By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 24, 2019
Luke 13:1–9 (ESV)
Repent or Perish
13 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
One of the age-old questions of faith is, “why do bad things happen to good people?” If you have ever had a conversation with anyone about faith of any type, you have probably been asked this question. If we are honest, we ourselves ask this question, we have probably asked this question every time something does not quite go the way we had hoped.
Albert will often inform me that I am not being nice, and if I keep saying “no” I will not receive any more hugs. Yesterday while I was making him a sandwich for lunch, we got into one such conversation, it all began when I told him he needed to eat something with his peanut butter and honey sandwich. Albert is a very active boy, he is constantly on the go, he plays hockey, t-ball, and participates in taekwondo. I never thought I would have a child involved in so many things, but I never realized that I would have a child that was so full of energy. He will play floor hockey all morning and afternoon, work his hardest in taekwondo and then want to play hockey again until midnight if we would let him. And when we say, “No, hockey players need their sleep too.” We are suddenly the worst parents in the world. When it comes to eating, eating takes time. Time that could be spent hitting targets or shooting pucks. In his mind eating more than a sandwich is a waste of time. Eating, like sleeping, cuts into his time, and when I mention that he should eat something more than the sandwich again I am a terrible person and am unworthy of future hugs. Children are often like this. They may not be as active as some, but when things do not go their way, it is often because those around them are just being mean.
Life rarely goes the way we want it to go. You may have noticed this over the course of your life. I notice it most significantly around this time of year. I work in retail and the first few months of the year hours are usually cut down, so the pay checks are smaller than normal. Then it is also the time to file our taxes, so I realize just how poorly I have managed things the past year. I want to cry out to God that he is not being nice, and he will not receive any more hugs. Yes, even as adults we tend to have a similar idea of life as our children do. The problems are different, but our response is often the same. I am being very simplistic in my example, but I hope you understand what I mean. Many people hold this type of theological ideology. We think if something bad happens that there there must be a reason, and that reason is either God is not good, I am not good, or someone else is not good.
We hear this ideology in many different forms. If you are sick, you just do not have enough faith to be healed. If you are poor, you just have not claimed the wealth of God. If you are not satisfied with your life, it is because you have been held in bondage by someone or some institution and you need liberated. If a natural disaster happens, it is God’s wrath being brought down on your area because you have sinned.
When I watch the news reports from the past couple of weeks, I see it. The problem with these ideologies is that they rarely liberate, they rarely encourage, and they rarely bring true healing. Why did a man go into a place of worship in New Zealand and kill unarmed worshipers? Why is there unprecedented flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, and northern Missouri? Why do bad things happen to good people? You have probably heard commentary on these, as I have. In many cases, there are leaders of faith saying that it is because of sin of some sort. The problem with the commentary is the sin they usually decry is usually attached to some agenda that that commentator is pushing. The agenda might be political, it might be social, or ideological but does it help? Does it encourage those individuals and communities who are suffering? Do the commentaries prompt us to respond with grace?
Today we meet Jesus in a discussion like those that we have had so often in the past few years. If we were to look at Luke as a whole, we would see something of a description of journeys. There is the journey from heaven to earth, which the commentators say is the first three chapters and about half of the fourth. This is the portion that leads us to Jesus’s call to ministry after his baptism. Then there is the Journey throughout Galilee, which is the second half of chapter four through chapter nine. Then from chapter nine to nineteen we have the journey to Jerusalem. The final chapters of Luke are regarded as Jesus’s ministry in Jerusalem. Why do I bring this up, does it really have any point? The point is that the geography can give us a glimpse into what is happening in the ministry. What is Jerusalem, but the center of religious thought. Jerusalem is the seat of their religious ideas and philosophies, the establishment of social and ideological standards. Jerusalem is a symbol of this high and unobtainable place out of reach of common individuals, it is the man, the capital, the religious empire. It is the place occupied by the elite, and the place where the youth dream of reaching. Galilee represents everywhere else, it is the land occupied by those that have not achieved their dreams or have been caught up in the trials of life. Jerusalem is the goal so to speak, and Galilee is where we live.
Think of the conversations you had or are having in high school. Where is your dream job, what place would you love to live, or your dream career? Jerusalem is the NBA for the basketball player, Galilee is carrying groceries because you did not make the team. Jerusalem is Hollywood or Broadway for the drama students, where the community theater is Galilee. Jerusalem is Washington DC for the student of Law and Galilee is the local school board. Jesus first traveled through Galilee, he walked with those whose dreams were dashed before he made the Journey to the land of dreams. And most of the teachings we find most encouraging came from the journey throughout Galilee.
