A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church,Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 5, 2012.
Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-29
It’s hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. You and other survivors of your people are in exile in a country called Babylon, hundreds of miles from home. Your king is gone. Your temple is in ruins. The walls bordering your capital city, Jerusalem, are destroyed, and wild animals roam the streets. Many of your family members and friends are missing or dead. Everything you hold dear is uprooted, or upside down, or gone.
Including your hope.
You thought Yahweh, the God of your people would have protected you from all this suffering, but apparently the gods of Babylon have more power than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Babylonians insist their gods control the natural world and the destiny of all nations, and they appear to be right.
Then you remember your prophets warned that Yahweh would judge your people if they insisted on rebelling against him rather than trusting in him. But God’s punishment seems so harsh that you have to wonder if God cares.
Or even exists.
Where is God in this God-forsaken land? You are grieving. You are profoundly discouraged. You are weary and weak in body, mind, and spirit. You are ready to give up and give in.
Now, let’s skip ahead several centuries and imagine another scenario.
Your name is Jesus, and you are on a mission from God (I know this is a stretch, but work with me!). One Sabbath, you attend a local synagogue in Capernaum where you are asked to teach. You pour your heart and soul into your teaching, and when you are finished, the people are amazed at the way you teach—as one having authority.
Before you leave the synagogue, you are confronted by a man possessed with a nasty assortment of demons. You confront the demons head-on, order them to be quiet and come out of the man, and they do. And the people are even more amazed.
Now you are good and tired, and looking forward to a relaxing Sabbath meal. But no such luck. When you get to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew, you learn that Peter’s mother-in-law is in bed sick with a fever, and of course, you heal her of her disease. So far, this Sabbath day of rest has been anything but.
When the Sabbath ends at nightfall, a mob of people arrive at Peter and Andrew’s house, many of them sick or demon-possessed. Of course, they are hoping you will come out and heal them. You drag your weary bones outside, and begin healing one person after another, into the wee hours of the night.
When your head finally hits the pillow, your last thought is about how nice it would be to sleep in the next morning. But you awake with just a few hours’ sleep well before dawn because you need…no, you want to keep your appointment with the One who sent you. You find a deserted spot and you settle into a time of restful intimacy with your Heavenly Father.
Eventually Peter and company find you. Their voices dripping with irritation, they say in one accord, “Everyone is searching for you.” It would be tempting to return to the adoring crowds, in Capernaum, but you know better. And you surprise your disciples when you say, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Two scenarios played out hundreds of years apart. And according to our scripture, they were anything but imaginary. They were quite real for Jews in the Old Testament, and Jesus in the New Testament. And they both teach us something very important about life-giving disciplines of our faith.
Our current deacon chair, Roper Halverson, has given our deacons and indeed our entire congregation a remarkable gift. With the help of her daughter Leigh (the Minister of Children at First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, Missouri), Roper has created A Deacon Guidebook of Scripture and Prayer. During this season of conversation about the future of our church, Roper is hoping that our church leaders and all committed church members will use this guide for their private devotions.
In her guide Roper has assigned a key word of the Christian faith to each month of the year. The word for January was “trust”, and the word for February is “discipline”.
Roper uses the word discipline in two ways in her February devotions. Discipline can mean punishment, the kind of punishment God meted out to Israel for her sins. That Judah was suffering in Babylonian exile was an expression of God’s discipline for her transgressions.
But Roper also defines discipline as an “activity, exercise, or regimen that develops or improves skill.” As an athlete Roper knows the importance of disciplines that build strength and hone skills. What’s true for an athlete is also true for a disciple. It’s no coincidence that “disciples” and “disciplines” are cognates of the same word. Disciples count on disciplines to keep them strong and focused for their mission.
And our scriptures for today identify core disciplines that not only helped the Jews and Jesus in their day, but can help Christ-followers today.
For example, the prophet Isaiah invites the distraught citizens of Judah to engage in the discipline of remembering who their God is.
Many of us grew up reciting this blessing before every meal:
“God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food, Amen.”
Isaiah 40 is a remarkable passage of scripture for those who need to be reminded that our God is both great and good. Isaiah speaks to God’s goodness first when he says on God’s behalf,
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term
that her penalty is paid…(vv. 1-2).
Isaiah then offers prophecies Christians typically review during Advent, namely that the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together (v. 5). And that same Lord will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom; and gently lead the mother sheep (v. 11).
