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Slipping Away

A sermon by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx.

Luke 5:12-16; 6:12

March 2, 2014

Alone.  A-L-O-N-E.  There is something very frightening about this word.  There is something very comforting about being around people.  Something comforting about the constant noise and buzz of our lives.

We have slowly, but surely, developed a world in which there is no alone time.  We can return phone calls in the car – once upon a time, that was alone time.  But now, far too many of us chat away as we drive down the highway. 

We have robbed ourselves – on the right and the left hand – of every opportunity for reflection, contemplation, meditation, and prayer.  We have busied our lives with multi-tasking.  We can talk on the phone as we eat fast food while we text.  As Don Whitney said, “Not only are we better at multi-tasking and becoming more productive and efficient, along with the increased pace, more is required of us.  And so we hurtle through life faster and faster, becoming busier and busier.  The result is that in our busyness we are becoming increasingly efficient at leading meaningless lives.”  (quoted in Ministry ToolBox, April 4, 2001)

Should we get alone with God?  How important are those times – just one on one, ourselves and our Maker?

Look at Luke 5:12. 

Luke begins the story by saying, “While He was in one of the cities….”  That’s Luke’s way of saying, “Also typical of Jesus’ ministry is the following….”  “This happened on several occasions,” Luke seems to be saying.  It could have been any of several cities, because it happened in different cities, but on one day in one of the cities in which Jesus ministered, Luke recalled the following:  “…there was a man full of leprosy.”

It’s hard to know exactly what is indicated by the word “leprosy” in the gospel of Luke.  In the Mishnah, authorities identified leprosy as covering as many as 72 kinds of skin disease.  The leper was seen as a walking corpse.  His cure was likened to raising the dead (b. Sanh. 47a-b).

We don’t have time today, but, suffice it to say, if you look at all the passages on leprosy in the Old Testament, you will see that it was most often seen as a sign of God’s punishment, as when King Uzziah flaunted God’s law and the Lord smote him so that he was a leper to the day of his death (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21).

Secondly, the Old Testament concludes that no one but God can heal a leper.  When Naman, the leprous commander of the Assyrian army was healed by God, he confessed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.”

What I want you to see is that this disease had no remedy, and the only healer of leprosy was God Himself.  So when Jesus, in our passage, heals the leprous, he is portrayed as God.

Leviticus 13:45-46 says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.”

The very fact that the man in Luke’s story is approaching means he is breaking the law.  Interestingly enough, the leper has no question about the power of Jesus.  “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  The question is not whether Jesus could heal him.  The question is whether Jesus would heal him, at least as far as he sees it.

And Jesus does the strangest thing in verse 13.  Remember, this is a leper, and there is to be no contact with a leper – that’s the law.  “And He stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’”

There is much to be gathered from this powerful story in the life of our Lord.

I.  We make a difference when we’re willing to touch.

The leper was the most untouchable person in the first century.  It was the last thing that Jesus ought to do.  But despite the medical risks and the social taboo, Jesus touched the leper to make him whole.

How long had it been since the leprous man had felt the power of human touch?  Luke didn’t have to tell us Jesus touched him.  Luke told us because it was a shocking thing for Jesus to do.

Folks, we can’t really make a difference unless we’re willing to reach out and touch the untouchable.

A most moving picture was taken on November 6, 2013.  Pope Francis approached Vinicio Riva, who was one among a throng of 50,000 who had come to see the Pope.  What was unusual about his papal embrace was that the Pope, without hesitation, placed his hands on the neck and his cheek on the cheek of a man who is suffering from neurofibromatosis.  Vinicio is a shockingly disfigured man, a body full of tumors – tumors that started when he was fifteen years of age.  A rare genetic disease.

Vinicio said he was left speechless when the Pope did not hesitate to touch him.  All of his life he has been the butt of jokes, the recipient of stares and glares.  Once on a city bus, he had to stand because no one would let him occupy an empty seat.

“He kissed my face,” said Vinicio.

His aunt, who accompanied him, said her nephew still feels the reverberations from the Pope’s touch.  He said to his aunt after that hug, “Here I leave my pain.” (www.lifenews.com and www.nydailynews.com)

One touch was all it took to change everything for Vinicio Riva.  No stares.  No glares.  An embrace of grace.

Those aren’t easy choices.

You can sit and applaud the Pope if you want to.  We can give accolades to the Christ if we choose.  But when you yourself are in those shoes, it’s a hard choice.

