By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 28, 2021
Click to Join our Meeting for Worship
Kama ungependa kusoma nakala kwa Kiswahili bonyeza hapa
Mark 8:31–38 (ESV)
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Over the past few years, I have seen a great deal of tension among many of my friends. This is not really that surprising because it resembles the tension that is felt throughout our culture. We live among people, and we are people that have strong opinions and personalities that do not like opposition to those opinions. We struggle with our nation and our communities with ideas and philosophies and while we are struggling, we sometimes forget that those that hold opposing ideas are not enemies but our neighbors and our friends.
Over the past week during our daily meeting for prayer, which you can participate on our YouTube channel, the focus of the scriptures and queries have revolved around these sorts of struggles. The struggles between ideas and where these ideas come from and how we should respond to those with opposing ideas. And as I have prayed through these scriptures, I have noticed something profound. We are all wrong. We fight for control; we struggle with conflicting ideas but while we struggle have, we lost sight of what is most important?
Jesus, in today’s passage, I imagine is sitting around a campfire with his disciples as they rest from their travel. They are near Caesarea Philippi, which is in the far northern area of Israel. I have spoken a great deal about the uniqueness of this area and the cultish practices that surround it. But that is not what I want to focus on today. Jesus is talking to his disciples. They had just been through some of the most profound and miraculous events anyone could possibly imagine. They had watched Jesus feed multitudes, they had seen people healed of various diseases, they had seen those held in spiritual bondage released from the grip of evil and demonic forces. And they had just stood near what they referred to as the gates of hell, and Jesus proclaimed to them that nothing not even the vilest infestation of evil thought would stand against the kingdom.
And he encouraged them with a simple question, “Who am I?”
They discussed what people outside of their group thought. Some said John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet of old. We run through this exercise today as well. The various media outlets all like to proclaim what they think, especially about Jesus. The people we work with like to throw in their opinions while we discuss things at break. Our various political parties like to proclaim that they are the ones that are truly following the dictates of Christ, yet if we were to look very deep for every item on their platforms that supports Christ there is one that completely denies him. For over two thousand years humanity has discussed who Jesus is, it does not matter where we are in the world, if a community relates to others outside their own tribe, they have some opinion as to who or what Jesus is.
We can get caught in a vicious cycle of what do people say. We can go around and around for years, but the truth about it is that what people say really does not matter. I say this because they are probably wrong. The people of Jesus’s day were saying that Jesus was people from their history or even John the Baptist who had only recently died. For these things to be remotely true it would deny so much of their accepted theology that they could not even call themselves faithful while believing it. Yet it was common enough among the people for the disciples to quickly respond to Jesus’s question as to what people say about him. What people say is often wrong. It does not really matter who it is saying it. If someone is speaking about someone else, we should be skeptical because the only person that knows the truth about someone is the subject of the conversation. You might be my closet friend, but unless I personally told you something, you do not know anything about me. You might have some good ideas but the only thing you can really speak about is what you have seen me do or heard me say.
We can only speak to what we observe. Jesus asks the disciples what people outside of their group say about him, and then he asks them what they think. “Who do you say that I am?” This is a completely different questions, because the disciples have observed a great deal more than the others. The disciples say without the slightest hesitation, you are the Christ.
This statement is filled with a great deal of history and passion. Everyone had an idea of who the Christ was going to be. And with each of those ideas there would be sub sections depending on the ideas of the individual. If someone were to say the Chris is to be king, how many different views would there be? Like David, the warrior king? Like the wise king Solomon? But even those kings had aspects that were less than ideal. Maybe the king would be like a blend between a Gentile and Hebrew king, the next phase of human evolution. They may not have used those words but even the seemingly unified understanding of king is filled with personal interpretations.
Jesus and the disciples are discussing all this. And while they are talking Jesus tells them what being the Christ entails. He tells them that he will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders. He informs them that he will be put to death because of the rejection of the leaders of the religion. He even tells them that he will rise again after three days. He tells them these things, but they did not listen.
They like us had their own ideas and their own agenda. Jesus was going to be king. If not, a king he would at least be a political religious leader that could hold sway over the people in concert with the Roman governors. The suffering Jesus spoke about was not in their plans. Jesus was annoying the disciples with these words. They did not appropriate his attitude. The guy that could feed multitudes and heal the sick was not going to suffer.
