Jesus withdrew. Jesus withdrew. No, seriously, Jesus withdrew.
Thankfully not all the way.
I was watching the news the other day and wondering how it is that I like watching the news, even though the news itself is unrelentingly depressing and even angering, even infuriating to tell you the truth, and that all of the uplifting things that you might see on the news programs are these contrived, treacly-sweet things that are not news, but seem to have been put there just to keep us from turning the channel and watching a rerun of Law and Order for the twentieth time because the rest of the programming is so unrelentingly unpleasant.
About seventeen percent of Americans, according to the Pew center for people and the Press say that they get no news whatsoever, that they simply avoid it for days at a time.
You can see why in five words. Syria, Gaza, Urkaine, Border and Ebola.
I assume that sugar plums danced in nobody’s heads after such a recitation, I’m reasonably sure that nobody got warm and fuzzy feelings about such words and that for the most part, we feel we might just have heard enough for a little while about such issues.
But local issues are no less fraught with the potential to set our jaws a-clenching. News about the drought, about Andy Lopez, the bridge tolls going up, the standard of living coming down. Name a church that doesn’t worry about money, that doesn’t wonder about its future and I will most certainly show you a place that is willing to pay any cost to ensure that they survive, any cost.
Heck, get really granular and wonder what will happen when the Red Cottage is no o longer viable as real estate, or when the state will offer universal pre-school and challenge the business model we have established up here.
The world is full of news that oppresses, full of ideas that threaten our inner peace and tranquility. We are constantly being faced with a barrage of images and stories of the horrors that people inflict upon themselves and upon their neighbors and then there are the stories about how weak, how terribly fragile we truly are in the face of the world that we have been given to inhabit, how disease can waste and how disaster can level the mightiest of our creations.
Our gospel starts innocuously enough, as if the bad news of the world were just some throw away item to be glossed over. “Now when Jesus heard this . . .” is how we start and we are tempted, sorely tempted to not look back and to just accept what they give us and listen to the story of the loaves and the fishes, the feeding of the five thousand and move on.
But Jesus withdraws.
Jesus, who crossed from heaven to earth in order to seek out the lost and the least, after travelling such a journey you’d think he could stand anything.
But Jesus withdraws to a deserted place by himself because the “this” that Jesus heard was the news that the niece of Herod had asked for the head of John the Baptist and that Herod had delivered on his promise to give her whatever she asked for and that a mighty voice for God had been silenced because corruption and decay find their way into every human endeavor, even the actions of a teenage girl because her mother needed a favor.
In the face of such depravity, who can stand?
Jesus rows off into the sunset. Jesus withdraws.
I don’t know what your trigger is, if it is grief or if it is guilt of if it is the horror of the world around us as brought to us by the nightly news. Maybe the very notion that some people are too broken to be contributors to our society and must by default become the wards of our nation, destined by circumstance to be supported, maybe that drives you crazy. Maybe the notion that at the pace we are going now, the Brazilian rain forest might just be saved, but it will likely come at the expense of the Ecuadoran rain forest right next door fills you with such existential dread that you don’t know if you can face another bit of reporting on it.
But we as a culture, not in spite of our magnificence but more likely because of our magnificence have built into the system escape hatches for want of a better word. We have created distractions and enshrined them upon altars called “politics” and “culture” and “freedom” but what they are is refuges, places where we can get together with other people who share our viewpoints and stop thinking so much, stop worrying so much. Together our voices are louder and the loudest ones win, right? They can drown out the cacophony of bad news, of news we do not want to hear and suddenly there is only us, only our view, and we are safe from the chaos.
I think politics on the left and on the right has become such a refuge, that’s why the whole thing seems to be about which bubble you let yourself get drawn into, which set of talking points you let in. Never mind conversing, never mind trying to convince or to demonstrate the strength of your argument, that would let the bad stuff in, the stuff that challenges you or makes you feel as if you just might be wrong.
The stuff of the world is overwhelming and so we withdraw into safe places, usually of our own making, and stay there, the echoes of our own opinions are all there is to hear, the affirmations that our assumptions are true, or at least common enough among people like us.
But in the scope of things, with what is really on the line, what are we running away from? Seriously, did your cousin get beheaded this week at the behest of a teenager?
