By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 21, 2021
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
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.
(We will listen from the 6:03 mark on the recording)
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.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 31, 2021
Mark 1:21–28 (ESV)
21 And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. 23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.
This past week has been interesting for me. I changed the type of work that I do outside of the church, which gave me a different perspective than I have had in a while. And we also had our Yearly Meeting Mini Conference. The conference was probably one of the better conferences we have had in a while, and we have had several good conferences, but this one was very timely. The topic was “Maximizing Our Kingdom Capacity During a Global Pandemic” but to be honest we did not talk a great deal about that. What we focused on the most was anger, sorrow, and what scripture calls lament.
The reason I liked this was because I did not realize just how upset and angry, I have been over the past few months. And I am not the only one. This past year has stretched us all. We have had to change aspects of how we do things. We must remember an extra piece of clothing every time we leave the house. We have had change aspect of our jobs and education. There is very little we have not had to change in our lives due to things outside of our control. For the most part we have adjusted quite well, but there is something within us that is a bit upset. We have to adjust, we cannot do things the way we have always done it, we resent this to some degree no matter how well we handle it. And our emotions are at play a bit. Then there is one little incident and it sets us off. Maybe someone asked you to put on a mask, maybe someone did not put on a mask. Maybe you noticed someone not washing their hands in a restroom. Maybe someone was standing too close, or maybe you were asked to take a step back. Maybe you are just tired of having to look through fogged over lenses all the time. Something triggers a response and the emotions bubble to the surface and it is not even the incident that you are upset about. Th reality is we are tired, we are drained, we are mourning the loss of the life we once lived, we are not upset about masks we are upset that our expectations are not met.
This is true about more than the pandemic and how we respond to it. We are constantly bombarded by unfulfilled expectations. Dissatisfaction with our jobs is often because it is not what we expected. When we look deeper into the divorce rates in our nation the reasons are not what we would expect. The most common issue we toss around is financial, but if we were to peel that layer away the underlying issues are unfulfilled expectations or uncommunicated expectations. When we pile these up over the course of time eventually we triggered by how our spouse squeezes the toothpaste and an argument ensues.
I want us to consider this in our lives. We have countless expectations we have never communicated and we assume everyone knows. I will give one example, every monthly meeting I am expected to give a report to the meeting but what goes into this report? For fourteen years I have asked respected and weighty Friends what is supposed to be in this report and I have never been given a clear answer. I have asked professors at Barclay College and Friends University and they will give examples but no real answer. Why when every Meeting and pastor knows they need to give a report, why can’t we tell the pastor what to put in the report? The answer is that there is not an answer. Everyone has a different expectation. Each person would like to know something but they have not expressed or communicated this and I would venture to say that many issues Meetings have with pastor deal with unexpected expectations on all sides.
Jesus goes to the place of worship and begins teaching. I first want to stop right here and make mention of something important. Jesus went to the place of worship. Scripture even goes as far as saying that Jesus made it his custom to go to the place of worship on the sabbath day. We need to remember this. We need the church. I do not necessarily mean that we need to meet in a building like this one, but we need to make it our custom to meet with others for mutual encouragement for our emotional and spiritual lives. Jesus made it his custom to meet with the community to worship.
This pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse in this area. It is a blessing because it has challenged our religious organization to come up with different plans and techniques to provide encouragement during a time where physical meeting has not been possible. This is extremely good. There are a number of things that we can do over the internet that make it possible to encourage others even over great distances. Over the past few months, I have met with Friends over zoom that live in two different states and we have worshiped and encouraged one another and it was a blessing. And just yesterday our Yearly Meeting was able to have a conference with people attending from across Mid America while one of the presenters was in Idaho. We could not do this before because many worship communities had not even explored the concepts of distant video interaction. These are blessings but there is a dark side too. Many have gotten comfortable with not meeting. Technology can not fully replace the psychological need of physical human interaction. We need to be around people physically. Some studies have proven that our brains do not fully function without other brains in proximity.
We need others to challenge us. We need others to expand our understand and to give us different perspectives. We need others to assist us in interpreting our lives, because at times we can become bound in a narrow point of view and unable to see a blessing just beyond our perception. We need others, we need communities. Jesus affirms this and makes it part of his holy rhythm of life. We need each other. I think I have mentioned this on multiple occasions. And we need people that have had different life experiences so that they can speak from a different perspective.
Jesus goes to the place of worship, and he begins to teach. Those present at that meeting for worship are astonished at the way he is teaching. The gospel writer says that he spoke as one with authority and not as the scribes. I find this fascinating because it seems a bit upside down. The scribes would have spoken from their knowledge and knowledge has power. They would have had confidence in what they were saying because they had footnotes and references. If you questioned their interpretation you could look it up. Maybe not look it up but you could ask another scribe to verify what they had said. They had the power and the authority of centuries of theological interpretations, yet the people at that synagogue were astonished by what Jesus taught because he spoke with authority. Like I said this seems a bit upside down, so what is the authority that Jesus is using? Is it confidence? Is it the fact that he is speaking from his divine personhood? It could be, but there is more. Authority can mean that he spoke in a way that alluded to an ability to perform. Usually when we think of authority we think of enforcement of legal standards, but authority could also come from life experience. I might have knowledge of things. I could tell you about pregnancy and how birth occurs, but I cannot speak with authority because I have not experienced it. I would be one of the last people an expectant mother would ask for encouragement but there are some in this room that they would quickly seek out for answers to their questions. That is authority. They were astonished because Jesus spoke in a manner that could be lived, and he spoke from authentic life experiences.
