Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4 2018
Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147 (CH4 103); 1 Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
Life is very busy for Jesus. He doesn’t have to attract attention, the people come to him and they bring more and more people wanting help, the sick, the injured, those suffering in body mind or spirit. There are the Pharisees, the disciples, his own family – everyone wants his attention. There is no end to the demands that the people will put on to him.
What can sustain him in the presence of such demand?
We too face many different pressures in busy lives. We too can find it a struggle to get through the day for many reasons. What can sustain Jesus, what can sustain us?
The answer comes in the following verses, the prayer, the relationship to God gained through prayer. “Very early in the morning while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Each of us can learn a lot from this – for if Jesus needed this space in a busy life, if he was to fulfil God’s calling for him, how much more do we need it, whether we face busyness or loneliness.
However it’s not so much the act of Jesus in going off alone to pray that I want us to reflect upon, but more the content, the encounter that he experienced as a result of such times. It was through prayer, through the intimacy that prayer can bring, that he knew the glory, the wonder of God for himself and that did sustain him.
Isaiah expresses that glory in the passage from the Old Testament that we read. It is one of my favourite passages from the book of Isaiah. The poetry of what is really a psalm speaks with the same clarity today as it did some two thousand five hundred years ago when it was first written.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
This was the inspiration that Jesus received as he prayed, and an inspiration of the type that we are each offered as a sustaining gift. Jesus’ hope was in God and so his strength was renewed. We see it in the one occasion in the scriptures when we are told of Jesus’ words and passion in prayer – in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed and had his strength renewed. Prayer, bringing us into the presence and glory of God, offers us strength too as we face life. It helps us to cope, but it also gives us the capacity to go out and in that busy life make a difference in the world, that is Christian mission.
This passage of Isaiah 40 is great poetry. There is great danger in trying to explain poetry. We all know that if you examine a great painting under a microscope it can be seen as simply a collection of markings of paint. Likewise a poem when dissected too much can lose much of its meaning. The meaning comes in part from the specific points that are made and in part from how those are put together, like paint on the canvas of a work of art. The message of this passage from Isaiah comes from the whole of the poem flowing as it does from rhetorical question to statement of faith and description of experience. But the essence of the whole of the passage is the appreciation and adoration of God.
Life for us, like life for Jesus, can have so many demands. It can be very hard to hold that sense of the awe and the wonder at life and of God through all the many tasks of the week. That is not so much something to be ashamed of, but rather a reality to be faced. Even Jesus in his life faced this reality. It does though make the need for a regular return to that awareness of God in prayer all the more important.
Prayer sustains an awareness in our hearts of the nature of God that carries us through the busyness, through the many particular things that we have to pay attention to if we are to fulfil our work day to day and hour to hour. In the same way our worship on a Sunday hopefully helps us through the week. For me getting up early enough to have half an hour of prayer before the day begins – works for me. Others aren’t good in the morning and another time or pattern works better for them. Finding that time makes such a difference though.
Our adoration of God expressed in our prayers – at the beginning of services or at other times, is not a piece of flattery to God so that we will be given our own way – like a child asking for sweets. Adoration of God is for our own benefit – not God’s – in reminding us that our God is a great God who is beyond our intellectual reasoning, beyond any scientific study. In a world where it is so easy to become cynical, where so much suffering exists, when it is so easy to feel that the ways of care and love have been lost, it reminds us that we are ultimately on the winning side, God’s goodness in the end cannot be defeated. The one who brought all into being cannot be marginalised. God is great. Only in the realms of poetry, placed alongside our intellectual knowledge, can we express the truth that is God. As we go out to change the world we go in God’s strength, through God’s glory.
To look at our knowledge of the world, in scientific theorem or in the complex webs of the ecosystem, or in the vast expanse of the solar system is to pick up great truths but they can only say so much. To go beyond these we need poetry as we find in the Bible. Using our human senses, poetry calls us to that which is beyond.
Take a poem of WH Auden:
Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol him,
Let the whole creation give out another sweetness,
Nicer in our nostrils, a novel fragrance
From cleansed occasions in accord together
As one feeling fabric, all flushed and intact,
Phenomena and numbers announcing in one
Multitudinous ecumenical song
Their grand givenness of gratitude and joy,
Peaceable and plural, their positive truth
An authoritative This, an unthreatened Now
When, in love and laughter, each lives itself,
For, united by his Word, cognition and power,
System and order, are a single glory,
And the pattern is complex, their places safe.
Note how in this poem senses, experience, observation and reason combine to take us beyond ourselves just as they do in the passage from Isaiah that gives glory to God. Throughout all our life let us keep that glory in mind. In our busyness this week may that be our context, placing into perspective what we do and what we are.
Let us give praise and thanks to this great God.