But like us it is very clear that Jesus occasionally had to get away from the immensity of the task ahead of Him, had to find some time and clear his head and find that thing that kept Him going.
What does Jesus do when he slips away? Sometimes he goes up the mountain alone, sometimes he rows away on a boat for a while, sometimes he doesn’t so much leave the others as much as lets the other leave him. But Jesus seeks solitude, or at least the lack of human company from time to time to find the company that he truly needs.
Jesus prays at such times because when you strip away all of the other distractions and all of the other artifices what you have left is God and what you do when all you have to focus on is God is, you pray.
And I sincerely hope that when praying you pray in such a way as the Lord has taught us, the way Solomon prayed in recent weeks, the way that the Lord’s Prayer instructs us.
It is not prescriptive, as if we should say just those words, in just that fashion though we have made it a part of the liturgy for as long as anyone can remember, probably since the first day Jesus said the prayer Himself. No, instead it is descriptive as if to say this is how I speak to God, when I do so, and it works for me, so you should also.
Jesus withdraws, but not to hide, not to run away but to run toward something else, to run toward God and the strength available to us all.
Jesus runs to the rock, so to speak, finds the place of stability where the mission of God, His mission is clearer, not muddied by the weaknesses or sins of mankind but in sharp relief because Jesus goes just to seek God’s will, just to seek God where God can be found, in the conversation of creation, the great cosmic chat-line you access when you withdraw a little and seek God in prayer.
We’re not so different, you and I, from the Lord that is. Try and wrap your mind around being a person without sin and yet being surrounded by it (the ego-driven among you are having no problem imagining this, get over yourselves), immersed in it, having innocents slain and widows cheated and power craved over the love of God, try and imagine loving the people who hate and revile you and knowingly going to your death for their sake.
We try and paint Jesus as this serene being of ultimate grace but the bible paints another picture. Jesus in human flesh occasionally needed, like we all do, to check back in with the home office, to reconnect with the mission of God. Granted, Jesus had a better sense of that power, of that mission and faith was not a question for Jesus but nonetheless, in our trial and trauma we can easily find Jesus, on His knees right beside us, seeking the same things we seek.
A way to keep going. A way to return from His withdrawal and from ours, the sense that there is more of our story to be written and the knowledge that God is as interested as we in how it goes.
You see the Gospel this morning only begins with Jesus withdrawal from the others. Like us he finds solace and comfort but also reconnection, a re-invigoration of his sense of mission, the knowledge of the presence and the love of God.
And His problems were, you know, us with all of our inconsistency and even worse, our consistency in sinning and transgressing the laws of God, which is like, our best thing.
The whole of creation was at stake. Can you blame the Lord for occasionally taking a minute to Himself?
Our problem is far more likely withdrawing and simply never coming back out again. The world is too much for us, too much tragedy, too much injustice and since we cannot fix the problem it is better to avoid it, to hide from it.
But in that pit, in that retreat high in the mountains or in the vast reaches of the desert or in the warm embrace of our television with its unblinking eye and hundreds of channels of unchallenging banality to soothe and to dampen our senses until we can’t even find our way back out into the light of God’s world again.
Find Christ in the darkness of your withdrawal, find the center that Jesus sought when he took the boat and sought God’s presence upon hearing the news of John the Baptists fate. Find Christ three and pray that the will of God will again become clear to you, that you should live in freedom.
But when the world comes around again, Jesus was pursued by the crowds, do not keep retreating, take the love of God, the knowledge of God and open your hands to the ones in need, open your hearts to the ones who are alone, open your mind to the possibilities of a world transformed into the image of God, open your life to the Holy Spirit as it guides and instructs you.
Off alone there is only you and God and that is a good place to visit now and then when the tumult of the world becomes too much.
But you cannot live there because it is the will of God that you be out here with us, sometimes uncomfortably close to those who disagree with you or who believe different things, sometimes sad beyond all reckoning, sometimes just lost but always with Christ at your side.
Then you can get about speaking the word, feeding the hungry, being truly with Christ in the mission of God. You may have to withdraw now and again to remember what that mission is, but then, filled with the power of God and aligned again with God’s will, get out there; actually, get out here with the rest of us as we move, ever so slightly toward the world God would have us make.