Friday, 26 June 2009

What is going on when prayers are not answered?

We are looking at a subject today that for some people here will be very painful.

This is a story about the healing of a woman who had suffered greatly for 12 years, and the raising of a 12 year old girl from the dead.

The passage is answering a question that the disciples ask in Mark 4:41: We looked at it last week. The disciples see Jesus calm the wind and the waves, and they ask, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him'.

In the next few verses (Mark 5:1-20), we read that Jesus has authority over evil Spirits, and today we read how Jesus has authority over sickness and death.

And I think that the key verse here is an echoe of a verse in Mark 4.
In Mark 4:40, Jesus says to the disciples, after he has calmed the storm, 'Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?'.
In Mark 5:36, Jesus says to Jairus, before he raises his daughter, 'Don't be afraid, just believe'.

Two things are going on here.

1. We are being shown that Jesus is the person who has authority over nature, over evil spirits, over sickness and over death.
2. We are invited to overcome our fear and to put our trust in him

Last week one of our people went to Canada for the funeral of her granddaughter. Isabelle jumped up beside a wall at school; it collapsed and killed her. Her funeral was on the day when she should have been 15.
It is not unique. Quite a few of you have been to the funeral of your own children.

Where is God in all of that? And that is particularly important for us to ask if we believe the bible, and believe that Jesus has authority over sickness and death.

I am sure that people have prayed. I am sure that you prayed for your children, or for someone else, to be protected. You may even have prayed that God would bring them back from the dead. I am sure that you prayed with as much faith as you could muster. And I am sure you prayed with other people. And yet ...

We learn quite a bit about praying in faith from this passage

i. Faith in Jesus is simply about coming to him. It is not something that you have to whip up in yourself. ['Lord, I believe, help my unbelief'].

Jairus has the faith to believe that if Jesus puts his hand on his daughter, she will get better (when he comes to Jesus she is still alive).
The woman has the faith that if she just touches Jesus, she will be healed.

I like that. It doesn't matter if it is Jesus touching us, or us touching Jesus. It doesn't matter how it happens. Faith is about letting go of the situation and entrusting it to Jesus.

ii. I notice that faith perseveres.

Jairus, has asked Jesus to come and heal his daughter. But for various reasons, Jesus is slow coming to his house. He takes his time answering Jairus' prayer. And as a result, Jairus daughter is not healed. She dies.

Jairus is asked to take a further step of faith. He believes sufficiently to ask Jesus to heal his sick daughter. But when news is brought to him of his daughter's death, his friends tell him, 'Why bother the teacher any more?'. I suspect that there is really anger at Jesus in that comment. If he had come quicker; if he had not stopped for some woman on the way, and got her to tell him her life story, then he might have got to Jairus' daughter in time. But he didn't. And it is too late. Sickness is one thing - there is still hope. But death is the end. It is a bridge too far.

But Jesus says to Jairus, what he said to the disciples in the boat, 'Don't be afraid. Believe in me' - in other words, don't let fear overwhelm you - trust me. Go on trusting me'. And he goes into Jairus' home and raises his daughter from the dead.

In other words, what is needed is not faith in itself, not faith to believe that someone can be healed or someone can come back from the dead. What is needed is a very simple faith in Jesus: sufficient faith to believe that he has the authority over evil, sickness and death; and sufficient faith to place a situation in his hands - and to go on placing that situation in his hands, even after the worst thing that we can imagine has happened.

So what about us.

Sometimes we do see astonishing answers to prayer. People who are sick make amazing recoveries - whether dramatic or gradual. Very very occasionally we hear about dead people being raised from the dead. And our response is to be one of gratitude to God.

Indeed, just because we are surrounded by sickness and death, we must not lose the expectation that God does answer prayers that are prayed 'in the name of Jesus'. We can pray and we should be praying for people who are sick. It doesn't matter how we do it: whether we pray for them in our prayers in church, or on our own at home, or gathered around them laying on hands, or in a formal setting with the anointing of oil, or whether we simply invite the Holy Spirit to come. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that, like Jairus and the woman, we bring the person or the situation to Jesus.

