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Sermon for Sunday 4 February 2018

FIRST READING Isaiah 40:21-31

21Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; 23who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. 24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. 26Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing. 27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have 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. 29He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. 30Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; 31but they 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.


PSALM Psalm 147:1-11

1Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! how pleasant it is to honor him with praise! 2The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel. 3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names. 5Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. 6The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. 7Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. 8He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth; 9He makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. 10He provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry. 11He is not impressed by the might of a horse; he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;


SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 9:16-27

16For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.


GOSPEL Mark 1:29-39

29Immediately {Jesus} left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.



There is no argument, life today is hectic. Our schedules are packed; activities are planned weeks if not months in advance. Works demands extra hours. The kids are involved in multiple activities and we spend hours running back and forth dropping them off, picking them up and attending the games. And when we do get home at night, we’re exhausted and want nothing more than to veg out. We crave the quiet times, but those times come few and far between. Yet, there’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place.
We long for a lonely place where our phones don’t ring and loud voices, all shouting at once, don’t compete for our attention. A lonely place where we can hear ourselves think, feel our own calmed breathing, rediscover the inner rhythms which seek in vain to regulate our lives. A lonely place where we can listen to the wind rippling through the trees or, perhaps, to the full and wise sound of stillness. A lonely place free from the triteness of television and the condemnation of calendars. A place of tranquil rest and blessed retreat. Still yet, there’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place.
“And in the morning,” Mark tells us, “a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). No, there’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place, and most of us search eagerly for such a location. For some of us, the lonely place is actually a place, a spot high in the mountains where the air is hushed, and the world below seems serene. Our lonely place could be a beach on the edge of the ocean where we can lose our thoughts among the restless waves and the ocean breeze, or even a private spot, near our home, where we can walk to be alone with our thoughts.
For others, they must be content with a lonely place which is really a time. A little solitude in the car between errands, a last cup of morning coffee with only the accompaniment of a daily devotion, or a few minutes watching the fire die in the fireplace, the house silent after everyone else has gone to bed. There’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place. We all seek such places, we guard them, and we cherish them. “And in the morning a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.”
One of the things my preaching professor enjoyed doing was asking the students to preach a sermon, from the text of their choice, from the first chapter of Mark. There are many rich passages to be found there: the preaching of John the Baptizer, the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the first call of the disciples, the healing of a leper. All these stories, and more, are here in Mark’s opening chapter, and yet most of the students didn’t select any of these passages.
It seemed that pressed by exams and papers, crowded by the demands of families and weekend jobs, feeling the pull of too much work and too many number one priorities, most of us were irresistibly drawn to the seductive tranquility of this story about Jesus rising early in the morning to go to a lonely place. The sermons we created were apparently as predictable as they were passionate: Jesus had spent the previous day, we said, in a fever pitch of ministry, preaching in the synagogue, healing the sick and demon-possessed, and now, in a moment of needed retreat, Jesus rises early in the morning and goes to a lonely place to pray. Just so, we went on to claim, that we, too, need times of quiet reflection and serene prayer lest the busy world crowd out the voice of God.
As the old hymn goes, “There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God.” (Near to the Heart of God, Words & Music: Cle¬land B. Mc¬A¬fee, 1903.) These sermons, like most sermons, said at least as much about the preachers as they did about the hearers, and like the rest of you, that we’re all in desperate need of a lonely place. There’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place.
But these sermons missed something important about the character of the lonely place. Mark wants us to know, that in a way we have perhaps not imagined, there is indeed nothing more tempting than a lonely place, because the “lonely place,” when it’s truly a place of coming to grips with what’s most urgent about life and important about ourselves, is finally not a place of calm, but a place of temptation. The lonely place isn’t a placid retreat, but a place of crisis and decision.
The word which is translated “lonely place” in today’s gospel reading is heramos, and “lonely place” is too gentle a translation of this word, because it hints at untroubled tranquility, a fall afternoon in the mountains taking in the beauty of the changing leaves. However, a better rendering of this word is “wilderness,” a place filled with danger, where the spirits lurk and temptation stalks. Mark uses this word heramos many times in his opening chapter, and it always carries the meaning of a place where crucial and risky decisions are being made. It’s out in the heramos that John the Baptizer fills the air with a cry for repentance. John is, in Isaiah’s words, the “voice of one crying in the heramos.”
Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the heramos to be tempted, and the heramos is inhabited both by angels and wild beasts. The heramos is the place where God’s will is made clear and where the demand for obedience becomes urgent. It’s also the place where the temptation to disobey is felt most powerfully. The heramos is a holy place, alive with the presence of God. The heramos is a dangerous place, the atmosphere charged with the possibility of betrayal. And the heramos is the place where Jesus went that morning to pray. There’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place. And the temptation did come, but not in the way one might expect.