Today though, Jesus has left Galilee and he is making his journey toward Jerusalem. He is confronting the gatekeepers of life and challenging those that occupy the seats of power within a culture. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem he challenges the religious leaders and commonly held beliefs to a greater extent. The leaders make increasingly deeper demands on Jesus’s teaching and Jesus turns those questions back on them pointing out that most of the interpretations they are promulgating have less to do with devotion to God and more to do with maintaining power over others. They use fear, judgement, interpretations of law to promote personal gain and political power.
There are some present in this conversation, we do not know who they are, and we do not even know what it is they are talking about. But these people bring up some instance of where Pilate slaughtered Galileans, the context of the conversation leads us to believe that this slaughter happened when these people were going to offer sacrifices, because their blood was mingled with the blood of the sacrifice. Some people say that this is not talking about Galileans geographically, but it means those that live outside Judea. Because there was an instance recorded in history where Pilate did kill many Samaritans while they were making a Journey to their holy mountain. The context also infers that the idea or the cause of this slaughter was because those that were offering the sacrifices deserved it because of their actions. Jesus asks those that mentioned it to him if those Galileans were worse sinners than the other Galileans because they were cut down before they had an opportunity for absolution? They then mention the collapse of a tower by Siloam. Again, there is no record of this tower falling during the reign of Pilate, but it is thought to be an accident during the construction of the aqueduct that brought water into the city. In any case there was talk concerning these instances that those that died, died because they deserved it.
These ideas are deep in the minds of many faithful. We develop these ideas because we are trying to make sense out of those aspects of life that do not offer an easy conclusion. We do not want to think, we do not want to face possible truth, so we spin the idea that God’s wrath demanded their lives. Yes, sin might have been part of the problem, but whose sin?
In both cases Jesus challenges the idea that the victims were responsible. He questions the ideology that bad things happen because they have done something terrible. He then turns that ideology back to us. Why did the Galileans die, were they greater sinners than the other Galileans? He answers his own question by saying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” What is his challenge? He is challenging us to not look at the struggle at face value, not to look at the victim but look at our attitudes. Are we beyond struggles in life? Are we too good for trials? Jesus himself, the son of God, the messiah suffered. He suffered the shame of the cross. He faced the injustice of the cross. He died for no other reason but we as humans want and need a scape goat to take the blame for the trials we face.
Those eighteen people who are mentioned in this conversation did not die because they were greater sinner than the rest of Jerusalem, they died because someone some where did something wrong, and to get out of personal responsibility they placed the blame on the ones that have no voice. The Galileans that died in the conversation were not greater sinners than the others, we only think they are because they were not part of our group. They were wrong, we are right and the fact that they died proves it.
These attitudes cause our minds to stop inquiring and closes us off from actual change. Jesus said to the people there that day to repent, to turn around. He said this because they were getting too comfortable in their self-righteousness. They stopped moving and working. What did they do after the tower of Siloam fell? Nothing, because there is nothing to do if God caused the collapse to kill sinners. But the reality is there is much to do. When an airliner crashes like the one in Ethiopia recently they ground the planes and figure out what went wrong. The manufacture is working tirelessly to find out what caused the problem so they can prevent it from happening again. But when people start saying the plane crashed because they were sinners, we no longer care what happened and we get upset when they waste time trying to fix it because we have places to go.
Jesus says repent, because if there is a problem in your community the solution is more complex than we think. Jesus says repent because at times our attitudes are part of the problem. And he is telling us to repent, because we cannot pass the blame to others. Repent.
After this conversation, Jesus told those who gathered there a parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Do you find the timing of this parable a bit strange? Jesus had just been having a conversation with the group about why people faced tragedy and then he tells them a story about a fig tree. It seems odd, but it ties right into the concept I was telling you about, the solution is more complex than we think. Many plants, especially trees, take time to mature. And for that maturity to occur certain environmental conditions must be met. If you are unaware of these requirements you might think the plant is defective and should be destroyed. Even simple grasses have environmental conditions that are necessary for them to produce fruit, for example the grass we know as wheat requires a certain period of cool or cold temperatures before it will begin to produce a head of grain. If that temperature is not met it will continue to lay dormant, but once that threshold has been met the plant will begin to push the grain head up and the stock will begin to develop. Certain vines and trees have certain factors too. They will not produce fruit until their root systems are developed enough, or they wait until there is adequate branches to produce the sugars needed to produce the fruit. In many cases this requires years of development. If we do not take the time to understand the plant and to provide what that plant needs to produce the fruit, nothing will be produced.
