The Sunday Sermon: January 31, 2021 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Scripture: Mark 1:21– 28
Praying and Being Prayer
Once we decided to follow the Way of Christ with renewed attention to the joy and the cost of our discipleship on Epiphany Sunday, we got out of the river at Jesus’ baptism, were sent into the world with Jesus’ instructions and discovered that trust in God and the Way of God set forth in the life of Jesus and his community empowers us, too, to bring release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a proclamation of our own.
We’ve been reading from the Gospels since Christmas, when we spent our weeks discovering God’s gifts of Peace, Hope, Joy and Salvation in the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah. Matthew for the Epiphany, Luke for a Baptism, back into Matthew for directions and Luke once again last week for authority. This week, we step into the Gospel of Mark and are equipped with a powerful tool for our ministry on our journey.
Pray with me …
Let me say as I begin the sermon this morning that it feels good to be in the Gospel of Mark … finally. I feel somehow closer to something historic, something earthly and relatable and “follow-able” somehow. Mark is almost certainly the earliest of the Gospels written. It doesn’t include any birth narratives that try to explain how, when, or where the divine came into the world. For that matter, in the original ending of this gospel, it doesn’t try to explain how, after Jesus’ death on a cross, “resurrection” came into this world.
Mark doesn’t seem to need to explain or offer proof or wait for understanding. He seems to assume that his readers, which of course include all of us, are already believing Christians who know of this Christ-man Jesus’ death and resurrection (after all there’s a community that Mark is writing for). What we need, Mark seems to think, is further instruction in the meanings of Jesus’ life, his Messiahship and the requirements of our own discipleship.
Listen for the Word of God from Mark. Read Mark 1:21-28
After Jesus is baptized and spends time in the wilderness, he calls the first disciples and this event is recorded. Only twenty-one verses into the writing and those with him and around him are astounded by him. It feels good to be in the Gospel of Mark, finally.
What I want us to consider this morning, through this passage indicative of the whole Gospel of Mark, is Jesus “as prayer,” of Jesus’ life “as prayer.” And, of course, if Jesus and his life – then us and our lives “as prayer.” That’s a little unsettling, perhaps. Because you heard me right. Not Jesus praying or you and I “in prayer,” but all of us “as prayer.” This is the discipline, the tool, we receive this morning for our work in the world. Let me step back from Mark only briefly.
A few decades ago I came across a wisdom tale that led me to Psalm 109, verse 4. In our most used translation of the bible, the New Revised Standard Version, verse 4 reads: In return for my love they accuse me, even while I make prayer for them. But in a footnote after “prayer”, we read “Or, I am prayer.” This verse in this Psalm opens up the reality that we not only “pray” in our lives, but our lives are prayer when properly lived. This discovery changed my already unorthodox understanding of prayer and has pushed me to think deeper about one of our most powerful spiritual disciplines. So … back to Mark.
What Mark explores, more than any other Gospel for me, is not Jesus praying (though he certainly does in this gospel), but Jesus as prayer. Jesus in Mark doesn’t teach his disciples how to pray as he does in Matthew and Luke written a decade or two later (Pray in this way: Our Father, which art in heaven…). Mark, rather, shows his disciples how to be prayer as Jesus was prayer right from the start of his ministry.
Take a look at the first nine chapters of Mark later today. With striking symmetry Jesus moves back and forth between teaching and healing in these chapters, between speaking and acting, between word and deed. In the passage we read this morning he does both. In fact, in this passage, those who saw his “act” wondered at “this new teaching.” Teaching is the whole subject of this passage, yet Mark doesn’t say anything about what Jesus’ actually taught. The healing, the exorcism Mark describes easily distracts us. Our attention quickly goes to the problem of miracle and away from what I believe Mark is sharing with us as his story of this remarkable human being begins: We are going to receive further instruction in the meanings of his life, his Messiahship and the requirements of our discipleship. Jesus’ life as prayer. And our lives the same as we follow his Way.
When we pray we more often than not locate the power of prayer in one or more of our human actions and in the answer that we expect to receive from God. Somewhere deep down we harbor the thought that the more earnest we pray and the more realistically we pray, the more people that pray with us or for us, the more truthful we are in our prayer, all of these things help determine the outcome of our prayer.
But when we are prayer, we come before God not with a request for God’s presence, but with a confidence that God is present. We don’t wait on “an answer” to our prayer, because our prayer has already been answered. We are already “with God” and God is already within us, waiting to act through our own teaching and our own healing. When we are prayer, as Jesus was prayer, we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives and renew our confidence in God’s guidance. And as our confidence, our faith, is renewed and strengthened, our own vision and hope is increased, our lives are given new life and we are empowered not by what might happen afterward, but by what is happening right now.
Not coincidentally, as we find our lives in relationship with God, we find them in relationships with others, those we are prayer for and those we are prayer with – husbands, wives, significant others, parents, children, acquaintances and even strangers. As prayer, we acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, but “created in and for community.” Jesus most powerfully acknowledged this relationship with God and with community, and makes it possible for us to envision such relationships for ourselves.
So … perhaps a new teaching for some of us in its own way, this instruction on prayer and being prayer. I won’t go so far as to suggest that in “being prayer” we stop praying! It’s too much a part of who we are. But perhaps while we continue to “do” the latter, we may more provocatively understand what it means to “be” the former. I believe that was and is a deeper understanding of Jesus’ Messiahship and a deeper understanding for our discipleship.
So pray and be prayer this week. Let your prayers not be filled with requests. Rather let them be statements, acknowledgments of God in your life, leading and guiding, teaching and healing and empowering you to do the same.
Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 31, 2021