Lord Teach Me To Pray: Heal Me

One of the most misunderstood, and in mainline churches often ignored, aspects of Christian faith has to do with the power of prayer as regards healing. Some churches placed too much emphasis on healing prayer and have an almost magical approach to the subject. Other churches disbelieve that healing occurs in response to prayer. Still other churches ignore the subject entirely. At Advent, we try to have a middle of the road approach to healing prayer:  We believe God heals, but we don’t expect a miracle every time we pray.

images-7The healing ministry of the church is important. Those churches which do not believe that God continues to heal are, in my mind, missing an important aspect of Christian faith. All Christians, including those who aren’t particularly interested in healing, pray for healing. Almost instinctively, when we are sick we pray for God to heal us. When someone we love is sick, we pray for God to heal them—even if we doubt that such a healing as possible.

This week one of our young people had to go into the hospital. Gretchen posted a prayer request on Facebook without naming the child. Many of our members “liked” that post and indicated they were praying. In addition, one of the prayer groups that meets regularly prayed for this young person. We don’t know yet whether God is going to heal that person as we are asking, but we’re asking.

This summer, I spent some time with friends I’ve known since we were younger. We had our first children at about the same time. This couple had a child born prematurely with serious health issues. Our friendship became closer one night when the husband and I went together to St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston Texas to see his child. My friend wasn’t used to being around sick people. He wasn’t used to being in an intensive care unit. Neither was I at that point in time! Nevertheless, we went and prayed together, and we’ve been friends ever since.  Our time together and our prayer together is a part of the bond of friendship and faith we share.

Jesus Heals the Blind and Afflicted.

Our text for this blog  involves two healings of Jesus taken from the Gospel according to Matthew:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you;” and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region. While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 9:27-35)

Prayer: God of Healing: We ask that you would come and show us how we can pray for one another, for friends, even for non-Christians, as we seek the healing of people, situations, and even of our culture and world. We ask this in Jesus Name, who was and is the Great Physician, Amen.

The Healing Ministry of Christ.

imgresThere is no question but that healing was an important part of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus performed over thirty healings in the New Testament. One reason I chose today’s text has to do with the fact that it is “ordinary.” Jesus was either in Capernaum or a nearby town. He had already healed a paralytic (Matt. 9:1-9). He had healed Matthew from greed, commenting that it is not the healthy that need a healer but the sick (vv. 9-13). He had healed the dead daughter of a “ruler” of the people; and along the way, he healed a woman with the flow of blood (vv. 16-26).

As Jesus returned home from healing the ruler’s daughter, he was met by two blind men. They cried out, “Son of David, have mercy upon us (v. 27). Apparently, they followed him into his house or wherever he was staying. They had already called him, the “Son of David,” indicating that they believed him to be the Messiah. Jesus asked them if they believed (had faith) that he could heal them. They respond, “Yes” and were healed (v. 29). Immediately thereafter, Jesus healed a demoniac.

If you take chapters 8-9 of Matthew together, Jesus convincingly shows his power over physical disease, genetic problems, death, and spiritual evil. In Chapter 10, Jesus called his disciples together and commissioned them to drive out evil spirits and heal diseases (10:1). Not only do his disciples heal people and cast out demons in the Gospels, but in the book of Acts in the letters of Paul we also see evidence that the healing power of God in response to prayer continued to characterize the ministries of Peter, James, John, Paul, and the other apostles. Early in Acts Peter and John heal a person who had been a cripple from birth (Acts 3). Later on, we learned that the apostles, all of them, performed many signs and wonders (5:12).

The apostles were not the only members of the early church gifted with the power to pray for and receive healings. In his letters, Paul mentions the gift of healing and intercessory prayer as spiritual gifts (See, I Corinthians 12:9-10). Apparently, some people when they prayed, experienced dramatic responses to those prayers. People were healed.

During the first few centuries of the church, followers of Jesus were known for the power of healing prayer. [1] Healing ministry was a normal part of early Christianity. Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) writes of how the early Christians healed and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Irenaus who lived around the same time as Justin, attested to similar healings as those found in the Gospels and Acts. [2] One of the main ways the Rome Empire was converted to Christianity involves healings and exorcisms—signs and wonders.