There is power in that kind of authority that goes beyond words in a book. I love knowledge. I would go back to school tomorrow if I could, to gain as much knowledge as possible, but knowledge can only take us so far. Our lives have power. Our experiences have power. We can debate until our bodies can no longer stand, and not move a single person closer to our opinion. But if we engage them in conversation, if we were to walk with them and show them a different perspective of life, we could change the world. Our testimony, our witness, our life experiences have more collective power than any sermon I will ever preach, because our life experiences are real. You might think your life is boring or uneventful but there is power there.
Jesus spoke from experience, and he spoke in a way that inspired people to believe that their lives could be lived differently. They were attracted to what he said. It was different and intriguing. It made them want to believe. But there is something else going on within this community. Not everyone is impressed with the way Jesus is presenting things. There was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, who cried out against Jesus.
I want us to consider this for a moment. I want us to fully consider this scene in our minds. If we were to examine the books of the law and the prophets, we would understand that not just anyone could enter this meeting for worship. There were obligations required for people to enter this sacred place. This man, this man with an unclean spirit, met all the religious obligations and yet something was not right. Jesus spoke and this man would have nothing to do with what was being said, he was triggered so to speak. This is terrifying to consider. This man from all appearances was acceptable within the religious community, he might have even been considered as respectable, yet in the two thousand years of church history we see him as a demon possessed man. We see him as being someone outside acceptable religious circles, but he was in the synagogue. He was accepted as part of that community.
He listens to the words of Jesus, and he cries out, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the holy one of God.” I want us to just stop for a moment and consider the words that he is saying, but I want us to think of them from a different perspective. “What do you have to do with us,” is the first statement which is followed by Jesus’s name and his hometown. Could this man be disgruntled because Jesus is not from their community? Could he just as easily be saying, “Wait a second Jesus, we don’t do things like that here. That might work where you are from but not here.”
Next, he says, “Have you come to destroy us?” Have you ever had thoughts like this? I know some of us have because I have read Facebook posts and I have listened to enough conversations to know that many believe that if someone does not have the same opinions as we do, they are going to destroy our nation. I hope that hits us a bit, because as I prayed with this passage this past week, I felt like God hit me hard enough to leave a bruise.
Then the last statement, “I know who you are – the holy one of God.” Could this be sarcasm? Could this man be making a statement attempting to discredit Jesus? If he knew the family that Jesus came from, he might have known the questionable origin surrounding his birth. And the statement about the holy one of God is offset in our translation as if the man might be jeering. I know who you are. I know your family. I know what you did in high school and you are here trying to tell me how to live my life, really?
We often approach this passage and we see the power of Jesus over the unclean spirit, but what if we are that man? What if our words, our actions, our judgmentalism is just as demonic as what this man presented in that place of worship? This terrifies me because I have been that guy. I have discredited ideas presented by others because we just do not do that here. I have participated in conversations where I have accused someone of attempting to destroy everything me and my ancestors have tried to build up. I have made judgments based on past actions instead of current reality. I am this unclean man and I am a leader in a religious organization. I have power and respect. And I recognize this in myself. And I have also been on the receiving end of this as well. I am unclean. We are unclean.
We can get so bound in ourselves and what we think is correct that we can hinder the gospel that we claim to love. We can be so trapped in our ways of thinking and our traditions that we can drive people away from the kingdom instead of attracting people to a life of repentance. And we see this in our communities.
Jesus does not let it stand though. He looks at that man. The man approaches Jesus filled with self-righteous fervor, pointing his finger at Jesus’s chest making these statements. And Jesus tells him to be still.
Be still. We do not have to debate. We do not have to argue. If we are together in this place of worship our goals should be the same. Everything that we do and everything that we say should be done for a similar purpose. When we leave this place on a Sunday afternoon, we should be inspired to live our lives reflecting the holy life of Christ in a world that is filled with darkness. But the world so often does not see what we want them to see. The world so often makes statements about us that are untrue and it pains our spirits. We go out and we wonder why do people not come to church? Why do people leave the church? Why do they not love Jesus? Be still.
Are we showing them the truth? Are we speaking with authenticity? Are we living the life we claim? Be still. If people are saying things that we believe to be untrue about us, are we living a life that proves their falsehood or ours? Have we considered the possibility that we can be wrong?
In our conference yesterday they put a quote from Eugene Peterson on the screen that says, “The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.” Our words and our actions must be united. Jesus is speaking to us with authority, but are we listening? Jesus is praying that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, are we praying with him? Are we Friends of Jesus or are we like that man in the synagogue pointing a finger?