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April 11, 2020

Being Alone With God : An Easter Message

(This is a sermon I shared at a church on Easter Day, 2020.)

      Good morning everyone. Christ is risen! And your response is: “He is risen indeed.” Let us do that one more time. I say, Christ is risen. And your response is . . . . Today is Resurrection Sunday. We will talk about the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and talk about the depth of our “knowing” him. How much do you know Jesus?

      Let me start with a question. Pick a family member, a good friend, or a love one whom you know very well. Here is the question: Would you recognize your love one if he or she comes to you in an “alien” form? You know, an E.T. (extra-terrestrial) form. Now, if your answer is no, why do you think you would not recognize them? If your answer is yes, tell us what things the ET form would do to help you recognize them? Maybe, a facial expression? Or, some words that are known to only you and your love one? This activity really brings us back to the question: How much do you know a person?

      Right now, turn to your seat mates or the person next to you and say: “I know you.” If you truly know this person, then these words will sound natural. But, if you don’t, then you have a problem. You need to know that person better.

      At this point, let us look at the resurrection story and see how Jesus and the disciples know each other deeply. Let us open our Bibles to John 20:11-18. As you read, ask yourself the question: How much do they know each other? Let us read now.

(John 20:11-18) But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ’I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18 ESV)

      Let us pray and ask God to help us understand his words for us today. “Dear God, send your Holy Spirit to help us receive your words for us today, on this Resurrection Sunday. In the name of Jesus, amen.”

      In this resurrection story, John narrates to us the first encounter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She is the first person to whom Jesus revealed himself after he rose from the dead. As we continue studying this story, let us ask ourselves the question: How much do the disciples know Jesus? To answer this question, let me suggest three levels of “knowing” Jesus. First is the level of acceptance. Second is the level of admiration. Third is the level of intimacy and recognition, or what I will be calling a heart-to-heart knowledge of a person. Let us now go to the story.

      First level is when the disciples saw the empty tomb and they believed. If we look at verses 8-9, we see that Peter and John believe, but they still did not “understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” (See, John 20:8-9.) This is the level of acceptance. They saw and believed. They did not fully understand what is going on, but their hearts tell them it is okay to accept this new reality. The body is not there. Something is happening, something that they cannot yet fully understand. But, they know Jesus—know him enough to believe this new event of the empty tomb is God’s work. And so, they respond with acceptance.

      Second level is when Mary stayed in the garden and asked the “gardener” where to find the body of Jesus. Mary goes beyond the first level. She continues and comes to the second level, the level of admiration. This is the point in time when she is talking to the angels. She believes and partially understands. In another narration, in Luke 24:8, Mary is described as remembering Jesus’ words. She sees the empty tomb. She believes. She remembers. She knows in her partial understanding that Jesus was going to be resurrected. She just does not know the timeline, not yet. In still another narration, Mary is described as seeking Jesus. We find in Matthew 28:5 that one of the angels said: “I know that you seek Jesus.” Mary does not stop in this experience of belief and remembrance of Jesus’ words. She keeps seeking and asking the gardener for more information. She continues by searching for the body in hope that, maybe, she could be there when Jesus rises from being dead. She knows there is a better possibility. And so, she responds with admiration.

      The third level is when Mary recognizes the person whom she is talking with. He is not really the gardener, but Jesus himself. Perhaps, she felt her heart move when he called her name. Maybe, it was something in his facial expression or the tone of his voice. Whatever happened at the moment when he called her name, the story is clear that she recognizes Jesus. There is a level of intimacy, a heart-to-heart connection. Mary responds in recognition and worship.

      At this point, Mary is ready to connect with Jesus. Henri Nouwen, in his book Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (1974), describes the readiness of a person in entering into fellowship with other people. “Those who can sit in silence with their [fellow] not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand of gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken” (1974:40-41). This is a good description of Mary’s heart. What about you? Are you ready to connect “heart-to-heart” with others? At this time, please turn to your seat mates or the person next to you and say: “I am ready to know you.” Also, in the same breath, say to yourself, say it from the depths of your heart: “I am ready to know Jesus deeper.”

      Jesus wanted to reveal his resurrected self to all the disciples. He wanted to call each one of them by their names. However, all of them, except for Mary (and maybe a few of the women disciples), were still on the first and second levels. They are accepting and believing without understanding. They are admiring without intimate knowledge of the risen Lord. They are remembering and are seeking. And even if Jesus would appear to them, they still would not be able to recognize Jesus. Mary was ready to recognize Jesus and receive him as the resurrected Lord.

      We need to go back to our original question: How much do we know Jesus? We need to ask this question to ourselves in this present generation. Attendant to this question are the following questions for reflection. Do you know Jesus in an intimate way, just like Mary Magdalene? Are you ready to receive our resurrected Lord and Savior? Would you recognize him if he comes today in your life and in this generation? What are the ways or means of grace that would help us become ready to receive Jesus in an intimate way? This last question is what I want to spend time on at the continuation of this sharing time. We can have a better heart-to-heart level of knowing Jesus.

      Let me suggest the discipline of solitude as a means of grace or a way of preparing our hearts to connect with Jesus in an intimate manner. What is solitude? Simply said, solitude is being alone with God. Jesus himself demonstrated this in his life. During his time of earthly ministry and the busyness of the life of a Rabbi, he found time to be alone with God. At several occasions, he forsook ministry and people so that he can spend moments of solitude and a time of prayer with God the Father. So, it is not surprising that Jesus had a heart-to-heart connection with Mary Magdalene at that moment when she was alone and seeking solitude. They both had a shared experience—a heart in solitude with God.