The reality that God does sometimes answer prayer for healing continues to reveal itself today in the church. More than once, in my ministry and in the ministries of others, I and others have seen and see answers to prayers for healing. Therefore, the praying and healing ministry of the church continues to be important today.[3]

The Kinds of Healings God Provides.

Often, in discussing healing, we focus on physical healing. Physical healing is important; however, it is not the only kind of healing in which Christians are interested. Paul was never healed physically; however, Paul was healed from his spiritual anger and violent nature (Galatians 1:11-23). Peter, so far as we know, was not healed of a physical ailment (though his mother was). Instead, Peter was healed from a character defect.

In other words, there are many different kinds of healings. We may be healed physically. We may be feet healed emotionally. We may be healed spiritually. Our character may be healed. We may experience healing in our relationships with other people. Finally, we may experience social healings.

For example, this summer we have experienced increased racial tensions in Memphis and other cities. I think we have seen the results of pastors, congregational members, and others praying for peace in our city. We have been delivered from some of the worst things that have happened elsewhere. Our Christian response to any form of illness: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, marital, family, or social should be to pray.

Healing Ministry of Advent.

cordova-church-315-x-475When I came to Advent, one of the first things we did was to begin putting a prayer list in the bulletin. Over the years, we have prayed for hundreds of our members. In the vast majority of cases, the person was healed to a greater or lesser degree. Now, in many cases, that person was also being treated by a doctor, nurse, or other professional. This is an important point to make: Christian healing, and our prayers for healing, are not intended to replace the work of doctors, nurses, counselors, and other healing professionals. We believe that God is working through a variety of means to achieve healings. Our prayers may only be a part (the spiritual part) of the healing process. [4]

Many years ago, a member of our church came to us asking that we have a healing service for their son, who was having a serious physical problem. We had our first Advent healing service in the Upper Room, which our members know as the “Barnabas Classroom.” Dave and I did not expect many people to come, but there were about twenty people in attendance. Since then, from time to time we’ve had healing services. During the time when we were joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), we had another request. It so happened that we honored that request at the same time we held a prayer vigil for the decision we were about to make to join the EPC. Since that time, we have had a healing service, and prayers for healing, at 6 o’clock in the evening on the first Friday of every month, almost without exception. On an average First Friday, we have perhaps six people in attendance. We’ve had as many as thirty in the past. Many of our prayers have been answered.

During our First Friday Prayer Vigils, we pray for every member of Advent who is on the prayer list, more than once. In addition, during some of the special times of prayer, we open the floor for other prayers. There are almost always prayers for healing that are not contained in the prayer list for that week with that prayer vigil.

Our church has a Stephen ministry program and the Care Team program. We also have more than one prayer group and prayer chain. All of these groups involve praying for the healing of our members. Finally, many of our members pray for the healing of our community, nation, and world. These prayers may be about a physical disease in the news, like the “Zika Virus,” or for healing of emotional, spiritual, or other problems of our society. Hardly a week goes by when one of the pastors is not asked to pray for the healing of some person or situation.

Experiencing the Healing Power of God.

images-6This afternoon at our church, we are sponsoring a special time of teaching about prayer. Many people do not understand how to pray, and especially how to pray for healing. One of our seminars this afternoon has to do with intercessory prayer, which includes prayers for healing. For just the next few moments, I would like to set out a few ideas that may help us as we pray for healing:

  • First, we can pray for healing alone or in a group. Sometimes, there is both power and comfort in praying as a part of a larger group. Sometimes, the matter is private, and it is best to pray in private.
  • Second, although all prayers should be from the heart, sometimes we may feel better if we pray the words of another person. During our healing services, we pray both prayers from the heart that are spontaneous and written prayers from a bulletin. In just a few moments, any of us can research healing prayer on the Internet and find examples of many great prayers from the history of the church.
  • Third, we can use Holy Scripture to pray for healing. One common feature of our monthly healing service is a time when we pray through a story from the Bible where Jesus heals another human being. Using the prayers and example of Jesus can be a great encouragement.
  • Finally, we should pray with faith. Confident that God will answer our prayers, we learn to pray without ceasing for the healings we desire. Some prayers are not immediately answered. This should not stop us from praying for those we love and whom God has placed upon our hearts.