Jesus had something to say about our agendas. “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” I want us each to think about this for a moment. I want us to think about everything we have posted on social media, every stance we have taken on a social or cultural issue, think about the plans you are making and agenda you are supporting. Where is God in it? How does it promote Christ?
Jesus goes on to say something very pungent. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up hos cross and follow me.”
Think about this. Let the words seep deep into your soul and really listen to them. What does it really mean?
It means your agendas no matter how good they might seem could be opposed to God. If we want to follow Christ we cannot think about our agendas, or how it might affect our standing in any social circle. It means we follow Jesus even if following him might be the end of everything we think is important.
What does this loom like? It is standing up for those that are marginalized. It means we must say Black Lives Matter. It means if we say we are pro l8fe we will go down to the social services office and apply to house foster children because or if we cannot or are unable to, we encourage those that are. It means we should be making attempts to come up with solutions within our own community to alleviate potential problems, and we should be part of that solution. It is not the government’s responsibility it is yours. I know that those words have stepped on a few toes mine included. But the real8ty is that following Jesus is uncomfortable and it is opposed to the world.
Everything we do. Everything we have should be used to serve the kingdom of heaven. If you have a business your profit is the kingdom. If you work for someone, you work for the Lord by serving your employer. If you are retired your time is still of value for the encouragement of the kingdom and those that serve. If you are a parent your job is to raise up servants of Christ. If you are a customer your purchases are assets of the king.
If we are to follow Christ, we must deny ourselves and take up the cross and follow him. Why? What is the point? This is exactly where the disciples were in their thinking. It does not make sense to not take care of yourself first. It does not make sense to support governmental action that goes against your best interest. It does not make sense, that is until you look at the larger picture.
What good was it for Jesus to provide healing to the lepers? They were not contributing to society, to be honest they were a waste of resources. Yet Jesus spoke to them, he even touched their unclean bodies. He made them clean, he made them whole. What good was it for Jesus to cast a legion of demons out of a man and into the pigs? He was not contributing to society; he was keeping the people from properly morning their lost loved ones and was desecrating the cemetery. Yet Jesus released him from bondage and clothed him. Why do these things when there is no gain?
Each of those that were touched by Christ, were provided an opportunity to extend the kingdom. The man freed from the bondage of demons asked to follow Jesus, yet Jesus told him to stay in that region. He remained in that area so that he could serve God there, so he could restore the relationships that were once broken and provide a testimony that God can change lives. Each of those restored individuals have a new perspective in life. Each of those individuals can now serve just as Peter’s mother-in-law served right after Jesus lifted her from her bed of fever. We are restored so that we can assist in the work of God.
But we can only assist in that work if we stop trying to do things our way and begin listening to God. God promised Abram that if he would follow him, he would make him the father of nations. He held on to that promise, his wife held on to that promise for many years. They walked by faith yet did not see the profit. Sarai knowing that God had promised an heir, decided to make her own plans and she gave her husband her servant as a surrogate for her. When the child was conceived this caused tension between the women. It caused tension because Sarai did not remain steadfast in her faith. It caused tension because Abram did not hold tight to his faith. They turned from God’s ways and began to make plans according to the ways of humanity. There was nothing morally wrong with what was done according to the traditions of that era, but it was not what God promised. When we stop listening to God, we become obstacles to his purposes.
We can know the ways of God. Scripture tells us this. Our faith tradition is founded on that revelation from Jesus’s own mouth. He tells us that we are his friends if we do what He commands. No longer are we servants because servants do not know what the master is doing, but he calls us friends because he has made know to us what the Father has said. We can know if we listen. We can know if we stop focusing on our own desires and instead focus on the desires of God. This is God’s desire: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Does this mean we need to go out of this building and give every dollar we have to the first person we see in need? No. That is not laying one’s life down for his friends. We need to first invest in the lives of those around us. We need to develop relationships with people, get to know them and encourage them in the ways that they should go. And as we encourage, we tell them what we have heard and what we know. We give our lives for them. My purpose as a father is to invest my life into my children. My purpose as a pastor is to invest my life into the ministry of this church. But those are the things I am directed to do. I cannot speak for you. Only you can speak for yourself. I cannot tell you what you should do I can only speak of what I must do in my life.
