Sunday, February 12, 2012

Letting Go

II Kings 5:1-14

February 12, 2012[1]

One of the things that makes the Bible so fascinating to me is that it is filled with irony, with dynamic tensions, where seemingly opposing forces pull at you. These forces seem to be in conflict until you probe deeper.

“Whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25, NIV) might be one good example.

“Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30, NIV) might be another good one.

Both of these statements seem to contradict each other. Yet, they express a truth that can’t be measured and quantified. This truth must be lived and experienced.

General Naaman had to experience this truth. He had to learn it the hard way. He had to find out the hard way that the path to healing and wholeness cannot be bought. This path cannot be conquered. It cannot be mastered through our own efforts. This path can be traveled only when we are ready to let go.

What do we have to let go? General Naaman had to let go of many things.

First, General Naaman had to let go of his own wisdom. The General was the savy, war-tested veteran. He had traveled, he had conquered. Yet none of his acquired wisdom and savvy was enough to enable him to overcome the brokenness of his body. He had to reach the point that he was able to hear and accept the truth from a young girl. A girl from a foreign land, a girl that his raiding armies had snatched away from her home and family. A girl that served the General’s wife (2 Kings 5:2-3). The story of Naaman almost seems to foreshadow the words of Jesus when he said that “15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Mark 10:15, NIV). Have you had the experience of sitting at a computer, absolutely frustrated at your inability to follow the “user friendly” instructions that you were given, but your child sits down and without batting an eye starts typing away? Naaman had to let go of his own wisdom and accept the wisdom of a child in order to find his way to wholeness.

Second, General Naaman had to let go of the notion that earthly power and influence could buy his way back to wholeness. Once Naaman had decided to follow the wisdom of the young foreign girl, how did he go about it? He tried his connections, his own networking. He spoke to his king. His king sent a message to the foreign king. The foreign king became paralyzed with fear that the whole thing was a set-up. When we are seeking wholeness, wholeness is not interested in whether we have friends in high places or military strength or riches or a resume that boasts of great achievements. General Naaman had to learn the truth that centuries later would be repeated by a Prophet from Nazareth who said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11, NIV).

Third, General Namaan had to let go of the notion that he could find wholeness on his own terms. The General had finally tracked down the prophet of whom the servant girl spoke. I can visualize him finally pulling up in his chariot in front of the prophet’s dwelling, sitting there in his military garb, adjusting the medals of honor on his chest, fidgeting to make sure that he had all the gifts ready at hand that he was going to bestow upon the prophet in order to buy his way into wholeness. The longer he waits, the more impatient he becomes. And then, when his aid-de-camp returns to the chariot with the prophet’s instructions, Naaman is furious. First, this is no way to treat someone as important as himself. Who does this prophet think he is anyway. Didn’t his mother teach him to show proper respect. The least he could have done was to show his face and wave his hands over the General’s infliction. He should have said a few prayers, maybe chant a little bit. Then, the final insult—his instruction to take seven baths in the dirty waters of the Jordan River?! There are more desirable rivers back home. He had a skin disorder, after all. What if he caught an infection from the microbes and parasites that were certain to be present in those muddy waters?

What a contrast we find between General Naaman and another military commander a centurion in the Roman Army, who came to Jesus to find healing for his servant. Jesus turned immediately to go to the centurion’s home but the centurion stopped Him. “Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof… But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” When Jesus heard this, He was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (Luke 7:6-9, NIV). Naaman had to let go of his expectations that wholeness should come to him on his own terms.

I see something else taking place in this story. Through his struggle to find wholeness, Naaman meets God. Naaman thought that he needed physical healing, but he needed much more. He needed God, and he didn’t even realize it; but God was there, seeking Naaman out before Naaman even knew it. We call that grace—a specific type of grace. Prevenient grace, the grace through which God seeks us out and calls us to find Him. God had been working in Naaman’s life all along. The first verse of the story tells us that through Naaman, “the Lord had granted victory to Aram” (2 Kings 5:1). Once he was healed, Naaman was able to see that it wasn’t really the Jordan River that healed him; it was the God of Israel, the creator of heaven and earth, the God who could not be seen and whose name could not be uttered, it was the Lord who healed him. And from that day on, Naaman worshiped the Lord God.