Last January, I had to have an operation. We had been praying for a health issue for some time, and then finally God allowed our doctor to figure out what was wrong. It was not a serious operation. I went into the surgery center after noon and was home before dinner. Naturally, Kathy prayed for the operation before I went in and we both prayed just before they took me in to surgery. As I was coming out of the anesthesia, the nurse, who I think understood we were Christians, revealed a spiritual or emotional need she and her family were having. It so happens that her problem was similar to a problem we had experienced. We prayed for her right then and there. None of these prayers involved anything dramatic, but we do believe that God was working in and through the prayers, the doctors, the nurses, and others to not just heal me, but to witness to that healing power in the life of others. Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Fr. George Morelli, “The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing” at http://www.antiochian.org/morelli/the-ethos-of-orthodox-christian-healing (downloaded August 18, 2016). This is a fine article that deals mostly with the role of healing in the contemporary orthodox churches, but also with the historical roots of healing in the history of the church.

[2] See, “History of Christian healing” at www.centerforinnerpeace.com (Downloaded August 18, 2016). See also, Mark A. Pearson, Christian Healing: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1995) and Bishop of Naupactus Hearths, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams, (Levandia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994).

[3] Our members know that Kathy and I have been developing a Bible Study, “Salt & Light. ” One of the lessons has to do with prayers for healing. Around the world, wherever the church is growing, there are signs and wonders, including healings. See for example, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, Monument CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). There is an urgent need for the Church in Europe and North America to recover the ministry of healing as a part of the outreach of the church in society. This is hard in a secular, and even pagan, culture. However, it is important.

[4] The church has always believed that God works both through prayers and through the skill of physicians and others. In fact, early Christians promoted hospitals, homes for the elderly and trained doctors and nurses. Technically, this aspect of the healing ministry of the church is called “synergy.” God works with, under, through, and above human healers in response to prayer.

Know Me

imgres-2This week, the blog involves selections from Psalm 139 and focuses on the importance of our resting in God’s prior understanding of us.

Almost anyone who has had children understands that parents and children have a special kind of relationship. Often children do not understand or appreciate the relationship, but it is there.  Our children carry within them our genetics, our family history, the way we were raised, and the way they were raised—and that means that we know our them in a special and unique way.

Often step parents have difficulty understanding step children, and step children have difficulty understanding step parents. One piece of pastoral advice I have often given is to assure the step parent that no step parent can have precisely the same understanding and native empathy for a child that does not share their genetics. One can be a good and even great step parent, but no step parent can actually become the biological parent of a child.

Kathy and I have an understanding of our children—and you have an understanding of your biological children–that is based upon more than time together. It is based on family history, genetics, etc. Sometimes, for better or for worse, I can actually feel what one of our children must be feeling as if I was standing before myself. I have never had that feeling for another person’s child.

Why have I spent so much time on this? Here is why: We are all children of God. Even those who do not know God and have not received Christ and become children of God in a special way are children of God in the sense: that God created the human race. God is eternally present in all of his creation, including our bodies and hearts and minds even before we know or are aware of his presence. We carry the image of God inside of our hearts. There is nothing we can be or do that God does not know and understand completely. God is the ultimate parent. God knows us as a parent, but better than any human parent.

A Plea from the Heart.

Our text is from Psalm 139. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us this morning from the voice of the Psalmist:

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
 You know when I sit and when I rise;  you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;  you are familiar with all my ways.
 Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.
 You hem me in behind and before,  and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”even the darkness will not be dark to you;the night will shine like the day,For darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful: I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—  When I awake, I am still with you. (vv. 1-18)

 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (vv. 23-24).

