It was about 1:30 in the morning when I woke up in a room full of smoke. I rolled over in my bottom bunk and saw a charred black hole in my mattress, and immediately I got out of the bed, grabbed my two-year-old brother from his crib in the bedroom we shared and went to my parents’ bedroom. I shook my dad, and his eyes opened, and I said “My bed is on fire,” and he said “Ok” and he remained asleep. I went to the other side of the bed and shook my mom and told her “My bed is on fire” and her eyes went very wide, and she said “What did you say?” and I said “My bed is on fire,” and she turned over and shook my dad fully awake, and before long, Dad was dragging the mattress out of the house and into our driveway, where it was raining as hard that night as it is this morning. Even in the downpour, the mattress continued to smolder so that when I went to school, 6 hours later, it was still smoking in the rain.
It turns out that the source of the fire was my reading lamp. That lamp had two outstanding features that made it perfect for my bunk bed. First, the lamp had a bendable gooseneck, so that I could point it in any direction. First, instead of having a wide heavy base, the lamp had an oversized and tightly sprung clip - like a giant clip you would use on a chip bag. This meant I could clip the lamp to the headboard of my bunk. However, after years of use, the spring in the clip had worn out, and so it wouldn’t stay put that well, and on this particular night, I had decided to stay up reading wayyyyy past my bedtime. I was reading the best book, and I had to know how it ended. I never quite got to the ending, however. I fell asleep with the book on my chest and at the lamp resting on the mattress beside me burned its way into my mattress.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve never been very good at knowing when to quit, and this has occasionally caused me a bit of trouble. When I discover something good, I want more of it. I confess, these days, I find it harder to stay up quite so late reading - I fall asleep much earlier in the book than I used to, but thankfully I use LED bulbs for my reading lamp, and I keep it safely on a bedside table. But I can still lose just as much time as ever to a television. There’s just something about an electronic screen that is perfectly calibrated to keep us just awake enough to know that we really should be going to bed. And in the present age, where cable networks schedule their late night programming in marathons, and internet channels are built for binge-watching, it is easier than ever to become lost in a really good story even after we have learned all too well the consequences of lost sleep. Whether its food, or entertainment, or social networks, or even our favorite complaints - we are wired to take something good and ride with it until we are totally burned out. We’re all about that momentum.
We can even treat Jesus this way. For a couple weeks now, we’ve been in the first chapter of Mark, watching as Jesus begins his ministry, and we’ve seen the momentum building. It began when Jesus came calling his disciples, and as soon he calls a couple of them, they respond immediately. Then he immediately calls a couple more, and things are moving along nicely. Then Jesus heads right into the synagogue, and as soon as he shows up the evil spirits that have been hiding in plain sight begin to scream and shake, and then Jesus immediately casts them out.
Today, it seems his ministry is on auto-play. Jesus leaves the synagogue and immediately the residents of the house tell him about the sick woman. Immediately he heals her. In no time at all, the whole town is outside his door, bringing their ailments and their demons. They line up down the street, and Jesus is on a roll. Bringing ‘em in, and casting ‘em out.
But Jesus knows the difference between what is good and what is best. And so Jesus, while the crowds are still forming, while the momentum is still rising, Jesus ducks out the back. Jesus skips town, and when his disciples find him hours later, he doesn’t say “Ok. I’m rested, let’s jump back in there.” No, even as his disciples are telling him about everyone who is looking for him Jesus is packing his bags and moving on. He tells the disciples “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.”
How did Jesus know the time was right? Well, for one thing, he didn’t wait until he had no other options to go to God in prayer. You know, it’s a curious thing, I think many of us come to God looking for a sign, looking for some sort of skywriting or blinding light to show us the way, and we forget that most of the time in the Bible, God sends the great big flashing, blinding signs to people who are really, really headed the wrong direction. Moses was on the lam, running from a murder charge when he saw the burning bush. Balaam’s donkey started talking to him when Balaam was about to curse God’s people for money. A man named Saul was headed to Damascus to arrest and kill Christians in the name of God when God stepped in and said: “You are not honoring me, you are persecuting me you dummy.” — that’s a paraphrase.
Too often, we turn to God once we have exhausted all our other options — either when we’ve hit rock bottom, or else when we are tired of all the other good things that we wanted to do first. Jesus shares the nature of God completely, and so nothing - not even the thrill of healing and liberating and blessing the crowd will stop him from seeking the Father’s will, and remembering why he is here.
While we often try to worship and honor a God of the gaps, the God who fills in all the boring moments, and all the things we can’t do for ourselves, Jesus tells us to seek the kingdom first, and promises that all the other stuff is not the point, it’s the by-product.
We can’t go around trying to add the presence of God, the will of God, and the mission of God to the good stuff we are doing. No, unless we begin with the presence of God, we might find that we settle for something so much less than we were made for.
That’s one reason why in our church we say that the first commitment of any member is to pray, and when we talk about prayer we say that we are committed to cultivating a habit of prayer that is based on scripture. We believe that God hears all our prayers, even the prayers we offer to the God of the gaps - the prayers we offer when we are burnt out, overtired, lost and confused. God hears all those prayers.
But we hear God best when aren’t just asking God to take care of our needs and our desires. We hear God best when we are taking the time, regularly, in the middle of all the other good things we could be doing, to read the scriptures, so that the Holy Spirit can use them to teach us how to pray.
In his autobiography, Just as I Am, Billy Graham said that if he had his ministry to do over again, one of the changes he would make would be to “
spend more time in spiritual nurture, seeking to grow closer to God so I could become more like Christ. I would spend more time in prayer, not just for myself but for others. I would spend more time studying the Bible and meditating on its truth, not only for sermon preparation but to apply its message to my life
For a Christian, these two gifts — prayer, and the reading of scripture — are absolutely inseparable. The only way we have of knowing who God is by knowing what God has done, and the scriptures are the true and sufficient revelation of God’s saving work. If we do not take the time to be astonished, surprised, and taught by God then, then we will only ever pray to our idea of God. And likewise, if we study the scriptures, if we know them inside and out; if we know not only the text but the context and all the rich meaning and depth of the scriptures, but if all that knowledge never compels us to pray, then all that knowledge has become just another entertainment, another way to binge on a good thing so that it no longer gives us life.
But if we will decide that prayer, inspired by scripture, is the one automatic commitment in our lives, then and only then are we truly capable of discerning God’s best, and God’s purpose in a world full of good things. When we have our eyes fixed on our creator, redeemer, and sustainer then we don’t just say “this is good,” but we know what every good gift is good for.
A couple of days after the fire… I realized I had a burn on my arm. Curiously enough, it was in more or less the shape of the Texas Longhorn logo, which I tried to convince my mom — a Texas fan — was a sign of some sort. As best as I could tell, it was the burn that woke me up that night, so I was grateful for it. But I didn’t want another one, and I’d rather not need a scar to wake me up.
Maybe right now you feel as if you are on a treadmill that never stops; maybe you are hoping for the day when you crash and burn because then you’ll have the excuse you’re looking for to stop and seek God. Or maybe you’re riding high; you’re planning to check in with God as soon as you’ve exhausted the good stuff right in front of you.
Don’t wait. Don’t forget what you were made for, what you are being called for; don’t forget that a relationship with you is what Jesus came for. Make your time with God the one automatic in your life, and you’ll find it’s the one thing you can’t overdo.