Tag Archives: prayer

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/

Heading for Deep Water – Sermon on Luke 5:1-10

March 12, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

If you’re a guest today, you have come into a church that is on an exciting adventure with God! We’re spending the 6 weeks of Lent together inviting God to change us in any way that God wants to. The Spirit of God is moving in our church. Some of you have told me stories of the Spirit working as you talk about what’s happening with your small groups, your prayer exercises, and reading the book Unbinding Your Heart.

Would you like to join us? There’s still time to join a small group this week. In fact, one group meets right after coffee time in the pastor’s study today. There’s one early on Tuesday morning, and a couple of groups meet on Wednesday night as part of Family Night. Thursday options include an afternoon study and an evening group. Whichever group you join, we’ll bring you up to speed!

Here’s what we know so far: mainline Christian churches are rapidly declining in membership and influence in our country. We’ve grown reluctant to bring new people into Christian faith, and that reluctance prevents us from sharing our faith with others.

Last week, we explored why it makes a difference in our lives that we are Christians. We considered what our motivations might be for sharing the Christian faith with people who don’t have a faith. We considered that some of us don’t have a dramatic faith story to share, like Paul on the road to Damascus. Some of us are more like Ananias. Our personal stories might not be very dramatic, but God can use us as the domino that tips someone else into following Jesus.

In fact, there’s someone here today who has had just that kind of experience. I’d like to invite her to come share her story with you. Kris?

Continue reading

Persistence – sermon on Luke 18:1-8

October 16, 2016
Watch this sermon here.

In today’s passage, Luke explains a parable of Jesus before sharing the
parable itself. He only does this two other times. We will look at one of
these next week, when we read about the Pharisee and the tax collector,
and the other is the story of the Ten Talents. But the explanation Luke
gives here helps to focus our attention on the importance of staying
persistently connected to God.  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and
not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who
neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was
a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against
my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘
Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because
this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen
to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his
chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And
yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” -Luke 18:1-8

Let’s start at the end of this passage, and work our way backward. The
question Jesus asks at the conclusion of the story helps us understand it in
a way we might not see if we are in a hurry to read on to the next
passage. So let’s look backward first, to reflect on the parable of the
persistent widow and the unjust judge from the framework this question
gives us: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus started this particular teaching back in Chapter 17 (verse 20) when
the Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. He tells
them,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor
will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of
God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent
widow closes this longer lecture about the coming of God’s Kingdom on
earth.  The Pharisees had asked “when?” but Jesus answers that how we wait is
much more important than knowing the exact moment. So he throws this
question back at the Pharisees: When the Son of Man comes, will he find
faith on the earth? In other words, will we be faithful to the end? This is
the crux of the matter – will Christ find faithfulness, trustworthiness
among his people when he comes again, whenever that may be?

Let’s go back a step further. Before Jesus asks if we will be faithful, he
assures us that God can always be trusted. God is faithful. Jesus says, “
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and
night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant
justice to them.” (Luke 18:7-8a)

Luke reminds us of the tension first century Christians were feeling
between the expected suddenness of Christ’s second coming, and their
perceived delay of that event. Peter had also written, “Do not ignore this
one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise,
as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to
perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, quoting Psalm 90:4)
God will not put off helping his people, but God does not operate on our
timeline – we exist on his. And rest assured that God will give justice. God
will make right the things that are wrong. God will surely heal what is
broken. But God’s patience should not be seen as procrastination. God is
showing mercy, giving us time to turn to him and seek forgiveness, to ask
him to make us whole.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent headlines might make you wonder if it’s possible. There is plenty
that is wrong and broken in our world, today as much as it was over 2000
years ago. Justice sometimes seems like a dream more than a possible
reality. We see disappointment and pain every day, as people are
murdered, others go without food or adequate shelter, leaders turn out to
be corrupt, governments stop functioning, and self-serving greed has a
higher social value than generosity toward others. Hatred seems to be on
the rise, and mercy is hard to find.