The Importance of Relationships.

images-2This blog begins where many sermons either begin or end: by noting that relationships are essential for human life. it bears repeating that people with healthy relationships live longer, deal with stress better, are healthier, less depressed, have stronger immune systems, and even lower blood pressure than people who do not experience healthy relationships. People who are deprived of relationships when they are young suffer a host of personal, psychological, and social problems later in life.

Often,  we stop at the point of talking about the importance of relationships. We fail to go on to note that all relationships are based upon communication, and all communication is an exercise in knowing and being known. If you think back upon the most important conversation in your life with the most important person in your life, you are likely to conclude that what made that particular conversation so important was the moment in which the other person realized that you could be trusted to know them, and you realized that they knew you in a deep and loving way.

Scholars and pastors often tell their congregations that the Old Testament word most frequently used for knowledge is also used for the physical relationship of men and women. In other words, knowledge, real knowledge, life changing knowledge, is more than information. Information communicated in words or numbers is only the surface of our knowledge. The meaning, importance, and power of that knowledge is the depth of what knowledge is all about.

Sometimes in the church and in social groups we joke about the differences between men and women. While there are real differences between most women and most men, there are areas in which we are identical. One of those areas has to do with our desire to be known. We human beings express this in many ways. For example, communication experts tell us that people who do nothing but listen are often considered to be better communicators than those who speak. Why would that be the case? It would be the case because we all have a desire to be known and understood. We think of people who understand and know us as being good communicators.

God is the Source of True Loving Knowledge.

imgres-4As Christians, the importance of relationships and communication should not surprise us. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Our Christian faith teaches us that God exists as a loving relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In John, the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) is referred to as the “Word” or “Logos” in Greek. (John 1:1). This Logos, or Word, is the rational expression of God’s wisdom and love radiating into the world by the Grace of the Father.

God exists in the eternal relationship of self-giving love, and Jesus is the incarnation of the rational expression of that love. Part of being made in the image of God is being made for a loving, self-giving relationship with God and other people. The eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, exist in a perfect relationship of love. The members of the Trinity are the same in being and express a kind of unconditional love based upon perfect understanding (God’s Omniscience), Perfect Love (God’s being of Agape, Self-giving Love), and Power (the ability to express perfectly that love). Human beings, who are made in the image of God, were made for relationships that mirror the relationships of God, including the Divine communication of self-giving love within the Trinity.

Most people understand in some way that human relationships are important. In addition, most people understand that communication is important for healthy relationships. For example, there is no realistic kind of marital counseling that does not emphasize the point that most marital problems are actually communication problems. Financial problems, emotional problems, physical problems—almost any kind of problem you can imagine in marriage— normally involves an underlying communication problem.

It’s a harder for us to understand that almost all the problems we have in our spiritual life are also communication problems! If we feel isolated and alone, somehow we are communicating our need for a relationship to God in an appropriate way. If we feel lost and without guidance from God, often were not communicating with God appropriately.

This is not an essay on listening prayer; however, since at least 85 percent of successful communication is learning to listen, it’s not surprising that most of us have trouble communicating with God since all we ever do is talk! If you only time we pray is when were in trouble and need an answer, our level of communication with God and our relationship with God is going to suffer.

Prayer begins with Knowledge—God’s Knowledge of Us!

A second area in which we can misunderstand what it means to pray and communicate with God, to have a relationship with God, is when we think of God as a kind of abstract principle, a force, a power, or even a distant creator no longer personally involved in creation, a “First Principle” of sorts. You really can’t have a relationship with the force or power or principle. In order to have a vital prayer relationship with God we have to keep in mind understand that God is a person and he wants to have a personal relationship with us. God wants to communicate with us.

imgres-3As I was preparing for this blog, I read an article about human relationships. It was actually an article about relationships between men and women. It turns out that whether the man for the woman initiates a relationship, people normally only initiate a relationship if they already believe that the other person wants to have a relationship. In fact, the person who initiates a relationship has already been signaled by the other person in some way that they want to open a relationship. This is also true in friendships and social relationships. We naturally form relationships with people we sense are already open to a relationship with us.

