This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 24, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro
“Letting Go of What Has a Hold On You”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Would you pray with me?
Still-speaking God whom we hear not just in the pages of Scripture, nor just in our moments of laughter and places of comfort, but also in the times that stretch us to the limit and the moments we are called out of our convenient patterns, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. Amen.
The story is told about a miner. He had planned initially to stay near his family farm, to marry his high school sweetheart, and to begin a simple happy life. Then he heard a gold rush was on. He left it all, forgetting his sweetheart and his friends, ready and insistent on leaving his home, his family, and all he knew at the chance of becoming wealthy and having all of the world’s best possession. He poured himself fully into the search for gold, sacrificing everything, and doing so in a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog way that left no room for friends and no time to enjoy the little moments of joy that punctuate our lives if we look for them. He finally did strike gold, and was so overjoyed. He took his gold and carried his bag of nuggets with him everywhere, believing he was walking on his way to start his life he had dreamed of. These gold nuggets were his most precious possession. And he dreamed of all the wonderful things they would purchase for him, counting all the people and things he had left behind as worth it to find his treasure.
Yet on his way to cash it all on and build his life finally with his new found wealth, the miner died unexpectedly. He was rushed off to heaven, still clinging to his precious golden nuggets. When he arrived at heaven’s gate, an angel greeting him, insisting he lay the gold aside before he entered. The man was indignant. Did that angel not know all he had sacrificed to earn this gold? And now he had to lay it aside? The angel was puzzled, and asked him why he wanted to carry asphalt into heaven anyway? The man was aghast and held the gold out in front of the angel’s face. “This isn’t asphalt,” he explained, “Just look. It’s pure gold.” To which the angel replied, laughing, “Exactly,” and pointed through the door of heaven to its streets , shining bright and glistening . He said, “and here in heaven all we use gold for is to pave our streets. It is just asphalt here, only worth being stepped on.” And in that moment, the miner looked down, sad, heartbroken at all the things he laid aside for a treasure he could never keep.
This parable of sorts is a good lead in to our message today.
As you may recall we have been going through a series called “Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life”, focused on how we can connect with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said would well up within believers like a fountain of living waters that wells up to eternal life. We’ve explored how through times of challenge and change, hard work and trial, it is easy to become overwhelmed and exhausted when we have to rely solely on our own power. I think all of us have experienced this personally, and I would wager we’ve all seen it happen in our families, our communities, and here at our church at Hanks Chapel. Each week we have looked at different ways it is important to connect with the Spirit, and different practices that help with this: first looking at meditation and communion, then different kinds of prayer, and finally ways to look and listen for the Spirit’s still speaking voice in our life so we can discern God’s will better.
This parable I shared illustrates one of the less comfortable ways we are called to make room for the Spirit in our life, one that to be honest I had to fight the impulse to not talk about, because for me at least it pushes me out of my comfort zone a little: practices of letting go. In this parable, this man’s desire for wealth – to make it big, with his life full of money and stuff – lead him to miss some of the greatest joys in life. And his clinging to those gold nuggets threaten to keep him from making it through the pearly gates.
Though the parable might be a little over the top, it makes a tough but uncomfortable point: there are tons of things in our life we can cling to which become distractions, keeping us from connecting with what matters most – not just the pursuit of money and things, but also our busy-ness, also other people’s opinions of us.
Any thoughts about things which people can cling to that can cause them to miss what matters, and not connect with God & God’s best for them?
In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus take radical steps at letting go his hold on potential distractions he could cling to. When the Spirit comes upon him, Jesus pulls out of the noise and busyness of life, leaves aside all his wealth and stuff, to simply be alone with God in the wilderness. He leaves the comfort of home and family. Though the Gospel of Mark here doesn’t mention Jesus going without food, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus also goes for these days without the comfort of food. While doing this, Jesus confronts his own heart and the heart of life itself, God, in new ways. Mark uniquely of the Gospels mentions Jesus among the wild beasts, with angels visiting him. There in the desert wilderness, cut off from the distractions of life, Jesus not only confronting his deepest temptations and ours, but he also connects with the Spirit in a deeper way he could not have without having laid aside every possible distraction, glimpsing God’s presence in the wonder of nature representing by the wild beasts and in seeing glimpses of the usually unseen glory of heaven, through the presence of the angels. Jesus models to us an important, if often uncomfortable, aspect of connecting with the Spirit in a way: to connect with the Spirit, we have to also sometimes lay aside comfort and distraction. This process of letting go is important to hearing the Spirit.
Jesus’ example points to some practices that Christians have found helpful in learning to let go and hear and see the Spirit more fully. He shows what happens when we do it: both those great distractions and temptations that lie within us become visible, as happens for Jesus when the Tempter shows up in his time in the wilderness, while also ways in which God is present and at work in places we never suspected become present to us – like seeing God in nature, through the wild animals, or getting glimpses of how God is working behind the scenes of our life.
I wonder, are there any practices you find that help you let go the noise and distractions of life, and let go things that you might be tempted to hold onto, which could keep you from connecting with God and God’s purposes?
Some of the practices Jesus’ example points to here in Mark are:
Taking regular time of solitude and silence. Jesus leaves the crowds, the busyness, of life to be alone with God. Last week I talked about how we have to find a way to silence the noise of the world to really hear God. We can do that sometimes in the midst of our busy days, in the midst of worry and trial. But often stepping back from it, having quiet time alone, just you and God, is needed. Even in those moments, noise and temptation will pop up, as happened for Jesus, but these will not be the noise and temptation of the world, but the noise and temptation flowing from within your own heart. And when, in that time of solitude and silence, these pop up, you can notice them, name them before God, and ask God’s help in laying them aside so you can focus one-on-one with your Creator.