To have faith means that we do not simply talk about prayer. I read about prayer, I learn about prayer, I talk about prayer. But that is a world apart from actually praying. We put our faith in God not when we learn about prayer or talk about prayer. We put our faith in God when we pray - when we plead with God for the situation and we trust it and the person into Jesus' hand, when we reach out to touch the one who calmed the sea, who cast out demons, who healed the woman and who raised Jairus' daughter from the dead.

Sometimes, quite often, we do not see our prayers answered as we wish.

That does not mean that Jesus has lost his authority. It does not mean that he is not interested in us.

I notice something else that is going on here.

In both stories there is fear.

There is the fear of the woman. The fear that 12 long years of sickness, ritual uncleanness and isolation have brought to her. The fear that she is nobody, the fear that makes her creep into the background and pretend that she does not exist. So when Jesus calls her to come out publicly she 'trembles with fear'. But Jesus is so gracious with her: 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering'.

And there is the fear that sickness and death bring. In bereavement there can be an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, nauseousness and fear. It can be extremely physical. It is a fear that gets hold of us and grips us. It is the sense that something terrifying is hanging over us, is just round the corner. And what makes it so difficult to deal with is that there is nothing we can do.

And when the the news reaches Jairus that his little girl is dead, that his world has ended, Jesus says to him, "Don't be afraid; just believe"

I suspect that there are very very few times when Jesus will raise someone from the dead today. There are only three incidents recorded in the stories of the life of Jesus: the son of a widow from a town called Nain, Lazarus and Jairus' daughter. [St Mary's resurrection window]

In this case, Jesus gives strict orders that no one is to tell what has happened. Why? Well just imagine what would happen if a child dies, someone prays for them and they are brought back to life. That person would be besieged by people begging them to come and pray over other dead people.

Jesus did come to defeat death, but not by bringing people back from the dead when they die. If he does, that is incredible. But they, and we, will still have to die - again.

Jesus came to defeat death, by destroying the power of death itself.

We do not know why Jesus raises Jairus' daughter to life, when every other child at the time was not brought back to life. But Jesus very specifically asks for Peter, James and John to accompany him - the same three who will be with him when he is transfigured, and when he is praying in agony in the garden of Gethsemane - so that through them we might know that he is the one who will defeat death, and who will raise every little girl and every little boy and every man and every woman. It was to show them that he really was and is 'the resurrection and the life'.

And so when the fear overwhelms us; when we have been dropped into the pit; when it seems that we are overwhelmed with evil and that the powers of hell are released against us; when all the evidence points to the fact that that either God does not exist, or he is powerless or he has abandoned us, this passage reminds us that

Jesus does have authority over nature, over evil, over sickness and over death
The gift that he offers us here and now, through his Holy Spirit, to the person who is prepared to trust him, is the gift of peace

So may I encourage us to pray to Jesus for healing; and when that healing happens, to give thanks.

But if today, we look back at an incredibly painful event in our life, when our prayers were not answered in the way that we desperately wanted, may I encourage us to still trust Jesus. He is still ruler over nature, evil, sickness and death. He is the one who was crucified, and is now risen. And when we do face things that nobody should ever have to face, when we do face the gut wrenching pit of bereavement and loss, to hold on to him. 'Don't be afraid; just believe'.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Jealousy: What it does and how to deal with it

Two shopkeepers were bitter rivals. Their stores were directly across the street from each other, and they would spend each day keeping track of each other's business. If one got a customer, he would smile in triumph at his rival.
One night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers in a dream and said, "I will give you anything you ask, but whatever you receive, your competitor will receive twice as much. Would you be rich? You can be very rich, but he will be twice as wealthy. Do you wish to live a long and healthy life? You can, but his life will be longer and healthier. What is your desire?"
The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, "Here is my request: Strike me blind in one eye!"

Jealousy is intensely powerful.

This is a story of what jealousy can do. Joseph has just told his brothers - in his diplomatic way - that one day they will all bow down to him. And in Genesis 37.11 we read 6 words - devastating - 'His brothers were jealous of him"

Jealousy destroys us; it eats us up on the inside. One person wrote in the Sunday Times, 'When my friend succeeds, a little bit of me dies'. It can make us do awful things.