A good portion of Psalm 139 has to do with expressing the psalmist’s understanding that God has already established a relationship with the writer and the human race and signaled that He desires a deeper relationship, before we establish any relationship with God. God made us, God is always present with us. God already recognizes that we are unique and valuable—he made us that way! God already understands us. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, our sins, our shortcomings, our fears, our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. God, you see, is interested in us. God also loves us before we love God. The doctrine of grace is a simple recognition of the fact that God loves us and desires us to be a relationship with him even when we are alienated or distant from God.

The author C. S. Lewis wrote a book called, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a character called “Eustace” askes Edmund whether he knows Aslan, a giant lion who is the Christ of the series. Edmund answers, “Well, He knows me.” [1] In other places in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan is portrayed as knowing characters before they ever know Aslan. This is Lewis’ way of reminding us that God knows us long before we know God. God is listening to us long before we decide to communicate with God. God is offering us his grace long before we decide to accept that grace. The foundation of our relationship with God is God and God’s love for us.

Where Do We Go from Here?

For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about prayer. We are going to talk about praying to God for healing. We are going to talk about praying to God to refresh us and give us the strength to go on. We are going to talk about the importance of thanking God for answering our prayers. Finally, on September 11, going to talk about praying to God for protection. As Cindy mentioned in the moment for mission a few moments ago, next week after church you’re going to have a short seminar and an opportunity to learn more about prayer. We hope many people will sign up.

Those of us who have children know that long before the child speaks a word to us we are communicating to the child. Every time we hold the child, we are communicating love to the child. Every time we  put a child to bed, we are tell them we love them. Every time we sing a song, tell story, or just say good night, we are telling a child we love them. Every time we pick up the child and say good morning, we are communicating love to the child.

As to God, we are like a child. God has been knowing us, loving us, and communicating with us a long time before we ever know God , love God, and communicate our love to God. God is listening to us a long time before we listen to God. In other words, God is building a relationship for us long before we build a relationship with God. That is the meaning of grace.

imgres-1I think it helps begin to learn to pray to remember that God already knows us, already knows our hopes and dreams, already knows what we intend to pray about long before we ever pray. Prayer, you see, is not as much about information as it is about a relationship with the living God who loves us and cares for us.


Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1952, 1980), 117. I am indebted for this quote and for the insights and research of Brian S. Rosner, Known By God: C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoerffer E. Q..4 (2005), 343-352. Both for the quote and for the insight into the way Lewis speaks of God’s knowledge of us through the character of Aslan. Rosner has the insight that evangelicals talk a great deal about knowing God, but not enough about God knowing us.

What God Remembers: Seeing What God Sees

It is good to be back. Next week, we begin a series on prayer. This week is on Matthew 25:31-45 and asks us to learn to see what God sees and react accordingly.

Three weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah’s final prayer. Near the end of his life, three times, Nehemiah asks God to remember him. In that sermon, we focused on the fact that we all search for a kind of significance in life.images-2

We all joke about losing our memory as we grow old. There is a story told about a President who decided to visit a local Washington, DC nursing home. The President began his tour down the main hallway and passed by a little old man who doesn’t seem to notice him. Sensing this, the President backtracked to the resident and asked the resident, “Do you know who I am?” The old man looks up from his walker and says, “No, but if you go to the front desk, they will tell you your name.” Part of the tragedy of dementia is that we lose a part of who we are.

Memory is important. Psychologists tell us that our character is largely determined by our experiences and memories. Experiences and memories form and shape us. They shape what we find valuable and what we find not valuable. Our memories control who we are, what we desire, how we react to stress, what things make us angry, and what things give us joy. When a person loses their memory they lose all or a part of themselves.

John Polkinghorne, when he speaks of eternal life speaks of God’s memory. God has a perfect memory. God sees and remembers every single fact about every single particle of our existence. God remembers all that we are in all that we’ve done. When Polkinghorne speaks of eternal life, he says that God, in his mercy, will reconstruct us at the time and a place of his choosing.[1] In other words, because God loves us, he remembers us. Because he remembers us he will not let go of us. Instead, he will choose to re-create us, not just as we were, that he intended us to be.