Likewise, our relationships require work. They need encouragement, they need time, and they need nourishment. Jesus tells those people listening to him that day to repent, because they had stopped participating in the relationships around them. They had deemed that the problems were self-inflicted and therefore none of their concern. They withdrew from living life with the community and concentrated on their own self-righteousness. And as a result, they cut off any opportunity for true growth. They deemed the Galileans, or potentially Samaritans, too sinful and not worthy of their time. Like a fig tree in the vineyard they were cut down. The laborers working in Jerusalem killed in a tragic accident were looked upon as sinners, so they did not look at their own community or culture to see if there was anything, they could do to enhance safety or perhaps improve construction. Repent, Jesus says, encourage those around you. They may be reaching out for truth but all they receive is judgement, so they turn away. They may be so close to salvation but all they hear is fear and hate so they turn away. And maybe they may have faith, but have not matured enough to produce fruit yet, and our attitudes are cutting them down before they have a chance.
Why do bad things happen? There really is not a good answer for that. Bad things happen because we as humans so often fail. We look out for our own interest and often do not look at things from a different perspective. And when things seem to go badly, we often shift the blame to others with the hope if we drive them away it will open opportunities for us. Repent. Slow down, take a breath and turn to God. Seek to see that of God in those around you and seek to love that in them and in yourself. Cry with those people who have lost their homes in Nebraska, cry with the families who have been broken due an airline accident and mourn the loss of life at a place of worship. We do not know why everything happened, but if we will just slow down and readjust our focus to resemble that of Christ: worship, prayer, and ministry we might find a way to be part of the solution that brings the love of Christ to our community.
Let us now enter this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends considering and examining our lives with Christ. Seek out those areas where we might be caught cutting down the trees instead of nurturing growth.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 10, 2019
Luke 4:1–13 (ESV)
The Temptation of Jesus
4 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’ ”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
“ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
“ ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
At times it is difficult to engage with scripture and at other times when we read them it is as if we have entered the scene and are walking along side those involved. This phenomenon is largely due to the mental state of our mind at the time. When we are tired or greatly stressed, engaging with scripture is a chore that we can put off until we feel better. The problem is when we feel better, if we are not disciplined in reading scripture, we will often find something else to do. If you happened to read last week’s sermon, I wrote about how Jesus would make space in his life to pray. He would guard that space, withdrawing to isolated places to spend time with his Father. When I speak of engaging scripture, I speak about as in prayer. We often look at scripture as if it is a user’s manual. If you happen to need to know how to make life work, we read it for the answer and move along to other things. We have even made clever little acronyms for the bible: Basic instructions before Living eternally, Believer’s instructions before leaving earth, and Basic instructional book for living everyday. There are several them that I have heard over the years, some are fun, and some are bad. If we approach scripture as an instruction manual it will encourage our actions, but does it change our soul?
When I engage scripture, I engage it in a couple of ways. One approach is for sermon prep and bible study, with this approach I am seeking to learn all I can to encourage others. The second approach is to use the words of scripture to direct my life of prayer. And if I am honest, both of those approaches are very similar, because when I am preparing to speak, I am in prayer and often when I am allowing the scripture to direct my prayer life, I am often inspired to write things into sermons. Scripture and prayer to me is just part of life. It is something I have trained my mind and body to do, so it is difficult for me to read through the bible like a regular book, because my mind will often dwell on things for a while. And when my mind stops on a word or section of scripture, I ponder it, I look deeper, and I try to look at it from many perspectives. I will sometimes read it in multiple translations to see if things are worded differently to see if maybe what I first might have though might have been taken a different way by some other translators. I will consider the opinions of scholars as well as listen to the opinions of others. And when I am done with that I just sit and pray, I ask God to open things up so I can see more clearly. To read scripture is to pray in my opinion and to pray is to engage with the scripture, because to pray is to converse with God and what better way to do that than to join with those ancient writers as they prayed and composed the words we regard as inspired by the very spirit of God.
