Luke 4:42-44 – Holding onto Jesus

Journey with Jesus by He Qi

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (New International Version)

A domesticated Jesus is nothing more than a fictional character, part of the panoply of old classic literature, and just another person in the Christian writings of the New Testament.

Many so called Christians want to control Jesus, to have him serve their purposes. Like some magical entertainer, they want to hold onto him, keep him around, trotting him out occasionally to impress friends and family.

Such persons have not yet come to terms with the spiritual reality that Jesus belongs to others, to everyone, not just me or people I like.

Whenever we grab hold of Jesus to keep him from going to others, we play the role of Mary Magdalene, who did not recognize her Lord when he was standing in front of her face. Then, when realizing who he was, did not want Jesus going anywhere. Yet, the Lord responded:

“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17, NRSV)

Mosaic of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Washington National Cathedral

Jesus did more than proclaim good news; he was the good news itself, embodied, for the life of the world – and not only for the life of a particular race or ethnicity or gender, or even religion. As the Lord of Life, there is enough Jesus for everyone.

Maybe the true mark of a Christian is not having bumper sticker messages or a bobblehead Christ or an impressive Bible on the living room coffee table or erudite theological ideas. Maybe its in telling others about Jesus from our own mouth, from a heart that overflows with the gospel of grace.

We must let God be God. Yes, there is a very important place for us to ask, seek, and knock on the door of heaven. And there is also an equal necessity for solitude, silence, and patience, in waiting for the Lord to say, “Come here to me.”

The wisdom to know when to practice solitude, and when to actively seek, arises by purposely engaging in both. We must have an action/reflection model in which we seek to do the will of God, then step back and reflect upon the experience and learn from it. And, at the same time, we are to practice a contemplation/response model that communes in solitude with God, then responds with active involvement of just and merciful acts toward others.

Our Gospel lesson today highlights the need for solitude as a Christian spiritual practice because our Lord practiced it. The solitude, however, is not to be unending. At some point, we must descend from the mountain peak and enter the valley, just as we ascended it from the activity below.

Good news needs proclamation. And for that to happen, it must be proclaimed from both the top of the mountain, as well as the lowest valley. The gospel cannot be chained so that it is tethered for only my group of cronies. No, Jesus is for all, and so, good news is meant to spread to every corner of the earth.

Perhaps we need to sit still long enough, without allowing our inner anxiety to rule the day, to let Jesus call to us and invite us to come. Then, maybe we will be able to hear the gracious words of the Lord:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

Come Unto Me by Wayne Pascall

There’s no need to break down doors, trying to squeeze ourselves into the kingdom of God. We need only respond to the gracious invitation of Jesus and let him invite others. Truly receiving amazing grace changes us, and we then do not seek to keep Jesus from leaving.

“How amazing, amazing that the one who has help to bring is the one who says: Come here! What love! It is already loving, when one is able to help, to help the one who asks for help, but to offer the help oneself! And to offer it to all! Yes, and to the very ones who are unable to help in return! To offer it, no, to shout it out, as if the helper himself were the one who needed help, as if he who can and wants to help everyone were nevertheless in one respect himself a needy one, that he feels need, and thus needs to help, needs those who suffer in order to help them!”

Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity

Coming and going, silencing and proclaiming, holding and letting go. We allow Jesus to do it all. And we simply follow in his footsteps.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Humanity, your presence here on earth never becomes a thing of the past – thus never becoming distant. Our faith and experience of you is very present and very much real in the here and now.

Might all people see you in your true form and in the way you walked this earth – not in an empty or meaningless way of mere thoughts or distortions. May all people see you as you are, a lowly man, yet the Savior and Redeemer of humanity – who out of love came to earth to seek the lost, to suffer and die, to call the straying soul, and to absorb the opposition of others without raising a hand in defense.

Would that we might see you in this way, and not be offended at you and your gracious gathering of all kinds of people into your glorious kingdom. Amen.