We can listen to the world and speak to their perception of who we are, or we can just focus on the truth. Who does the world say Jesus is? Who do you say He is? If we are focused on the world we are not participating in the kingdom of God. The world does not matter. Let the world do what the world wants. Instead, you focus on what is most important. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. If we were to make that our only desire in all of life imagine what this little Meeting could do. But that all begins with each of us denying ourselves and taking up our crosses to follow him.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 21, 2021
Click To Join our Meeting for Worship
Mark 1:9–15 (ESV)
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
This past couple of weeks have been rough. It has been colder this past week than it has ever been during my son Albert’s life. I worked through the cold, and it seeped deep into my bones. It has affected people nearly over all North America. People in areas that rarely see snow, faced not just extended freezing temperatures, but also a lack of energy. Frozen pipes are found throughout south Texas, and this comes after many were required to rebuild after a hurricane. These struggles can cause, or more accurately they force us to look at things from a different perspective.
Throughout this past week I have heard stories of struggle and grace. I have listened to people complain, and I have also heard stories of amazing hospitality. Just last evening I read an article about a grocery delivery person that lost control of her vehicle while she was out delivering groceries to a family. Her vehicle slid down a hill and became stuck in the customer’s flower bed. They made attempts to move the car but realized that it was in vain. The delivery driver called AAA but after hours of waiting they realized that the truck would not be coming that night. She began weighing her options. She lived in a different city and was delivering groceries in this city for better pay. She considered getting a room in a hotel, but how would she get there. She sat in the car stuck in a flower bed, and the storm just kept coming and the temperatures kept dropping. As the evening came, the family she delivered the groceries too came out to her vehicle and asked her to join them for supper. She continued to try to get ahold of AAA and a hotel room to no avail. The family finally told her to stop trying to get a room because their spare bed would be better than anything she could find. So, she stayed. She said stayed with them not just one night but through the entire storm, for five days.
It is a wonderful story of hospitality. A new family of sorts was formed. Struggle can bring out the best and the worst in people. It can cause us to question what we really believe and it can also drive us to question those around us. The family in the article invited a stranger to live with them for five days, and I drove past several cars in a ditch without even bothering to ask if they needed help.
This is why I love today’s passage. Jesus made his public debut at around the age of thirty. He went out to the wilderness to be baptized by his cousin John. The other gospel accounts give a more detailed story about this event, but it is in all the accounts so it is important. In each account there was some sort of proclamation about who Jesus was, but oddly after such a public interaction Jesus did not immediately jump into the ministry.
In the world today we like to jump on opportunities as they present themselves. We can see this all around us, but one of my favorite examples is Dick Van Dykes character in Mary Poppins. What is Bert’s job? Well, when its sunny out he is a chalk artist, or a one-man band. When it begins to rain, he quickly becomes an umbrella salesman, when the rain stops, he is selling something to warm the body. He capitalizes on whatever presents itself. And that is the expectation in the world. When the pandemic began, every store rushed to get facemasks and cleaning supplies, and within the first months we had not only paper masks, but designer mask with specialized features and patterns. We do not let an opportunity go to waste.
Jesus did not work that way though. After his baptism, the spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke informing all those around that could hear, that Jesus was God’s beloved son, in whom God was well pleased. If something like that happened, we would immediately hire an agent to start booking venues to begin a speaking tour. We do that for almost anything, if a book starts to look like it is going to sell more than expected, the author goes on tour. If a sports team is making some impressive plays, the schedules are reconfigured so that a larger television audience can be reached. Jesus did not immediately go on tour. He eventually did tour Galilee but the first thing he did was go out into the wilderness for forty day.
Jesus went out into the wild for over a month. Mark tells us that the Spirit drove, or compelled him, to go out there. I want us to think about that for a moment. Jesus was compelled not to engage in ministry but to withdraw to pray.
