“Read the Map”
Do you remember those days when people did not have a GPS in their car? If you are much older than me, you probably remember when we did not even have satellites above the earth.
It was easy to get lost. You could be driving down the road, daydreaming, and suddenly you might find yourself asking, “If I am traveling West and it is 5:30 in the evening, then why is the sun setting behind me?” It is just never a good sign when you see the sun setting in the East. Something is turned around the wrong way, and you can be sure it is not the sun. A missed turn, and eventually it dawns on you that you are lost and going in the wrong direction fast.
Today usually there is that little voice that is not in your head, quickly saying things like, “Off route…make a u-turn…recalculating…follow the highlighted path.” But back in the day, there was only one solution to the problem. You had to get off the road, find a parking lot with some good lighting, stop the car, and then get out the map. In fact, even today maps still can tell you a lot more information at one glance than your cell phone. Maps are not completely obsolete. If nothing else a map can remind us of the importance of pausing along the way to gain our direction and focus within life.
Our story today of Jesus is basically making that very point. It is a rather simple story about Jesus early ministry. His reputation as a healer, a speaker, a teacher, and a person of authority over even unclean spirits rapidly grew. People were gathering to hear him, but even more than that to seek physical healing for themselves and others.
People were a lot like they are today. Even in our age of modern medicine if a person has a reputation of being a faith healer, they will attract large crowds. If a person is sick and they think someone can help them they may not even care what their preaching or theology is about. They just want to be made well. While on the internet I found an interesting site that listed a lot of our modern-day faith healers, and it noted how they died or how family members close to them had died with illnesses that they could not heal. According to the site some of the faith healers preached against modern medicine and hospitals, but when they needed help, they were taken to the hospital. The site had the title, “Healer, Heal thy Self.” It was basically attacking those living and dead who claimed to have the power to heal. None-the-less, even though we might find some agreement that not every person who claims the power to heal is legitimate, probably every one of the names on that site commanded large audiences.
Close to where I lived growing up, Kathyrn Kulhman was considered a faith healer. While she was associated with a number of locations throughout the United States in my time she was located in Pittsburgh, PA. The story is told that when she began to preach one day some people in her congregation said that they had been healed. Kathryn was astonished. When such occurrences became more frequent, she began to preach about faith healing, without ceasing to put the main emphasis on the salvation of the soul. Eventually she settled in Pittsburgh, where ever-increasing crowds flocked to her services. From 1946, she conducted an average of 125 healing meetings per year. She used the largest halls in the USA speaking to thousands at a time, and her healing meetings were attended by about one and a half million people each year. She died in 1976, but her website and marketing potential still lived on several years after her death. Faith healers can be very popular people.
Jesus was thought of as a person who could help. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever. We do not know what was causing her illness, whether it was an inconvenience to her or something grave and life threatening. Jesus continued to teach the people and heal the sick. He cast out unclean spirits, and people came to see him. So, congested did these moments become that Jesus hardly had a place to turn around. Day in and day out Jesus was surrounded by the noise and smells of the small town crowded with people.
Surely, Jesus popularity was growing by leaps and bounds. Perhaps Jesus could have chosen to remain right where he was, and let the people come to him. He could have been like some of our faith healers of today. Perhaps he could have moved to a larger city and started his own healing center.
But in the hurry and turbulence of life, it is interesting to see what Jesus chose to do instead. We read that one morning while it was still very dark, in the pre-dawn hours, Jesus got up and went away to a deserted place. There he spent time in prayer. Now I think we can be certain that prayer was a normal part of Jesus spiritual life, but the way the story is told, I wonder if this is not a case where there was an issue pressing in upon Jesus. I wonder if this is not an instance where Jesus just had to get away and make time for self renewal and prayer.
I think this is a moment when Jesus had to ask himself, what direction is my ministry supposed to take? Should I be the person to heal the sick? Should I stay where I am at today, or should I continue on to another place? After Jesus was baptized by John, he was driven into the wilderness and there tempted. The temptations he faced were directly related to his own personal understanding of who and what the messiah is. Who he was to be? What kind of message did God want him to bring to the people? Therefore, it is not such a large leap in logic to suggest that this was still something of the issue.
