“They shall run and not grow weary”

Sunday 8 February 2009

II Kings 4:8-37, Psalm 142, I Corinthians 9:16-27, Mark 1:29-39


The first lesson tells a story from the time of the prophet Elisha, when he had to travel frequently in the course of his ministry.  Since Elisha was away from his home and family, a godly woman invited him into her home to feed him, and as this became a habit she asked her husband to build a guest room where the prophet could stay according to his need.  When Peter asked Jesus about the reward for those who had made sacrifices in order to serve Him, He responded by saying that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)  Perhaps Jesus was thinking of the hospitality that Elisha received when He said this.


However the prophet was not the only one to receive the benefit from this arrangement.  The Lord made it clear that what we do to others in His name we also do to Him, and that we will be rewarded accordingly.  The time came when Elisha asked what could be done for this family that had shown him such generous hospitality as a man of God, and the result was that although they had been childless and were already old, the woman gave birth to a son.


St. Paul elaborates on this principle in Galatians 6:6-10:  The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.   Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.  So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. 


The Lord wants us to be aware that as we have done to those who have come to us as His servants, in His name, so we have done to Him.  God is faithful and true, and He rewards us according to our deeds: as we have sown, so we shall also reap.  If you have made sacrifices in your service to God, the Lord wants to assure you at this time that He is not going to abandon you or let you down, but that He will supply all your needs as you remain faithful to Him.  He wants you to know that it has not been in vain: what you have done for His servants you have also done to Him, and you will be richly rewarded.  If you feel overwhelmed by struggles, especially at this time of economic crisis, and perhaps feel that you want to give up or even to take a step backwards in your commitment to Him, then His Word to you is not to grow weary – no matter how weary you may feel – but to remain steadfast and not give up, but surrender your struggle to Him.  His reward is waiting for you if you will only persevere.


This story is not only talking about hospitality, but about our service to God in general.  When Jesus sent out His disciples to minister, He told them not to take any extra clothes, money or possessions with them so that they would not be distracted with these concerns, but to trust God to provide for their needs through the hospitality of those to whom they would minister.  He also said to the crowds who were listening to His teaching: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other You cannot serve God and wealth.  For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.   So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:24-25, 33-34)  The world around us very often serves the false god of Mammon through its greedy pursuit of material gain.  However it is also possible to become a slave to money simply because of our anxiety in trying to survive financially in difficult times.  Jesus warns us not to be like the world in this way – God knows our needs, and He is our Provider.  His promise is that if we seek His Kingdom first – if we serve Him faithfully and make Him the true King on the throne of our hearts, then He will supply all that we need.


As the story of the woman of Shunem continues, we learn that her son died.  However, the woman did not immediately start panicking or crying, as most people would probably do in this situation.  She did not even tell anyone what had happened, but she went straight to Elisha to make her complaint.  In those days before Jesus had come and before the Holy Spirit had been given to the Church, most people did not have direct access to God, but there were a few individuals whom God had anointed and appointed to be His representatives, and if anyone had an important matter to pray about they would go to one of these people.  By going to the prophet, the woman was in effect bringing her distress and her situation to God by the most direct way that she knew.  She did not allow herself to be put off by the fact that it was the hottest part of the day, or by her husband who told her that she would not be able to find Elisha, or by the servant who tried to keep her from coming too close, but she was determined to go to God and receive an answer for her trouble.


Where do you turn first when you have a problem?  Do you try to figure it out for yourself, do you look to other people, or do you go directly to God?  When you are sick, do you go to the medicine cupboard first, or to the doctor, or do you go to God first?  When you are struggling financially, do you seek help from your friend or your banker, or do you play the lottery, or do you pray to God?  If you have a problem with a relationship or some other kind of emotional struggle, do you try to medicate the pain with food or alcohol or cigarettes or shopping, or do you tell a friend, or do you bring it to God in prayer?  God uses people, and He uses medicine, but He wants us to rely on Him and not on any of the means that He uses to help us.  Like the woman in the story, He wants us to go to Him first.  Every time we encounter any kind of trial, God is testing us in order to reveal the foundation on which we have built our lives – whether we are relying on Him or on someone or something else – and He is giving us the opportunity to strengthen our faith and to draw near to Him.