When We Meet the Son.

imgresOur text this week is one of my least favorite passages from scripture. When I looked back to see how often I had preached on this text, I found that I preached on it exactly one time in 25 years. This text is about the final judgment, and it doesn’t necessarily make any of us feel very comfortable. It challenges us. It forces us to ask the question, “Am I doing the kinds of things for which God would want to remember me favorably?” In other words, “Am I being wise in my Christian walk?”

Here is a part of what Jesus says near the end of earthly ministry about what God sees and remembers:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-40).

Prayer: Lord God, particularly today, we pray as we sometimes do that if anything is said contrary to your will you will snatch it from every ear, but if anything is said according to your will, you would please burn it into all of our hearts. In Jesus Name, Amen

 A Prophesy and Parable of the Coming of the Kingdom.

During the last week of his life, Jesus, among other things, taught his followers about the end of the age. He promised them that he would return. He warned them that they should be careful to be wise in how they behaved, watching for his return. He let them know that no one knows the day of the hour of the return (Matthew 25:13). He taught them that they must be good servants, continuing to be about the Masters business until he returns (vv. 14-30). He then spoke about the final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).

imgres-1Be Filled with the Spirit. First, Jesus told a story about ten young women, who are bridesmaids for a friend (25:1-13). We know this as the “Parable of the Ten Virgins.”  Under Jewish custom, on the wedding night the bridegroom would come and get the bride from her home taking her to his own home. Of the ten bridesmaids, five, who were wise, had lamps that were filled with oil. Five, who were foolish, had not filled their lamps. Unfortunately, the bridegroom came late at midnight, hours after he should have arrived. The five foolish bridesmaids were forced to go and get oil so that they could lead the bride to the groom’s home. When they arrived, they were locked out of the wedding banquet. Jesus by this story, reminds his followers that they must remain filled with the Holy Spirit (the oil in their lamps) and be watchful because no one knows the day of the hour of his return (25:13).

imgres-2Use your Talents. Second, he told the story of the wise and foolish servants, what we sometimes call the “Parable of the Talents” (25:14-30).  A man went on a long journey, Jesus says. When he left, he called his servants and gave them money to invest for him. When he returned, the man asked for an accounting. The first servant, with whom he left five talents, brought him five more. The master praised the servant. The second servant, to whom he gave two talents, brought two more. The master praised this servant. Then, the servant to whom he gave one talent came and brought him only one talent. This servant, fearful of the master, simply buried the talent and did nothing with it. This servant was criticized. This parable is a reminder that God has given each one of his talents that he expects us to use.

imagesDo the Right Things. Finally, Jesus talked about the last judgment in what is sometimes called the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats.”. In this teaching, Jesus described himself as the Son of Man, the King of Kings, who returns from a long journey to heaven to reassert his control upon the earth. Having defeated all his enemies and taking control of all the earth, he brings the people of the earth together and separates them like sheep and goats. The hearers of Jesus would have visually been able to see the white sheep and the black goats of Israel lined up ready to be separated.

The King begins by blessing those on his right. In his blessing, he teaches us what God truly sees, remembers, and values. He invites these servants to inherit the kingdom prepared for them with these words: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (vv. 35-36). Then, he condemns those on his left because they’ve not done these things. They object that they never saw him in need. Jesus answers them that then they failed to do the proper things to the “least” they did not do them for him.

How are we to understand these verses? Are we to assume that, contrary to much of Scripture, we are not saved by faith but by works? Are we to assume that God, who has promised to forgive our sins, actually will not do so at the last judgment? The answer is “No.” What Jesus is doing is clearly explaining what a good servant will do as he or she invests her time, talents, and energy as we await the return of Christ. It turns out, that what God will remember us for our acts of love and service to others as we, like Jesus, serve others. [2] This is a parable about how to wisely and lovingly use the time God has given us.

This is another story, like the wise and foolish virgins and the wise and foolish servants, designed to help us live our the Christian life loving others and using our time, talents, and energies wisely. If we are wise, then we will use our time to do things that God truly desires and which God will truly remember us for doing. The story is a story of having wisdom in a foolish world.

The Problem of Inattention.

