Mark 1:9-15 – Thrown into the Desert

 

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.  While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him.  And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him. (CEB)
 
            We stand at the beginning of the Lenten season, the six-week 40-day period leading to Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.  But now is a time of preparation.  Just as Jesus identified with his people Israel in their desert sojourn for 40 years, so Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days.  Our Lord’s entire earthly life was devoted to identifying with lost humanity and leading them to the Promised Land of forgiveness, peace, and joy.
            Lent is our 40-day journey in the desert, identifying with Jesus.  Perhaps you think such a season is optional, even unnecessary.  It’s likely that God will put you in the desert whether you recognize the season or not.
            In a wondrous event, Jesus is baptized and comes out of the water with some of the most gracious words you’ll find in Scripture: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  In this story of identification with God it’s not a stretch, but intended, that we see our own identification with Christ.  Jesus so closely links himself with God’s people that when God expresses his love to the Son, he is saying words of grace to us, as well.
            If the story ended there, it would stand as a glorious account.  But a hard transition follows, and the language indicates a swift turn of circumstance.  Immediately after the baptism and the loving words, Jesus is “forced” into the wilderness by the Spirit.  The word quite literally means “to hurl.”  We are given the picture that as soon as Jesus is up out of the water, the Spirit picks him up and hurls him into the desert.
            The desert is a place of solitude where the greatest temptations occur: coming face to face with oneself.  If Jesus needed the desert experience, how much more do we?  How much more do we need to observe and practice Lent and submit to the 40-day experience of the desert?
            God desires to meet with us in the secluded backside of the desert.  He has some things to teach us.  He has a work of preparation to do in our lives.  The way in which we respond to the desert we are aggressively thrown into by the Spirit will set the course of our lives.
O Lord, you have demonstrated and shown love to your Son and to your people.  You have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing.  Send your Holy Spirit to hurl us into the desert time of teaching so that love might be poured into our hearts.  Grant this humble request for the sake of the Son whom you love, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

 

Words Aren’t Everything

“Compel yourselves in silence, the mother of all godly virtues. Keep silent, in order to say the Prayer; for, when someone speaks, how is he able to escape idle talk, from which comes every evil word, which weighs the soul down by the responsibility for it.” –Ephraim of Philotheou

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                Since I am a preacher and a pastor, I traffic a lot in words.  Maybe because of that, many people have commented to me over the years that they have a hard time being articulate.  Perhaps you often struggle to put into words what you think or feel.  You are not alone.  But I have good news for you.

God does not accept us based upon our many words.

He approves of us because of his grace and the state of our hearts.  He delights in our awkward efforts toward a relationship with Jesus.  He sees your real lived experience of hearing the Master’s words and the effort of putting them into practice.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  Words are very much important.  They are powerful.  As an avid reader, I have had my life changed by other’s words.  Yet, you and I need to be honest with the truth that words have limits.  If you think about it, words are not themselves real at all.  Words are only letters put together like a jigsaw puzzle.  They are merely signs and symbols that point to reality.

Ideally, carefully crafted words are transmitted from one person to another, carefully internalized, and faithfully translated into actual real live experience.  And if you did not follow a thing I just said, then I have just demonstrated the crazy limitations of words.

How about if you picture this: You want to learn a different language.  What will you do?  Well, you will most definitely work with words.  But in what way?  Yes, you will do rote exercises in memorizing words and learning grammar and syntax and all the language stuff there is to do.  But that will not get you to really learning the language, because language is not all about words.

Language is far more dynamic.  It is a stimulating and exciting exchange of ideas and thoughts.  We call this “relationship.” Ah, now you are getting somewhere!  There is no substitute for the actual struggle to communicate with another person, whether it is with a person in a foreign language, or your spouse, or your kids, or your boss, or that crazy fundamentalist nut at church.

talking to each other

You see, it is the loving person who enters the struggle.  You seek to reach out and touch another.  You crave connection and to care.  Jesus, the most loving person who ever lived, told us with his words and with his actions that we must love one another through compassionate acts of service (John 13:1-20).

You will find nowhere in Holy Scripture where you have been called to be a talker.  Instead, you will find a lot of references on the calling to be a servant.

In fact, the people who talked the most in the New Testament were the Pharisees.  I’m not sure you want to be in their company of constant words.  It doesn’t get any more plain-speaking than this from Jesus:

“When you pray, don’t talk on and on as people who don’t know God.  They think God likes to hear long prayers.  Don’t be like them” (Matthew 6:7-8).

What a concept!  God is not looking for you to be an eloquent talker.  God is looking for you to be silent (yay! introverts!).  Perhaps God wants you to come to Him and just be still and silent, so that He can get a listening (yay! Holy Spirit!).  Maybe your spouse wants you to put a piece of duct-tape on your mouth, so that he/she can get a word in edgewise (yay! Red Green!).  You know the kids want the lecture of many words to stop, so that they can approach you in the future without fear and/or boredom (yay! Jesus! let the children come to me!).

I like being both a consumer and a producer of words.  But God doesn’t like me because of that.  He likes you and me when we are quiet and listen closely to Him.  Words are important, but are overrated:

“Too much talk leads to sin.  Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.” (Proverbs 10:19)

You don’t need to get God’s attention; you already have it.

But, does He have your attention?  Practice just 5 minutes of silence today.  Find a secluded spot, and, simply say, “Speak, Lord, for I am listening.”  And be silent.  The next day, go for 10 minutes, beginning with the simple phrase to God.  Eventually, and over time, work up to 30 minutes, even an hour.  If your thoughts distract you, keep a notepad handy and jot the thought down and keep up the silence.  I would suggest using an old school kitchen timer until silence becomes a regular part of your life.