Our Psalm today was written by David, when he was in the cave – this represents a place of darkness and trouble when he was hiding from his enemies.  He said, “I cry out to the LORD with my voice; with my voice to the LORD I make my supplication.  I pour out my complaint before Him; I declare before Him my trouble.” (Psalm 142:1-2)  David was not afraid to pour out his soul before God and to fully express his feelings to Him.  He knew that God is not looking for us to pray nice, religious-sounding prayers to impress Him or to pretend that everything is OK when really it is not OK, but that He wants us to open our hearts and be truthful with Him so that He can bring us the help and the healing that we need.  The Psalm continues, “When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then You knew my path.” (Psalm 142:3)  Are you feeling overwhelmed by the struggles in your life?  God already knows about it, and He understands what you are going through.  His Son came into the world, born in the lowest place, to suffer and die and experience every struggle that you will ever experience.  God does not ask us to give Him information that He does not already know, and He is not waiting to judge us but to comfort and assure us and to give us relief.  He is the God of all comfort and the Father of compassion (II Corinthians 1:3).  Whatever your struggle is today, be sure that you bring it to God.  He is able to help you in a way that no-one else and nothing else can.  He gives the peace that the world cannot give.  He is calling you not to put your security in man or in the things around you, but to trust in Him alone.  The purpose for the battles and trials is to build a stronger foundation of prayer in our lives and to draw us into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Him.


The Shunamite woman who brought her struggle to God was blessed with a miracle – she received her son back from the dead.  When Elisha first promised her a son she did not fully believe but was afraid that perhaps he was making fun of her.  When her son died, all her doubts and fears came flooding back to her, that she might be left childless again.  However the fact that she had received a miracle child in the first place had been enough to awaken a greater level of hope and faith in her heart, and this hope and faith proved to be enough that she was able to overcome her doubts and fears and hold onto the dream that had come alive in her heart.  Rather than giving up on her deepest desire, she pressed in until she received the answer she was looking for.  If the child had not died, the woman would have gone on living with something of the doubts and fears still remaining in her mind, not quite fully believing that the gift she had received from God was real.  It was when she received the second miracle that her faith was confirmed and fully established.  God does not allow us to go through such distressing experiences without a good purpose, but He plans them because they are necessary for the deeper work that He wants to accomplish in our hearts.  If He brings you through a crisis, it is because He wants to establish your faith in a greater way and to reveal His greatness to you at a new level.


The actions of the Shunamite woman are a picture for us of perseverance and determination.  She did not grow weary but persevered until she reaped her reward.  God calls us all to live our lives with this kind of attitude.  However, in order to do this we must have something to persevere with and to be determined about.  We must have a strong vision and purpose to motivate us, something that matters to us enough that we feel it is worth paying the price of perseverance in order to see it accomplished.  Without this kind of vision and purpose we will be unlikely to accomplish anything worthwhile but will drift through life aimlessly and without motivation.


Paul, in our second lesson, was very clear what his purpose was: he said, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.” (I Corinthians 9:16)  God has given each of us different gifts, and only a few of us are called to be preachers, but all of us are called to use our abilities, talents and resources to contribute to the task of preaching the Gospel.  Paul is an example to us, not because he was called to be an apostle, but because he was sold out to fulfil the calling of God in his life.  He was clearly focused and would not allow anything else to distract him.


For the sake of the Gospel, Paul said that he was willing to adapt himself to the needs of the different cultures and people to whom he ministered.  This is a challenge to us, because very often we prefer to be around people who are like us and who come from the same nationality and culture as we do and who speak the same language as us.  However, Paul is not only speaking about this, but more generally about being willing to make sacrifices for the sake of God’s calling.


In particular he uses the example of an athletics contest.  The athletes who participate in the Olympic Games train for years beforehand so that they will be ready to do their best.  It is a great honour for someone to be chosen to represent his country and even to participate in this event.  To win a gold medal in the Olympics is the highest achievement any athlete can dream of.  And yet how much greater an honour we have as Christians, to be called to represent God to the world around us, and to receive the eternal prize that He has prepared for us!  You will not see Olympic athletes arrive with long hair flying everywhere and heavy, baggy clothes that would slow them down.  They wear lightweight clothes that are specially designed to give them protection and speed, and they cut their hair short so that they will be streamlined and have less weight.  Olympic athletes do not go out for a gourmet meal followed by a long night in the pub or bar if they are going to compete the next day.  They might do this to celebrate when they have won the gold medal, but before the race they exercise self-control – they keep to a special diet and follow a tough training programme so that they will be as strong and fit as possible.  This is a picture of the way we are to live our lives – not only in what we eat, but in the way we set and pursue our priorities.  There are many good things in life that we may enjoy, but the question is, what is really important?  What really matters to us?  We can spend our time, money and energy in many ways, but when we come to the end of our lives, what will we have achieved?  Will our contribution quickly be forgotten, or will we, by the grace of God, have accomplished something that will make a lasting difference for generations to come?