That is reflected in our fairy tales: the wicked queen wants Snow White dead because when she asked the mirror who was the most beautiful of all, the mirror said, 'Snow White'.

I haven't seen the film Amadeus, but I read that it is a study of how jealousy can destroy people. It is a fictional story about the relationship between Antonio Salieri, a gifted classical musician, and Mozart, who continually outshines Salieri. Salieri knew from childhood he was destined to write music, and he dreamed of becoming great. He recognized that music came from God, and he bargains with God:

"Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous throughout the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life".

Salieri becomes a well-respected musician and the court composer; but he knows nothing of the fame or talent God gives Mozart; and Salierihates the idea that God gives such musical gifts to someone who is so profligate and immoral.

On one occasion, wild with jealousy, he sits in his parlor contemplating why God allowed Mozart to drink of the fame that he has thirsted for all his life. Angered, he pulls the crucifix off the wall and throws it into the blazing fireplace. He says to God:

"From now on we are enemies, you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for my reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation; because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you. I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth. As far as I am able, I will ruin your incarnation".

I suspect that part of the reason why jealousy is so powerful is because it makes us feel inadequate. It challenges our self-worth and who we think we are. If my identity is dependent upon how I do my work, then when someone comes along who - by my own standards - is better at it than me, it is very easy to begin to hate them. If my identity is dependent upon my looks, or my children, or my ability, or my wealth, or my popularity - then when I see someone who seems to do it better than me - jealousy grips. We are only usually jealous of people who are like us.

And here the brothers are jealous of Joseph. They are jealous of his status with their father; they are jealous of his natural presumption of superiority over them; they are jealous of his dreams; they are jealous of his robe - which is the public mark of their father's favour. So often jealousy is most acute in families, and often among brothers and sisters. Cain kills Abel because Abel has God's approval. Jacob and Esau battle it out for supremacy in the family. The brothers intend to kill Joseph because they are jealous of his status with their father.

[As an aside, those of us who are parents or grandparents, must do everything that we can to avoid giving reason to our children to think that one of them is more beloved than the other. God knows, and I mean that with full sincerity, what seeds of destruction we sow by showing favouritism]

And jealousy can lead to so much evil. We might even start out with thoughts of murder. We want to get rid of the person who is such an irritant to our being. Of course we quickly realise, or are persuaded, as the brothers are, that murder is probably not in our interests, and we might get into trouble! So we begin to look for other ways of destroying them: of dropping them into pits - becoming hyper critical - spreading rumours - delighting when things go wrong for them. And, even more deliciously, we can try to use them to further our own ends.

Of whom are you envious? I'm not sure that this is something that becomes less as we grow older. I think we learn to live with it, but it doesn't necessarily go away. Our feelings toward the brother or sister - who always seemed to have your parent's love, who seemed to have all the gifts or the lucky breaks, or who always seemed to have the preeminence? It was just so unfair. The person who got promoted when you didn't. The person who made it, who got what you really wanted to get.

And the problem is that jealousy, like many of the other human passions when not brought under God's authority, makes us do things that we deeply regret afterwards.

We know that the brothers do regret their actions later: When they are standing in Joseph's presence - without realising that it is Joseph,
"They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us."

Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood." (Gen 42:21-23).

Humanly speaking they think that they have got away with murder, or its equivalent, but inwardly they have not.

So this is not a very edifying story. It is about what jealousy can do: It is a story about murderous intent; then, when older and wiser counsel prevails, they decide to throw Joseph into the cistern, to let him die there - it is significant that a place that was meant to give life (a watering hole, a well) becomes a place intended for death. That is what sin does. It is about abuse: selling Joseph for profit [Judah said (v26), 'what profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood' (NRSV)]. It is said that, 'blood is thicker than water', but in this case money is thicker than blood. It is a story about lies (interestingly, the brothers do not lie in words. They take the blood spattered robe home and let dad draw his own conclusions)

But it is not a story without some hope

1. There is Reuben.

Reuben was the eldest of the brothers, and so had a status that probably not even Joseph could threaten. He was also responsible for Joseph. Reuben does not go along with his brothers when they say that they will kill Joseph, but he does not have the power, or maybe the will, to completely stand up against them. So he does what he can (v21). He suggests that they put Joseph in the pit, with the intention of coming back and rescuing him. Having said that, the fact that it is Reuben who says later on, 'Now we must give an accounting for his blood' makes me wonder whether the other brothers had ever told Reuben that they had sold Joseph into slavery - and whether Reuben wished that he had done more to save Joseph.

