All Too Human
Epiphany celebrates God in man made manifest, but isn't our text all too human? Prayer is a prominent feature of the text. Prayer is where God and man meet and here that sacred event looks all too human even though Jesus, God in the flesh, is involved.
First, we see that 4 disciples of Jesus are all too human, i.e. all too much like us in their prayers. After a year of following Jesus, after a year of seeing Jesus do miracles, hearing Him preach, seeing His compassion, they wait to pray about Peter's sick mother-in-law. They waited to pray about Jesus helping her till after they came home from the exorcism at the synagogue. After that all presumably them included - were amazed at Jesus' authority and power.
But wait a minute. Did they even pray now? The text says, "Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever," and they told Jesus about her." Are they praying or merely informing? Are they asking for help or explaining why she won't be joining them for the meal? You can tell God things in prayer and still be praying though you're not asking, but you usually do that when you're not sure what to ask for.
The way it happened is all too human, all too much like me. How many things do I wait to pray on? How uncontrollable, uncontainable, undoable things must become to me before I bring it to the Lord in prayer? It's as if I never heard Jesus' command, "Ask, seek, knock," or His promise, "I'll answer; you'll find, and it will be opened." It's as if Jesus' didn't bear my griefs or carry my sorrows, but only those of others. It's as if by living my life perfectly and dying my death painfully, He didn't win the right for me to pray for anything.
You know the fact that the disciples are all too human in their prayer life isn't surprising and isn't what bothers most. Jesus praying does. Mark records Jesus praying 3 times, and all of them are times of stress for Him. Mark records Jesus praying in Gethsemane. That was surely a time of stress and strain. Hell had opened up beneath His feet and He saw He would have to go there to get us. The time before that Jesus prays in Mark is at the Feeding of the 5,000. Thousands want to make Jesus king and He retreats to a mountain alone to pray.
Our text is the first time Mark records Jesus praying. It too must be a time of stress. But why? He has just exorcised an unclean devil, healed the mother-in-law of a friend, and when the whole town showed up at His doorstep He healed them. Sickness after sickness was healed, demon after demon cast out late into the night, but very early in the morning Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray.
Jesus is a hit. Jesus is a success. His numbers are good. The opinion polls are through the roof, yet the Man Jesus is driven to His knees as He will be when the crowd wants to make Him king without the cross and as He will be when the cross is the only God-given path to reign over sinners. But where's the stress now? Evidently it was tempting to set up a health clinic in Capernaum and remain Mr. Popularity.
But it's not just the fact that this Man who is God is stressed enough to pray, but that He prays at all is all too human for God to do. Chesterton was being shown around the Mount of Olives by a child from a nearby village. The child explained that this is the place where God said His prayers. Chesterton says there is no finer or more definite statement that separates Christianity from all other world religions (Collected Works, XX, 353).
Where do you hear that Allah, Shiva, Vishnu or Brahma prays? How about Heavenly Father of Mormonism? How about Jehovah of Judaism? These don't pray. They're only prayed to. Praying is all too human for a god to do, yet our God does it. He prays often and isn't ashamed to be seen. And at least once in prayer He was under such stress a stress you have felt that He sweat great drops of blood. Plop, plop, but no fizz. Still what a wonderful relief it is.
That our God and Savior should pray in an all too human way is a relief to us because we see that His prayers are answered in an all too human way. Jesus is answered the way I am. And it can't be as is sometimes the case with me that His prayer was at fault. Jesus never experienced what King Hamlet and I do: "'My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go'" (Hamlet, III, iii, 100-103). No, Jesus prayed from an undistracted, holy heart in words freighted with thought.
Yet, Jesus got answers like I get. Jesus prayed before choosing the 12, yet He Himself says He ended up choosing a devil. Jesus prayed when the crowd wanted to make Him king without crucifixion or resurrection and Jesus walked right into His disciples thinking He was a ghost. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that God's cup of wrath which you and I deserve to drink might pass Him by, and instead it was handed to Him filled to the brim.