What drives us? What do we feel compelled to do? For people in positions like mine, we often say things like I am called to be a pastor. That is another way of saying I am compelled to do it. There are times where I must write a sermon even if I will never give it. During some of my most stressful days, I gained comfort when I wrote sermons. When my grandmother passed away, I wrote a sermon, I would never be able to have spoken the words that I wrote, but I had to write. It was the only way that I could process the grief I was experiencing. I posted that sermon, but there are others that I wrote only for me. I do not even know if I save them on my computer, and I know that there are sermons written in notebooks that maybe James and Albert will find after I pass beyond the veil.
Jesus was compelled to go to an isolated place, and we know from his lifestyle that when he went into those places, he would pray. He prayed for forty days. And who would not if you knew what Jesus knew? He had lived for thirty years as a local construction worker. He had a place in the community, he had family and friends. He had a life, and He knew that he must not begin a journey that would eventually lead to his death. And he was compelled to pray. He had to pray.
This gives us a great insight into the character of God. What does God want the most from humanity? Does God want great cathedrals? Does God want global ministries? Does God want spectacular worship experiences? These things in themselves are not bad, because clearly God does what the best, because he commissioned the greatest artists from among the twelve tribes to craft the instruments of worship. But what God wants more than anything, is to talk with us, to have a relationship with us. We see this in the story of our first parents. God would walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. And then one day the humans did not show up, and God cried out for them. Where are you? More than anything God wants to talk with you. More than your tithes, more than sacrifice, God wants to spend time with you.
Jesus was compelled before his ministry to pray. This was Jesus’s priority. I often mention the holy rhythm of Jesus’s life. A rhythm of worship, prayer, and service. Right in the center of worship and service, the visual aspects of righteousness, is something intimate, prayer. Do we make this a priority?
It is hard to make space to pray. We must make a conscious effort to make the space, because if we do not, we will fill that space with other things and often those things are good. It is not wrong; it is even a good thing to provide an income through work. St. Paul when he wrote his letters even said that he was glad that he worked to support himself while he spread the Gospel so that the church would not have to be burdened to support him with the basic needs of survival. It is good and honorably to earn an income to provide for your basic needs. But can we work too much? Do we take the time off that we are allotted if we work for a company, or if we run our own business do, we make space to be away from work? We are encouraged to rest on occasion so that we do not fatigue our bodies, because when we begin to fatigue our bodies and increase our levels of stress the good of work begins to depreciate and suffering begins.
When I changed jobs recently, the first thing that I noticed was something physical. I have chronic headaches. I get headaches pretty much every day, and usually by the end of the day the pain is so great that I do not have an appetite, and all I want to do is sit in a dark room. I would say sleep but often when you have great pain rest does not come easy. I loved my job. I loved the people I worked with, but my body did not like it. When I changed jobs, I cut my hours down. And I had days where I did not have a headache. It was phenomenal.
Fatigue also leads to other things. When Jesus was out in the wilderness he was tempted. Jesus had stress. Jesus knew what he was going to face, and he knew the toll it would take on his body. Even though Jesus is God, he is also human. He feels pain as we do, and he understood the pain and sorrow his future held for himself and everyone he loved. And that stress is what compelled him to the wilderness to pray. But there are other forces at work as well. Forces that are driving us to do other things. Mark does not tell us how Jesus was tempted, while the other Gospel accounts do. Mark simply tells us that the forces of evil, or Satan, tempted him.
When we are fatigued our moral fortitude becomes weakened. We have less self-control, and those things in our lives that we have weakness toward begin sound more appealing. We have a stressful day at work, and there might be a bar on the way home. We begin to think it would not hurt anyone if I just stopped for one drink. We might even justify it in our mind saying things like, “Its ok, even Jesus turned water into wine.” But if we have a weakness in that area, one drink leads to another until what we thought might have been a harmless way of blowing off a little steam becomes an addiction. And when something becomes an addiction, we no longer have self-control, we are in bondage.
