, Jesus calls us to get close to him, to focus on what God wants more than what others are clamoring to get from us. Jesus offers to help us silence the demons that keep trying to prevent us from living out our purpose.

And Christ encourages us to start small, with the one person he puts in front of us each day who needs to know Jesus. Because for that person, you may be the only Jesus they will ever meet. Amen.

[1] P.C. Ennis, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, 334.

[2] Ennis, 336.

[3] R. T. France, NIGTC: The Gospel of Mark, 109.

[4] https://careynieuwhof.com/how-your-calendar-is-killing-you-and-what-to-do-about-it/

Selfless In Service – Sermon on John 13:1-17

January 28, 2018
Watch a video of this sermon here.

We’re in a message series called Self-less, We live in an incredibly selfish, self-centered, self-gratifying, self-promoting culture. In fact, if you look up the work “self-promotion” on Google, right on the first page, you will see article after article teaching you how to promote yourself.

One is called, “The Art of Self-Promotion: “6 Ways to Get Your Work Discovered.” Forbes wrote one called, “Self-promotion is a Skill.” In other words, if you want to make it in this society, you better learn how to promote yourself. Then there’s this is one: “40 Ways to Self-Promote Without Being a Jerk.”

It seems like everyone in today’s culture wants to be the GOAT. Raise your hand if you know what that is. I’ll give you folks over the age of 50 a hint: Muhammad Ali made this claim back when he was still known as Cassius Clay. Continue reading

Selfless in Extravagant Generosity – sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:1-9

January 21, 2018

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you —so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:1-9)

Here’s a Random Question: How many of you prefer the window seat on a plane? Aisle? How about the Middle – is there anyone who really loves to sit in the middle seat? Continue reading

Selfless: Bold in Witness – Acts 4

Message on Acts 4:8-13, 18-20, 29-30 for Epiphany 2B
January 14, 2018

We’ve made it a couple of weeks into the New Year, and maybe some of us are working on forming some new habits. Things like losing weight, or at least eating healthier food and exercising more; maybe getting out of debt or doing a better job of taking care of the house or the car… I know someone who has resolved to drink less diet soda this year. These are all good things, good habits to form.

When you think about it though, the New Year’s resolutions people make mostly focus our attention on ourselves. We might even ask God to help us keep our resolutions for self-improvement. Instead of surrendering to God’s will, we see him as a tool to get us what we want.

God, help me. Bless me. Protect me. Make my life better, make me happier, make me richer. And then when things don’t go our way, when God doesn’t perform according to our expectations, we reject God. “Yeah, I tried God, I tried church, but it just didn’t work. It didn’t help me.”

And the tragedy is that, when we focus on what we want God to do for us, we miss out on the real blessings God wants to pour into our lives. Continue reading

Selfless: Grateful In the Grind – sermon on Colossians 3:12-17

Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord B
January 7, 2018

We have a lot of threads to weave together this morning. We recognize the close of the season of Christmas …

… as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, that “aha!” moment when Jesus was revealed as a King to the Wise Ones traveling from the East, …

and the Baptism of our Lord, when Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism in the River Jordan, …

… and it’s the first Sunday of the New Year, when Methodists traditionally renew their baptismal vows to shine Christ’s light into the world through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

To top it off, this is Communion Sunday!
It looks a little busy up here on the platform – there’s a lot going on. Notice that all of our worship, busy as it may seem at first, has one focus: turning our attention toward God.

As we enter this new year, I’m inviting you to abandon all those New Year’s resolutions that have anything to do with self improvement. You see, ultimately, those resolutions focus our attention on ourselves. They are, to put it quite bluntly, self-ish. And that is not what Jesus calls us toward as Christians. Jesus asks us to center our lives on God, and then offer God’s love to others.

So over the next few weeks, we will explore what it means to be self-less followers of Jesus Christ. We’ll see how serving, generosity, and sharing our stories of faith help us get re-oriented away from working to get our own needs met, toward something much more satisfying, much more rewarding: knowing Christ and becoming more Christ-like.

Continue reading

The Great Invitation: To What End? Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

February 19, 2017 Epiphany 7A
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

What’s the point, exactly, of following Jesus? Why do we do it? Over the past several weeks, Jesus has been issuing The Great Invitation to us through his Sermon on the Mount. Christ has been inviting each of us into his life. He has told us that we are salt and light, seasoning the world with God’s love and shining into the world’s darkness.

Jesus has raised the barre for the way we behave toward one another, inviting us to live into the spirit of the law. He encourages us toward a higher quality of righteousness than following the letter of the Law can provide.

Today’s passage brings us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Continue reading

The Great Invitation: This, Not That – Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2017
Epiphany 6A
View a video of this sermon here.

Effective teachers know that good corrective instruction starts with an evaluation of what the student has already mastered. That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s easier to help a student fix what needs to be fixed if you start by affirming what’s already going well. Good teachers point out the positives before they get to what needs to be improved. So, Jesus has begun his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with the good news: You are blessed, you are salt and light.

Jesus reminds us that God is at work, and we already are salt and light to the world, seasoning it with God’s love and shining God’s light into every dark corner. We also heard him insist that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

As Jesus digs deeper into what it means to live into the spirit of the Law, he makes it clear that being his follower requires more from us than obeying a few rules. In this week’s passage, Jesus is moving from the positives to what we, his students, need to improve, as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven. Continue reading