Christians, of course, believe these are references to Jesus. Regardless of our sins, we should remember that ours is a God who forgives us, and wants to gather us in his arms through his son Jesus.
But our God is also an awesome God, a great God above every other god. People, says Isaiah, are ephemeral and God is permanent. “All people are grass, their constancy like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades…but the word of our God will stand forever (vv. 6, 8).
People, says Isaiah, are like grasshoppers before God. Even nations are like a drop from the bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales before God (v. 15). That includes, of course, the arrogant nation, Babylon.
With a series of pointed rhetorical questions God tries to refresh Judah’s memory:
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
And my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
The Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
God’s goodness and greatness far exceed our understanding. But this much we know, and should always remember—no matter how grim our circumstances, we serve a God whose power to rescue and save is boundless. The discipline of remembering brings to mind the fact that when the chips are down, nothing, I repeat nothing is too hard for God.
Which is why, says Isaiah, we are to engage in the discipline of waiting upon the Lord to do his thing as only he can do.
The Israelites, and Jesus, and we all have one thing in common—we often find ourselves exhausted, weary and worn from the stresses and strains of every-day life. Our faces may look happy, but our hearts are heavy because life presents us with challenges that overwhelm us and drain us of hope.
That’s why generations of believers have been drawn to these words:
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Personally, I’m no fan of waiting. I want things to happen quickly—the sooner, the better. But one measure of the importance of waiting is the sheer number of times the word “wait” appears in the scriptures—43 times in the Old Testament, 63 times in the New Testament.
God promises Abraham when he turns 75 years old that he and his wife Sarah will have a baby. Then they wait 25 more years to have one! God promises Israel he will free her from Egyptian slavery. 400 years later he makes it happen with the help of Moses. God tells Moses he will lead his people to the Promised Land. But they wander through the wilderness 40 years, and Moses never does arrive. Even Jesus had to wait 30 years from the day of his birth to begin his earthly ministry.
Anybody see a pattern here?
Waiting on the Lord seems to be a necessary discipline for God’s followers. But the way we wait is just as important as that we wait. We wait not passively but actively, not helplessly but fervently, not hopelessly but hopefully. We wait with a faith confident that God will move even though we see no evidence of that movement at the moment.
Why would God have us wait? Because faithful, hopeful waiting is a discipline capable of producing considerable spiritual transformation. To quote Ben Patterson, “Waiting is like a spiritual forge in which our spirits are heated and hammered and softened and shaped through the tension and anguish of waiting, into the very image of Jesus Christ.” Waiting has a way of conforming us into the image of Christ, which is, by the way, an outcome more important than anything else we could be waiting for. Remember—what God accomplishes in us is as important as what God accomplishes through us.
Of course, nobody demonstrates more dramatically the potent combination of waiting and praying than Jesus. You would think that with only three years to save the world, Jesus would have less time than anybody to pause and pray. But even a cursory look at Jesus’ ministry proves otherwise.
Jesus is forever finding a time and place to draw apart despite a schedule busier than anyone who has ever lived. Notice that Jesus does not wait until time for prayer becomes available. He makes time to pray, to be still and wait upon the Lord. In fact, he prays so often that we could say his first priority in life, above ministry or time with his disciples, is prayer.
Why would that be?
Because Jesus in his humanity gets tired. He needs time to rest and recover. And he does this best in connection with the God who never faints nor grows weary, neither slumbers nor sleeps, the God who is the source of ceaseless strength.
Because Jesus in his humanity is tempted and distracted as we are. He is tempted, for example, to set up a clinic in downtown Capernaum and heal people non-stop and thereby become a healing sensation. But his time alone with God helped him get his bearings and reset his compass. And it reminds him he has come to build the Kingdom of God, and not his own empire.
Friends, as we work together to discern the will of God for our church, nothing has a greater priority than the discipline of prayer. What I notice those days is that when we gather to discuss our church, the room is packed. When we gather to pray about our church, there are plenty of seats left over.
If I’m reading scripture correctly, our priorities are exactly reversed. If we only depend upon our own wisdom, our own striving, our own talking, we will struggle to get off the ground. But if we wait upon the Lord and pray to the Lord as a unified people, we too can mount up with wings like eagles.
In her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes,
“A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
And floats downstream till the current ends
And dips his wings in the orange sun rays and dares to claim the sky.”
With God’s help, FBC, so can we. So can we.