The Nature of the Search

February 9, 2015

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Let’s say you’ve lost your wallet or maybe your phone or your keys. All the sudden, nothing is more important in your life than searching for what’s missing. All you can think of is finding your missing wallet.  You are anxious and distracted until the wallet turns up. Nothing is more important than the search. If, heaven forbid, a child goes missing, or an elderly parent with some dementia issues goes missing, then the search really consumes and dominates everything else.

Author Walker Percy’s novels revolve around another kind of search. His protagonists are people who appear to have material comfort and external success, but they are dead to any real life or meaning. The malaise of modern life has taken over like an occupying army. His characters search for an answer to what is existentially missing.

In Percy’s view, the search itself is the beginning of hope. He says, “What is the nature of the search, you ask? The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

The people in today’s gospel reading from Mark are engaged in a search. Here’s the scene. Jesus has just begun his ministry – it’s like His first week on the job. He’s called his disciples, taught in a temple, and exorcised a demon. Mark says that after the exorcism, his fame spread throughout the region.

After a long day, Jesus and his disciples go to Peter’s house to relax – maybe dinner and a movie or something. But, Peter’s mother-in-law has the flu. Maybe Peter is hoping that nature will take its course for his mother-in-law! Perhaps he had heard the 1st century blessing from the Roman poet Juvenal: “May God give you all peace as long as your mother-in-law is alive.”  Jesus, who never had a mother-in-law, decides to make sure she lives, so He heals her.

Then the real fun begins. Word gets out that Dr. Jesus is in town and all the sick and crazy people come to Peter’s house to get healed.  Mark tells us that the “whole city was gathered at the door.” A man with schizophrenia, a woman with breast cancer, a toddler with an ear infection, a business man with ulcers, a teen with Crohn’s disease, somebody with carotid arteries, a middle aged woman sunk into a deep depression, forced by her family to come see the healer as a last resort.

You can imagine the scene: front porch is intake, the living room becomes a waiting room with people arguing about who gets to see Dr. Jesus next, the kitchen turns into a makeshift examining room, and the dining room becomes the operating theater. So much for dinner and a movie: Dr. Jesus is in demand and He’s back on the job.

Jesus is in demand because people have so much wrong with them. Or, to bring it into 2015, we have so much wrong with us. It’s funny to me (not ha-ha funny) how we try to pretend that we have nothing wrong with us, when every single one of us has so much wrong with us. That’s one of the reasons I like being a minister; people come and tell me about what is wrong with them, and then I don’t feel as strange about what is wrong with me.  As the scripture says today, “the whole city” comes to see Jesus in hopes of fixing what is wrong.

I guess, back to Walker Percy’s point, the only thing worse than having things wrong with us is not realizing or recognizing how much we have wrong with us. In point of fact, it is the wrongness that precipitates the search. And not to onto to the search is to be in despair.

Not that we always like to hear that we have something wrong with us that needs some kind of attention. Last fall, our Preschool teachers took one of our 4 year old Afghani students to the doctor to get his vaccination. He speaks very little English and of course had no idea what was going on. He sat on Hannah’s lap watching other children get a shot. At first he was amused. Finally it dawned on him what was about to happen as the doctor approached with a needle. Terror erupted, and using the 2 English he did speak, he cried out, “Me? No!  Me? No Me!!!”

Jesus, I assume, doesn’t use a needle, but he does heal these people of what is wrong with them. Then they close the makeshift clinic, reassemble the house, and go to bed. The next morning, well before dawn, Jesus rises and steals off to a deserted place to pray. Clearly, he needs to recharge and maybe even rethink how his ministry is starting out. Peter and the other disciples wake up, maybe flush with their own popularity, and discover that Jesus has absconded. So, they search for Him – or as the text says, “hunt for him.” And when they find Him they tell him “Everyone is searching for you”. The search is on.

Everyone is searching for Jesus. One of the basic assumptions of our created and yet fallen nature is famously described by St. Augustine. He said in His famous book Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Just as the illness of the people the gospel reading drive them to search for Jesus, so too does our illness, wrongness, existential malaise drive us to search for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you.” Another famous thinker, Blaise Pascal said it this way. “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. Jesus apparently doesn’t want to be found by the same villagers who want His attention. He tells the disciples, “Let us go to the neighboring towns so I can proclaim the message there, for that is what I came to do.”  It is as if Jesus has realized – right at the very start of his ministry – that there must be more to His purpose than healing.

It is good to be healed – don’t get me wrong – and Jesus’ miracles of healing show his compassion for people. But for every healed person, how many more are not healed? He can only reach so many people. And once you have been healed, you will eventually become ill again, in the same way or a different way. I often think about Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, having to die a second physical death. Healing in this life, as wonderful as it is, is always a temporary fix.

Maybe in the pre dawn darkness, praying to His Heavenly Father, Jesus realized this. We need more than healing for what is wrong with us. We need the message that Jesus has come to proclaim. We need the gospel, which in this scripture’s context is not that you are searching for God, but that God has searched for you.

This is good news, because our searches don’t always end in finding the lost object. Wallets stay lost, keys remain hidden, and sadly, people go missing.  But God’s search is always successful. Even death can’t get in the way. This past week, even as I was burying a dear woman’s ashes in the Memorial Garden, I read Jesus’ own words, “And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of those he has given me, but I should raise them up on the last day.”

I started this sermon having us imagine a lost wallet and the ensuing search. That isn’t the gospel’s perspective, even though it is true that what is wrong with us does make us search for God. The gospel always has us take the child’s perspective, rather than the adult’s.

So imagine you are 4 years old. You are on a crowded city street with your mother, who holds your hand tightly as she hurries through the noisy throng. You get bumped and lose your mother’s hand. You take a wrong turn and your mother is nowhere to be seen. You are terrified and start to cry. You are only 4 and you have no idea what to do. Minutes pass by but seem like hours. Finally…. finally you hear your mother calling your name, you feel her arms around you, and you bury your face and your hot tears into her embrace.

Everyone is searching for you, Lord. Thank you that You are searching for me.

Amen.

Bible References

  • Mark 1:29 - 39

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