Epiphany 5: TRUST BEYOND UNDERSTANDING

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There is no peace in thinking that you can control life to avoid trouble and sorry. There is no peace in trying to figure out why God does or doesn’t do particular things. Although God reveals himself to people, we cannot truly understand him. In the end, understanding and illumination will only take us to the threshold of relationship with him. What we need, even more than understanding, is to trust him.

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Trust Beyond Understanding. Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; Mark 1:29-39

Whenever I preach on the Lectionary, I read all of the passages, and pray, and listen to see if the Holy Spirit is bringing up something in one or more of the readings. It’s a slightly different thing than preaching through a book of the Bible. Anyway, I trust that this time, the Spirit has been speaking, and has also been making me able to hear what he is saying.

Some of you may know all about the Church Year, and some may not. The lectionary readings are organized around the themes of the church year. Presently, we are in the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany is all about God revealing himself to human beings. It is about the Lord illuminating His Truth and His personality to all the people of the world. So there are themes of wisdom and understanding; themes about the mission of taking the gospel into all the world. But this week, which is technically the last week of Epiphany, the Holy Spirit seems to be saying something slightly different: that although God reveals himself to people, we cannot truly understand him. In the end, understanding and illumination will only take us to the threshold of relationship with him. What we need, even more than understanding, is to trust him.

I strongly encourage you to read all of the scripture passages I have listed above. Please take time to do that now.

I want to begin with the gospel reading for this week from Mark, which is familiar to many people. Jesus came to Peter’s house, and found his mother-in-law sick. Jesus healed her. Word spread rapidly, and then from all over the town, people brought sick people for Jesus to heal. He worked at it all evening. The next morning he got up early, and left, and the disciples found him in a lonely place praying. So far, all that is good and familiar. Jesus heals the sick. Right on! Jesus got up early, and went out by himself to pray. A generation of Christians insisted that this means we should have our quiet times in the mornings. But none of that is what this passage is about, in context. Listen to how it goes down:

36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mark 1:36-38, ESV2011)

I think we often miss how shocking this incident was for the disciples. Here he was, in their home-town, healing their friends and neighbors. Mark says he healed “many” (Greek: “pollous”)  but he doesn’t use the word “all” (Greek: “panta”). In other words, he wasn’t done healing people. But the next day, instead of getting up, having breakfast, and resuming the healing ministry, he slipped away before dawn, to get away from everyone. When the disciples found him, he wouldn’t go back there with them. The impression you get from reading the Greek is this: “I’ve come to preach in many places, and that is why I came away from there.” What is implied is also this: “I haven’t come mainly to heal, or make life easier for people. I’ve come to tell them about something more important than that.”

But what could be more important than physical healing? I mean, if we don’t have physical health, how can we serve God? Jesus took the same strange attitude about feeding people, also. After he fed the five thousand, they were ready to make him king. But he hid himself from them, and later told them, basically, “There’s something far more important here than food,” (John 6:26-35). Though Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry as he went along, that wasn’t the reason he came. His primary mission was something different, and that perplexed many people.

The truth is, sometimes God behaves in ways that we ourselves don’t understand. Perhaps it seems like Jesus turns away, and moves on to another place, just as you needed him. It must have seemed that way to the people in Capernaum. Maybe you need healing, but he doesn’t give it. Maybe you need financial help, and none seems to come. Maybe you have simply asked him to show you some kind of a sign, just to let you know that he sees you, but if he sent it, you certainly missed it. Maybe you are reading the scripture, and you find some passage you just can’t wrap your head around, and you can’t make sense of it even after you pray and ask for insight.

Let me make myself clear. I absolutely know (not believe, but know) that God answers prayer. I know that many, many times if you pray for help, you will find it, just as you ask for it. I know that there are many wonderful promises in God’s word, and many people fail to take hold of them by faith, and so they miss out on great things.

I could tell you story after story of how God showed up when his people prayed. But there is a kind of shallowness to a relationship when it is all about what one person does for the other. We scorn someone who “uses” another for their money. We find it contemptible if someone is in a relationship  only in order to get something from the other person. And properly speaking, God doesn’t exist to help us: rather, we exist to bring glory to him. It’s easy to start to love God’s blessings more than God himself. It’s easy to become arrogant about your faith, and cold and hurtful to those who struggle.

Ultimately, God wants to take us beyond the place where we need his blessings in order to feel good about Him. This is what the Spirit is saying today through the  reading from Isaiah:

25 “Who will you compare Me to,

or who is My equal? ” asks the Holy One.

 26 Look up and see:

who created these?

He brings out the starry host by number;

He calls all of them by name.

Because of His great power and strength,

not one of them is missing.

 27 Jacob, why do you say,

and Israel, why do you assert:

“My way is hidden from the LORD,

and my claim is ignored by my God”?

 28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

* Yahweh is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the whole earth.

He never grows faint or weary;

there is no limit to His understanding. (Isaiah 40:25-28)

These texts today tell us that God can do whatever he wants. We can’t use the Bible as some sort of legal document, and say, “God you must heal in every situation. God you must provide.” I know this is really difficult. I know it might challenge, or even offend some of you. But I encourage you to look beyond a shallow reading of scripture, and beware of arrogance. Job’s friends thought they had it figured out, and they had a very hard time with Job, who challenged there simple view of God. When they saw him suffering, they decided it must be because he wasn’t trusting the Lord, or praying in the right way, or… something. Because they were afraid. But Job noted that they saw what they did not understand, and it frightened them. God agreed with Job, and rebuked his friends for thinking that they could control Him or understand him.

