My sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013
A woman sat on a park bench observing the people around her. She felt the pain of a child who had fallen down off his bicycle. She felt the tiredness of an old man who was slowly making his way home. She felt the joy of the children playing together on the jungle gym. She saw the happiness of a couple walking hand in hand.
People glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting. They never, however, gave her a thought. No one noticed the unshed tears in her eyes as she sat there watching and feeling. “So much pain in the world. So much happiness and so much loneliness,” she thought as she reflected to herself.
As she continued to watch, the woman’s mind drifted to another place, another time. It was a time when she was like the people that she observed—all wrapped up in their own misery and joy. Sometimes she wished that she could return to those days, and yet….
Her attention lingered on the image of her face that was reflecting in the pond. She hadn’t seen that face in a long time. It was a face that reflected contentment, joy, peace and love. Wiping away the remnants of tears, she stood up and headed toward the fallen child. She helped him up. She wiped his tears. She smiled at the child. She offered to help the old man home with his shopping.
She thought, “No, I don’t want to return to the old days—those were days when loneliness was unbearable.” Though she is still lonely for human company, she has love in her heart because comfort was just a prayer away.
Indeed comfort is always only a prayer away because the person to whom we pray is a God of comfort. God’s love is what informs God’s work of comfort. Being blessed with the comfort of God in Christ Jesus, we are empowered to look beyond our own pain and help others in theirs. Therein is our comfort.
God has great pain when God looks over the good creation that God framed. Sin damaged it. Sin brought corruption. Sin brought tragedy of one kind and another. The ultimate tragedy that sin brought was death. Might God have remained in pain, ignoring humanity’s pain on earth? God could not do that; God’s heart is too big. It is in comforting others in Christ Jesus that God’s pain is comforted. There was great pain in the Father’s heart. How could the Father cast humanity into oblivion?
God had an undying love for humanity, proven poignantly when God created humanity from the dust of ground. God took a handful of dirt and breathed into it God’s Spirit. God gave God’s very self in the Spirit. There is no demonstration of love greater than that. Even Steven Spielberg could not dramatize a greater love than that of God breathing into mud-people God’s Spirit. That is an undying love. A person who loves that way cannot remain content while others suffer. Such a person will indeed reach out to comfort. Such a person will reach out to comfort because that person feels deeply the other’s pain.
Jesus so felt other people’s pain that he made it his own. Whenever Jesus sighs deeply, he breathes in other people’s pain. He makes it his own. That drives him to heal, to love and to forgive. Jesus cannot help but sympathize and empathize. He cannot help but comfort, for that is what his Father does. Like Father—like Son.
It would only follow that any words addressed to Jesus and his father will be taken seriously. Any words generated from pain God will hear and address.
God not only hears words; God especially hears the heart that prays them.
God sees the heart that prays. God communes with the heart that prays.
God strives with the heart that prays.
God lives with the heart that prays.
God accompanies you as you travel through the shadows of death, and the Light of Life is always with you.
God is always in you, by you, above and around you.
God is closer to you than you are to yourself..
That is not just any God. That is the Father of Jesus, who is a God of comfort in this vale of darkness and tears called life.
In the Old Testament, God was with Jacob in his moment of crisis. Unfinished business was lurking at the door of Jacob’s heart. No matter how hard he tried to forget how he had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he could not. No matter how hard he tried to ignore all the pain that he brought to his family because of his selfishness, he could not. He was severed from his family in a distant land far from his beloved mother and father. You don’t appreciate your family until you have lost them. With every waking moment, Jacob thought about his beloved home. His ambition could not give him the joy that he got at home with his parents. The memories caused his heart to ache. Those memories never go away. They remind you that experiences count, especially experiences that stretch your soul to such capacity that you can experience even more, the even-more of eternity. You will die with the memories of your life, your parents, your friends, and your children, for they make up who you are.
Jacob had to meet his brother Esau. He fretted over that impending confrontation. His mind had engaged in splitting—it went to the worse case scenario as he thought about meeting Esau. He was told that Esau was on his way to meet him and he had amassed four hundred men in preparation for that confrontation. Overly dramatic, Jacob’s mind knew no rest about what that impending meeting would entail. He thought that he would die. He thought that his children and wives would be cut up by the sword.
