A sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39
hose who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.
“Those who wait for the Lord,” says Isaiah, by which he means not merely passive piety, but rather something that encompasses hope and expectation; hope-filled waiting and patient expectation. And the alternative to such waiting? Exhaustion, weariness, weakness. “Even youths will faint and be weary; even the young will fall exhausted.”
But waiting-hope-filled patience-is for many of us counter-intuitive. It is now, in our cultural context, as it was for the culture into which Isaiah first sang his great songs.
“Just do it,” said the Nike corporation in its famous ad campaign, and then proceeded to rake in billions. Movers and shakers just get on with it, right? Make a plan; follow through; run to catch up, and then race to get ahead; get things done. And maybe sometimes in some parts of life, there’s something in all that. But it can be exhausting, can’t it?
In her book Take this Bread, as she prepares to say something about the power of communion and how it has turned her life upside down, Sara Miles writes of her days working as an assistant cook in a trendy little New York City bistro. The chef she worked alongside of in the cramped little kitchen was a man named Robert, an African-American man in his late ‘50’s who brought a world of experience to his work. During her time there, the New York Times gave the bistro a glowing review, and the next day the place was bursting at the seams with customers. Miles writes of how she became increasingly frantic in her efforts to keep up with the incoming orders, until finally Robert stopped her, told her to sit down on a milk crate, and then casually lit a cigar. She was convinced he’d lost his mind, but listened as he began to speak:
“‘Got to slow down to speed up,'” he said. ‘Remember, doll: Slow down. When it’s busy, slow down.'”
And guess what? In a bistro with 40 seats, some 250 lunches were served that day, all of them on time. Apparently Robert the chef knew something.
Jesus knows a thing or two about all of this, too. “In the morning”-and that would be the morning after a day in which his healing presence had attracted crowds of seekers- “while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Mark doesn’t say anything about the content of Jesus’ prayer, because his interest is in the fact of Jesus going away alone to pray. No spiritual superman here, but instead a very human being who needs to do the sort of thing to which Isaiah points when he speaks about waiting.
Of course, in time Simon and the others find Jesus, and tell him, “Everyone is searching for you,” to which Jesus responds, “Let us get up and move along to the other towns, so I may proclaim the good news there too; that is what I came to do.” He has withdrawn to the deserted place and prayed, not as mere escape-which, frankly, would have been my temptation if I’d been besieged by crowds of people looking for my help-but so that he can then return to his true work, to his calling.
“Got to slow down to speed up.”
That is why it is so critical that we all learn something about this kind of waiting, this kind of slowing down, this way of retreating.
And you don’t need to go off to a monastery to enact this practice, though a monastic house is a really good place to spend that kind of time. Contrary to many popular assumptions, the monastic has not fled from the world, but rather has stepped back to a vantage point from which to better see the world, so as to better pray for the world. And part of the mission of the monastery is to provide guest rooms for people like you and me, so we too can get a little waiting time-watching and praying and breathing time-in order that we might see our world and our lives with clear eyes.
There’s something really potent in carving out a few days or even weeks to go away on a retreat or to make a pilgrimage or to set out on some sort of a seeking journey. “But I could never find the time for that,” which is probably true. All the more reason to make the time.
There are also things that can and should be incorporated into the day-to-day routine of life, just as we see Jesus model here in this gospel. In fact, it is in the day-to-day that this really makes a difference. Try, one more time, to find the routine of daily prayer that works for you. Prioritize coming to our monthly Hear the Silence liturgies, which are designed to be times set aside to simply be. Come on the community week-end away next month, or take part in the one-day Lenten quiet day that will happen in late March. Walk somewhere instead of driving, and do it without your iPod so that you can really take in all that is around you. Spend an hour really listening to that CD which has been spiritually significant to you, but don’t use it as a background soundtrack to something else. Sit down and really attend to it. Find the practice that helps you slow down, breath, settle, wait.
To “just do it” in the Nike sense; to move faster and faster, putting more and more on the plate… that will exhaust even the young, as Isaiah reminds us.
“Got to slow down to speed up.” Wise advice from the veteran chef in the busy New York bistro. Oddly, it is also part of what the Savior of the world would have us learn.