A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 5, 2012
Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and it feels good. It’s one of his first miracles, you know. Jesus is able to do something for one of his disciples, and that feels good.
It feels good for Simon too. This disciple had walked away from his family and his livelihood to follow Jesus, but now Jesus comes home with him. Simon’s wife and family are so relieved to see Simon back, and then Jesus ups and heals his mother-in-law from a terrible fever, like a casual thank-you for their hospitality.
Simon’s mother-in-law is so thoroughly recovered, she hops up and serves them dinner to express her gratitude. Jesus is “repaid” for his miracle, so to speak. Or, maybe, truth be told, he is being repaid for bringing Simon home. Either way, Jesus gets to relax. He gets to dine. It feels good.
But by nightfall, the whole entire town is gathered at the door, begging for favors from the Healer. I imagine this lasts well into the night. It feels good to Jesus for awhile, healing the masses, and it feels good to James, John, Andrew, and Simon too—for awhile. But eventually it gets weary. And then it gets downright grueling. They can hardly keep their eyes open or their heads upright. The four brand-spanking new disciples are dying to ask, “Are we done yet?” but somehow, that doesn’t seem like an appropriate thing to ask Jesus, so they just sigh a little, then plaster on smiles to greet the next batch of needy people, while secretly counting the hours. How long can they keep this up?
Simon’s family members are thrilled by the visitors at first, rushing to the door to greet each new person, proud to show off Jesus, their honored guest. But within minutes, it seems they’ve already run out of bread to offer, and within a few hours, the family retreats wearily to a less-trafficked corner and wring their hands. Maybe Simon’s return wasn’t such a good idea after all. They huddle together, afraid to complain but silently wondering if anyone would notice if they snuck out the back and slept at the neighbors, just for the night.
When finally the last person is ushered out, the door is closed, and the bed mats are unrolled, James, John, Andrew, Simon and family fall to the floor in a heap and are immediately asleep. Jesus shuts his eyes for a bit, but something deep within stirs him, and he wakes early. Early, when it was very much still night. He wipes the grogginess from his eyes, stretches his stiff muscles, silently yawns. He sneaks out quietly, stepping gently over blankets and bodies. Outside the crisp morning breeze hits his lungs and startles him alert. The moon is bright, like it wants to be his lantern, and the stars twinkle laughingly down at him, as if they are whispering jokes. Jesus smiles back, as if he can hear them, and walks toward the edge of town, briskly at first to warm himself, then slowly to release the tension of a busy night. The quietness of the night air serves like a muffler to his fears and to the raging needs of the people, and in the quiet Jesus begins to hear his soul again. By the time he hunts down a hidden spot in which to sit, his skin is no longer cold and his heart is engaged with the Father.
He sits agaist a rock, reaches into his heart, and pulls out a jumble of thoughts. He lays them out, one by one, in front of his face and in front of the Father. He had felt so . . . alive healing Simon’s mother, but then so much happened so fast after that he couldn’t quite think straight. Now, sitting in the darkness, communing with Father, he almost feels like himself again. He is worried, of course, about all the people who still need healing, just in this town alone, and he wonders how he will ever get to them all, in every town. The needs weigh heavy, and he wonders if it will always feel like this. No matter how many he heals, there will always be this knowing there were more who had missed out. How will he carry on? Maybe it is better not to even start. He speaks the doubts into the darkness and knows that Father is listening and thinking it over with him. Eventually, Jesus quits speaking. Father isn’t talking either. They just sit in the stillness and ponder. And then they stop even the pondering. They just sit, keeping each other company, and peace wraps them up like a quilt and it feels like time stands still, and Jesus tries to remember if this was what it felt like back home, in heaven, before he came here.
A sudden burst of shouting startles him, and Jesus opens his eyes to find that the moon has disappeared and the stars have left the sky. The sun is peeking out over the horizon. Jesus must have been sitting here for hours. For a split second, he feels annoyed by the sudden interruption, but then he focuses in on the sound, and recognizes the voice of Simon, and a smile breaks over Jesus’ face. Father smiles too and whispers, “Son, Morning is calling. Rise up like the sun and greet the day.” Jesus stands and turns toward Simon.
Simon, breathless, reaches Jesus’ side. It is obvious he was worried, but he doesn’t say so, at least, not directly. “Everyone is looking for you!” he says importantly. Jesus discerns that Simon’s family is looking because they are worried Jesus gave up on them, and the crowds are looking because they have heard the news and want more of him, and the disciples are looking because they do not want to disappoint the crowds, but the four of them aren’t much of a show without Jesus. Jesus puts him arm around Simon and grins. “Let’s say we get out of here.”