Why do you suppose we so often fail to love and serve others? As a person who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, I think I can give you an answer: Inattention. adhd_inattention2As the story unfolds, both the sheep and the goats fail to see Jesus; however, those who Jesus praises do see human suffering. They see those who are in prison. They see those who are hungry. They see those who are naked. These people saw the world the way Jesus sees the world and responded to human need. The people who Jesus criticizes would certainly have stopped and helped the poor, the suffering, the hungry, thirsty, if I had known it was the Messiah. However, they did not see Jesus. They saw only human beings (or nothing at all) and passed by.

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, thinks that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world, being transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our lives and be able to habitually  do the kinds of things that please God.

In this week’s bulletin and on Facebook, I pointed out that seeing involves two aspects: First, we have to have the natural ability to see. Physically, we need eyes. Spiritually, we need eyes that see the world in the way God sees the world. The transformation of our seeing is a work of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, physically and spiritually we have to pay attention. This is our work.

It’s easy not to pay attention. When I’m proofreading, after a while I get tired. It’s hard to pay attention. I get sleepy. The same thing is true as we look at the world around us. It’s easy to get tired of the poor. It’s easy to get tired of looking at people different from us. It’s easy to stop paying attention to human suffering. It takes attention to see the world the way God sees the world. We cannot pay attention because of our own talents and abilities. As Jesus makes plain in the parable of the Ten Virgins, only the Holy Spirit and keep us awake to the tings of God.

Paying Attention to What God Sees.

Just before I left on vacation, there was a tense incident in Memphis. The following Monday, a group of local pastors met for a time of prayer about our city. We heard from the Police Chief, Shelby County Sheriff, and other public officials. All of them recognized that churches can play a role in healing our city. At one point, a community leader told us that he was not asking us to start in new programs or become actively involved in politics. He was just asking us to continue to make disciples and be the church. I can’t remember exactly the way he put it. But, basically he was saying we can share God’s love with others in ways that government and the police cannot. We can change the human heart, and it is from the human heart that piece or violence flows.

In recent years, we have used the phrase “Worship + 2” to describe a way of being a disciple at Advent Presbyterian Church. We desire people to be regular in worship. We desire people to belong to some kind of discipleship group (Sunday School, a Small Group, etc.) in order to grow in Christ. We also ask folks to serve Christ in some way. Changing human hearts involves preaching the gospel It involves learning how to communicate the gospel to other people. It involves teaching. It also involves living out the Gospel day-to-day in our community. It involves being Salt & Light in our world.

Advent has many ways for us to put our faith to work serving others. Just before I left, we had a mission trip to Honduras. While I was gone, we had the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here for a week. It was a wonderful success, and three young men came to Christ. Each month, we have people helping in the various ministries of First Presbyterian Church in the inner city. We have folks who help young people learn at Riverwood Elementary School. We have volunteers who help with Youth Leadership Memphis. This morning, we have heard from the Unnerstalls, who saw a need in the Middle East and responded. We have many ways inside and outside of our church by which people van serve those in need. The question is, “Will we see the need?”

The Things God Remembers.

images-1At the Last Supper, Jesus asked his to remember him, and they did. The sacrifice that Jesus made for them was so enormous and so unexpected that they could not forget it. The reason we come to the Lord’s Table is because disciples have always remembered and reenacted his sacrifice. When we take time to serve other people, and especially when we take time to serve the least and the lost, we again reenact what Jesus did on the cross, this time for the benefit of another human being.


[1] See, John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2002).

[2] This is one of the many instances when we can sometimes both take too literally what Jesus is saying and also fail to pay attention to the context. This story of the last judgement might be called a teaching with parabolic elements. See, William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973), 885 and Charles Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew” in The Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 325).  As a follow up on the Parables of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Ten Talents, it is clear that Jesus is not so much giving a literal picture of the final judgement as he is teachings his disciples (and us) what kind of people we ought to be between now and his return. We need to be filled with the Spirit, use the talents and gifts God has given to us, and care for the least and lost just as Jesus did when he was among us. This hard teaching of Jesus needs to be taken in context just as all the teachings of Jesus need to be taken in context.