Jacob had every reason to be frightened. He had every reason to be troubled in heart, mind and body. After organizing his families and giving them instructions in how to meet his brother, he spent time alone with God. He cried. He expressed anxious thoughts of the ghoulish images he foresaw, the torture and death of his children and wives.
We’ve all been there: Jacob’s mind went to the worse case scenario. It is the frame of mind of which ulcers are made. It is the frame of mind that causes the body to close up on itself. The mind entertains the ultimate escape: relief in death. Death seems better than continued living. You have been there. You know what that means. If you do not know what that means personally, then you know people who have gone through such dark nights of the soul where death is preferable to life; death seems like a pleasant escape.
Jacob is in such mental anguish that he wrestles with God. After the battle, God changes his name. No longer will be called Jacob, the one who deceives. He will now be called Israel. The etymology of the name Israel is uncertain. It has been the subject of scholarly debate for many years. In its purest meaning, Israel means God conquers; God wins. Jacob is given that name. Why? He had to learn that God conquers. God will have God’s way.
Jacob’s deceiving ways have gotten him into so much trouble since the day that he reached out of his mother’s womb to try and overtake his brother Esau. His lying and deceptions have brought nothing but grief. By changing Jacob’s name, God is giving Jacob a new operating system. No longer will he strive against men and God. He will let God win; he will let God have the right of way.
Jacob finally surrenders to God. His prayer fundamentally changed how he was to act in the world. He was to put away the insecurity that caused him to rely on his own devices to get what he wanted.
Jacob will let God win and conquer. He will learn to pray.
Prayer is letting God win. It is surrendering. In prayer, the troubling circumstances of life lead you to surrender, to put away your attempts at figuring things out. You come to realize that you cannot figure things out. You learn to surrender amid all the ambivalence that spawns insecurity and all the wrong ways we try to address our essential insecurity about what is always just around the corner.
We learn what Jacob learned: God is just a prayer away and God is always there. God desires to comfort. What is winning to God other than comforting you through love, for God lives with you; strives with you; in God you live, move and have your being.
Prayer is a confession that God has a better way to face the “Esaus” of your life, especially the self-inflicted Esaus that come back to haunt you, causing your stomach to churn and keeping you up late at night in your own battle with yourself and God. The only way to face all such Esaus is through surrender.
Paul encourages the young pastor Timothy to to remain fully engaged in the Word of God, the scriptures, for they can make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. What does it mean to be made wise for salvation? It means to live a life of wisdom that will usher forth in salvation. God is not only concerned with saving our souls. God is also concerned with how we live in this life. Sacred scriptures, inspired as a gift of the Spirit, can lead us in such wisdom. In the Bible you have the collective wisdom of the ages. You have a record of people’s dealing with God. You have God’s laws and strictures on how to live a godly life. Everything in the Bible can build you up in wisdom and preserve you until God calls you out of this life. With such wisdom you become competent and you don’t have to rely on the kind of struggles that you see in Jacob. Jacob was not wise. He was smart and clever, but he was not wise. His lack of wisdom got him into one trouble after another.
God does not want to be a mere rescuer. Let us not make our lack of planning and unwise decisions constitute a crisis for God. At the core of a wise life is a prayerful life, especially a prayerful life informed by the word of God. The prayer that is most informed by the word of God is worship. Worship is through and through the word of God: we sing the word in the hymns and liturgy; we hear the word in the readings; we hear the word in the sermon; we pray the word in the prayers; we eat the word in the Eucharist; and we finally apply the word to our bodies in the benediction as we go out into the world.
Each of us has all of God. Each of us has all of God’s attention, because God is already moving and breathing as you traverse this life. That’s an even greater motivation to take all your needs to God, to a God who is only a prayer away.
Some of you still labor under the misconception that God does not care a whit about you. If that is your idea of God, then you have to change it. It is wrong.
God became a man in Christ Jesus to die for your sins and to be the true Israel, the one who conquers, the one who wins, Cristus Victor over sin, death and the devil. In him you have eternal life. In him you have the Holy Spirit who preserves you in wisdom until the end of your life.
This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.
This is the God to whom you pray, for this God is only a prayer away. Forgiveness is a prayer away. Joy is a prayer away. Love is a prayer away. Comfort is only a prayer away.