The unjust judge of this parable would fit right into today’s culture: he
doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. He models the exact
opposite of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. The
judge only gives justice to get rid of the widow’s annoyance, not because
he cares about right and wrong. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering
me, I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by
continually coming.’”

Quite literally, this phrase means, “so she won’t slap me in the face,” or “
so she won’t give me a black eye.” I don’t think the judge is too worried
about a poor widow assaulting him. The judge wants to avoid being
embarrassed – or shamed – by the widow’s constant badgering. And it is
that very badgering, the continual showing up on his doorstep to ask for
justice, that finally allows the widow to win over the unethical judge.

Let’s take a look at that widow. Jesus says, “In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my
opponent.’” We don’t know who the opponent is, or what problem the
widow has with the opponent. We only know that she is seeking justice.
And she has her speech down to six words. Persistently, day after day, this
woman kept coming to the judge, saying, “Grant me justice against my
opponent.” What else could she do? This judge is her only hope.

You see, most women were very young, barely teenagers, when they
married, so the possibility of outliving their husbands was a very strong
one. There were many widows, but they weren’t necessarily old women.
The problem was that they often had no means of support when their
husbands died, especially if they had no sons to take responsibility for
them and care for them. They did not inherit their husband’s estate – it
went to another male member of the family. If a widow stayed with her
husband’s family, she became little more than a servant in the household.
If she went back to her own family, the bride price had to be paid back to
the husband’s family. Many times, widows were sold as slaves to pay off
their husband’s debts.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder this widow even tried to seek justice.
Yet here she is, day after day, relentlessly asking an unjust judge to give
her justice against her opponent. “How much more will God give justice to
those who ask him?” Jesus seems to be saying. If a crooked judge can be
convinced to do what is right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, how much
more will God show mercy to those he loves?

God’s love is not only persistent, but also just. God’s loving justice, made
evident in Christ’s cross and resurrection, reveals not only God’s persistent
response to individual sin, but also God’s powerful and persistent
resistance against the unjust powers that be. Which makes me wonder if I’
ve been looking at this parable through the wrong lens.
What if God is not represented in this story by the judge, but by the
persistent widow seeking justice? Certainly, comparing God to an unjust
judge can only work from the “how much more?” viewpoint. But what if
Jesus is actually asking us to see God through the eyes of this persistent
widow seeking justice? And what if the unjust judge who will only do the
right thing to avoid further embarrassment is … me?

Methodist pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:

God is not the judge, but the widow.

Jesus says, “Do not judge,” but still we judge.

We fail to fear God and respect other people.

God comes to us among the powerless,

the orphan, the widow, the Crucified One,

pleading for justice.

So busy with what we want,  

we don’t hear what God wants.

But God keeps coming, keeps pleading for justice.

She does not shout, does not lift up her voice,  

but calmly, confidently, again and again she comes.

She will wear us out with her continual coming,

until we do justice. …”
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light, October 13, 2016)  

That brings us back to the beginning of the story, and the reason Luke
gives us for this parable of Jesus: “Then Jesus told them a parable about
their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Many times, I think, we focus on the ‘need to pray’ part of this
explanation, and we ignore the need ‘not to lose heart.’ Jesus was
teaching his disciples the same persistence he had learned from the
Father. Jesus knew what each disciple would have to face after he was
gone, and he wanted to be sure they were prepared for what was to
come. Luke uses these words of Jesus to remind his readers, decades
later, that they should also not lose heart as they wait for Christ to come
again. And he wrote them down so that other believers, centuries later,
would also be encouraged.

Certainly Luke spends a lot of ink describing the importance of prayer.
Jesus holds up this persistent widow as a model for effective prayer, but
he isn’t talking about mindlessly repeating the same prayers over and over
again. The persistence in prayer Jesus asks of us is a faithful pursuit of
God’s justice in the world.

Praying is simply pouring out our hearts to God, who will always be faithful
to hear us. It means trusting in God, and not in ourselves. It means
constantly hoping for the time when God will make things right, convinced
that God’s justice will prevail over evil.  Just as the widow kept coming to the judge, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds; so we are to keep praying, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds. Not because we are “good Christians” or because
our faith is strong, but because God’s Holy Spirit has given us the courage
to pray without ceasing in a broken and scary world, that God’s Kingdom
will come and God’s will shall be done. If we are to be found faithful when
the Son of Man comes, we must keep praying, and not lose heart.