If you were surrounded by a large crowd of people cheering you on as a worker of miracles and a healer, and you were able to restore people back to health, what would you do? Faith healers of today move to larger cities and seek out larger auditoriums from which to hold larger meetings and publicize their names. Hospitals build larger facilities, spending probably 100s of million dollars and then charge accordingly. Jesus, went to a lonely place to pray. He paused in the journey to read the map. Jesus sought spiritual guidance and focus for life. What was his calling to be about?
By the time his disciples found him with the news that everyone is still looking for him, (he left but the people did not) Jesus replies, “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.” If you can imagine in the midst of the need and marvelous support, he had developed with those he had been ministering to, Jesus put his back to the town he was at and walked on down the road. What works he had done were done and what needs that were not met were left for another time. And the scriptures tell us that he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Jesus prayed, he determined what his ministry was about, he reaffirmed the reason for why he was preaching anyway, and then he moved forward according to that calling to take his message to everyone. The message he had concerning repentance and the kingdom of God was the important part of Jesus ministry. The healings were secondary, and so while the people of the town were searching for Jesus, he journeyed on to the next town.
In this hurried life, in our hurried church (most churches hurry from one point to another) I think this text reminds us of the importance of stopping for moments to collect our own sense of focus, clarity, direction, and purpose. We need to remember on our journeys along life’s highway the importance of stopping and reading the map. Otherwise in our travels we may find ourselves wondering when the sun started setting in the East instead of the West.
I suggest that to know our path as an individual and most importantly as a church, there is value in humble introspection and seeking to know God within our lives and the church’s calling. It is probably a given that we are tired of pandemic living. We are tired and impatient with spending so much time at home. We are feeling overly isolated. Without a doubt this is one of the reasons why we have chosen to begin sharing in in person worship again. These times do bring us a lot of stress, concern, worries, and weariness. However, these times also are opportunities to spend a bit more time in personal prayer and study. These times also can be good for some self-reflection and spiritual growth. We may contemplate the place of God within our lives. We may consider what does God want us to accomplish today? I think that if Jesus needed to spend moments in prayer from time to time to gather for himself what was truly at the core of his ministry and mission, then we do as well.
Life and ministry is organic in nature. In other words, people, churches, and ministry function according to the principles of living things. They are bound to grow slowly and surely if they receive the right care. They are vulnerable to accident and ill treatment. And most importantly to breathe in everything has to breathe out. Prayer is the moment and opportunity to breathe out. Spiritual growth and church growth requires those moments of prayerful stillness. For it is only in such moments that the world can come into focus and we as people, personally and in community, are able to determine when we are to sit still and stay where we are, and when it is time to move and take the message on down the road. The scriptures teach us the importance of waiting upon the Lord. The Bible says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Catch your breath in prayer and wait upon the Lord. The wait may be a day, or it may be years, but as we wait, God will be at work answering the prayers we lift up to him. God will prove himself faithful to us. Then clarity and direction come.
Every church wishes to grow. Every church will tell their pastor the same thing. Pastor we need more people. We need more young people in the church. We need you pastor to build a fire under us. I have heard all those things and more, but the scriptures tell us, that some plant and others water, “but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” For the church to grow we must rely upon God. And we live out that reliance upon God within our pray life and the patience and endurance we show, then in God’s timing growth and life will come.
There is a story that comes out of World War II. After the Battle of the Bulge, a German officer was describing the capture of an American unit early in the fighting. This unit had in its possession a box which contained a cake. What was remarkable about the cake is that it had been sent to an American soldier from Boston and it was still fresh. This German officer described his feelings when he realized that the Americans had the resources to fly over cakes from home even in the midst of a global war. He said that he knew then, that they would never defeat an enemy that had such resources for the waging of the battle.
We likewise are incredibly endowed with deep spiritual resources within our opportunity to pray. We have the abundant resources of heaven itself on which to call. The odds are really in our favor and not against us, but we like Jesus must often take a moment to pause in prayer. Then our direction will be clear, our mission plain, and growth in life and spirit a reality.
What shall we be? What shall we do? What shall we become? God knows. Rest for a moment. Take it to God in prayer, and the day will dawn and a direction will be made clear –life and growth will come when we wait upon the Lord. Amen.