Some days, I feel so much like Naaman, as though I deserve God’s favored treatment. I have worked hard. I have tried to do the right things. I left a career, went back to school. Yet, from time to time, God sees fit to remind me that all of my efforts mean nothing. It is only when I have given up my own illusions of self-importance, of my own wisdom, of my own righteousness that I can find God. It is only when I finally let go and come to God empty handed that I finally am ready to receive the gift of wholeness that God offers to me.

God offers that same gift of wholeness to us all this morning. We come here to the Table of the Lord, to receive the gifts of bread and wine, but we come seeking much more. We are seeking the Real Presence of the Living Christ. If we come clutching on to our own worthiness, we will walk away empty handed. If, however, we let go of who we are and come to the Table empty handed, God offers to us the gift of life, of life eternal.

The Apostle Paul put it this way. After recounting all the reasons he had to be proud, he said, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them [my achievements] rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own … but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

So I invite you to come to the Table this morning, but I urge you to let go and come empty handed. The irony is that by coming empty handed, you are ready to receive the wholeness that is the gift of God.

May it be so!

Tom Frost

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

Holding God’s Hand

Mark 1:29-39

February 5, 2012[1]

Sometimes, it happens, that you read the Bible and a phrase jumps out at you. If you are in a hurry, you move on. But sometimes, when you move, you miss something. If you take the time to dwell in that phrase, to marinade in it, to soak it in, you will find that God is speaking through the Scriptures.

That’s what happened to me this week with today’s Gospel Lesson. The phrase occurs in verse 31, where it says that Jesus “took her by the hand and lifted her up” (Mark 1:31).

Let’s start with some context. Last week, we read Mark’s description of the first miracle that is reported in Mark’s Gospel—the exorcism of an unclean spirit from a man who Jesus found in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to leave the man, they obeyed Him. Everyone who saw it was amazed. No one complained about this taking place on the Sabbath; they just marveled at Jesus’ authority.

That’s where we pick up the story in today’s lesson. Jesus and some of his disciples leave the synagogue and go to the home of Simon and Andrew. They enter the home and find that Simons’ mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus enters the woman’s room, takes her hand and lifts her up. The fever leaves her, and she begins to serve Jesus and the others.

That image of Jesus taking the woman’s hand is something that I can relate to. I certainly don’t have the healing powers and authority of Jesus. But very early in my ministry, I learned that people who are suffering need the power of touch, of human contact. When I ask if I can say a prayer for them, their hands reach out. They reach out to me, but I sometimes feel as though they are reaching out for more than just me. They are reaching out for assurance that God is present, that God knows their circumstances, that God cares.

In our Gospel Lesson, Jesus demonstrates this healing love of God. Jesus was a healer. However strange this may sound to our skeptical minds in the 21st Century, the witness of the Gospels is clear that Jesus was known for His remarkable healing powers. He preached the message that the Kingdom of God that was unfolding, right in their midst, but He cautioned them that God’s Kingdom was different than they expected. God’s Kingdom was one in which the last would come first, the humble would be exalted over the mighty, the sick would find healing and wholeness, and people would be reconciled to God and to each other.

But Jesus didn’t simply preach this message. Jesus put His words into action. Everywhere he went, He met people exactly at their point of need. That is where Jesus met Simon’s mother-in-law. She had a fever that was so severe that it completely disabled her. Jesus reached out His hand to hers. He held on to her and she held on to Him. Jesus lifted her up. The fever left her.

Let’s focus for a minute on those words. Jesus “lifted her up.” It sounds mechanical, as though Jesus simply helped pull the woman to her feet, and perhaps that is exactly what happened.

Could it be a coincidence, though, that Greek word that Mark uses to describe this dramatic moment is the same word that he uses to describe Jesus own resurrection later on? The word is egeiro, to raise, to lift up. In Mark 16:6, the word is used in the passive voice, Jesus is risen. Here in Mark 1, the word is used in the active voice, Jesus “lifted her up.” The same power of God that overcame death at the resurrection is the power that heals.

We don’t seem to trust that power so much today. In our skeptical moments, we attribute healing to the medicine. Yet we know that medicine has its limits. There are times that even medicine runs out of miracles. And ultimately, we confront the reality that our physical lives eventually come to an end, even those who have received the miracles of healing. Even Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, returned to death, eventually. We see people we love suffer. We experience our own bodies aging and declining. And we wonder, “where is God?”