Like I said at times, this is easy and at times it is difficult. This is why I think it is so important to look at the life and lifestyle of Jesus. Jesus is more than a prophet, he is more than a teacher, he is more than a king, he is Emanuel (God with us). That idea is something that keeps me in a state of awe. God with us. If God is with us there is another side to it, we are with God. If Jesus is God with us then everything, we can learn from Jesus speaks deeply to our lives because it is God living, encouraging and teaching us so that we can be with him. There is something amazing about God being with us. It is a mystery beyond anything I can really wrap my head around, yet it is encouraging. It is encouraging because it tells us that we are not alone. In our darkest times, during our most difficult struggles, there is someone to walk with us.
Today we meet Jesus, just as we have so often in scripture, in an isolated place out in the wilderness. The past few weeks we have meet with Jesus later in his ministry, today we meet him before he begins his journey toward the cross. This passage takes place shortly after Jesus meet John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan. For approximately thirty years Jesus has lived his life within a community along side his family. He had spent seventeen years laboring beside his brothers, several of those years he had worked with Joseph, and possibly cousins and uncles. Every day they would leave their home to work, and every day they would return. They would take one day each week to rest from their labors, and on that day the would worship in their local synagogue just like everyone else in the community. When a teacher visited, they would go and listen, when there was a holy day they would participate in the festivities. They would travel to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices on the appointed days, they celebrated marriages and births, they mourned those that died, and they lived life just like we live ours.
Jesus was human. He was born, he grew, he laughed, he cried. Some people liked him, and others may have had other opinions. Jesus was a man. Do we fully grasp what that means? Jesus was a man. He had responsibilities. He had difficulties in life that he had to overcome. He had struggles. So often in my life as I face various hardships, I forget that Jesus was also a man, though the time was different then than it is now, many of the issues I face he experienced.
I want us to remember this as we consider today’s passage. Jesus the man went out into the wilderness to pray for forty days. He went out there because as a man he had to come to terms with the struggle we all face: desires for comfort and security versus answering a call to something greater. Yes, Jesus was more than a man, but Jesus still struggled because life is a struggle. We know he struggled because when he prayed the day of his betrayal, his body was so intensely stressed that he sweat blood. That is extreme stress, a level of stress I pray I never face. Why was he stressed, because as a man he knew what he was about to face, and the prospect of that even though he counted it as joy was not something his body wanted to endure.
Jesus went out to that wilderness to pray, because he was about to embark on a mission that was set in place at the foundations of the world. He was about to start that journey that would eventually lead him to the cross, and there were so many things involved with that journey. He had just spent thirty years as Mary and Joseph’s son. Seventeen years he had spent as a carpenter and now at the age of thirty he was going to walk away from that life and enter a great adventure. He was going to fulfill his purpose. He was about to step into the life he was meant to live.
For forty days he prayed and fasted. He spent forty days in a retreat, where he would discuss the redemption and restoration of creation. Last week I wrote about Jesus on the mount of transfiguration where his face shone and his clothes became white, and while he prayed and Peter, John, and James watch, Moses and Elijah appeared before them. Jesus was there praying and talking, and they were discussing things that were to occur. It is interesting to remember this because for forty days Moses was on the mountain with God when he received the law. Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness when he heard the voice of God speak in the silence. Forty is an important number, and the law giver, the prophet, and Jesus spent forty days in prayer, forty days talking with God about restoration of creation. They each spent this time in prayer prior to embracing a mission set before them.
At the end of the forty days of fasting and prayer, Jesus was tempted. Temptation we often see as a negative thing, and it can be. There is nothing in temptation that is sinful, it is simply the struggle of life. There are many choices and direction we could go with every decision we make. Each of those options has a cost and a benefit. Every choice we make is a temptation, because within every choice we must weigh in our own mind how we will respond in to our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. Temptation can become sin if we choose a path that leads away from God, or that places ourselves in a position where we do not consider the good of others. For forty days Jesus struggled with temptation, and the devil was there making every attempt to distract Jesus from the path that would lead to redemption.
Jesus prayed in that wilderness for forty days and he was hungry. “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become bread.” The devil encouraged him. This temptation is a choice in life we all face. This is that temptation to place our need above others. With Jesus Satan was encouraging him to use the power he possessed to satisfy his personal needs. “Just focus on yourself,” Satan seems to be saying. You have the power to make bread appear, you are hungry, just do it. Do not worry about the struggle of life, do not worry about the joy of relationship and allowing others to provide or serve you, just focus on your own needs. We face this temptation every day of our life. We are probably facing it right now if we want to be honest. It is placing our desires before those around us, nor taking into consideration how our actions will affect them.