Jesus was tempted. He was tempted just as we are tempted. I find this comforting because I am always tempted. In many faith traditions the season of Lent, which began last Wednesday, is a time of fasting. The fast is a spiritual discipline that shows us our weakness. And in many faith traditions, the season of Lent, which began last Wednesday, is a time of fasting. The Friends tradition does not put a great deal of emphasis on fasting but it can be a great discipline for spiritual growth. When we fast, we say to ourselves that we will abstain from something for a period, and this abstinence should draw us closer to God. The fast reveals our weakness. It shows us how little self-control we have. When we purposely give up something, suddenly that become the very thing our mind focuses on. A few years ago, I participated in a fast at Lent. In my life I noticed that I was drinking a great deal of pop. I would drink multiple bottles a day, so I decided that I would fast from my favorite soft drink, Dr. Pepper. The first few days went well, but then I had a day where nothing was going the way I planned. And the first thing I wanted was to walk to the check lanes and purchase a Dr. Pepper. I was stressed, and I wanted a substance to help me cope. The first response was not to pray but get a soft drink. At that moment, my dependance on Dr. Pepper was just as spiritually devastation as anything else. I struggled during the fast, I prayed when I got the craving and I was praying a lot. And at the end of the fast, I did not rush to buy a case of Dr. Pepper, I abstained more often.
These fasts show us our vulnerability to temptations, and our attraction to the things that can cause us to sin against God. Even something as innocent as a soft drink can be sinful if used improperly. We might make it a discipline to fast on occasion but much of the time we do the opposite. Instead of abstaining we justify our actions.
I admire several people in history. I admire people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Karl Barth, and Ravi Zacharias. I think that these men are some of the greatest minds in history. Barth inspired the next generation of theology. King was the figurehead of the civil rights movement. And Zacharias always seemed to be able to answer tough questions with grace and truth. Each of these men had a dark side. Each of these men were adulterous. Each of these men justified their sin, because their good outweighed the bad. But their sin causes problems. These men faced temptation and they were weak. We cannot look at humanity to be our sources of truth. We all sin. We all sin. And we need to be better.
The sin of King nearly derailed the civil rights movement. And the sin of Zacharias has many today thinking their faith is a fraud because they trusted a man that was so sinful. Both men were relying on their own energy to carry them forward. They both traveled extensively, working themselves beyond what is healthy. King, Barth, and Zacharias all used their training in their field to justify their indiscretions. And it has caused harm, a great deal of harm. We must admit that they are sinners and point not to them but to the God that can heal and forgive.
Jesus was tempted, just as we are tempted. Some of the greatest men and women of faith are just as weak as us when it comes to temptations. And some will compound sins to cover other sins. What can we do to break this cycle? How can we move away from this double life and become of the same mind as Christ that Paul encourage us to be? We walk the path that Jesus walked. We become his disciples and take on his lifestyle.
Worship, Prayer, and service. If we do not keep this balanced, we will find ourselves weakened spiritually and we will justify all manner of sin. If we do not keep a balanced lifestyle, we in our desire to do good, will cause harm, because we are doing it in our own strength and not his.
As we enter open worship. I encourage us all to examine our lives, and our lifestyle. Are we justifying sin or are admitting to our weakness and crying out to God for help? And are we able to admit that we are weak and confess and repent? Jesus worshiped, prayed, and served. Prayer is central in that statement and it should be in our lives as well. Jesus shows us that it is in prayer that we find our strength to face the trials and temptation as we serve.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 14, 2021
Click to Join our Meeting for Worship
Mark 9:2–9 (ESV)
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the stories that captures my imagination. Every time I read these words I seem to be transported to a different place. I want us to take that transport today. I want us to imagine ourselves on that mountain. I want us to imagine this so that we can better understand prayer.
Over the past few years, I have mentioned the holy rhythm of Jesus’s life. The first aspect of his holy rhythm is that he made it his custom to worship with the community. Corporate worship in some form is important. We as human beings need human interaction. Our minds need interaction with others to challenge our perspectives, to check our ignorance, and to encourage our emotional and spiritual lives. The act of worship assists in this human interaction, but it contributes something else to our human existence. When we enter worship, when we join in songs of praise, in prayer, and in contemplation of scripture we enter an aspect of God’s kingdom. Our Christian brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church have a unique perspective to worship, they speak of worship in a way that when we enter the place of worship we step out of the world and into the kingdom of God. The world is left behind, and we enter a bubble outside confines of time and space. When we worship, we enter a place where all that worship in all human time worship together as one. I do not necessarily agree or disagree with this perspective, but I find it intriguing, because there are times where worship does seem to draw us into a place where all our stresses and concerns seem to fade away and time is no longer a concern.