Methodists affirm the healing power of God, a healing power that is present even in the midst of suffering. Hear these words from The United Methodist Book of Worship, which affirms that

spiritual healing is God’s work of offering persons balance, harmony, and wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships through confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Through such healing, God works to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity, among individuals and communities, within each person, and between humanity and the rest of creation…

All healing is of God. The Church’s healing ministry in no way detracts from the gifts God gives through medicine and psychotherapy. It is no substitute for either medicine or the proper care of one’s health. Rather, it adds to our total resources for wholeness.

Healing is not magic, but underlying it is the great mystery of God’s love…

God does not promise that we shall be spared suffering but does promise to be with us in our suffering. Trusting that promise, we are enabled to recognize God’s sustaining presence in pain, sickness, injury, and estrangement….

A Service of Healing is not necessarily a service of curing, but it provides an atmosphere in which healing can happen. The greatest healing of all is the reunion or reconciliation of a human being with God. For the Christian the basic purpose of spiritual healing is to renew and strengthen one’s relationship with the living Christ.[2]

The practice of anointing with oil seems strange to some, but its history runs deep. Remember those very comforting words from the 23rd Psalm: “Thou anointest my head with oil…” This practice carried over to the early church. The Epistle of James proclaims this invitation and promise:

14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.

16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

(James 5:14-16, NIV)

Anointing with oil is a way for us to seek the healing love of God. I like to think of it as a way in which we reach out for the hand of God. The promise is that when we reach out, we find that God has already been reaching out for us, waiting to take us by the hand, to lift us up to wholeness, to eternal life.

In a moment, we will sing our Hymn of Response, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Hymn # 474 in your Hymnals. Are there any among you who are sick, broken, who need God? This would be a wonderful moment for you to reach out to the God who is reaching out to you. I invite you to come forward, as you feel led by the Spirit, to receive the anointing, love and prayers of the Church, as you place your hand in the hand of God.

Tom Frost

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church.

[2] The United Methodist Book of Worship, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), pp. 613-614.


Mark 1:21-28

January 29, 2012

Today’s Gospel Lesson describes an exorcism. This is the first miracle that is recorded in Mark’s Gospel. Mark shows us that from the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus was at work driving out evil from the hearts of people.

We tend to pooh-pooh evil. We may laugh about it—remember the line from comedian Flip Wilson: “the devil made me do it!”[1] We may Hollywoodize it (I don’t think there is such a word, but you get my point) —I remember going with a bunch of my friends when I was in college to see the movie The Exorcist. The movie succeeded in scaring us—how many times have you repeated the mantra “it’s only a movie?” We may externalize it—it’s always the enemy who is evil. We may flirt with it—checking to see how close we can get to it without getting burned by it. Sometimes we glorify it, indulging in its temptations and pronouncing it very good. Just as the advertisers tempt us to indulge in a package of Milano cookies with words such as “”Entertain inspirations. Embrace decadent cravings. Reward yourself. Open… Taste… Delight.” We gaze at the glamour of evil and, like the Prodigal Son of the Gospel parable, we want to go to a far country and squander our lives in “dissolute living” (Luke 15:13). Very seldom do we run away from evil until it finally threatens to destroy us.

Have you ever seen someone you thought was evil? Evil can be hard to recognize. It usually doesn’t walk around wearing a sign written with scarlet letters that say “EVIL.” When evil come in human form, it usually looks like you and me.

In my early years as a lawyer, I occasionally received Court appointments to represent indigent criminal defendants. Without commenting on whether I believed or didn’t believe my clients’ claims of innocence, it certainly struck me that these people who were on the wrong side of the legal system looked like ordinary people. It was puzzling to listen to some of their claims that all the innocent people were in jail and all the guilty people were walking freely.

The problem of recognizing evil isn’t limited to those within the criminal justice system. There was the business executive (I’ll refer to him as Mr. X) who told me that someone else (I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Y) was a bad guy. I responded that Mr. Y doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy. Mr. X replied that in order to be really bad, you have to think that you’re good. He paused then before adding, “I guess some people think that I’m really bad too.” Mr. X may have been bad, but he also was a theologian and didn’t even know it.