I remember being a very young chaplain at a hospital in Dallas.  The days when no one knew really what caused AIDS.  The hysteria caused people to believe that even casual contact would cause contraction of the dreaded deadly disease.

I went to visit a patient – it said on the outside of his hospital door “HIV Positive.”  I knew what that meant.  I walked into the room.  He extended his hand to introduce himself.

I  wish I could say that like Christ, and the Pope, I immediately, without thought, embraced him.  But I didn’t.  I hope it didn’t appear so to him, but after a million calculations about whether or not to extend my hand, at last I did extend my hand.

But I calculated. 

We can only make a difference when we are willing to touch.

Turn just a few pages over to Luke 8.  Remember Jesus is being pressed by the crowd on the left and on the right, to the front and behind.  You remember that lady who, in stealth, tried to reach out and touch Jesus’ cloak in secret.  And she was immediately healed.  Remember, even as she touches Jesus, Jesus says, “Who is the one who touched Me?”  Look at Luke 8:45.  “Who is the one who touched Me?”  In verse 46, he is emphatic.  “Someone did touch Me, for I was aware that power had gone out of Me.”

It makes a difference when we touch – as it made a difference when Jesus touched – when we reach out in His name and grasp the hands of others.

You see, when Jesus touched the leper, He entered into the man’s isolation and He entered into the man’s shame.  There is no long-distance relief here.  Jesus gives Himself to those to whom He ministers.  Fred Craddock has said one cannot help a leper without entering the colony. 

II.  We must get away, even when needs remain.

Look at Luke 5:16.  Right after we see Jesus’ kindness, there is a change in the direction of the story.  “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”

We’ve learned in verse 15 that the news about Jesus is spreading even farther.  The multitudes are growing.  There are more people to be healed.  There are more lessons to be taught.  But even while others wait, Jesus gets away to be with God.  Jesus gets back to the source of His strength.

This is a hard lesson for us to learn.  But the truth of the matter is that every need cannot and will not ever be met.  The needs are without ceasing. 

No one faults the people here.  They want to hear.  They want to be healed.  But Jesus will not allow Himself to be defined by the people or be so occupied by their needs that He is cut off from His source of power.  What good is a Jesus who is not alone with God?  What good is a pastor or person who, in fulfilling every need that anyone casts before his feet, fails at the most important thing – being closer to the source of strength?

Luke says it this way in the Greek text.  “He was withdrawing in desert places – plural – and praying.”  It’s not a reference to a single instance, but, rather, to a pattern of repeated behavior in the life of Jesus.  Going into the wilderness to pray was as customary for Jesus as going to the synagogue on the Sabbath. 

In fact, we might say Jesus is in the wilderness again (cf. Luke 4:1). 

I must be a pastor who prays, and you must be a people who pray. For you see, if you and I don’t have our own time of wilderness, our time of being alone with God, we find ourselves being parasites.  We end up being parasites who live on the first-hand spiritual experiences of others.  But we, ourselves, are not personally involved with all of our senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 20)

III.  Sometimes I think we’re really afraid to be alone with God.

In her book Finding Focus in a Whirlwind World, Jean Fleming observed, “We live in a noisy, busy world.  Silence and solitude are not [modern] words.  They fit the era of Victorian lace, high-button shoes, and kerosene lamps better than our age of television, video arcades, and joggers wired with earphones.  We have become a people with an aversion to quiet and an uneasiness with being alone.”  (Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciples For the Christian Life, p. 184)

We’re afraid God will change us.  We want to live as we want to live.  If we spend time alone with God, He just might shape us and mold us as a potter shapes and molds the clay. 

You need to be cautious.  You need to be fearful about spending time alone with God.

 

Congregation, let’s be honest.  We’re not all that comfortable with God in our lives.  We want something less awesome.  We want something more informal.  Something more like, in fact, a kind pastor – someone who is reassuring and accessible and easy-going.  Sometimes it’s much safer to talk to the pastor than it is to talk to God.  God might require too much.

Do we dare get alone with God and suppose, for one moment, that God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse…or my kids, but in changing me and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and this suffering?  (Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 6)

Are you afraid to be alone with God?  Are you afraid because He is going to require you to change?

Dallas Willard said, “One of the hardest points to get past in spiritual formation is that in order for me to be spiritually transformed, I have to want to not want what I now want.” (Explorer, 3/12/01)

I’m afraid we want what we already have and, therefore, we shun being alone with God – much like avoiding the librarian when our checked-out book is six months overdue – because we’re afraid of the consequences before us.

