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The Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany
February 5, 2012
The Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
Sermon: "What Could Make You Happy?"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
What Could Make You Happy?
What would it take to make you happy? Wealth? Fame? Popularity? Security? Those certainly are the key ingredients to happiness; well…if the new seasons of “American Idol”, “The Voice”, and “Would you like to be a Millionaire?” are to be believed. More times than not, though, the teachings of Jesus question the effectiveness of those particular prescriptions. From the beginning of his ministry, crowds surrounded Jesus everywhere he went. His disciples thought it was great. They couldn’t understand why Jesus didn’t share their excitement over it. He had fame and popularity. According to this world’s standards Jesus was a smashing success, an overnight sensation, a real hit; you know, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The disciples accepted that this is what it was all about. People who are in tight with God should expect God’s favor in this life in the form of goods and services. The Pharisees in their day believed that. We have some very popular churches in our day that teach that. Their pastor’s books are on the best-seller lists. The disciples figured that this was what Jesus would want too. After all, who wouldn’t? There were times when they just didn’t “get” Jesus at all. If wealth and fame and adulation aren’t where happiness is secured, then where are they to be found. What could make you and me happy? Some events in our Gospel lesson from Mark this morning, do point out at least three things that could make us happy.
The first thing pointed to is this: Happiness begins with a touch. Jesus was visiting in Simon Peter’s home. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a high fever. Jesus went to her, touched her, and lifted her up. Immediately she was healed and restored in strength. She got up and began serving Jesus and his disciples right then and there. This was, no doubt, her way of saying thanks, but it began with Jesus’ touch.
This is the point: happiness is not simply an option we exercise. People who buy self-help books on how to be happy are going to end up disappointed. Happiness begins with a touch, not a text. A pastor was once asked if he would find the time to cheer up a young man who was recuperating from a nervous breakdown. He sought to help him, but it was hard work. “This is a gray world,” the young man said. “I see no purpose in it. It is dull, meaningless and evil. Its pleasures soon pass. Its pains endure. I seriously ask myself, ‘Is life worth living?’”
The visits and the conversations went on like this for the next two months. Every conversation was the same. Then something happened to that young man. He fell in love. Head over heels in love! On the day his engagement was announced he came to see the pastor and began the conversation with words something like this: “This is a lovely world. Come out into the garden and listen to that little bird singing fit to burst its heart. Isn’t it a glorious morning? How good it is to be alive!” That young man did not simply will himself into that attitude. It was not just a choice he had made, but a change made in him. He fell in love. He had been touched.
So it is when we experience Christ’s presence in our lives. The world seems to change, but it isn’t the world at all. We are changed by his touch. So let me challenge you to become the touch of Christ in the lives of others. For instance, take up the ministry of hospitality. When you see a new visitor here, make a point of greeting them well, learn their names and invite them to coffee fellowship with you, or even, if you’re up to it, brunch afterwards. Your warm touch and attention in Jesus’ name just might be a changing point in a searching person’s life. Or take up the ministry of visitation. People who are shut-in at home or sick in hospital need a warm and caring presence. Become the touch of Jesus for them. The amazing thing is that Jesus’ touch rebounds upon us. When you become Jesus’ touch for others, you get his touch too. That’s the first thing that could make you happy: the touch of Jesus.
Here’s the second: Happiness is intimacy with God in prayer. An unwritten motto of our culture says that the busier we are, the happier we will be. So we strive to be busy. It’s a mistake. No amount of shear busyness will ever give us happiness. It will only delude us by masking the lack of it for a time. Consider Jesus’ approach instead.
It had been an incredibly busy day for Jesus at Simon’s house. Yet, early the next morning, before anyone in the house woke up, Jesus left in search of a lonely place, a place where the crowds would not be able to find him, so that he could be alone to pray. He who had given so much, needed some time to receive. It’s the same for you and me.
Prayer can be a potent force in our lives. It is so potent that some followers of Christ have devoted their lives to nothing else. But it isn’t prayer’s power that draws them; it’s the intimacy with God that makes prayer worth the sacrifice of time and effort. Would you like for your prayers to be an opportunity for intimate conversation with God, and not just a recitation of words? Here’s something that you can try, that I find very helpful in creating that atmosphere of intimacy. It works well even in times of spiritual dryness, when any prayer is more labor than a connection to our source of happiness in God.
Take a few moments to become quiet inside. Set the day’s calendar, with all its pressing demands aside. Let your thoughts become still until all the racing confusion has settled down, and is no longer the only thing you can think about. Now, begin to picture Jesus himself coming to you. Picture him actually standing beside you in that very place where you are. This is not a mind game. It’s not virtual reality. What you are doing is forcing your mind and thoughts to see actual reality. When you pray, no matter what you may be feeling at that moment, Jesus actually is right there with you. That’s his promise to you, personally. So, let yourself see him. Do speak the things that are on your mind, that you wish him to help you with, but before you leave your prayer, spend some moments being quiet in his presence. See him put his hand upon you, as he does in our passage this morning. Then hear him speak his warming words of promise from Scripture. It will take practice to do this. And getting really good at it does require getting familiar with his words in Scripture, so that you begin to acquire an understanding for his mind. Yet, even right away, this will help you to gain a greater intimacy with our Lord. Now, this is just one method among many. It may well work for you as it has for me. If not, there are others that will. Experimenting with different methods to find ones that work well for you is important, because intimacy with God in prayer will deepen your happiness. That’s the second point.
Here’s the third: Happiness is caring most for what God wants, and doing it. That morning, as Jesus is praying, his disciples find him. “Everyone is searching for you,” Simon tells him. To this Jesus answers, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus would not be side-tracked by the adulation of the crowds; by the lure of success in Capernaum. He knew where God had him headed, and nothing else mattered.
Gorham Williams spent most of his life as a missionary in India. It was 1945. WWII continued to rage, but the sea lanes had finally opened up. Williams was preparing for a long-delayed trip home to the United States. He had purchased his passage tickets, and was counting down the days, when he was suddenly alerted to the plight of a group of German Jews nearby who had escaped the wrath of the Nazis. The Indian government had denied their request to immigrate, but had allowed them to shelter temporarily in the lofts of some dockside buildings at the wharf where they had landed. The conditions were wretched, but they were still better than an extermination camp.
It was Christmas Eve when Williams heard about these Jews. Immediately he went to the dock, entered the first building and called out, “Merry Christmas! What would you like for Christmas?” You know, they teach us now in cultural sensitivity classes that this is not the best way to win friends in a Jewish community. The response, as you might imagine was slow. “We’re Jewish,” someone finally called out. “I know,” the unsensitized Williams persisted, “but what would you like for Christmas?” The weary and still wary German Jews tentatively replied, “Well, it’s been a long time since we’ve had something good from home. We would like some German pastries.”
At that, Williams sold his ticket home, found a baker who knew how to make German pastries, and bought more than anyone in those parts had ever seen. Then he carried them in large baskets to the docks to what became their very grateful recipients; who I understand then explained to Williams the meaning of Chanukah.
Years later, Williams told this story to a group of seminary students. One brash young man reprimanded him. “You shouldn’t have done that. They weren’t even Christians.” “No, they weren’t,” Williams replied. “But I am.” Gorham Williams cared most for what God wanted, and did it.
What could make you and me happy? Every study done on this subject indicates that people who are actively engaged in serving God are far happier than the general population. That shouldn’t surprise us. Happiness, after all, is Jesus’ touch, intimacy with him in prayer, and caring for what God wants and doing it. Go to him in prayer, let him touch you, and then do his will. That will make you happy!