The Apostle Paul summed it up well when he wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRS). We can deny it, dress it up and try to cover it up. But the writer of 1 John puts the mirror in front of our face and says “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1John 1:10, NRS).

When we judge people as good or bad, we look at them from the outside—what they say and what they do; what they wear, what they eat or drink, how they earn their daily bread. We look “at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV).

Jesus understood where evil dwells. One day, as He was reflecting with His disciples on the disagreement that was building with the religious leaders of the day, He told them that it was “from the heart [that] come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander” (Matthew 15:19, NJB). It was because Jesus understood the hearts of women and men that He could take the Law of Moses and raise it to an even higher standard that would reflect the intent and not just the letter of the law.

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:1, NIV).

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:1, NIV).

We hear these teachings and we start to squirm because they strike so close to home. We get defensive—after all, we all are human. We dismiss them as unrealistic. Not in touch with the culture of the 21st Century. But I have to wonder, was Jesus really out of touch or do we just not want to hear someone who knows us tell us how we really are.

So often we accept limit our journey of faith to an insurance policy to avoid future punishment. How close can we come to the fire without getting burned? Avoiding wrath is a good thing, but I believe that God has much more in store for us than simply avoiding the fire. God wants us to live abundantly, the way God created us. But to do that, we have to do something about the evil, the Sin that lies within us. As I tell our Confirmation students, it’s one thing to talk about sins, the wrong things that we do. It’s a far different matter when we talk about SIN, the evil that lies within the human heart. Our journey of faith it not just about not sinning; it’s about letting God deliver us from evil, cleanse the evil that lies within us, and free us so that we can live joyfully and abundantly.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray “deliver us from evil.” We say that prayer every week. I suspect that many times, we say that prayer hoping that God will deliver us from our external circumstances, from the enemies outside of us. God certainly does want us to pray for what we need, but I don’t think that this is quite what Jesus was getting at here.

Jesus recognized our vulnerabilities, our temptations. He was tempted, just as we are tempted. He looked into the very face of evil in the wilderness and overcame it. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV). Jesus can tell us how to overcome evil because he overcame evil. Because Jesus overcame evil, we can too. We too can become the righteousness of God.

This sort of talk sounds strange to our ears, but the words are thousands of years old. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).

How do we get there? Some may have found the process to be painless and immediate, but that has not been my experience. The process requires us to acknowledge who we really are--to expose to ourselves and to God the places in our hearts that we would rather keep hidden away. It requires us to let God dig around in our hearts and minds and personalities. It may require some action on our part. It may require us to be willing to give up old ways of living. For some, it requires us to adopt a new system of values—giving up what used to be so important and clinging to what God calls good. For some, it may mean devising strategies to free us from addictions—whether chemical, emotional, relational. For some of us, it means confronting some difficult relationships, giving up grudges and resentments. For some of us, it means giving up control. For all of us, it requires tough choices. Do remember those concluding words from our Old Testament Lesson that the Lord spoke to Cain? “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).

But we don’t master it by ourselves. We have a tool in our discipleship took kit to help us in this tough process. This tool is called confession. Self-examination. Some people may wonder why Christians who already have experienced God’s forgiveness would continue in this habit of wallowing around in guilt by confessing how bad we have been. Confession is not an exercise in feeling guilty; it is an examination to find disease, the disease of sin, of evil that still lies within the human heart. And when we find that sin, we are given a promise, that “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NIV).

So this morning, I invite you to join me in opening our hearts to the light of God through our Prayer of Confession, and recognize our need for clean hearts. Let us confess our sin to almighty God.

Have mercy upon us, O God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out our transgressions. Wash us thoroughly from our iniquities, and cleanse us from our sins. For we acknowledge our transgressions, and our sin is ever before us. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

All offer prayers of confession in silence.

Hear these words of assurance.

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us remission of all our sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit.[2]


Tom Frost

January 29, 2012[3]

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.

[1] “Flip Wilson on the Ed Sullivan Show.” YouTube, Viewed on the internet on January 29, 2012.

[2] The Prayer of Confession and the Words of Assurance were reprinted from The United Methodist Book of Worship. Copyright © 1992 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

[3] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.