2. God's hand is in all of this.

I'm not going to say much about this, because this comes out much clearer toward the end of the story of Joseph. I'm not saying that the jealousy or the actions of the brothers were caused by God - but that God was able to use them. And sometimes, when things get very dark, and it seems that sin and evil is overwhelming, it is easy to despair and to think that God is powerless. But he isn't. You can be in the pit, but it does not need to be the end of your dreams.

3. What happens to Joseph prefigures what will happen to a man who bears almost the same name as Joseph - Joshua, or Jesus.

They were jealous of him. They hated his claim that he was the Son of God and that one day he would come and judge all creation. They hated his popularity with people, his spiritual authority and power. He was both sold for 30 pieces of silver, but he was also judicially murdered.

His death looked like the victory of jealousy, the triumph of sin and evil.
But actually his death was the victory of love over jealousy, because Jesus chose freely to take into himself not just the consequence of their jealousy, but even the inadequacy and fear and resentment and alienation from God that caused the jealousy.

And just as God used what the brothers did to Joseph to save those same brothers many years later, so God used what human beings did to Jesus to save us. To save us from the consequences of the penalty for our jealousy and sin, and to save us from the grip of jealousy itself.

You see, as a person grows in Christ, so we begin to discover that our identity and our worth does not lie in our achievements, in our status, or even in how beloved we are/were by our parents. Our identity and worth lie in the fact that God made us and loves us, that we are - because of Jesus - his children, his sons and daughters, princes and princesses of heaven, heirs with Jesus of all things. And I'm not saying that the old pangs of jealousy will not rise up, but we can begin to learn to rejoice in the victories of others. And when things go wrong for them, we can begin to learn not to rejoice, but to really weep with them.

We need to be prepared to name it when it comes, and to repent of it. It is wrong. It prevents us from seeing the blessings of what God has given us, of who God has made us. That means choosing to let jealousy go. It means not feeding it. It means asking Jesus to both set us free from jealousy, and to show us in what lies our true significance and worth. But because of Jesus' death on the cross we really can be set free from jealousy, and we can be set free to love.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The inevitable growth of the Kingdom of God

Mark 4:26-34

These parables are great news for pastors; they are great news for control freaks; and they are great news for people who despair about the future.

They are great news because they tell us that the Kingdom of God is like a seed that has been sown. It will grow. So there is no need to be anxious and no need to think that it all depends on me. It will grow whether we worry about it or not. It will grow whether we fuss over it or not. All that it needs is space and time.

So what is this Kingdom of God which will come?

The Old Testament looks forward to the establishment of the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, on this earth.

It will be a Kingdom which will be ruled over by a king, a descendant of David; and he will reign for ever. The Jews knew that person as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. He would establish righteousness and justice and freedom.

Creation, and the laws which govern creation, will be reordered. Power structures will be transformed; those whose survival depended on the death of others will discover that their well-being depends on the well-being of the other. The prophet Isaiah uses picture language to explain this: the young child will lead, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.

And when Jesus came, he announced that the Kingdom of God was near, was present in him, and would one day come in fullness. He declared that the rule of God had begun, and that he was the ruler. His rule is one of peace and mercy and gratuitous generousity and love. It is a place in which people find healing and liberation from all the things that paralyse us; in which we will find fulfilment in the work that we do and joy in the presence of God and of each other. It will be a place in which there is no more death.

Obviously it is very hard for us to imagine. We are talking about a transformed, transfigured space and time. The pictures that Jesus used for this kingdom were of lost children coming home, of banquets and wedding feasts.

And so it is not surprising that after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples ask him: "Is this the time, when the Kingdom will be established in its fullness? And Jesus basically says, ‘No. Not yet. But you are to be my witnesses to the whole world. You are to live in the light of the fact that it is coming’".