Jesus was also very clear about His purpose.  When the crowds in a particular town were looking for Him after He had healed the sick and cast out demons, He did not show Himself to them again, but said to His disciples, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” (Mark 1:38)  We do not know whether the crowds were following Jesus because there were more people who needed healing and deliverance, or whether they had some other motive.  However, Jesus knew that if He stayed in that place it would have hindered Him from fully accomplishing His purpose, and so He moved on to the next place where God was calling Him to go.


There are many things we can do in our lives, and there are many good things we can do to serve God and others.  But what is God calling us to do?  There are various different gifts and abilities that He gives us, but the important thing is to know what we do best.  For example, several people may have the gift of teaching, but one is called to teach adults and another is called to teach children.  The gift of teaching may be one person’s strongest gift, so that this becomes the main focus of his or her ministry, while for another person another gift may be stronger, and teaching may be an occasional sideline.  God made each of us unique, with a different combination of gifts, personalities and interests.  He wants each of us to be ourselves, the way He created us to be, and He has prepared the perfect place for each of us in the family, the church and the world.  This same truth applies not only to our ministry in the church, but to the role we fulfil in our families and to the work we spend much of our time doing.  We are not called to be robots or machines, but God has a perfect and unique fit for each of us.  It is only when we use fully the gifts He has entrusted to us in accordance with the way He created us, and when we fulfil His calling in every area of our lives, that we will find fulfilment and peace.  He does not want us to waste our gifts, nor does He want us to strive to do something that is too difficult for us or that we find boring or wearisome.  We were not created for slavery, but for freedom and abundant life.


Hebrews 12:1-2 says, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  You will not win a race if you are always looking around and behind you to see whether someone is going to catch up with you, but only if you look straight ahead.  The race is not against other people or even against the circumstances but against ourselves, and against the sins and weaknesses that would prevent us from moving forward, especially our fears and insecurities.  It is not by our superior strength and speed or clever tactics that we will win the race, but only by faith, courage and determination, and by looking to God at all times.  Jesus could easily have given up when the soldiers were whipping His back or when the crowds were making fun of Him and telling Him to prove Himself by coming down from the cross, but He did not.  Instead He kept before Him the hope of His calling and the reward that He would receive when everything was completed, and this gave Him the strength to continue.  He is our greatest example, and He is also our Saviour who gives us the ability to do what we cannot do on our own, when we surrender in the midst of our weakness and make ourselves available to Him.


Whilst we are called to be ruthless in overcoming sin and putting aside distractions, this does not mean that we are to be selfish and ignore the needs of the people around us.  God is clearly focused and He calls us to be clearly focused, but this does not mean He calls us to be efficient like a business that replaces workers with machines as new technology becomes available, or like a factory production line.  The Gospels are full of stories of how Jesus turned aside to help individuals, although in many cases they did not respond to their healing by obeying Him, and in some cases they did not even bother to say “thank you”.  We might wonder why, if He had such a clear focus, Jesus would give His time and effort to people who would not bear fruit.  Evidently, what was more important than people’s response was for God to show people His love, mercy and compassion, and if anything He could do this in a greater way when people did not respond.  God does not call us to help others in order to receive something in return, or even so that they will join our church or start following Him, but simply because He calls us to love and to show His love – because He does the same for us.  Elisha may have been busy when the widow came to him, but this did not prevent him from stopping whatever he was doing and going with her to her home to restore her son to her.  God is clearly focused and purposeful, but He is not efficient in the way we think of efficiency, but He is compassionate.  Never imagine that you are too weak, too unimportant, too undeserving, or that in any other way you are disqualified from receiving God’s attention, and never think that God is too busy for you.  He is not ignoring you, and He has not forgotten your need.  He is simply waiting for you to come to Him.



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