And what is it that we should pray for? The widow gets it right. Our
prayers must be for justice. Not our petty desires or what we think we
need – for God already knows what we need before we ask, and many
times what God knows we need and what we think we need are not at all the same thing. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will
to be done. We must not lose heart or become weary with waiting for
Christ to come again to deliver us, once and for all, from the pain and
brokenness we see all around us. We must persist in hope, persist in
prayer, and persist in seeking justice until the Lord comes.

Christ’s coming is still in the future, but God’s patience is at work in the
present. The parable assures us that God will save his people. The concern
is not when this will happen, but its certainty, and the necessity for us to
live in readiness and faithfulness.
Will Jesus come again, as he promised? Absolutely. Will God bring justice
to the world? Without a doubt. Will we be faithful until that time, pursuing
justice and working for the Kingdom of God? May it be so!

Let us pray.

“… Persistent God,

help us listen to your cries in the poor,

to your whisperings in our hearts,

to the light in your silence.

We still our minds, cease our judging, and listen.

In our hearts, a river flowing, we listen.

In the unsaid billion prayers, we listen.

We keep praying and do not lose heart. “ (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

Help us to see injustice around us, and to work for the kind of justice that
only comes from you. We don’t ask for fairness, Lord, because sometimes
fairness isn’t just. We ask for your justice, which always includes mercy.
We ask for your justice, which always means sacrifice. We ask for your
justice, that your Kingdom might come and your will might be done here
on earth, even as it is in heaven. Make us instruments of your peace, and
advocates for those who seek justice in an unjust world. Amen.

Called to Pray – Sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Watch a video of this sermon here.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus describe the high cost of discipleship. We learned that Jesus demands our all – you can’t be a half-hearted follower of Jesus. You’re either all in, or you can’t call yourself a disciple. Last week, we began a four-week journey through the letters to Timothy to learn what following Jesus looks like in practical terms.  Timothy and his congregation at Ephesus faced the same questions we do today:

 How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him?

 How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God?
 How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

These are important questions, and Paul has some answers for us.
In chapter one, we saw how Paul’s personal encounter with Christ led him to see the call to discipleship as a call to gratitude for God’s mercy. This week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord. Over the next couple of weeks, we will take a look at our witness and our stewardship as parts of being  faithful followers of Jesus.

Whatever aspect of discipleship we focus on, it’s important to remember that no single piece of the puzzle will give us the whole picture of discipleship. It’s a good idea, then, to take a moment to zoom out before we zoom in on today’s passage, to see how these verses fit into the whole letter to young pastor Tim.

The letter begins by stating its primary purpose: “When I left Macedonia, I asked you to stay behind in Ephesus so that you could instruct certain individuals not to spread wrong teaching.” (1:3) So we know that there has been some “wrong teaching” going on in the Ephesus church, and this letter serves to remind Tim of the “right teaching” he is to offer. The letter goes on to express gratitude for Paul’s own salvation and calling, and for Timothy’s faithfulness, before getting down to the business of outlining the instruction that Timothy needs to pass on to his congregation. This is where today’s passage brings us.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all  —this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-7) 

“First of all, then,” … the instruction begins, but this isn’t going to be a point-by-point outline. Prayer isn’t something we do at the beginning and then check off the list. After all, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

“First and foremost” or “most importantly” might be another way of looking at this. Prayer is the most useful tool in our discipleship toolbox. A life of prayer sets us apart as followers of Jesus. “Matt” Matthews (Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 4, p 89) writes, “Prayer is not at the center of things… but it gets us there.”

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, …”(2:1)

Supplications – now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. But we do it all the time – at the grocery store, at the gas station, in the supper line on Wednesday nights. Supplication is simply asking for what you need. “May I please have more applesauce?” “Would you please give me a receipt?” That’s supplication.

