Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Finding Strength in God

Mark 1:29-39 and Isaiah 40:25-31

 Think about times in your life that you have experienced deep weariness.  We can certainly think about times when we’ve felt physically drained.  But I have found that emotional or spiritual weariness is much more difficult.  

 Last spring I did my first half-marathon, a 13 mile run.  It might have been my last one as well.  It was exhausting.  I didn’t want to do much of anything for days after.  A couple months after that, I was out on a backpacking trip.  And I realized on the second morning that I had “bitten off more than I could chew.”  If I wanted to finish the trip on schedule, I’d have to do a really long day.  I can’t say exactly how many miles I did, but I figure it was between 28 and 30.  Almost 30 miles of hiking with a pack on my back, up and down over mountains and valleys, it was a very exhausting experience.  But in both cases, a few good nights of sleep and a couple days of recovery time, and I was back to normal, at least normal for me.  

 Other kinds of exhaustion are not so easy to bounce back from.  Going through long periods of spiritual turmoil or illness or emotional struggles are much more difficult than a simple physical tiredness that will pass in a few days.  

 The promise of God that we find here in Isaiah 40 is that if we trust in him and turn to him, then we will find him to be a limitless source of strength.  

 Now it might not look like it to us, but Isaiah 40 is a “polemic,” an attack on those who trust in other things for their strength and security.  The whole chapter is about the superiority of God over all the other things that pretend to offer security.  It’s an attack on those who trust in kingdoms and earthly rulers.  Verse 17 says, “All the nations of the world are like nothing compared to God.”  Verse 23 says, “He judges the great men of the world and brings them to nothing.”  It’s an attack on those who trust in idols.  Verses 18-20 say, “What idol is like God?  Can God be compared to an idol of gold and silver?  Or one that is carved out of wood?  Can God be compared to an idol that has to be placed on a stand to keep it from falling over?”  

 It’s even an attack on those who look to the stars.  Verse 26 says, “Who created all those stars?  God brings them out one by one, calling each by name.”  That might seem odd to us, but this message was written to those living in Exile in Babylon or Persia.  If you’ll remember back to one of the Sundays after Christmas, we talked about

the Magi, the astrologers who came from either Babylon or Persia.  They worshipped “astral deities.”  They worshipped the stars and looked to them for direction.  

 The picture in this chapter is of a God who is not like all the other ancient Near East gods.  The other Near East deities were not without limits to their strength or knowledge.  They had to eat and drink.  They had to sleep.  They needed a place of shelter.  The most basic understanding of a temple in the ancient Near East is that they were places of rest for the gods.  They were places where the gods were fed and cared for.  In Near East mythologies, the gods created human beings to take care of them, to tend to their needs.  And they were often ignorant or unaware of things.  You had to tell these gods about something or they wouldn’t know it.  And they could be tricked or deceived because they didn’t know everything that was happening.  

 They were very different from the Creator God of the Bible.  The true God never grows tired or weary.  He doesn’t need to be fed or cared for.  He cares for his people, not the other way around.  And he does not lack in any knowledge or understanding.  We don’t have to “keep him informed” of what’s happening.  He created the heavens and the earth, and he sustains them.  And he is just as capable of sustaining those who trust in him.  He has no equal.  No one is like him.  

 As for us, our strength is quickly exhausted.  Our knowledge is frequently limited.  And while we may not try to do it consciously, I think we often tend to reduce God to our own experiences and confine him to human qualities.  We might not say it, but we might think it:  “God can’t help me.  God doesn’t know what I’m going through.  God can’t do _______.”  

 Or we might go looking for strength and security from some other source than God.  We may no longer call our gods or idols by those names, but I think we still have them.  There are still an endless number of things that we human beings look to as sources of strength or hope or security in this world.  But none of them can deliver.  No one and nothing else is like our God.  

 Only God is a limitless source of strength.  In him we find new strength; strength to fly, strength to run, strength to walk.  

 In Jesus’ day, the rabbis had a particular interpretation of that verse.  They related it back to the Exodus story. They said that the flight out of Egypt was the “flying

on wings like eagles.”  The forty years of wandering in the wilderness was the “running and not growing weary.” And living in the Promised Land was “walking and not fainting.”  