The other three catch up in time to overhear Jesus say they are going to move on to the next town. The grass where Jesus was sitting is all matted down, and the disciples wonder if Jesus has been praying the whole night, and if so, what kind of answers he got from God.
Jesus thinks it over and realizes he did not really get all that many answers, but he did get a glimpse of the Father, and that was enough. He found a resting place for questions and doubts that were weighing on him, and so he feels light, like he can float on to the next place God is calling without regret or worry.
He knows now, where to go next, and the disciples follow him. Of course, the lightness in Jesus’ heart and the spring in his step will not last. He will encounter more need, less gratitude, more opposition, less sleep. One day, he will be so weighted down, they will say he sweat drops of blood. But right at the very beginning of his ministry, he has found that secluded spot where surrender is made possible, and that will make all the difference. He will find such a place again, when his soul is heavier than can be imagined and the time is ripe, and he will pray those fated words that made World Salvation possible, “Thy will be done.” That Great and Final Surrender made possible by all the smaller surrenders before it.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if there was one miracle prayer that fixed everything for, once and for all as soon as we prayed it . . . but alas, no sooner have we found peace, then some threat, some blasted interruption elbows its way into our life and disrupts our sacred peace. I recently wrote in my journal that “I feel certain I could become a really great person, if only there were not so many bombardments on my peace of mind. If I were let alone, my potential would soar—I’m sure of it.” But Scripture reminds me that even Jesus needed frequent retreats and even for Jesus, things did not always go smoothly. In fact, they crucified him.
But even though I know, from Jesus’ own example, that regular time in prayer is needed, it is easier said than done, is it not? It seems fairly universal that the modern person especially has no time for prayer. We are supposed to have more time-saving devices than any generation of history, ever, but all that really seems to mean is that we are never without a broken gadget, needing repair. And since we have all these handy machines, we are supposed to be able to produce more than ever, and since the invention of coffee, we are expected to sleep less than ever. And, we now must also squeeze Time-at-the-Gym into our already packed schedules to make up for the exercise we are not getting, because of the time-saving machines which do the manual labor for us. It is very hard to keep up. Who on earth actually has time to pray?
Perhaps all this is an indicator that something in our schedule needs to give, but alas, we do not even have the time and energy to decipher what thing in our schedule could be forfeited. So we must keep running this hamster wheel called Life, for it feels that if we stop to breathe, everything will crumble to pieces around us.
This lack of time for stillness is a societal epidemic, not just a Christian one. I recently read a New York Times article which reported that people are paying over $2000 a night for a resort where they can’t get online. They need a break from the busy-ness of technology so badly that they are willing to pay big bucks for it. Other people buy software that allows them to disable their internet connection for set amounts of time. But it’s no wonder. Researchers have found that the average office worker gets no more than three minutes at a time without interruption.
The article states, “The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen,” and so the author says he makes “time to do nothing at all, which is the only time when [he] can see what [he] should be doing the rest of the time. It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”
Amazingly, Jesus models this for us way back in the first century. Life gets overwhelming, so he finds a secluded place to sit, even though he has to wake really, really early to do it. And he emerges from that place with genuine clarity about what to do next. Now, I am a strong believer in the fact that sleep is very much a spiritual discipline—as a college chaplain, I tried to remind students all the time that four hours of sleep a night was not acceptable, and that their stress and anxiety probably had less to do with the quality of their prayer life and more to do with their lack of sleep. But on occasion, it is absolutely vital that we forfeit something to make room for that secluded space.
The monks call it Vigils, or Matins. Some call it The Night Office; others, the Night Watch. Some monks rise at 4am for Vigils; others at 2am. I read about a mother who kept vigils as she rocked a colicky baby back to sleep, and I’ve also heard that Vigils can be any prayer of waiting, no matter what the hour. The important thing isn’t really when you have it or how you make it happen. The important thing is that you enter it with some degree of regularity—that secluded place where surrender and trust, vigilance and listening, mystery and silence greet you.
Macrina Wiederkehr describes it this way, “Rising from sleep in the heart of the night, I keep vigil with eternal questions . . . I become quiet. In the middle of the night I hold hands with trust and surrender . . . Night vigil is a time for deep listening. My prayer travels deep into my soul space, into the essence of my being. I go ‘down under’ where the Eternal One waits. I wait with the One who waits for me. Like Jesus, keeping watch the night before he died, I keep vigil with those who wait alone. The darkness has a special kind of soul. I lean into the darkness and grow wise . . . In the middle of the night I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep . . . I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”
There might be a thousand ways to keep vigil, but there are at least a billion things to keep you from it. But the Night Watch is very loyal friend, never judging, always hospitable, and he’ll be there waiting and waiting and waiting with open arms when next you meet him again. Amen.