MIRACLES AND LONELY PRAYERS

From Rev. Jared Buss
March 1, 2016

Rev. Jared Buss

Olivet New Church; February 28, 2016

 

Sometimes our lives feel like they’re going somewhere. But sometimes they feel like a disconnected series of ups and downs, like there’s no pattern in them, no purpose. We have a good day, then a bad day. We start to feel that maybe something’s changing, and then we’re back where we started. And where is the Lord in this? When we think of our faith, when we think of our God, the image that probably comes to us is of striving for something, standing for something, being carried in the hand of God towards some definite goal. How do we find that cohesive, overarching vision in our lives? We know it’s hard to be consistently dedicated to one purpose. One day we’ll rise with conviction to answer a call, and then the next day, we’ll waste the whole morning because we’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves, and we feel a little hopeless. But if the Lord is with us, He must have a consistent plan for us. How do we find it?

When it comes to spiritual life all of us wear our blinders reasonably often. Partly that means we focus on the chores we have to get done or on the pizza we’d like to eat instead of on the real reason we’re alive. But it also means that we lose sight of the fact that our spiritual journey is a lifelong one. We’re not here to make that one step from being in an uncomfortable place to being in a more comfortable one. We’re here to walk from earth to heaven. We’re in this for the long haul. And the journey doesn’t make sense if we lose sight of that. It’s easy, when we’re confronted with an issue in ourselves to say, “But I already repented of this last month!” But spiritual life doesn’t happen in isolated pieces. Whatever’s in front of us is the next step of a lifelong journey, and that journey is taking us somewhere. The path may not be one we would have picked for ourselves—it goes into deserted places where there is no food, and it goes over stormy seas in the dead of the night. But this is the journey that the Lord leads us on, and He is with us in the most real way, because He walked that path Himself.

The way that path winds up and down and yet still goes somewhere is illustrated in the series of stories that we heard in the lesson from Matthew. Most often we look at each of these different stories individually, and each of them is whole in its own right. But the stories in the Word also link together to tell a bigger story, just like the course of our life is woven out of individual decisions. So today I want to look at all the stories in this chapter as one story.

The first part of this chapter is the story of the death of John the Baptist, and this is just an ugly story. It’s a story about how evil seems to win sometimes. The parts of us that have integrity seem to just get swallowed up. John the Baptist has been put in prison because he was willing to stand for the Lord’s law. King Herod has a brother named Phillip, and Phillip’s wife, confusingly, is named Herodias. But now Herod is married to Herodias. The story doesn’t say whether or not Phillip is dead, but the fact that John is coming to Herod to say “you should not be with this woman” (Matt. 14:4) suggests that Phillip is not dead. So there’s some fishy stuff going on, and John, because of his role as a prophet, has the courage to say, “The Lord has told you not to do what you’re doing.” “It is not lawful for you to have her” (ibid.). And the upshot is that he gets thrown in jail. King Herod wasn’t going to let the voice of conscience mess with his nice little life. We too sometimes just shut down the stirrings of conscience in us. We start to say to ourselves “maybe this is selfish…” and then say, “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Then John’s story gets even worse. Herodias has clearly been nursing a violent grudge against this man who chose to shed light on her sin. So when her daughter earns a special favor from King Herod, Herodias takes advantage of the opportunity and persuades her daughter to have John executed. She has John’s head brought to her on a platter (v. 11). The whole episode highlights the pointlessness of evil. John dies in prison for doing the right thing. Herod is accused of immorality, and his attempt to hide from that accusation simply leads him to more immorality. And Herodias and her daughter, as a reward for all their scheming, get a head on a platter—something completely and utterly useless to them.

When the Lord is told that all this has happened, His reaction is to go into a deserted place by Himself (v. 13). It’s a pretty understandable, human reaction. John was a good man who should not have died. It’s as though the Lord is burdened with grief, and just needs to be alone. This isn’t how we’d imagine the Divine behaving. But the Lord at this point is not fully Divine. He is right in the middle of a profound process—the process of transforming His spirit so that everything weak is washed away, and only Divine love and wisdom are left. All of the spiritual transformation that happens to us is just an image of His complete transformation. But at this point the Lord is not finished that process. There are elements of Him that are weak still.

The Writings tell us that while He was on earth the Lord alternated between two states—and we see both of those states clearly in this chapter from Matthew. The first state is called His state of glorification—which is a state of being filled with glory, or with light. In this state the Lord was fully connected with the Divine love that was in Him—the love that gave Him His power and His purpose. We’re told, “He was in that state when He was transfigured before His three disciples, and also when He wrought miracles, and whenever He said that the Father and He are one” (TCR §104). The Lord’s other state is called a state of exinanition, which is a fancy term that just means “emptying out.” In this state the Lord felt a distance between Himself and the Divine. He was aware that there were parts of Him that were merely human, parts of him that were weak. So in this state the Lord felt doubt, and faced temptation (see Lord §35.3; TCR §104). His temptation was to despair of finishing the work He had come to do. He’d come on earth to save the human race, but sometimes, in the face of evil like the evil that Herod and Herodias showed, it must have seemed that the human race was not willing to be saved. So the Lord came into this state of emptying-out, and in order to represent this He went off, by Himself, to deserted place.