The devil then shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time saying, “I will give you all of this if you only worship me.” This temptation is the one that caught my attention this week. The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, in a moment of time. What does that mean. Usually when I read this segment, I tend to think that Jesus was shown the glory of Rome, and the numerous countries and empires that existed in that day. But this week I was challenged by the word all and the phrase in a moment of time. Was Jesus shown I that place of pray did he see all human history and the rise and fall of the nations rapidly play out before his eyes? Was this temptation really a dealing less with power and more about removing the will of humanity? Could Satan have really been telling Jesus, you could stop all this all the wars, all the suffering, and you could achieve your greatest desire of united humanity under your influence, you could do all this right now without the struggle of relationships, work, and sacrifice.
Then he takes him to the top of the temple and encourages him to jump. With the assurance that God would command the angels to keep him safe. This temptation is also one we face nearly every day. Just act and pray that God will remove any negative consequences. We can also fall in this trap when we plan without considering others. We think we know what is right, so we push forward, grabbing the bull by the horns and move. The problem though is a bull is a big beast with sharp horns and sometimes a bull has a mind of its own. God does say he will give us all the desires of our heart, but that comes after we seek him first.
I love to read the temptation of Jesus, I love it because I connect with it so much. Every time I read it, I see yet another perspective I had not considered before. Yet all of it speaks of the same things. The temptation to focus on self, the temptation to force others to do our will, and the temptation to try to avoid consequences for our actions. Jesus struggled, he struggled because everything that Satan said he had the power to do, but to do so would hinder or destroy relationships. Moses and Elijah spent forty days on various mountains speaking to God about these things. Moses was given the law to direct and encourage the people, but the people quickly twisted the law to the point that they could justify their own actions while appearing to be righteous in the eyes of the religious. So, God sent the prophets who cried out to the people it was mercy not sacrifice I desired. The entire law revolved around the core principle that we should love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Meaning we should love God, and work for the mutual profit or good of all. The Law and the prophets encouraged us to turn from our selfish self fulfilment, to turn from using coercion instead convincement, and to take responsibility for our own actions. God sent the law and the prophets to encourage repentance, yet we still struggle, so he sent his son. Jesus, being God, became man to live with us and to show us how to live that holy lifestyle with others so that we could then live with God. God showed us how to truly be human, and humanity is the struggle of relationships. And to travers life of struggle we need to Love God in our worship, embrace he Holy Spirit while we withdraw to isolated places to pray, and to live the love of Christ with others as we encourage and minister for the good of those around us.
As we enter this time of open worship, let us contemplate on this amazing mystery that is God with us and us with God. Let us consider how God is with us in our struggles and how we can allow God to help us overcome with him.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 9:28–36(ESV): The Transfiguration
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
Do we ever get used to the narrative of scripture? Where we hear the story so much that we forget the power the words really have? This Sunday we read about the transfiguration of Christ. I have heard about this many times. I have been impressed with the unique ability that Jesus has, he glows when he is on the mountaintops praying. Which might explain why he withdraws to the wilderness when he prays. Imagine his mother yelling at him when he was growing up. “shut off the light Jesus we are trying to sleep.” Mary might say. Only to hear, “but mom I was only praying!”
Yes, I joke a bit about this passage because for many if us it seems almost fantastic. People do not glow, their clothes do not turn dazzling white without great work, and people just dI not appear out of nowhere.
The fact is that these things do not normally occur and that is why this story is included in the gospel. There is something special going on. Something out of the ordinary. Something that no one really understands, and they simply try to explain something without an explanation.
I have dwelled on this passage this week. I have reflected on it from different perspectives hoping to bring something today that might speak to our condition. I listen and read the news and all I hear is extreme division. What is it that we need to hear?
That is when I began to just sit with this passage. Sometimes when we simply let the scripture be, the spirit speaks the loudest. At times we want to know so much about scripture we spend vast amounts of time in study. We look for that nugget of truth that will be the key to life. Jesus spoke about how the religious leaders pour over scripture looking for life only to miss it. The study of scripture is important, I spend a great deal of time doing it but at times we can get so deep into the grammar and spelling that we miss what is said.