For you have now become nothing;
you see my calamity and are afraid. (Job 6:21)

Job understood better than his friends. He knew that God is always in control.

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)

Somewhere along the line, our Christian culture has decided that God needs our help defending or explaining himself. We hurry to say things like: “God didn’t want this to happen.” But that is a tremendously unsettling idea. Are things happening to you that God didn’t want? Then why? Is he unable to protect us, or unable to help us?

I know all about the consequences of original sin, as well as our own personal sins. And it is true that some people are in a fix because they have made poor choices; because they haven’t listened to God. But some people have followed the Lord faithfully, and they are still in a fix. It isn’t their own doing. And even if the problem is the result of being in a fallen world (like cancer), or someone else’s sin (like a drunk driver) are we going to say that God couldn’t stop it? Is he really that weak?

There is another way. I think it is the Biblical way. We are not called to defend God’s actions, or even explain them. He does not need to justify himself to human beings. We are finite, and God is infinite. Trying to understand him is like trying to empty a garden hose into a tablespoon. The tablespoon holds almost nothing, and there is no end to the water coming out of the hose.

The texts tell us that we don’t need to explain or justify God’s actions. We cannot understand God. But what we do need to do is trust him. Our Isaiah text puts it like this:

30 Youths may faint and grow weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

 31 but those who trust in the LORD

will renew their strength;

they will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary;

they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

This doesn’t mean everything will go the way we want it to. It means that our strength and hope are found only in trusting God. The Psalmist agrees:

The Lord values those who fear Him, those who put their hope in His faithful love. (Psalm 147:11)

The great English preacher, Charles Spurgeon suffered greatly during his life. He battled very serious and dark depression. He had a kidney disease, as well as gout, and both were so intensely painful, that they often laid him up for weeks at a time. He was frequently harshly criticized, and even slandered, by others. But Spurgeon held to an unwavering belief that God was sovereign in all things, even the things that were difficult for him. He trusted that God was at work, even in his difficulties, and it made all the difference. He wrote:

“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity” (John Piper, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity).

David Brainerd, that missionary who has inspired many generations of missionaries, wrote this:

In this world I expect tribulation; and it does not now, as formerly, appear strange to me; I don’t in such seasons of difficulty flatter myself that it will be better hereafter; but rather think how much worse it might be; how much greater trials others of God’s children have endured; and how much greater are yet perhaps reserved for me. Blessed be God that he makes the comfort to me, under my sharpest trials; and scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror or melancholy; but they are attended frequently with great joy”

We will not always understand God. We cannot understand how some terrible thing could be part of his plan for us. We don’t know how he can make good out of evil. The only way to truly find peace about these things is to trust Him. Trust that he sees something that you cannot. Trust that even when it seems contrary to his very nature, he is so far beyond us that it can, and does, work for your good (Romans 8:28).

Kari and I often read from a devotional called “Streams in the desert.” While I was preparing this message this week, one of the readings went like this:

My child, I have a message for you today. Let me whisper it in your ear so any storm clouds that may arise will shine with glory, and the rough places you may have to walk will be made smooth. It is only four words, but let them sink into your inner being, and use them as a pillow to rest your weary head. “This is my doing.”

Have you ever realized that whatever concerns you concerns Me too? “For whoever touches you touches the apple of [my] eye” (Zech. 2:8). “You are precious and honored in my sight” (Isa. 43:4). Therefore it is My special delight to teach you.

I want you to learn when temptations attack you, and the enemy comes in “like a pent up flood” (Isa. 59:19)., that “this is my doing” and that your weakness needs My strength, and your safety lies in letting Me fight for you.

Are you in difficult circumstances, surrounded by people who do not understand you, never ask your opinion, and always push you aside? “This is my doing.” I am the God of circumstances. You did not come to this place by accident — you are exactly where I meant for you to be.

Have you not asked Me to make you humble? Then see that I have placed you in the perfect school where this lesson is taught. Your circumstances and the people around you are only being used to accomplish My will.

Are you having problems with money, finding it hard to make ends meet? “This is my doing,” for I am the One who keeps your finances, and I want you to learn to depend upon Me. My supply is limitless and I “will meet your needs” (Phil. 4:19). I want you to prove My promises so no one may say, “You did not trust in the Lord your God” (Deut. 1:32).

Are you experiencing a time of sorrow? “This is my doing.” I am “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isa. 53:3). I have allowed your earthly comforters to fail you, so that by turning to Me you may receive “eternal encouragement and good hope” (2 Thess. 2:16). Have you longed to do some great work for Me but instead have been set aside on a bed of sickness and pain? “This is my doing.” You were so busy I could not get your attention, and I wanted to teach you some of My deepest truths. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In fact, some of My greatest workers are those physically unable to serve, but who have learned to wield the powerful weapon of prayer.

Today I place a cup of holy oil in your hands. Use it freely, My child. Anoint with it every new circumstance, every word that hurts you, every interruption that makes you impatient, and every weakness you have. The pain will leave as you learn to see Me in all things.
–Laura A. Barter Snow

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