Weekly Preaching: February 7, 2021

February 3rd, 2021

I love Isaiah 40:21-31. Here we realize the “inspiration” isn’t some dogma about God’s relation to the text. These words are inspired, inspiring, poetry, almost like a symphony or a ballet or a fabulous painting. Best not to try to explain too much of it. Just linger over the words. So much hope. Such encouragement for the discouraged. Ringing so very true, even in dire circumstances.

My mind drifts to images of God “above the circle of heaven,” William Blake’s Ancient of Days, or Michelangelo’s ethereal God floating above it all while creating such wonder. For us, the world is vast, yet cozy, a real home — “like a tent to live in.”

Anticipating our demoralized angst, the inspired poet puts words of fear and doubt into our own mouths, not thrashing us for it, but embracing who we are, and offering hope for the weary. Energy for the weary, actually. 

I should imagine that J.R.R. Tolkien had this text in mind when Frodo and Sam fall exhausted after their arduous journey to Mount Doom — and eagles arrive, swoop them up and deliver them to Rivendell for the joyous reunion of the fellowship.

Paul picks up on weakness in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, bragging about it, noting how his weakness enables him to reach the weak. Here’s the constant challenge around strength/weakness: we associate God with giving us strength, but then the Scriptures fully embrace weakness, Christ emptying himself, God’s power being perfected in weakness. We hold these together, not glorifying those who seem to garner great strength from their faith at the expense of those who still feel so very weak.

Michael Knowles wrote these glorious words about Paul’s weakness, and that of the preacher — so not for sermon use, but for the edification of you, the preacher! — in dealing with criticism, a sense of irrelevance, and smallness in the life of ministry: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity. And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it. Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work. The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and — dare we admit it? — lack of faithfulness. Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God who raises the dead.”

Mark 1:29-39 continues to track the opening days of Jesus’ burst onto the scene, startling the crowds and sending demons scurrying away. There is a “Take Time to be Holy” moment here: Jesus, the Messiah, with the sick clamoring for him, with demons to cast out, with teachings to reveal, rose in the morning, while it was still dark, and went to a deserted place. How far did he go? Until it was quiet? Far enough off the road not to be noticed? To a vantage point with a view of the sunrise, or of the towns dotting the Galilean coastline so he might pray over them? I wonder if the preacher prepares to preach on this — or to live the rest of her life — by rising while it is still dark and literally going somewhere out of doors to pray.

I like, during Black History Month, to allude to a story or event without alienating anybody by making an issue of it... Countless examples present themselves. Given the weakness confessed in the Epistle, the need for strength in Isaiah, and Jesus praying alone, I might go to that dramatic moment in early 1956 when Martin Luther King Jr., his home having been firebombed, his family receiving death threats, and realizing he was in for an arduous journey he'd not really signed up for, couldn't sleep, went to the kitchen (which I've visited in the Dexter parsonage in Montgomery!), bowed his head over a cup of coffee, and muttered a prayer of desperation: "I'm down here trying to do what's right. But I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. I'm afraid. I can't let people see me like this because if they see me weak, they'll get weak. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left." And he heard a voice saying "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. I will be with you. I heard the voice of Jesus saying to fight on. He promised never to leave me. No never alone No never alone."

Like our people, we are busy, we are rushed, and distracted by our gadgets like the one you’re reading this on right now. Jesus, lord of creation and savior of the world, needed, wanted, had to have time alone with God the Father. No wonder the disciples would soon come to him and ask how to get in on his intimate relationship with God: Lord, teach us to pray. I love the way Wendy Farley, in her terrific new book, Beguiled by Beauty, explicates the dimensions of the spiritual life, mercifully allowing for busy people, moms, businesspeople, etc., with little hints like lingering outside when you take out the garbage, or in the shower, whenever you can catch a moment to pray, meditate, reflect.

No need in the sermon to scold or sound swimmingly pious. I remember learning that John Wesley rose for a couple of hours of prayer before daylight — and found that to be terribly demoralizing or just so remote as to seem irrelevant. (Doesn't he look really tired to you?) How do we invite people into solitude — which isn’t loneliness at all? There’s fear of failure at spirituality, fear of my deepest self, fear that God isn’t really there, fear that God might be there and might ask something hard from me. Help people navigate why all this is tough.

Peter had a mother-in-law - so he had a wife too. Notice the evocative line, “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Feel the ambiguity: as a woman, she resumed her role, she returned to her “place.” Can we shift the gender and offer the idea that anyone who is healed, or who is touched by Jesus, then quite naturally and even spontaneously begins to serve others? It was in person, face to face. She didn’t drop off the ancient equivalent of some canned goods. She worked with her own hands, and served and shared time with real people. “Better to deliver aid than to send it,” as Wesley the early riser pointed out. Share a story, even from your own parish?

I’m also intrigued that “they hunted for him.” Poor Jesus, can’t catch a break and get some space! Feels like ministry. Jesus was the consummately “interruptible” one. He doesn’t shush them or tell them to pray like he’s praying. He says Let’s head on to the next town.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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