Jesus, as was his custom, withdrew to an isolated place to pray. I think we often forget how often Jesus did this. We get distracted by the miracles and the healings that we miss the life he lived. Jesus made a point to withdraw from what was going on all around him to pray. He cleared a place in his life to simply pray.
Do we understand how important this is? Jesus was a very busy person. People were constantly demanding his time and attention. They would follow him from one town to the next. When he went home to visit his family so many crowded into the house that people could not even eat. Jesus was in demand, he did have the luxury of privacy. So, he would go to places difficult for others to follow to pray. He would even send his disciples away as a distraction so that he could withdraw in a time of solitude to commune with his father. Prayer is important to Jesus.
At times, I feel we do not understand how important prayer is. We often have a skewed idea of prayer. We pray for others in need, we pray for our own needs, we pray before a meal and offer Thanksgiving, but do we pray for commonality with God? Do we make space to just be with God? Not just to read scripture or read devotionals to increase our knowledge but to just let God move and speak to us?
Jesus and his three closest friends went up the mountain. We are never really told why it was the three. I say his closest friends, only because they are the ones that are spoken of most often. He might have taken them because they were the ones most likely to cause trouble. James and John were the sons of thunder and Peter seemed to like to swing a sword around, so maybe Jesus kept them close to prevent bad press. But more than likely they were the most eager to learn. He left the others down below, he most likely did this to ensure that he would not be disturbed. If we read the gospels, we find that this is a formation that occurs often. This is how important prayer is to Jesus. It is as if he places guards at the trail head and then places more guards just outside his sanctuary.
Is our prayer time guarded like this? How often are our prayers interrupted by our busy schedules? How many times are they cut short because of ringing phone or a chiming notification? Do we defend our time with God or is it something that we just squeeze in between appointments? Yes, we should pray without ceasing. Yes, we should live in constant communion with God, but if we do not make time from the start do, we participate, or is prayer just good luck charm we rub before we do what we want?
Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. The disciples marveled at his joy at prayer. They once begged him to teach them to pray. Pleading with them to teach them to pray, like John taught his disciples to pray. We are not told exactly how John taught his disciples. He may have given them a set format or words to say. But the mention of this tells us that he did teach them to pray. And some of Jesus’s disciples were once disciples of John. They knew what John taught but there was something different about the joy Jesus had and the discipline of John. They wanted to know. They watched Jesus pray, we are told that they were heavy with sleep as they watched. Initially we might think that they were bored, but do we get bored watching the people we love? How many hours do parents watch their children do common things? Parents will watch their babies sleep. They look at the creases in their skin and examine the swirls of their hair. They are exhausted yet they watch until their bodies force them to sleep. The disciples watched Jesus pray. They marveled and wished that they could have the joy of prayer as Jesus did.
They watched and saw before them something amazing. As Jesus prayed, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothes became a dazzling white. Imagine if you were one of those three disciples looking at your beloved teacher and seeing this. The awe that must have filled their souls. One of the books I read while I was studying for my master’s degree at Friends was about an Orthodox priest in Soviet Russia. This priest was sent to the gulag because he was a threat to their government. This book was written not by the priest, but it contained the stories of those people this priest encouraged during his life. There was one story that I will never forget, it was in the deepest coldest part of winter and the prison camp they were in was in Siberia. The priest and one other prisoner were being disciplined so they were locked in a metal room out in the weather. The cold was unbearable, it would kill them within hours, yet the priest was excited to go to the room. He was excited because he would have the opportunity to pray undisturbed for hours. His companion was frightened because of the cold but the priest encouraged him to pray with him, so they prayed. They were in this room for over twenty-four hours, yet they survived. The companion said that while the priest was praying, he was no longer aware of the metal room they were in. He said that as the priest prayed it began to get warmer and then he opened his eyes and the priest was standing not in the clothes of a prisoner but in the robes of a priest and they were standing within a church. They prayed all night and when the doors were opened, the guards were amazed when they walked out alive.
I have never seen someone transfigured in such a manner. But I have been transported by prayer. In some of my prayers I have reflected on various aspects of scripture and it has been so real around me that the odors around me were not what they should have been. There was one times while I was contemplating the crucifixion of Christ that I could literally smell the coppery sent of blood as I cried over the sacrifice that Jesus made to bring me back to God. I can tell you after that time in prayer I was not the same. Just as the companion of the priest was not the same, nor the disciples. Each of us got a glimpse of something beyond.