Jesu shows us, he encourages us to make worship with others a holy habit. The next aspect of Jesus’s Holy Rhythm of life is that he would often withdraw to isolated place to pray. Prayer is the place where the aspects of worship are incorporated into our daily lives. Prayer is the aspect of the rhythm where we develop intimacy with God.
Pray, from my perspective is the most important aspect of the Christian life. It is central to everything we do. We can gather in worship, but without prayer that gathering is simply a social event. It is through prayer that worship is filled with power. And this power is available not only in worship with other, but also when we personally withdraw to those isolated places personally. Jesus withdrew to an isolated place to pray. He went up to a high mountain, with some of his closest friends and together they prayed.
We often struggle with prayer. For some of us we think of this time as being a period we set aside to offer our petitions to God. We beg God to perform some miracle in our lives so that we can pass a test, or that healing might come to someone we love. Maybe we are praying that we find love, especially since it is Valentine’s Day today. Prayer is more than asking for things, because God is more than a spiritual vending machine. Prayer is a conversation. Prayer is a discussion. Prayer is that place where we meet God face to face.
Jesus and his closest friends when up on a mountain and there they prayed. Have you ever wondered why he chose those three? Have you ever wondered why when all the disciples desired to know how to pray like Jesus, he only chose three to join him in that place?
Last week we discussed the miracle of healing that Jesus performed for Peter’s mother-in-law. I mentioned that she was healed for a reason. She was given that grace so that she could participate in her way in the kingdom. Healing comes not because we desire it, but those miraculous events only occur when the influence of the Kingdom will be greater with it than without. In our minds we would always say that the kingdom would always have greater benefit with the miraculous so why do we not see more signs and wonders?
We struggle with this. We and many who have left the faith wonder why a loving God would allow such terrible things to happen all around us. How can good come from evil? How can God’s kingdom gain influence when children even today are sold into lives of slavery? How can God’s kingdom advance when nations in our history commit genocide? How can God’s kingdom advance when societies are built on lies and exploitation? How can God’s influence advance when we see more harm than good? We need the miraculous!
I imagine that these same ideas were running through the minds of the disciples when they were on that mountain. Throughout Jesus’s ministry he would heal some and then tell them to be quiet about it. When everyone wanted to just proclaim it from the rooftops. Yet Jesus often acted as if nothing out of the ordinary occurred. He lifted the mother-in-law up out of the bed of fever, and she began to get the meal prepared. The disciples were confused about this. I imagine they wondered why. I imagine that it caused them to question things, because from their perspective these amazing things should be shared.
Shortly after a period of ministry, where Jesus would perform the miracles, we get so excited about, Jesus would go off alone to pray. And after these sessions of prayer, he and his disciples would leave that community and travel to another location. Which, I again imagine, confuses the disciples. Why leave when we are just beginning get some major support here?
Jesus is on that mountain, and he begins to pray. The disciples pray as well. These three disciples would become the three that have the greatest influence in the future of the church. Peter, whom history and tradition regards as the first leader of the church, and James was often regarded as his side kick. And John, the youngest of the disciples, was the disciple whose only influence was the teachings of Jesus became the disciple who has influenced us the most because his telling of the gospel of Christ is often seen as the one filled with the most divine love and grace.
Jesus takes these men to the mountain to pray. While they are praying something remarkable happens. They are transported to a different plain of reality. They climbed the mountain just the four of them, yet now there are six people standing on the mountain. Two others have joined them and they know who these men are. One is Moses and the other is Elijah.