But when He goes off by Himself, the crowds follow Him. And the story says that when the Lord saw them, “He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick” (v. 14). In Mark’s version of the story we’re told that the Lord was moved with compassion for them, “because they were like sheep not having a shepherd” (6:34). He looks at these people and He loves them. He sees that they need Him, and so He works miracles for them: He heals their hurts. And doing so means that He comes up out of that empty state, into His state of glorification—because He only worked miracles when He was fully connected with His Divine love.

It’s easy to see this as just the beginning of a new story, a disconnected story. But it isn’t. The Lord feels this compassion in the wake of being made so aware of awful human evil. He comes with healing in the wake of that awareness of evil. He doesn’t bring John the Baptist back to life. He doesn’t go to Herod’s palace to throw him down from power. Sometimes in the Gospels the Lord answers evil by meeting it head-on, but in this instance He doesn’t. In this instance He answers evil by finding the people who are willing to receive something from Him, and serving them. And He does this in us too. Some things in us are dark and selfish and have to get left behind. The Lord doesn’t dwell there. He doesn’t get stuck there. He finds the parts of us that are willing to be healed, the parts of us where goodness can grow, and takes them somewhere. We, in this story, are like the crowd—the crowd that went into that empty place seeking the Lord. We also go through states of exinanition, states of emptiness. But in our case, those empty states are about seeing evil in ourselves, seeing that we don’t have what we need, and turning to the Lord as the light. Then He heals us. Then the evil starts to get left behind, and we go on to the next thing.

The next thing is a miracle that shows how the Lord is able to create good things in us, even though we are empty. Evening is falling and the crowd who have come to the Lord have nothing to eat except five loaves and two fishes (v. 17). The disciples tell the Lord to send the people away. But the Lord takes that tiny bit of food, and He blesses it, and breaks it, and it becomes enough to feed thousands. Bread represents good affections—such as a willingness to hear what the Lord has to say—and fish represent dim ideas of what is true. If we come to the Lord with even the smallest willingness to take something from Him, even the dimmest idea of what we are asking Him for, He will give us abundance. And so out of our doubt comes an awareness of the fullness of His power and goodness; from that emptiness there is fulfilment.

But then the Lord comes again into a state of emptiness. “And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there” (v. 23). The story doesn’t say why He felt the need to pray alone, at night, on the top of a mountain. Perhaps He’s praying now the way He meant to before He was interrupted by the crowd. Either way, even with the Lord that glorious state gave way to a state of emptiness. The compassion He felt was felt in its own time. The miracles He worked were worked in their own time. And now He comes, again, into that awareness of weakness, that awareness of evil. He prayed all night on top of that mountain—from evening time until “the fourth watch,” which is the very end of the night, the last hours before dawn (see vv. 23, 25).

And maybe that seems like a dark picture of life, like it sends the message that there will always be a low to follow our high, always a doubt on the heels of every victory. Or maybe the message is the other way around. Either way the story isn’t finished. From that long night of prayer and doubt and who knows what kind of despair the Lord gets up and goes down to the disciples, who are stuck on the sea in the midst of a storm they’ve been battling all night. That sea and that storm are pictures of our temptation, our doubt and despair—a picture of what it’s like when we feel that hell is rushing around us and rising over us and threatening to drown us. This whole story began with evil in Herod and Herodias, and here that evil is again in the storm. And then the Lord appears, walking through that storm, above the water. The disciples have been stuck there all night, but it’s the fourth watch, and the morning is about to dawn, and the Lord comes to them transcending the storm. Against the backdrop of darkness, His power shines. Rising up out of our weakness, His power shines. The struggles in our lives will appear again and again. Our doubts will surface again and again. And the Lord comes to us, again and again. With Him we have the power to carry on our journey even through the darkest and lowest moments of our lives—even as Peter was able to walk on the water to the Lord. Peter couldn’t do it without the Lord; when he lost sight of Him, and started paying attention to the storm, He started to sink. But then He said “’Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him” (vv. 30-31).

The chapter ends with the Lord once again healing the people who come to Him. And it says that even those who touched only the hem of His garment were made perfectly well (v. 36). The Lord radiates life into everything around Him, everything that touches Him. It is this power—the power of His life—that gives purpose to our lives. This is what makes our story make sense. Through all the ups and downs, the bright moments and the dark moments, there is a single strand pulling us forward—a single hand reaching out to catch us, to draw us to our God. We’ll go through our cycles of doubting and being lifted up, just like the Lord did. And as we move through these cycles, time after time, we can be moving deeper and deeper inward, towards the heart of the process—which is that moment in which we take the hand of the Savior who is always there.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10).

Amen.

 

Readings: Matthew 14


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