This is praying for patience and getting a difficult person in your life. This is praying for money and getting bills. This is praying for health and getting more sickness. This is praying for everything to work out and things work into such a tangled web that you feel you've been deceived in your prayers. But, nevertheless, God's will was done. We know Jesus prayed for that in His most difficult prayer in Gethsemane, and we know that Jesus taught us to pray "Thy will be done," so we can't think Jesus left that petition out in any of His prayers. And God's will for us is that we know Him in Jesus. So, Prayer in Jesus' name always carries the caveat: If what I am praying for somehow, someway could take me away from Jesus' name, I don't want it. This tells us something about the way Jesus answered the final prayer in our text. It is all too human too.
Before we go there, let's fix firmly in our hearts that every prayer Jesus prayed whether answered directly like praying for Lazarus to be raised and he was, or answered weirdly like praying who to choose for apostles and choosing a devil, or answered with silence like the orphaned cry on the cross "why have you forsaken Me", every prayer of Jesus has to do with our salvation, and so does everyone of ours. Now we're ready to deal with Jesus' answer to the final prayer of our text.
While Jesus went off to pray about His popularity and success, Peter and his companions literally "hunted" Him down. This is a strong word. There is eagerness and intensity behind it. The exclamation mark belongs at the end of Peter's words, "Everyone is looking for You!" Looks like you made it Jesus. You have arrived. Now is your moment in the sun. But Jesus replies, "Let us go somewhere else." He doesn't even have a definite place in mind. It's not like He's saying He has an appointment or a schedule. Let's just go to the nearby villages, so I can preach the Gospel of salvation there too. "That is why I have come."
The words "That is why I have come" toll like a bell, echo like a cry, play like the cantus firmus, the fixed song, throughout Jesus' ministry. Wait, wait. Don't go there yet. What about the throngs of people? What about everyone looking for Him? What if you had carried your sick child all through the night, but got there right after Jesus had gone to bed? What if you had only heard about the miracle working Jesus that morning and had just now arrived with your demon stricken friend, sister, loved one, spouse? What about them?
The end of this text is all too human. It's too close for comfort. It reminds me of the painter who painted a royal family too much like they really looked. Rather than flatter them as most portrait painters did with better looks than they had, he painted them as they were. The royal family was displeased, and I can't remember what happened to the painter but it wasn't good. The picture the text paints of prayer is all too human, all too like my experience. I have prayed and prayed and prayed for things and evidently Jesus has moved on.
Now we're ready to ask for whom the bell tolls, to appreciate the echo, to face the fixed music of our lives as Christians who are all too sinful with an all too human Savior. We're ready to hear "That is why I have come." If Jesus had really come to heal all disease, then the atheists, who ridicule Him for not giving the 1st century basic sanitation or rudimentary knowledge of germs, are right. If Jesus had really come to heal everyone from disease, to stop death from taking any one ever again, then He failed. Not only isn't He all too human, He's way too little God.
God didn't send His only beloved Son into the world to save men from disease for a time or from death till another dying. He came into the world to redeem the world, to forgive the world, to save the world. God didn't send His only begotten Son into flesh and blood to make people healthier, happier, or wealthier. That's the message of Scientology, Joel Osteen, and Christian Scientists. God the Son came into the world to bear the sins of the world away and to keep the Laws that made it guilty day and night. God the Son was sent to preach that God meant for human beings to have something more than a fallen world, a guilty heart, a dying life. God meant for us to have eternal friendship and fellowship with Him.
God the Father sent the Son not only to win that but to proclaim it. The healing, delivering, and raising He did here were signs to point to His message. If you stop at a sign, you never get to where it's pointing to. Jesus didn't come to save you for time but for eternity. Back in Eden God said He didn't want men to live forever in this fallen world. He still doesn't. Jesus didn't come healing and helping to make men comfortable in this fallen world but to point them to a world where all that makes them uncomfortable is overcome, done, finished. No one is too human, too fallen, too sinful to hear His preaching and enter this world without end. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (20150208); Mark 1: 29-39