Have you ever wondered how they knew who these men were? This was a time prior to Instagram so it was not like they could pull their photo up instantly. And the artistic renderings at that period of history were not even that well developed and certainly would be lacking for figures of their history that had been centuries away from contemporary life. They knew nothing of their appearance yet they knew them by reputation. Both great men of Israel’s history represented something profound. Moses was the lawgiver and Elijah was the father of the prophets. Moses’s face, history recorded, would glow after he spent time in prayer causing him to wear a veil. And one of the greatest stories of Elijah was when he was praying with his apprentice. God commanded Elijah to take the mantle from his shoulders and lay it on Elisha and once the mantle was passed a chariot of fire came from heaven and carried Elijah to heaven and he did not taste death. And Elisha went on to become an even greater prophet than his master Elijah. Elisha could see beyond the plains of our reality and could see the servants of God working among men and protecting Israel.
These two men that joined Jesus in prayer represent the Law and the Prophets, they represent the entire history and faith of Israel. And they are there with Jesus in that place of prayer. And the future leaders of the church, saw them there. They witnessed how everything they knew was being pulled into the person of Jesus. They saw Jesus for who he was, is, and will be. But they still do not understand.
“Let’s build some tents,” Peter says. Let us just stay here in this place. Yet again they wish to build a central site to base the ministry. And a voice came from the heavens and spoke to the men standing there. “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
I laugh at this. I laugh because it is seriously funny. They are up there praying and they see something profound and they begin to make plans. And God the father basically yells at them. Stop making plans of your own and listen.
When we pray so often, we do all the talking. We say that prayer is a conversation, but how often do we listen? How often do we allow the Spirit of God to direct us into our next steps? We like the disciples want to build tents and churches where we have seen God’s presence but that might not be where God wants us. Just like the miraculous we so desire to see, we fail to grasp that prayer is not for us, but for the kingdom. Prayer is to help us see where God needs us to be. And when we fail to listen, we miss the opportunity to participate in the very things God is calling us toward.
Prayer is important to me. I am one of those people that loves to just sit and pray. That is probably why I love the Friends so much because our historic practices point us to the discipline of prayer and waiting for the Lord to direct our paths. But even I sometimes fail to see and to listen. Prayer is powerful. It is where we converse with God. It is where we do plea for miracles, and it is where we seek inspiration, but at times I do not speak.
Prayer leads us through the valley of Shadows, prayer guides us through the night’s dark journey, and the clouds of unknowing. Prayer gives us strength in our weakness and courage where we once found only fear. But prayer will only lead us if we have the kingdom’s glory in mind, not our own. Prayer is filled with power, but only if we are willing to listen to Him.
Why should we Pray? We pray because we do not always know who or what is about to happen. Today I am going to do something I usually do not do. I am going to let us listen to the power of prayer. I want us each to close our eyes and listen to the words that will be read to us. And we will listen to an account give by a man who lived through one of the hardest and most inhumane periods in human history.
This is a testimony given by a student named Alexei who was sentenced to serve time in a special camp within the Soviet Gulag system. This student and a man named Father Arseny, were accused of fighting within the prison and sentenced to spend two days in special detention. Let us listen to the what Alexei has to say in this recording From the book Father Arseny, 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father by Vera Bouteneff, produced by THE WAY audiobooks.
08 – FATHER ARSENY – WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED IN MY NAME by THE WAY AUDIOBOOKS | Free Listening on SoundCloud
(We will listen from the 6:03 mark on the recording)
(Click to Read the chapter from the book.)
I know that was long. But prayer is powerful. It connects us to that of God all around us. And it can direct us to the mission God places us in. Father Arseny was just a priest living through a hard time. He lived his life of faith in all he did, and it made an impression. Alexei survived his time in the special camp and later became a priest, because of the life that Father Arseny lived in front of him.
I share this story because it is miraculous, but that is not why Father Arseny prayed. Although he asked for deliverance, he cherished that time because he could pray without worry for two full days. And that time of prayer carried him and Alexei through their trials.
We are here for a reason, and we do not know why or even where we fit. But God is calling us to prayer and action. The last aspect of Jesus’s Holy Rhythm is to serve those in need. He worships, he prays, and he goes out to help those in need.
We at Willow Creek have made this holy rhythm part of who we are. We say that our mission and purpose is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with other. This is just another way to express worship, prayer, and service. And I urge us all to grab on to that purpose, integrate it into the very core of our lives. And listen to what God is saying to us. Because you might be the ounce of hope someone needs to move them through their day.
Let us now join together in this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, and let us pray and listen.