So here, in Mark 4, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, is coming.

The seed has been sown.

1. It will grow in the lives of individual men and women.

Those of us who are control freaks, who want to set up structures and systems for all situations, need to hear this.

We need to do what we can do, but we also need to trust this to God. The Kingdom of God will grow. And if the seed of the Kingdom of God has been planted into the heart and mind of an individual man, woman or child, it will grow. That is why Philip could be so laid back when the Ethiopian eunuch came to faith (Acts 8).

I think of people I have known who have become Christians and have grown in faith, often in spite of what the institutional church or other Christians have done.

Obviously we do have a responsibility before God for each other. Seeds need space, but they also need watering. In 1 Corinthian 3:6, Paul talks of how he sowed the seed and Apollos, one of his colleagues, does the watering. But he goes on to say, 'it is God who gives the growth'.

So yes, it is our responsibility to share in the work of sowing and of watering, but in the end the seed will seek to grow. It is in its DNA.

And if the seed of the Kingdom of God is there in our heart we will want to grow. You will want to grow in understanding and in faith and in love. You will choose to read and study the bible. You will choose to spend time in prayer. You will choose to meet together with other believers. You will choose to struggle with God when he seems absent. It is not a question of being told to do anything. If the seed has been sown you will desire to grow.

Of course we'll make mistakes. There will be false starts. We will be incredibly enthusiastic, and probably enthusiastically wrong. We will go down many wrong paths. We will put people off.

But if the seed is there, it will grow.

Andrew was given a dinosaur egg (not a real one!). We had to put it in water, and leave it. At first it didn’t do anything. The temptation was to pick it up and give it a shake. But we left it. We gave it time. And amazingly this thing did grow inside the shell and it did crack open.

2. The seed of the Kingdom will grow in the world.

I am talking here about Church growth, but not about the growth of individual church communities or particular denominations.

I am talking here of the growth of the church, the whole people of God, as God sees it. It is made up of all the people who have turned to Jesus Christ and who have called on him to have mercy. It is the community of people who belong to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who are part of him, and who are part of each other.

In other words, in the Kingdom your identity, your destiny, your freedom, your joy is tied up with my identity, my destiny, my freedom and my joy.

Fellowship is not just one way of growing as a Christian. Real fellowship is actually what being a Christian is all about.

Paul speaks of the vision of this Kingdom in Ephesians when he writes that the purpose of the church, and of the different ministries in the church, is 'that we might come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.' [Ephesians 4:13]

It is very easy to look at the current state of the Christian churches in this country and to get depressed. That happens when we as Christians seek status and significance in this world. I am guilty of that.

But the promise of Jesus is that the seed will grow in the world.

We see signs of that growth in the growth of the church overseas;

We see signs of that growth in the growth of congregations where people love each other and love the outsider

But the promise is that the seed will grow; it will reach maturity; it will become 'the greatest of all the shrubs'.

Of course, the growing process is messy.

As the people of God grow up together into maturity, we will go through the hormonal teenager phase, the thinking I can all do it on my own phase, the 'I'm all on my own' phase, the exhausted parent phase, the mid-life crisis phase, the thinking we are it phase, the letting go phase: and not necessarily only once or in that order. And we will as a community, and as churches together, make wrong decisions and be absolutely convinced that they are the right decisions.

But God will not let go of us. The seed will grow.

And much of the time, the growing process is invisible. It is under the soil stuff. And just as the seed grows and becomes a plant under the soil, and then erupts from out of the earth, so the Kingdom of God, which has been growing under the surface, will explode into fullness when Jesus returns.

So these two parables are good news for pastors – we have our part to play, but it is not all up to us; they are good news for control freaks – we can let go a bit: give people space and time; Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, ‘I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to competion on the day of Jesus Christ’. [Philippians 1:6].

But, and this is much more important: these two parables are very good news for our world. They tell us that the seed of the Kingdom of God has been sown in this world, that it is growing (it is very messy and often invisible), and that one day - we don't know when - it will grow to maturity; and it will grow to become the greatest of all the plants. And it will bring blessing to others.