‘In the morning while it was still dark’ (Mark 1:35). Where do you like to be in the morning when it is still dark? I like to be in bed, warm and sleepy. But Jesus made a habit of getting up early and going somewhere quiet and praying. Could this be the simple secret of spiritual fruitfulness? My friends who are about to be baptised, you will have ups and downs in your Christian journey from this point on. At times you will think God is an awesome God. Last week I saw Jesus undo something I thought I had messed up; it was awesome. At times you will struggle. You will feel that you have worked your guts out and wonder why nothing is changing. I want to encourage you today that the number one thing you can do to grow your spiritual life is commit to prayer. Jesus set aside time at the start of his day; everyone wanted him, and if anyone could have thought “I don’t need to pray”, “God’s got my back” it would be Jesus. But Jesus started the day early, in a quiet place, talking to God.
From a secular point of view, prayer seems to be a waste of time. It is at best an act of gathering your thoughts before the day begins. But real prayer is so much more than that. Real prayer is seeking God’s guidance and God’s involvement. I often pray, ‘God who should I visit today’ and God shows me what I could not know. Prayer doesn’t replace planning, it perfects it. And then I ask God to do the things I cannot do myself, to give me opportunities to speak to people, to change the hearts of people, to change situations. God is not a puppet, but when I ask him what to pray and then I pray it - amazing things happen. God doesn’t answer all my prayers with a ‘yes’. Pete Greig from “The Prayer Course” believes there are at least three reasons God doesn’t say ‘yes’. God’s World - sometimes there are just other things going on, like the farmer down the road who needs it to rain. God’s Will - sometimes God has a purpose in things that we wouldn’t ask for, sometimes in enduring a difficult situation God grows our character and is able to help someone else. And thirdly, God’s War - God is at war with the forces of evil. When someone is abused or attacked that is not God’s will, but he has allowed us freedom and choice and sometimes Evil makes use of our freedom.
If you’re a guest here today, not a Christian, not a believer, I want to encourage you. You can pray too, start small and ask God to reveal himself to you by praying for ordinary things, and watch what happens.
Jesus healed people, Jesus stills heals people, not everyone, not every time; but during his time on earth Jesus was famous for healing people. I can’t explain why some people are healed and not others, but I know that when we pray for people to be healed more people are healed than when we don’t. Sometimes people ask, ‘How did Jesus heal people’ and I want to give just one idea today, an idea that is associated with baptism. I believe that Jesus radiated life, and that he transmitted that wellness to people when he touched or spoke to them. Healing is the restoring of health. I love how the author Tim Kellor puts it. ‘We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order’ (pg 95). Jesus talked about giving people living water; the water of baptism is symbolic of Jesus’ living water.
We don’t realise how feared leprosy was in the ancient world. Leprosy is not highly contagious but without antibiotics in the ancient world, lepers and people with skin diseases were kept at a distance as a basic method of infection control. If you think about our fear of Ebola, or even Sars, you start to get a sense of the way people feared leprosy. For the person involved it was a nightmare – living away from people and being required to call out ‘leper’ – ‘unclean’. In the Jewish world you could add to that medical fear a religious fear – leprosy, unclean, and considered by many a curse – and if you touched a person with leprosy you became unclean.
And in this context a man with leprosy comes up and asks Jesus, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’ (Mark 1:40). And Jesus touched him. Notice he touched him before he healed him. Then he told the man, ‘I am willing’ and healed him. Jesus healed him, Jesus un-cursed him, and Jesus restored him to his family and community. Ever since, followers of Jesus have been touching untouchable people with love. This is the Gospel in miniature; holy Jesus became cursed so that the cursed could become blessed. He became unclean so that the unclean could become clean. Baptism is symbolic of having your sins washed away; everything that makes you unclean, or makes you feel unclean, is taken away. Sometimes when people are baptised they talk about how wonderful it feels to feel clean.
There was life-giving power and spiritual cleansing but at the heart of this encounter is the key – Jesus was moved by compassion. We can know all the stuff in our heads, but it’s when our hearts start to be broken by the things that break Jesus’ heart - only then do we start to really get a feel for what this Christian thing is all about. Jesus was moved by compassion. Jesus cares about broken people. And he cares about you. I could talk about baptism as Jesus’ love for broken people, there are things that I’m sure are broken in each of their lives. But you know what, baptism is more than that. Baptism is dying to your old way of life and rising to the Jesus way of life. Baptism is actually about receiving a new heart, a new compassion, a new compulsion. By agreeing to be baptised these guys are opening themselves to having the heart of Jesus implanted into them. The Bible says that the primary problem that people have is that we can know all the right things, but still have a heart of stone. The prophet Ezekiel promised that one day God would give his people a new heart, a heart of compassion, and that would change everything.
Last point. Jesus sent the man off to the priest to get checked out. Firstly, because the priest operated like the infection control doctor; when he signed you off you were safe to go back to the tribe. So when God heals, never be afraid of going back to your doctor – it’s his or her task to witness to the healing. Secondly, Jesus said to the man to go to the priest ‘as a testimony to the priest’. Jesus wanted to win priests to his kingdom as well as others. The high priests plotted against him, but many ordinary priests came to believe (Acts 6:7).
Thirdly, the effect of faith needs to be measured. You who are about to be baptised, people will watch you. They will watch your language, they will watch your behaviour, they will watch your heart; and they will judge Jesus by what they find. It’s funny what people will notice. When I was 19 my roommates used to gently tease me about my faith, but it was the funniest thing they noticed. They noticed that when I went to church I always wrote a cheque, and they assumed that meant that I gave a reasonable amount of money – not a gold coin – and they saw that as evidence that I was serious about my faith. Funny what people notice. My friends, you will be watched. Being baptised means that Jesus will be known by the things you do. That’s enough to drive me back to prayer! But don’t be anxious because Jesus will heal, restore and redeem you – if you let him. And together you’ll do good things.