Asking God for what you need is the most basic kind of prayer you can pray. It’s the kind of prayer Jesus encouraged in his Sermon on the Mount. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matt 6:8) “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11)

Intercession, on the other hand, is praying on behalf of another, asking God to give someone else what that person needs. These are the prayers we pray when we pray for the sick, the bereaved, or those who have a special need. These are the prayers we pray for our children and our parents.

We understand what it means to give thanks, and to give God praise in our prayers – though I sometimes think that these two forms of prayer don’t get as much “air time” as supplications and intercessions in my own prayer life. But these four types of prayer are not offered here as a formula to follow, so much as an accumulation of all types of prayer. Pray every way you can, all the time, – for everyone.

Pray for everyone, even (especially?) for your enemies, and for those who are not like you. Pray for everyone, especially leaders and “all who are in high positions.” Rulers need God’s mercy and guidance as much as anyone else. Pray for them, even if you disagree with their politics. Why? “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Prayer cultivates peaceful relationships, and godliness is a benchmark of doing God’s will. It’s a sign of true discipleship.

Prayer isn’t the main thing, but it gets us to the main thing – “there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind: Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Pray for everyone because God wants everyone to be saved and know truth. Here again, just as we heard in chapter one, we see that the central idea is Christ’s redemptive work in the world. The center of last week’s passage was: “this saying is reliable and worthy of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This week, we zoom in on the same central truth: “Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom for all” Not just for some, but for all.

We pray for everyone because Christ died for everyone. It is God’s deep desire to save everyone. Not everyone will accept this amazing gift, but God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In John’s gospel we read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that this list of ways to pray culminates in thanksgiving. John Wesley spoke of the “holiness of gratitude.” He said that “we who are grateful believe we have better than we deserve. Instead of taking things for granted, we see good things in life as gifts. Instead of assuming we are entitled, we assume grace underlies all we have. Gratitude gives thanks for mercy. Complaints focus on what we don’t have. Gratitude notices the good and is thankful. Gratitude sets us up for joy in life. Rather than merely consuming or existing, those who are grateful choose to embrace what life gives and enjoy life’s mercies.” (CEB notes on 1 Timothy 2:2)

So pray with gratitude because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for you. Do this as a response to God’s call on your life. Paul was called as an apostle and teacher to the Gentiles, and God calls each of us into some unique form of ministry that only we can perform for the kingdom of God. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, fully devoted to serving him.

How is God calling you to live out your faith? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that question, I invite you to make supplication – ask God for what you need, and in this case, what you need is to be and do what Christ calls you toward. And if that prospect seems to frightening for you, maybe you could start with some intercessions.

Who can you pray for? How can you ask God to bless them, heal them, be present with them, help their faith to grow to full maturity? Who do you struggle the most to get along with? Pray for that person. Who irritates you most? Who challenges your good will the most? See what prayer for that person might do for you and your relationship.

If praying for a specific individual is still more than you’re comfortable doing, try praying for our church. Right now, we are on the cusp of a great thing that God is about to do among us. One way I can tell this is so is that Satan has been busy, trying to divide us and raising doubt where faith should be strong.

But God is stronger than Satan, and God will work in us, and has been working among us. One place where this is most evident is our Wednesday Family Night program.

I had this message from our District Superintendent a few days ago. We were setting the date for a special charge conference, and he offered this additional comment:

“By the way when Mark Miller and I were looking at the data of which churches sustained an increase in worship attendance for the
past three consecutive years we found only 6 churches in all of Minnesota United Methodism. New Ulm First was one of them!!!! Great work. In 2015 you were 14 more AWA then you were in 2012! You may think that’s nothing, but when you compare it to a culture of huge decline, its leading us!!! And a huge sign of hope!”

Do you know where that Average Worship Attendance increase is showing up most? It’s on Wednesday night.

Another place where God is moving among us to do great things is in the work of the Healthy Church Initiative Implementation Team. Energy and joy are bubbling up in this group of dedicated servant leaders who are seeking God’s direction for our congregation. One of the goals is to create an environment for Pentecost to happen, and the team that is working on this goal has identified several prayer initiatives for us to adopt.

