January 31, 2021
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Our theme for this season here at Seekers is “Radiant Hope.” In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus went to a synagogue in Capernaum, did some teaching, and removed an unclean spirit from a man, restoring him to health.
What’s the hope in this passage? At first glance, I’d say the hope is this: if you’re unhealthy & happen to go to the right synagogue at the right time, God will heal you.
But I want to dig deeper than that. To do so, I need to look at these events in their context. This gospel passage is from the first chapter of Mark. Mark was the first gospel to have been written, and it presents today’s story as the first public appearance in Jesus’s ministry.
What do people know about Jesus at this early point in his ministry? It seems he was known to be a teacher with a message, so when he went to the synagogue, he was given an opportunity to teach, just like the other scribes and teachers. At this point in time, he had not yet riled up the authorities.
Synagogues were local community centers where Jews gathered to pray, to hear the Jewish scriptures read aloud, and to listen to scribes and other teachers interpret the Jewish scriptures. Scribes would quote the scriptures to explain and justify the points they wanted to make. But that’s not what Jesus did. He taught with “personal authority.” He didn’t quote the scriptures to justify what he was saying – he spoke his truth without the need for any backup references, footnotes, or citations. What Jesus did was not what they knew or expected. That’s why the people were amazed; they were spellbound.
Then, Jesus is confronted by an unclean spirit in one of the men. Most of the ancient world believed that demons and evil spirits existed and could take possession of a person, making them sick in some way. At that time, people understood that the way to remove these spirits was for an exorcist to perform incantations and magical rituals. But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus simply told the spirit to leave, and it did. What Jesus did was not what they knew or expected.
MY PROBLEM WITH “WHAT ARE YOU HOPING FOR?”
During this season of Epiphany, we’ve been given a reflection question to guide our discussion in Circle Time. The question for this season is:
“what are you hoping for?” The first time I heard it, that question made me uneasy. Week after week, my un-ease has continued.
The question, “what are you hoping for” took me back to a sermon on Prayer that I offered here 5 years ago. Like most of us, I grew up learning to pray by asking God for what I wanted. But when I started working a twelve-step program in my late 20s, I was given a different way to pray. Step Eleven says to pray “asking only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” Asking only for God’s will, not for what I want! This was a big change, and has created real challenges for me, but I came to understand it as the best way to pray: asking to know God’s will & to have the strength, courage, and willingness to carry it out.
Then, six years ago, I started my training to become a chaplain, and I was taught something else. I was taught to listen deeply to a person, and then pray aloud for what the person really desires. It’s a good test to see if I was really listening to their soul. But it’s not praying for God’s will, it’s praying for what we want, isn’t it?
That’s the issue I grappled with in preparing that sermon five years ago. What I came up with then was this: God is our best friend, and as a friend God wants to hear whatever is on our mind. Therefore, it’s OK to ask God for what we want, as long as we are praying from a place of faith and humility – putting the focus on God, not on the solution that we’re requesting. For good measure, when I pray for a specific outcome, I silently add the phrase, “but thy will, not mine, be done.” At least, I like to think that I remember to add that.
GOD’s POWER vs MY IMAGINATION
This year, I gained a new insight that has significantly changed my take on Prayer as well as Hope – I realized that “God’s power is greater than our imagination.” I don’t remember where I read or heard this, but I did a google search while preparing this sermon and learned that it comes from Ephesians 3:20. Here’s the verse, from the Contemporary English Version: “God’s power at work in us can do far more than we dare ask or imagine,” and from the Common English Bible, “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine….”
When I ask God to give me what I want – or to prevent me from losing what I have – I’m asking for the best outcome that I can imagine. But I now believe that God can do better. God has the power to address my problems & my concerns in ways that I cannot imagine, just as Jesus taught and healed in that synagogue in Capernaum in ways that the Jewish people could not imagine.
So now when I pray, I want to give God the problem, rather than giving God the solution. I don’t practice this very well yet, but it’s the goal I’m aiming for.
I recently heard a woman say that she had prayed, “God, I haven’t got a clue what to do about this.” I think she got it right.
WHAT IS HOPE?
What does this understanding of Prayer have to do with Hope?
First of all, it tells me that Hope based-on-faith-in-God is not about getting the outcome that we want. Faith-based Hope is not about electing the right President, or getting the COVID vaccine to everyone, or eliminating world hunger. Yes, I want all those things to happen, and I use the word “hope” in a casual way just like everyone else – I hope it won’t snow tomorrow, I hope you get well soon, I hope my sermon isn’t too long. But what I call “faith-based hope, or Christian Hope, isn’t about getting what we want. It’s a different kind of Hope. Like God’s power, Christian Hope is greater than my imagination.
It’s easy to tell you what Christian Hope is not, but what is it? The best answer I can give you comes from the homily Amy Moffitt offered on Thanksgiving Eve. Here’s what I heard Amy say:
The world is a mess, we’re all suffering, and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Then I remember that we have a faith in which God came to earth, an angry mob of people turned him over to the rulers, and he was tortured and killed – but that’s not the end of the story. Things can get really bad before they get a whole lot better. Even when things seem hopeless, there is Hope. We have a God who cares about human suffering, and who has more power than us.
“There will be a next chapter”, Amy said, “and I want to stick around to see it.” That’s Hope.
But what about suffering – can’t we hope that we won’t suffer, that our loved ones’ suffering will end, that future generations won’t suffer climate catastrophe?
While I’ve had a pretty solid streak of good fortune for the last few years, I’m certain that at some points in my future I will suffer. I work with nursing home residents, which means I see and hear suffering all the time, and sometimes I share in that suffering.
Hope doesn’t mean I won’t suffer. Suffering is part of life, and I choose to participate in life. Why is suffering part of life? I don’t know why. And I don’t expect myself to know why, because God’s power really is greater than anything I can understand.
A few years ago, I was leading a class with a group of Christian residents at the nursing home, and I asked them, “What do you do when you feel forsaken by God?” A man named Donald gave me this reply:
“When I came here, I was in excruciating pain. I prayed, I sang, I spoke in tongues, I did everything I knew how to do to ask God to take this pain from me. Finally, I gave up on that & demanded of God, “why are you making me suffer?!?” And God’s answer came to me. God said, ‘Isn’t it true that every time I have let you suffer, I have subsequently rewarded you?’ And I knew it was true.”
That’s what Donald said to me. And it reminded me of my own personal experience. Three years after I got married to my first husband, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The next nine years of my life were hell.
But afterwards, I could see that God rewarded me greatly in so many ways.
Most of you know that I am a member of Al-Anon, a twelve-step program for families and friends of alcoholics. Al-Anon has a great line about Hope in its Welcome Statement: “In Al-anon, we discover that no situation is really hopeless and that it is possible for us to find contentment, and even happiness, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.”
That’s my definition of Hope: It’s possible for me to find contentment, and even happiness, whether I get the outcome that I want or not.
In conclusion, Christian Hope is not an expectation that God will give us what we want, or a certainty that we won’t suffer. In fact, I’m certain that we won’t always get what we want, and that we will suffer sometimes. But I’m also certain that God will take care of us, no matter what. God’s power really is greater than our imagination. For me, that is Hope. Amen.