What is prayer? It is a question we all ask as we enter a lifestyle of faith. As our faith deepens our life of prayer changes as well. When we are young it is a list of all the things, we are thankful for, with a few pleas for new toys. As we grow, we are exposed to the suffering of life, we begin to pray for loved ones who are sick, or we ask God for guidance through a difficult situation. But prayer is something far more. Prayer is the single most fundamental discipline of our lifestyle of faith. When we pray, we enter communion with God? Our spirit meets with God in a realm beyond our physical comprehension. We enter a place where there is no time; no past, present or future a place that just is. This is why the spiritual lives of our grandparents have lasting affects on the lives of our grandchildren. When they pray their prayers are carried by the Spirit and they can flow and spill over into the lives of generations. Because when we pray, we are not in this world, our spirit has joined with the Holy Spirit in the realms of God. Peter, John, and James saw this when they were on that mountain. They saw Jesus, not as the teacher but as source of light, and they saw with him the law giver and the prophet. Moses and Elijah were standing there with Jesus, the two greatest personalities of their religion were standing right by their teacher. We do not know how they knew who they were, but they knew. They knew because they were with Jesus in this spiritual realm of prayer on a mountain. They knew that Moses and Elijah had also prayed on mountains and stories were told of those experiences. And while they were sitting there in awe, they heard the voice of Moses, the voice of Elijah, and of Jesus. They heard their spiritual heroes speaking the words they had heard for so long. They heard them spoken not as cold text from a scroll but as real conversation as they, Moses and Elijah, looked forward to the glory of Israel. They were sitting on that mountain hearing the conversations that lead to the formation of their scripture. They were heavy with sleep but all at once they were fully awake.
Imagine if your life of prayer were like that? I am often asked why we do not see God working like he does in scripture today. I am asked these things while those that speak express their concerns with the direction various aspects of our world are going. Why do we not see God working? The one answer I can give is that we do not fully release ourselves to prayer.
We let ourselves be distracted by the various struggles of this world, and we let fear creep into our lives. Instead of praying we begin to make plans. We start to use our wisdom which we gather from our various life experiences and we apply them to what we face. At times this is good and even honorable, but have we prayed? As campaigns rage, as war drum seem to beat just over the horizon we turn to the powers of the world, when our finances become tight or our health becomes questionable, we seek answers, but have we prayed? Have we really prayed? When we read the testimonies of the disciples and the prophets from ancient days and we marvel at how they were able to live through the struggles they faced, do we look at their lives of prayer? When we read the stories of those ancient martyrs that faced the violence of Rome do, we look at their life of prayer? When we read of Stephen seeing the heavens open before his eyes as stones are hitting his body, do we ever think that maybe his life of prayer was what allowed him to see the hope instead of experiencing the pain? When we read the stories of the persecuted church throughout Asia and the world have, we considered how they pray?
If God is our refuge, if God is our strength and our shield. If his word is our protecting sword how are we connecting to that power? If Jesus said to his disciples that they will see greater things than the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of a leper, the release of souls from the grip of demonic bondage, or the raising of the dead, how do we see that if we do not make a place for prayer in our lives? We do not see God working in many areas because we are not allowing God to work. We have place guards keeping the Spirit out instead of circling around Him. I say this because I am just as guilty. I say this because I like Peter do not always know what I say. I so often stand before you, encouraging you to do something more, yet I am the one most convicted because I have failed. I like Paul cry out “I want to know Christ – yes to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” To know in this way begins with prayer, and through prayer we are guided into the ministry He has set before us. And when we pray and minister under his guidance, we will see his hand working in the lives around us. But do we pray?
So often we like Peter enjoy amazing mountain top experienced and we wish to stay and build a tent. We want to preserve what we once knew. But we cannot stay on the mountain. If Jesus stayed on that mountain, the wages of sin would not have been paid. If Jesus stayed on that mountain we would still be held in bondage. We are called to walk with Christ, walk to the mountain to pray and to walk back down to serve. But we are not called to make the world in our image, but the image of God. We are called to Love our enemies, to do good for those that abuse us, to pray for those that persecute us. We are called to will the good of all those people around us. How can we even begin to do such a task if we do not pray? How can we even consider it without seeing the face of Christ shining in our lives?
Let us now enter a time of open worship and communion as Friends and as we do, I ask that we each read these verses again to ourselves and sit with them. (Luke 9:28-36). As you reflect on those verses watch Jesus pray and join him in that joy.