One of those prayer practices is to simply arrive at worship a few minutes early so you can pray for the worship service. It seems likeCa simple thing, and in a way it is, but the impact of God’s people praying for God’s presence to be made known to us in our worship can be powerful.

So let’s go back to those questions that are the same for us today as they were for Timothy and the church at Ephesus:

 How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him?

First of all, then, I pray. I ask God to let my life reflect his glory so that others will notice that I honor Christ. I pray for those I know who don’t know Jesus. I give God thanks for all the good that is in the world, and I praise God in my prayers, so that the praise on my lips fills my heart and spills out into my life.

 How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God?

First of all, then, I pray. I make supplication to God to use me for his purpose, to keep me grounded in faith, and to protect me from evil.

 How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

First of all, then, I pray for them. I lift up prayers of intercession for those who struggle with faith issues, with health issues, with job issues and financial issues. I pray for them, and they pray for me. I pray especially for members of the Body who have hurt or angered me. I pray for us to find unity in Christ Jesus.

In 1818, James Montgomery wrote a hymn about prayer. Of his more than four hundred hymns including Go to Dark Gethsemane and Angels from the Realms of Glory, he thought this one was his finest.

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;  

The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.  

The saints in prayer appear as one
In word, in deed, and mind,  

While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.  

No prayer is made by man alone
The Holy Spirit pleads, 

And Jesus, on th’eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.  

O Thou by Whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,

The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray
.

Let us pray.

 

Brazen Beseeching – Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

July 24, 2016
View a video of this sermon here.

I like Luke’s gospel a lot. He’s a good storyteller, and I love a good story. I mean, what would Christmas Eve be without Luke? As we read today’s passage together in a moment, you will find words that may be quite comforting to you, because, like the Christmas story, they are so familiar. That’s just the problem.

Maybe this never happens to you, but sometimes, as I read a familiar passage of Scripture, I tend to tune it out. ‘Oh, I know this part,’ says a little voice in the back of my mind. As my eyes scan the page, my brain goes on autopilot, and before I know it, I’m making a grocery list in my head, or planning the next day’s activities – even as I read words that should be challenging me and transforming me.

And I have to confess that I’m a little bit afraid to tackle a text that is so familiar to many of us. What on earth could I possibly add to what has already been said about the Lord’s Prayer? But here it is, the gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, that well-organized three year cycle of readings from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms, and the Gospels that we use to center our weekly worship in the Word of God. Following the discipline of the Common Lectionary forces us to face difficult passages, but it also forces us to revisit words we think we already know, to hear God speak directly into our lives. So let’s begin. Let us dive into the gospel lesson together this morning, and see what the Lord would have us find.

He [that is, Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “when you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:1-13)

There are at least four sermons available to us in this gospel reading, and you’ve probably already heard all of them. We could dissect the Lord’s Prayer, which some scholars suggest should really be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’ since this is the only place in the gospels where the disciples actually ask Jesus to teach them something.

Prayer is a central theme throughout Luke’s gospel, and we find Jesus praying at key moments in his ministry. In his book, Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass points out that “Luke emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus by including seven references not present in Matthew and Mark: [Jesus prays] at his baptism, 3:21; after the cleansing of the leper and before the conflict with authorities 5:16; before choosing the twelve, 6:12; before Peter’s confession and the passion prediction, 9:18; at the transfiguration, 9:28; the Lord’s Prayer 11:1; and on the cross at 23:34 (omitted in several manuscripts).”[1]

This is the only instance we find where the disciples are asking to be taught, and it is significant that the lesson they want to learn is How to Pray. This request may not reflect a deep desire to converse with God as Jesus does, so much as it shows a desire to be identified with Jesus, even by the way they pray. And isn’t that what we claim to want, too? To be identified with Jesus by the way we live our lives, and even by the way we pray?