      We need to practice the discipline of solitude so that we can connect with God in an intimate way. On this Resurrection Sunday, let us start the practice of this spiritual discipline. This is most appropriate, especially in this time of global crisis, when the Covid19 pandemic is forcing many of us to isolation and seclusion. We can continue to pray for God’s healing and comfort for many who are affected by this virus. We can pray for protection for our health care workers and other volunteers who are keeping our communities going. Moreover, we can also pray for a vaccine to be soon produced and distributed to everyone. After saying all of these prayers, then we can continue in this practice of being alone with God. Set your heart and focus on God alone.

      How do we practice being alone with God? How do we start? Actually, these questions are not the right questions. They are important, but not the correct ones to begin practicing the discipline of solitude. Rather, the question should be: Where do we start? This question is not about a location or a physical place, but rather, the condition of a person’s heart and an inner self that one brings to his or her meeting place with God. We are not saying human conditions dictate the nature of our meeting with God. On the contrary, every outcome of this meeting is borne out of the grace of God. We respond to God because he first reaches out to us. Jesus longs to reveal himself to us. He loves to talk with us and share his resurrected life with every Christian. Thus, we respond by practicing the discipline of solitude.

      So, when we ask the question, Where do we start?, we really are opening our hearts to God. We simply are responding in faith and love to our resurrected Lord. Just like with Mary Magdalene, there are conditions for the practice of solitude and these conditions will prepare us to meet God and to hear his intimate voice calling our name.  What then, are the conditions for this discipline? I am suggesting the conditions of surrender and silence.

      One. The condition of surrender is a person’s total abandon to God’s guidance and leading. One of the ways surrender shows up is in the area of our thought life. This is a moment when we can think of nothing else except being in the presence of God. Mary and the other disciples were certainly caught up in the aftermath of the death of Jesus. All they could think of is when they can see the body of Jesus. All their thoughts were for their friend, their Teacher, their Lord Jesus. It is in this state of abandon that Jesus reveals himself to them.

      Two. The condition of silence is a person’s acceptance of the ways of God. There is quietness and stillness, maybe, not all the time. Sometimes, there is an exchange of words or gesture. Here, the stance of the person is an attitude of trust. The main thing is that the person is not distracted by one’s emotions or any outside circumstances. Silence gives focus to the person’s solitude. Mary’s silence brought her to a conversation with the two angels, and finally to the “gardener,” who turns out to be Jesus. Her heart was silent before God. When Jesus called her name, her solitude allowed her to listen in and from the depths of her inner soul.  It is here when Jesus reveals his resurrected self to Mary.

      Henri Nouwen asks this question: “Is God present or is he absent?” In the midst of one’s sadness and search for meaning one can find God’s presence. “And that in the middle of our longings we discover the footprints of the one who has created them.” (See, Out Of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life. 1974:61). Mary Magdalene’s silence and surrender bring her to a time and place of solitude. In turn, this solitude opens her heart to hear Jesus’ call and receive the gift of the presence of God. Now, turn to your seat mates or the person next to you and say: “Jesus is calling you.”

      In our present time, Jesus is searching for people who have silence and surrender in their walk with God. Jesus desires from us to enter into solitude, to be alone with him. When you are in prayer, meditating in God’s word, or spending time in fellowship with your brothers and sisters, take time to be alone with Jesus. He loves you so much. Find a place to be in solitude. Ask yourself these questions: Am I silent before God? Am I ready to hear him call my name? Am I in total surrender to God’s control? Do I have the desire to enter into a deeper level of intimacy with Jesus? Jesus wants to have a heart-to-heart connection with you. Our Lord is inviting you to enter into solitude with him. Ask yourself: “Will I accept Jesus’ invitation to know him deeply?”

      On this Resurrection Sunday, my prayer is that everyone will have a deeper heart-to-heart knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. To conclude this sharing time, let me tell you the true story of an experiment regarding a mother’s voice and how it could help little children in times of emergencies.

      (The following is an excerpt of a news article from the New York Times.) Researchers recruited 176 five- to twelve-year-olds to test smoke alarms. They taught the children a simulated escape procedure: Get out of bed at the alarm, walk to the door , and leave the room. They monitored the children (connected to a machine) with EEG electrodes until they entered a deep stage of sleep. Then they set off either a standard tone alarm or one of three versions of the mother’s recorded voice shouting instructions and the child’s name. The study found that the standard tone (smoke) alarm woke the children about 50 percent of the time, and it took them an average of nearly five minutes to get out of the room.

      With the mother’s voice—shouting names, instructions, or both—almost 90 percent of the children awoke and were out of the room in an average of under 30 seconds.  A mother’s recorded voice will wake a child and get him out the room much faster than a standard smoke alarm. (See, New York Times. Oct. 28, 2018). The value of this story is that a mother’s voice represents to a child a person whom the child has a deep and heart-to-heart connection. The child can truly say to his or her mother: “I know you.” They are connected.

      Jesus wants to have a heart-to-heart connection with you. Our Lord is inviting you to enter into solitude with him. Come and accept Jesus’ invitation to draw close to him in an intimate way. Be alone with God.

(This sermon was shared to members of the Higher Ground International Fellowship, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, last April 12, 2020.)