Related to this is taking regular time for sabbath. Silence and solitude – sometimes called “quiet time” – is something we aim toward a little of every day or every few days. Sabbath is a bigger concept, one which comes right out of the Creation story and the Ten Commandments. In the story of Creation in Genesis, God works hard six days making all that is, but takes the seventh and doesn’t work. God simply spends time enjoying being together with God’s creation. The Ten Commandments encouraged the people of Israel to do return the favor – and regularly set one day in seven to not focus their attention on all the work to be done, all the worries, and all the tasks, but one just spending time with God, focused on God’s presence, enjoying God, enjoying God’s creation, and enjoying the people that matter to them. In our nonstop lives, where we even get emails about work on our phones when we’ve clocked out, this principle is so important – of setting aside time regularly to not be doing, doing, doing, but simply focused on connecting with God, with creation, and the people that matter.
In my own life, I’ve tended to set regular times during the week and a few times a year to do this, but not a whole day every week. Right now, though, since I am working two jobs – 40+ hours at the hospice, and as much as a I can here with Hanks Chapel – I am trying to intentionally set time I am not working at either the church or the hospice each week: as close to 24 hours I can, where I am focused on connecting with God, spending time in nature, spending time with the people who count to me. Whether a literal 24 hours a day or not, without blocking off that time to connect one on one with your Creator, with your own self caring for your own health, with nature, and with the people whom you love, it can become easy to lose your way.
Since the other Gospels tell us while in the wilderness, Jesus doesn’t have food to eat, it is important to focus on fasting. In fasting, we give up some comfort that could distract us from focusing on God or God’s call in order to spend more focused time one on one with God or helping serve others. Usually in the Bible this is food, which makes sense in a world without supermarkets, fast food, and microwave ovens in which most of your day could be gathering, cooking, preparing, food. Cutting out a few meals, or a day’s worth of meals, really freed up a lot of time and energy to focus on prayer, meditation, Bible study, and even doing things God called you to do to help others. And in Scriptures, people are reminded that they can also share that food with people in need.
Going without food can still be a good practice, whether that is going without a meal or two and spending that time you would be eating praying or helping others and giving what would go to that meal to a needy cause; or foregoing a comfort food like meat, coffee, chocolate. I also have known people who fasted doing the SNAP challenge – only eating what the food they could purchase while on government assistance, to understand the experience of those without. Such kinds of fasting can remind us that our ultimate source of strength and nourishment is God. It can also remind us of what others are going through who have less than us.
But there are other sources of comfort which can be more distracting today – TV, the internet, driving a car rather than walking or biking, the list goes on. Putting aside an unnecessary comfort for a little while, especially one that distracts you from paying attention to God and helping others can help free space in your life to connect better with God, have more compassion for and time to help others.
A final practice that is worth mentioning is the practice of simplicity. Simplicity is actually a key practice taught in the New Testament. We see it in the Sermon on the Mount, but probably first mentioned in Luke 3 when John the Baptist is asked by someone what repentance looks like. He says, if you have two coats and only need one, give your other coat away to someone who has none. Simplicity is the practice of looking at your life for what unnecessary stuff you have that you don’t need. All of us have a tendency in our society to accumulate – and it is easy to get too much in some way: so many clothes, so many books, so many cars, or technology, you name it. And the more we have, the more time we have to spend fixing it up, keeping it up, and often the less apt we are to share. For instance, if we have a big house, but it is so full of stuff we don’t ever use, we might finding ourselves filling a whole room with our extra stuff, a room which we could if we cleared out some things and give them to folks who really needed them, we could use to host a missionary, a person we know with health problems who needs a place to stay, or a foreign exchange student. Having more than we need can distract us from God’s presence and hold us back from helping others. One early Christian preacher, a man named Basil, put it well: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard [you are not eating] belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” Those are tough words, and I am not great at practicing their challenge myself, but they are the challenge of the call to simplicity. They also can be hard to figure out how to apply. Is worrying about getting the newest and best car failing to practice simplicity? Or is insisting to work long hours to keep up and running a vehicle held barely together, nearly by duct tape and prayer, failing to practice simplicity because it distracts you from time you could help others and seek God’s face? The call to simplicity isn’t easy to figure out sometimes, but
The heart of all these practices is learning to do what Psalm 46 invites us to do – to trust it doesn’t depend on us, doesn’t depend on all our hard work, on all our stuff we accumulate, doesn’t depend on our fighting our striving. Rather we can trust that even in if the world shakes, God holds it and us. We can be still and simply know God is, and since God is, we are safe and secure in God’s hands. Ultimately it is not up to us.
All of these spiritual practices open us up to, in different ways, to resting in the Spirit, being empowered and led by the Spirit in new ways. I challenge you to take one of these practices to focus on in this way this coming week. And let us all find space and time to be still before God, resting in God’s care and goodness.
Let us pray.
You call us to love you with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength.
But so often we are worried and distracted by many things.
We forget your love and your call to love,
and we begin to think it is about us—
about our image, about doing it right,
about being the best, about getting what we want.
We forget to look to you, and even when we look, our vision is clouded.
Clear the chaos within us, O God,
And help us to embrace those practices and choices which can help us clear away this noise
that we may focus on you
and seek you out with our whole hearts.
Amen and Amen.