Of course, whole volumes have been written on the Ask-Seek-Knock verses, and you’ve already heard the Children’s version of the “how much more” verses. But perhaps the key to this passage lies in the parable of the Friend at Midnight, for this parable is unique to Luke’s gospel, and it contains a word that occurs no where else in the New Testament. Let’s take another look at verses 5 through 8, and this time, I’d like to read to you from the English Standard Version, to give us a slightly different translation than the one we read a moment ago.

[5] And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, [6] for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; [7] and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? [8] I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.   (Luke 11:5-8 ESV)

Because of his impudence! Now, that puts a little different spin on this story, doesn’t it? The Greek word, translated here as ‘impudence,’ and in the version we read earlier as ‘persistence’, is anaídeia – and it only occurs this one time in the entire New Testament. Since we cannot infer its definition from other Biblical usage, scholars have examined ancient literature from the first and second centuries to determine its meaning. In those other writings, anaídeia most commonly refers to a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, a lack of modesty or respect, a brazen or shameless manner of behavior. Until Jesus told this story, anaídeia was considered a negative term. This kind of shamelessness didn’t even care about being shameless.

We have to remember that the culture of Jesus’ day was one in which honor and shame held great importance. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared for company, for this would bring shame on both you and your guest. Likewise, your neighbor would not want to bring shame on either of you by failing to help you maintain your honor.

So these verses (5-7) are really a long rhetorical question, typical of Jesus’ teaching style. The question “Who among you…?” introduced an everyday situation that was common enough for everyone to know the answer. No one would think of denying a neighbor whatever he needed to welcome an unexpected guest. It just wasn’t done.

It’s interesting that some translations interpret this shameless, brazen entreaty as persistence, because nowhere in this passage does it say anything about repeated asking. The man seeking help asks once. After the parable, Jesus says, “ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.’ He does not say, “keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until you get what you want.”

God is gracious and eager to supply all our needs. Our asking isn’t for God’s benefit, but for our own, to put us in the right frame of mind to humbly remember that all things come from God alone.

But this awareness begs another question: Just who is behaving shamelessly in this parable? Is it the one knocking at the door, asking for help? Or is it the one in bed, who won’t get up for friendship, but will for honor’s sake? The original Greek doesn’t help us much here, because the same pronouns – “he”, “him”, “his” – refer to both participants in the drama.

Maybe Jesus is describing the knocker-at-the-door as the Brazen Beseecher. In this scenario, we find a person who is willing to impose on one friend in an effort to maintain his honor with another. He knows he can depend on his neighbor to help him, not because they are friends, but because they both understand their social structure and they want to uphold it. Isn’t it ironic that such a culture allows someone to become vulnerable to a neighbor’s displeasure, risking the loss of honor with that friend, in order to maintain honor with a guest?

Or maybe the friend-behind-the-door is the Shameless Steward, climbing out of bed in the middle of the night, risking his family’s displeasure and the embarrassment of being seen ‘ready for bed’ when he opens the door, just to help a neighbor who didn’t get his baking done yesterday. Either scenario is possible, and maybe both possibilities are true. Maybe both friends are behaving without any regard for shame, stretching the limits of appropriate behavior with each other for the benefit of yet another.

Often, as I consider this parable, I find myself assuming the role of the one knocking, asking for help. As I lay my heart’s concerns before God, I find myself asking God to help me with this, or help me with that, shamelessly asking for the things I see as my greatest needs. I’m a lot like the guy banging on the door in the middle of the night, begging for help.

Now, mind you, I’m not asking for anything bad. I ask for wisdom and discernment. I ask God to give me courage when I’m under stress, to keep me focused on what’s really important, instead of being distracted by petty issues. I ask God to protect my children from evil. And I ask God to guide my steps, to keep me disciplined.

None of that sounds so awful, does it? But it does sound pretty specific, like the man asking for exactly three loaves of bread to feed a hungry traveler.

But, if I’m the person knocking on the door, that makes God the one inside, willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night for his own honor’s sake, to give me – notice it doesn’t say ‘three loaves of bread’ here – no, to give me whatever I need. And why? For his honor’s sake. So that God may be glorified.

“Hallowed be your Name. … Give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches us to pray.