 It might seem counter-intuitive, but the most difficult of those three was the “walking.”  The times in our spiritual life when we feel like we are “flying” or “running” are easier. Why?  Well, for one thing, we just get caught up in the moment.  We feel the excitement.  When we first come to Jesus, it might feel like we’re flying.  Everything is new and exciting.  But it’s the walking, it’s the daily grind of living out the life of faith that really challenges us.  The long, steady, sometimes even monotonous, journey of faith is the most challenging part of it. 

 Many who start the journey never finish it.  Jesus told a parable in Luke 14 about a man who started to build a tower, but he hadn’t taken the time to “count the cost” before he started.  He was unable to finish the job.  And as such, he became a laughingstock to all who passed by and saw the foundation laid with no tower on it.  Jesus is warning us that living out the life of faith will not be easy. 

 Weariness is inevitable.  We must acknowledge that.  We must accept that.  If we deny it and think, “No problem.  I can stick with Jesus, no matter what,” then we are blinding ourselves to the reality of weariness, and when we are blind to something, it can sneak up on us.  

 But if we acknowledge that we do NOT have the strength to follow Jesus faithfully throughout our lives, if we acknowledge that we cannot sustain ourselves, then we are able to turn to God and find new strength from the one who sustains the whole universe.  

 Let’s turn back to our first reading from earlier, Mark 1.  In Mark 1, we find Jesus preaching in the synagogue.  Then he goes to the home of Peter and Andrew.  

 I can tell you from 12 years of experience, preaching is exhausting.  It’s not so much physically exhausting as it is mentally and emotionally draining.  I’ve never yet finished preaching and felt “ready to go” on to whatever was next.  I’ve always wanted a nap!  It was nice before we had children when I could get a Sunday afternoon nap!  

 If Jesus was truly human, then he must have felt that exhaustion.  But instead of a nap, after his preaching in the synagogue, we find Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. 

And we know from other passages that healing was also exhausting to Jesus.  He could feel strength leaving him as he healed. 

 We don’t know about the rest of the afternoon, but I have to imagine the disciples were interested in knowing more about what Jesus had been teaching that morning in the synagogue.  And when the sun had set and the Sabbath was over, the whole town showed up at the door to see more of this miracle worker.  Everyone who was ill or affected by an evil spirit showed up.  And Jesus healed them all.  I’m sure he was up late into the night.  And again, I’m sure this was not just physically draining, but also spiritually and emotionally draining to “deal with” all this human brokenness.  

 Yet somehow, Jesus is up early the next day, well before sunrise.  Why?  To be alone with the Father.  Houses in first century Galilee were pretty small, often only two rooms.  And there were probably a dozen or more people in that house.  If you wanted solitude, you’d have to find it outside.  So Jesus is up in the hills, praying. 

 Jesus knew he could not handle the challenges of this life of ministry unless he intentionally sought out time with the Father.  That’s a good model for all of us.  We can’t possibly live out the life of faith unless we also intentionally seek time alone with God.  That can be our quiet time in the Scriptures.  It can be a spiritual retreat.  It can be time at a church camp.  One of the best parts of leading the Algonquin trip for me is to spend time in the wilderness, away from the daily pressures of life, with other people who are seeking God.  

 I can feel the difference between when I have those times in my life and when I don’t.  On the surface, it’s easier not to take that “time apart.”  After all, the work is still there when you get back.  Often time apart means playing “catch up” afterwards, or “working ahead” before.  But it’s still worth it.  In the short run, it might be easier to skip out on “time apart,” but in the long run, it most certainly is not.

 One final note:  Both Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law give us a good example to follow.  When they have experienced renewal from God, it strengthens them for restored fellowship with others and for service to others.  If we direct our spiritual energy inwards, if we are self-centered in our spiritual life, we will not find that our strength lasts very long.  God strengthens us so that we might love and serve another, not so that we can love and serve ourselves.  When we love and serve others, God continues to give us his strength.  

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