You can do this (yay! extroverts! I believe in you!).  You will find that this is such a rewarding practice, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.  Ready… set… stop talking….

The Rhythm of Jesus

 
 
            Rhythm is more than enjoying a B.B. King blues song; everything in life is done with rhythm.  Our hearts beat in rhythm.  When we walk, our gait is in a distinct rhythm.  We cannot survive without healthy rhythms of waking and sleeping.  And, of course, we could not sing or have music without rhythm.  Indeed, we cannot survive without healthy rhythms of life.
 
            Yet, there is something off with our rhythm.  Our busy lifestyles can insidiously drag us away from God and his ways.  The spiritual rhythms we need for healthy living have been disrupted and we may not have noticed.  Someone has said, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”  Our lives are often fashioned more by shopping for the super sale, by sporting events, or by the demands of work than by our connection to Jesus.
 
            We seem to have bought into the lie that we can never slow down or take a break.  Many of us know we are out of sync with God and his ways.  We intuit that there is something amiss between our lives and the priorities of God. But we are not sure how to change our situation.  I would implore us to imitate Jesus in his way of life.
 
            Jesus had a rhythm in his life of outward ministry with people and inward time alone with the Father.  If Jesus needed regular, dedicated time for solitude and prayer, then how much more do we!?  (Mark 1:35-39).
 
            Let’s not think that we know better than Jesus on this.  If we persist in continually putting off spending generous portions of time with God, he has his ways of getting our attention and putting us in the place of solitude.  And we may not like it, which is why sometimes God is not so quick to heal us or answer our prayers because he has some things to say to us.  We might be so stinking stubborn that we refuse to slow down long enough to listen to Jesus.  For such people, human suffering is a great way to meet Jesus.  We simply cannot rush from task to task and expect to live a healthy spiritual life.  We absolutely need time with Jesus.
 
            Only through a healthy rhythm of life that includes solitude and prayer will we have clear direction for our daily lives, and wisdom for sound decision-making, not to mention being more relaxed and happy.  Jesus came away from his times of solitude re-connected with his purpose for being on earth.
 
            Both overwork and prolonged withdrawal from others is unhealthy.  To always be working and serving eventually leads to bitterness, exhaustion, and burn-out.  Conversely, to always be alone (and one can be alone even in a crowd of people) and not serving leads to a kind of spiritual constipation that makes us sick.  It might be counter-intuitive for us to break away from work, but solitude and prayer will actually help us be productive.
 

 

            What is the kind of healing and restoration you need in your life?  How might you be a part of fostering healing in another and in your church?  Do you need to make a plan for solitude and prayer?  Do you need to make a plan for ministry and service?  Let your rhythm of life be consistent with Jesus and his ways.

Listening to God

 
 
We are obsessed with hearing ourselves talk.  So much chatter happens about so many things that we rarely even remember much of what we said; and many of those words are uttered before we even think.  But, from a biblical perspective, the church and Christians must have the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be quiet.  When being quiet is required, it is to be for the purpose of listening.  Listening is a lost art and a forgotten ability in our day and age.  People can be so concerned to express their opinions and say what they want to say that the virtue of listening is not at all valued.  However, God puts a premium on taking the stance of listening.  There is a proverb that says, “Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
 
            One of the reasons that listening is not well-practiced is that we esteem being busy and constant activity to the degree that taking the time for silence long enough to listen is not recognized as being of value to us.  But if the church is to hear the voice of God, we Christians must be still and silent long enough to listen to what he is trying to say to us.
 
            We might even be uncomfortable with silence, and seek to fill any quiet space with noise so as to not have to deal with what is really going on inside of us.  I have a friend (I’ll call him Elmer) who recently spent eighteen hours in complete silence without any talking whatsoever in order to listen to God.  You maybe believe that Elmer must be a monkish sort of introvert who likes that kind of thing.  No, he is actually an extrovert who lives in the inner city and comes from a large family.  Elmer simply came to the point of understanding that he was so busy moving from one thing to another, and constantly talking to the point that he was drowning-out the voice of the Lord.  Here is what Elmer said about his time of silence:  “Those eighteen hours of silence were the loudest hours I have ever experienced.  My mind was so noisy and so filled with stuff that it nearly drove me nuts.  But after many hours passed, as the noise started to fade away, I could begin to hear the still small voice of God.”  Elmer discovered that he was a person who kept pushing his agenda on God.  After his fast from talking, he determined to start grafting times of solitude and silence into his everyday life, even if for only ten minutes, so he could listen to what God wants rather than tell God what to do.
 
            If we want to hear God speak to us, we must take the same approach as the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:16).  And, then, we must be quiet and listen.  Any fool can babble on about his/her gripes and opinions.  But in the Bible human speech is generally viewed as being overrated.  Instead, silence and solitude, listening and learning are the virtues practiced by Jesus; the kingdom of God cannot operate without them.
 
            Therefore, we must take up the shield of faith with which to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one who wants to keep us trapped in either a cycle of constant chatter without listening, or continual silence without acting upon what we hear from God.  We must be quiet for the purpose of listening to God.  Then, when we hear him speak, we must act in faith to say and do what he calls us to.
 

 

            Church ministry that does not practice silence and solitude is not worth much because it is running programs based upon human ingenuity and ideas without distilling them through the slow and steady process of silent prayerful meditation upon God’s Word.  There is no substitute.