But what if the roles are reversed? What if I am the one in bed, and Christ is the one shamelessly knocking at the door? We find this image in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

“I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Christ isn’t asking to borrow bread. Instead, he shamelessly offers table fellowship to anyone who will hear his voice and open the door. Christ bore the shame of our sin on the cross. He died for us. He brazenly knocks at the door of our hearts, waiting for us to hear his voice, to open the door, and to invite him in.

As we join Christ at the table, he does ask something of us. Christ asks that we bring honor to God by shamelessly, brazenly sharing the good news that God loves us and will provide for us – all that we ask, and all that we need.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard another very familiar story from Luke’s gospel, one that we often call the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story Jesus tells in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Today’s story turns that question around and asks us to consider, “Whose neighbor am I?” Who needs me to set aside my own ideas of proper behavior so I can shamelessly offer mercy and give glory to God?

But we also need to remember that this whole passage is about prayer. It’s about asking for what we need. And what we need is often not the three loaves of bread we see as our most pressing issue. What we need is God’s Spirit, breathing life into us and through us into the world where we live.

Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” No snakes instead of fish. No scorpions instead of eggs. God will not ration out three loaves of bread to share with a friend. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to us, if we dare to shamelessly ask!

So what would it look like for this congregation to be made up of people who shamelessly ask God to give us what we need, instead of what we want? Are we ready to dare to ask for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us in ways we haven’t seen before, ways that might not look too polite? Are we willing to risk embarrassment for the sake of the gospel?

Because I know people in this community who risk embarrassment every day, coming here and brazenly asking for what they need because they can’t find it anywhere else. We can give them “three loaves of bread,” but how much more God asks us to offer them! How much more God offers to us, if we will only ask for it.

One of our Five Strategic Goals is to “create an environment for Pentecost to happen.” Luke’s other book, the Book of Acts, tells us that the believers were all gathered together in the upper room after the resurrection, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. And what were they doing during those fifty days of waiting? They were praying. They were praying shamelessly, asking God to come among them and give them what Jesus had promised.

Jesus says, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” He reminds us that even in our human frailty, we know how to give good things to our children. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So let’s ask. Let’s get on our knees and beg brazenly for the very thing God wants to give us: his own dear self, in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 440.

“Praying Like A King” – Sermon on 2 Chronicles 6: 12-21

December 13, 2015 Advent 3C

Watch a video of this sermon here.


Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and this third Sunday in the season of Advent is full of rejoicing. Next week, we will hear the story of Christ’s birth, and a few days after that, we will celebrate Christmas Eve. We are on the downward slope of this season of anticipation, of waiting. This should bring us great joy!

However, if you are like me, the “To Do” list is growing instead of shrinking right about now. I have bought exactly ONE Christmas present so far, and there are many preparations to make before I will feel ready for Christmas Eve. Right now, I’m closer to outright panic than restful rejoicing. Anyone else feel that way? Continue reading

Quiet Time

Never underestimate the value of silence. As a music teacher, I rarely listened to the radio on my way home from school. I had been singing. listening, and playing music all day. What I needed more than anything was simple silence. As a pastor, I am finding that the time I spend in silence is what grounds me and makes it possible for me to listen fully to others. “Be still, and know that I am God,” we read in Psalm 46:10, but do we really know how to do that?

Of course, the moment I sit down to “be still” with God is the moment I am bombarded with thoughts that drown out God’s voice. It takes a conscious effort to stop the constant chatter of my brain, and be present and still before my Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Yet, I am learning that this stillness before the Lord is more than an opportunity to “fill my spiritual fuel tank” or reorganize my thoughts. It is the very essence of following Jesus to draw near to him and listen. As I do this, I am transformed more and more into the grace-filled creature I was always meant to be.

It would be so sweet to stay in that silent space, to remain apart and “just be” with Jesus. But I can’t do that. While Jesus often sought solitude, he never stayed alone for long. There is a tender balance between quiet solitude and the noisy, messy business of doing ministry. Following Jesus means embracing both worlds with passion and joy. Let it be so.