In the lonely place, while Jesus was at prayer, the temptation came … in a surprising form. Peter and those with him found Jesus and said, “Everyone is searching for you.” Like most real temptations, this one hardly seems like a temptation, but in this apparently innocent sentence there was a deep enticement to betrayal. “Everyone is searching for you,” said Peter. In other words, come back. Come back to Capernaum and stay, stay where you healed the sick and astonished people with your preaching. People love and admire you there. Come back. Let your ministry end where it began. Become Capernaum’s local wonder worker, their private priest. Everyone is searching for you. Come back and stay.
There was Jesus in the heramos, the lonely place, with two paths leading out. One path led back to Capernaum and a life of comfortable popularity. The other path led on to Golgotha and a costly sacrifice. One path led to a place where all were crying, “Hosanna.” The other path led to a place where all would cry, “Crucify him.” The lonely place was no place of serene reflection; it was a place of momentous decision, the Kingdom of Self-interest versus the Kingdom of God. Facing the tempter again, Jesus decided: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38).
As Henri Nouwen has stated it: … the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where He went to pray … In the lonely place Jesus finds the courage to follow God’s will and not His own; to speak God’s words and not His own; to do God’s work and not His own. And when we commit to follow Jesus there are lonely places for us, too. Not the gentle lonely places of retreat from the pressures of life, but the wilderness places and times when, in the midst of crisis, or simply heightened awareness, we must choose between our desires and God’s will, between our words and God’s, between our own work and God’s. There’s nothing more tempting than a lonely place.
Sometimes the lonely wilderness is a place of tumult, a place we wouldn’t go unless we’ve been driven there. A relationship falls apart, a job is lost, a loved one is suffering, a person we thought we could trust betrays us. These are lonely places, and their perils are all too clear. Sometimes, it seems, the holy thing to do in such places, the “godly” choice to make, is to suffer in silence. “It is God’s will,” we tell ourselves, or “God wouldn’t place on us more than we can bear” (I Cor. 10:13.) These seem to be the faithful options, something of a righteous “Que Sera,” but, we must be careful. Sometimes the thing which appears most holy and sacrificial – for example, going back to live and minister among the many needy people in Capernaum – is the very temptation God would have us avoid.
In Elie Wiesel’s book The Town Beyond the Wall, there’s a rebellious character who has profoundly experienced the lonely place of human suffering and who chooses not to bear this in silence. He loudly laments, crying angrily to God that his fate is unjust, indeed, that God is unjust. It would seem, that he had fallen into the snare of temptation, but he confesses: I want to blaspheme, and I can’t quite manage it. I go up against [God], I shake my fist, I froth with rage, but it’s still a way of telling Him that He’s there … that denial itself is an offering to His grandeur. The shout becomes a prayer in spite of me.
Sometimes, when the lonely place is a place of great disturbance, it evokes our rage against God, clarifies how seriously we take God’s power and presence and, thereby, brings us even closer to God. “The shout becomes a prayer in spite of me.” Most of the time, however, our wilderness places are not nearly so turbulent as that. They are the quieter and more gentle places, the places close to home and ordinary routine, the spaces between the activities of our lives, where we nonetheless make the crucial decisions of our lives.
The late Rev. Carlyle Marney was once asked where the Garden of Eden was located. “Two fifteen Elm Street, Knoxville, Tennessee,” replied Marney. The questioner found that incredulous and challenged Pastor Marney with the notion that the Garden of Eden was somewhere in Asia. Marney said that you couldn’t prove that by him, because it was at Two fifteen Elm Street that, as a boy, he had stolen some money from his mother’s purse and gone to the store and spent it on candy. When he returned he was so ashamed he hid in the closet. “It was there [my mama] found me,” he said, “and asked, ‘Where are you? Why are you hiding? What have you done?’” The Garden of Eden, the place of temptation, the “lonely place” was, for Marney, on Elm Street.
The lonely place, the place of temptation and decision, the place where we decide to follow God’s call or our own noses, can be a breakfast table or a closet, a moment of insight reading a novel or an argument with someone we love, in the morning or at night, when we’re tired or when we’re refreshed, in the singing of a hymn or in the sighing of a prayer, in the second act of a play or even … in the middle of a sermon.
Pastor and chaplain William Willimon once received an agitated phone call on a Sunday evening from a member in his church. The caller said that his daughter Anne had just decided to drop out of pharmacy school. Anne had been home for the weekend. In fact, she had worshiped with her mother and father that morning, and the news of her leaving school had caught them totally by surprise. Willimon asked why Anne was doing such a thing, but the father was uncertain. What he mainly wanted was for Willimon to call his daughter and “talk some sense into her.”
Willimon called Anne and reminded her of the many hours she had already put into pharmaceutical training and of her many academic achievements, all of which she now seemed to be willing to throw away. “How in the world did you come to this decision?” Willimon asked. “Well,” she said, “it was your sermon yesterday that started me thinking.” She went on to describe her own experience of a lonely place. She admitted that she was in pharmacy school to earn a good living and to meet her own self-defined needs. Willimon’s sermon had emphasized the call of God which comes to all of us, that God has something important for all of us to do.
The sermon had caused Anne to remember the satisfying summer she had spent teaching in the church literacy program among migrant workers, a time when she genuinely felt as though she was serving God. She told Willimon that, after his sermon, she had decided to leave school and to give her life to helping those people. “There was a long silence on my end of the telephone,” wrote Willimon. ” ‘Now look Anne,’ I said at last, ‘I was just preaching.’ ”
Even a sermon can be a lonely place, a place of temptation, a place of decision, a place of peril … and a place of holiness. A lonely place is where we decide whether we’ll go where we’ve been sent by God, or go where “the devil may care.” Jesus chose to go where He was sent, “to the other towns,” and, we must never forget, that because He did, He came to our town to minister, too. And He’s there even now, in our lonely places, beckoning us, if we will, to follow Him.

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