1 Samuel 3:1-18 – Speak Lord, For I Am Listening

Stained glass of the boy Samuel at the bed of Eli the priest

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So, he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore, Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore, I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So, Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” (New Revised Standard Version)

There are two different ways of being silent.

Old Testament narrative stories are typically arranged in such a way that we can perceive clear contrasts between two different people. In our lesson for today, the boy Samuel and Eli the priest are contrasting characters. They each display a different way of silence – one good, and one not.

Stained glass of Eli and Samuel in Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford, England

Samuel takes a posture of listening. He is quiet so that he can hear the voice of the Lord. Samuel responds with few words. 

Eli is also quiet – but for all the wrong reasons. His sons are also priests who receive sacrifices from God’s people. However, they do not handle their responsibility with any care for what the Lord really desires or wants.  Eli knew what his sons were doing, and he was silent about it.

Wisdom knows when to speak and when to be silent. And when being quiet is required, it is to be for the purpose of listening. 

Listening is a lost art and a forgotten skill today. Many people are so concerned to express their opinions and say what they want to say that the virtue of listening is not valued. Yet, God puts a premium on taking the stance of listening.

A person who talks too much gets into trouble. A wise person learns to be quiet.

Proverbs 10:19, ERV

Busyness and constant locomotion are the bane of listening well. Taking precious time to stop and truly listen to another is very much needed in today’s world. If we are to hear God’s voice, it will require being still and silent for long enough to listen to what the Lord is saying to us.

Many folks are also quite uncomfortable with silence. They seek to fill any quiet space with noise so as to avoid facing what is really going on inside the soul. I once attended a pastor’s retreat in which I got to know a church planter in an urban ministry. He grew up in a large family and incessantly talked. The man was a beehive of words and was constantly moving. 

Having been to these types of retreats before, I knew what was probably going to happen, and it did. The retreat host made a pronouncement after dinner on the first day that there was to be absolutely no talking until lunch the next day. There was to be a full eighteen hours of total silence.

Some might think this is some sort of punishment. However, that line of thinking likely expresses how much we prize our words and how much noise means to us. 

The sole purpose of the retreat’s imposed silence was for listening to God. Some of us are so busy moving from one thing to another, and constantly talking, to the point of drowning out the voice of the Lord. 

When we broke our silence the next day, the pastor confessed that in his whole life, he had never been quiet for more than fifteen minutes. He said this:

“Those eighteen hours of silence were the loudest hours I ever experienced. My mind was so noisy and so filled with stuff that the evening nearly drove me nuts. But in the morning, as the noise started to fade away, I could begin to hear the still small voice of God.” 

This wonderful brother went back to his church a different pastor, determined to sit still long enough and be quiet long enough to hear what God wanted for his life and work.

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Blaise Pascal

If we want to hear God speak to us, we can take the same approach as the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then, be quiet and listen…. 

Any fool can babble on about their gripes and opinions. But in the Bible, talking is generally viewed as being overrated. Solitude and silence are prized so that we might listen and learn.

Genuine listening can be scary. We might want to avoid what God is saying because it may be something we don’t want to hear. Eli got bad news from Samuel’s listening to God. Yet here is where words are to follow listening. When we take the time to listen to God, we must do and say what God tells us. And God might tell us to say or do something we may not want. 

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 need to have times of silence so that we hear God speak, and we must act in faith to say and do what God calls us to.

Loving God, we admit we are uncomfortable with silence; we do not like to listen because it is such hard work.  We confess to you our idol of filling every nook and cranny of our lives with being busy and productive, achieving and doing. There are so many words and so much information we hear every day that we do not hear your voice. We admit we keep looking for you to act without first listening to what you are saying to us.  We confess we feel that we cannot get away with you; and feel powerless over the forces at work in our lives.

Today, we choose a posture of listening to your Holy Spirit speak to us through your Holy Word. As you speak and have spoken, fill us with the courage to act upon what you tell us to do. We lean into the faith we have in the Lord Jesus so that our lives may be shaped and formed in ways that please you. Be gracious to answer us and lead us to the green pastures and quiet waters of your sacred space. Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Mark 6:30-34 – The Ethics of Rest and Work

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So, they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he began teaching them many things. (NIV)

The Protestant work ethic is a real thing.