IV.  Jesus’ life moves along a life of prayer.

Look at Luke 6:12. 

It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent a whole night in prayer to God.  And when day came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.

Then we start the list.  “Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew; ….”  And down the list of twelve.

Jesus spent the whole night in prayer to God.  Luke reminds his readers that the ministry of Jesus is moving along this path of prayer. 

(1) At His baptism, Jesus was in prayer (Luke 3:21).

(2) At the peak of His popularity, He withdrew for prayer (5:16). 

(3) When He chooses the Twelve, He spends an entire night in prayer. 

(4) And we’re reminded of Jesus’ practice of praying when He asks His disciples to say who He is in 9:18.  (5) When He goes up on the mountain and is transfigured in 9:28. 

And even other occasions in chapter 11 and chapter 22 when Jesus’ life moves along the path of prayer.

After Jesus prayed all night, God gave Him a family – a family of twelve.  And as we spend alone-time with God – that’s no substitute for worshiping together – God gives us a family, a church family.  People who believe in us and pray for us.  People who hold us accountable.  Some of them disappoint us, even as Judas disappointed Jesus.  But God gives us a family, even after we spend time alone in prayer.

Coming to church is important.  God calls us to gather as His body.  I believe that fully.  But having said that, even our corporate worship is no substitute for your wilderness time with God alone.  Maybe it’s just snatching thirty minutes away every day.  Maybe it’s just moments in prayer.  But when is it, where is it that God wants to be alone with you?

Have you made time for Him?  Have you made time for Him to love you and communicate with you and to transform your life and your thoughts? 

 

Something happens when we’re alone with God.  There is a great danger, because we will be changed.

If we don’t spend time alone with God, we’re fooling each other about who we really are as followers of Christ.

Anne Tyler, in her novel Morgan’s Passing, told a story of a middle-aged Baltimore man who passed through people’s lives with astonishing expertise in assuming roles and gratifying expectations.  The novel opens with Morgan’s watching a puppet show on a church lawn on a Sunday afternoon.  A few minutes into the show, a young man comes from behind the puppet stage and asks, “Is there a doctor here?”  After thirty or forty seconds with no response from the audience, Morgan stands up, slowly and deliberately approaches the young man, and asks, “What is the trouble?”  The puppeteer’s pregnant wife is in labor; a birth seems imminent.  Morgan puts the young couple in the back of his station wagon and sets off for Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Halfway there the husband says, “The baby is coming!”

Morgan, calm and self-assured, pulls to the curb, sending the about-to-be father to the corner to buy a Sunday paper as a substitute for towels and bed sheets, and delivers the baby.  He then drives to the emergency room of the hospital, sees the mother and baby safely to a stretcher, and disappears.  After the excitement dies down, the couple asks for Dr. Morgan to thank him.  But no one has ever heard of a Dr. Morgan.  They are puzzled and frustrated that they can’t express their gratitude to this wonderful doctor who helped them.

Several months later they are pushing their baby in a stroller and see Morgan walking on the other side of the street.  They run over and greet him, showing him the healthy baby that he brought into the world.  They tell him how hard they had looked for him, and of the hospital’s bureaucratic incompetence in tracking him down.  In an unaccustomed gush of honesty, he admits to them that he is not really a doctor.  In fact, he runs a hardware store.  But they needed a doctor, and being a doctor in those circumstances was not all that difficult.  He just let nature run its course.  It is an image thing, he tells them:  You discern what people expect and fit into it.  You can get by with it in all the honored professions.  Morgan explains he has been doing this all his life, impersonating doctors, lawyers, pastor, counselors as occasions present themselves.

Then he confides, “You know, I would never pretend to be a plumber or impersonate a butcher – they would find you out  if you tried to do something that hard.”

Morgan is not really any of the things he pretends to be.  He just says and does things to live up to other people’s expectation.  And the truth of the matter is, congregation, in your ministry and in my ministry and in the ministry of our staff, we, like Morgan, can probably get away with it in our own communities.  Often with applause.  But you can never get by with it within yourself. (Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p 130-131)

Have you made a trip to the wilderness lately?  It’s important, even if others have needs that go unmet.

In The Still Hour, Austin Phelps wrote,

It has been said that no great work in literature or in science was ever wrought by a man who did not love solitude.  We may lay it down as an elemental principle of religion, that no large growth in holiness was ever gained by one who did not take time to be often long alone with God.

Let us pray.