Although the German sociologist, Max Weber, coined the term, the idea has been around since the Reformation. Since I’m an old white Protestant minister with Northern European heritage, I can testify firsthand that phrases like “quiet place,” “get some rest,” and “solitary place” aren’t in my tribe’s vocabulary.

The typical understanding of sin in the Protestant work ethic is laziness, sloth, procrastination, and disorder. Heck, even sleeping and eating are viewed more as necessary evils than healthy practices. Hard industrious work is considered a high value. All other activities fall underneath it.

So, it is not surprising that today’s Gospel lesson rarely gets attention from anybody, especially with people who share my heritage. Yet, there it is in Holy Scripture for all to read. And I can’t think of any better or sage advice to give my fellow Protestant Christians as “get some rest.”

Having heard my share of folks, after me insisting they practice some self-care, say goofy things like, “I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I die,” I now go full-frontal retort with my own words that go something like, “And that death will happen a lot sooner than you think, if you don’t obey the Lord through solitude and rest.”

Moving from guilt to grace.

Although I know better, I often find myself burning the candle at both ends. Its far too easy for me to forget eating lunch because of work. And I sometimes catch myself wanting to justify to others the reason for putting my feet up for a few minutes. Make no mistake about it: The Protestant work ethic is mostly motivated by guilt, not grace.

Perhaps we need to say the phrase of Jesus out loud, using several different versions of the Bible. Go ahead. Say the following, slowly… gently… as if Christ himself were speaking directly to you….

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (NIV)

“Come, let’s take a break and find a secluded place where you can rest a while.” (TPT)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (NRSV)

“Come with me privately to an isolated place and rest a while.” (NET)

“Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” (NLT)

“Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.”

Jesus (Mark 6:31, CEV)

I want us to see what a gracious invitation we are being extended by our Lord. This is the same Lord who said:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

At odds with Christian discipleship.

It is high time we see that much of the Protestant work ethic is at odds with Christian discipleship. Although the ethic rightly lifts the need for faith to be expressed in diligence, discipline, and frugality, it elevates hard work as a visible sign of God’s grace. So, ironically, people end up working their tails off to prove the grace in their lives. And it has created a false self for many who are fearful of being seen by others as slothful and irreligious.

For example, I once had an elderly parishioner who often told me how little sleep she got, the part-time job she held, and the many volunteer opportunities she regularly engaged. I thought it odd that an older person could truly do so much without much rest. And my hunch proved spot on. Turns out she fudged on how many hours she really worked and slept, sometimes outright lying to me.

This lady felt compelled to prove to me, her Pastor, that she was on the straight and narrow, doing the things a good Protestant Christian does. What is sad about this is that the stories are multiplied with many other dear people obsessively relating to me untrue facts about themselves so that I will accept and affirm their superior religiosity expressed in hard work.

However, the axis of the world does not spin on effort and working harder but on grace and love. Behind all the posturing and continually striving for an almost superhuman work ethic are terribly insecure folk who need to rest in the grace of God in Christ.

Embracing both work and rest.

None of this is to say that work is somehow bad. No, work is inherently good. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to work it and tend to it. We need not denigrate work to emphasize rest. Whereas you might doth protest that younger generations today have no idea what hard work is, I will pushback by saying they intuitively see the foolishness of the Protestant work ethic and want to steer clear of it.

Millennials, I argue, are ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard. They just need a bit of direction from us older generations. And that guidance cannot be in the form of disparaging them. Rather it needs to be gracious, forging real mentoring relationships which are helpful.

So, let’s get a hold of what Jesus did: He worked, yes, worked, to get his disciples to a place of rest and refreshment. Christ wanted nothing to do with compulsively working without proper care of body and soul. Rest must come before work. We do well to follow his example.

Be present, O merciful God, and give us refreshment through the anxieties of the day and the silent hours of the night so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest upon your eternal changelessness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.