A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Mark 1:29-39
If you’ve been with us through January then by now you’re probably getting pretty adept at reading between the lines in the Gospel of Mark. We know that Mark writes very sparingly, and that everything happens in a hurry as there seems to be a breathlessness to it all and an urgency that’s driving everything. But I also want to remind us all that even though we’ve been doing a close and careful reading of Mark for 5 weeks now that we’re still only 39 verses into chapter 1! And that makes a difference because while it may seem to us like it took a long time to get to this point, in the narrative it’s still just barely beginning Jesus’ story. And that makes us see what I want to talk about today in a different light.
Let’s review what’s happened in Mark chapter 1 so far. It begins with a few verses of narration and context, and then John the Baptizer appears, and Jesus makes his entrance (v.9) and is baptized. As he rises from the water he has a profound spiritual experience where he sees the supposed barrier between God and humans ripped open and he’s enfolded in God’s Presence and voice.
Then he has a very briefly described 40 days being tempted in the wilderness followed by a trip to Galilee to begin his public ministry by preaching.
Now we’re all the way up to v.14.
Then he calls his first disciples, completely upending their lives, and by v.21 their gang has entered a synagogue for worship, and of course, Jesus creates quite a scene. That was what we looked at last week.
Let’s pause a moment here and think about what’s going on.
How would you describe what Jesus is doing during verses 14 to 28 – from the time he started preaching, calling disciples, and shaking up synagogues? I’d call it public ministry and engagement.
How would you describe his spiritual energy? I’d call it pretty high!
Now a possibly strange question. Would you say he’s sending energy out or drawing energy in?
The answer may not be obvious – or even matter!
I’m an introvert. Yes, I have a public ‘dancing monkey’ kind of job but being an introvert means I get my energy from my time away from people. You can’t judge an introvert or extrovert by their public persona – it’s where they get their energy from.
Extroverts get their energy replenished by being with people.
I enjoy being here and doing what I do, and I also end up flat out on the couch on most Sunday afternoons!
An extrovert might find themselves all charged up from being in the midst of this many people and find themselves primed and ready to go afterwards.
No one has any idea as to whether Jesus was an introvert or an extrovert. And the case I’m going to make this morning is that the rhythm Jesus follows is deeper than just being introverted or extroverted.
It’s a spiritual rhythm for everyone.
If I had lived those first 28 verses in Mark’s gospel I’d be utterly exhausted. Maybe he was too. Or maybe he was jazzed by it all. Doesn’t matter.
Ultimately, it’s neither physical nor spiritual energy we’re really talking about. It’s bigger than those.
Let’s look what happens.
We pick up today’s reading, which happens immediately after the synagogue incident, as Jesus and the gang immediately go to Simon’s house. Simon’s mother-in-law is ill and through her encounter with Jesus she’s restored to wholeness and able to serve. But the word means more than just to wait on them – it means she was able to minister to them!
Then Jesus gets a few hours off – which if it was me were spent on the couch! Prayers at the synagogue would have been in the morning, on the Sabbath. Their religion and culture insisted that they not work or travel on the Sabbath so it makes sense that the next part of the story happens that evening – after sundown – after the Sabbath had ended. (Sabbath goes from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.)
That evening it says (verses 32-34) that the whole city (actually just a village, but still) was at his door looking for healing. Can you imagine the scene? The whole city!
How did they know to come? Well, I guess those people at the synagogue in the morning really did go out and tell everyone what they experienced.
Here’s the proof. A throng of people clamouring for Jesus’ ministering.
How long did he spend with each person that evening?
How many hours was he outside immersed in that sea of humanity?
How profoundly inspiring and awe-inducing must it have been to be part of that spiritual outpouring that night?
What time do you think it was when the last person left and Jesus finally retired for the evening?
Ok. They’re all gone. Now what happened next?
Mark 1:35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
The Greek phrase is a little odd for us but when it says “In the morning, while it was still very dark” it literally means “very early in the night”. It’s suggesting that we’re probably talking about sometime around 3 or 4:00 am.
Have you ever been up at 4am? What’s it like?
It’s quiet. It’s still. The world is asleep so there’s no noise.
There’s a unique and curious feeling to being up at that hour – almost like a spiritual hyper-awareness.
It says that Jesus got up at that hour and went off by himself to a deserted place – a solitary place – literally a wilderness place. You may recall that whenever the bible talks about wilderness it’s a good bet that it’s a metaphor for a place of transformation. What kind of transformation is Jesus up to? He’s praying.
What does that mean? What does praying mean to you?
Based on our typical church experience praying means to say a bunch of words to express our heartfelt gratitude, devotion, and needs to God. But if we believe that God knows every thought before we utter it then the purpose of prayer isn’t to tell God anything.
In fact, if you were to break down the compound word for praying in Greek you’d discover that it’s about an openness and intention toward God’s Presence, and something like an exchange of desires – as in Jesus’ famous phrase “not my will but THY will be done”.
So Jesus has not necessarily gone to give God his wish list – although there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with pouring your needs out before God.
Jesus has gone out into a quiet solitary place to open himself up to God’s Presence in an intentional and focused way, and grow in his capacity to understand and embody God’s will, God’s way, God’s intention for Jesus.
To exchange his own desires for God’s desires in him.
That’s deeper stuff than just recharging your batteries!
It’s around 4am.
If Jesus was an introvert he was exhausted by the previous evening and would have been asleep.
If Jesus was an extrovert he may have stayed up because he was still wired from all the activity.
Either way, verse 35 is utterly critical to our understanding the rhythm of his spiritual life – of the spiritual life!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert – this withdrawing to a solitary place for prayer MUST be a key part of your spiritual rhythm.
Even Jesus required a time of solitary prayer.
And for more than just rest – he needed it to renew, refresh, and especially reinforce and strengthen the foundation through which all his spiritual energy flows. Don’t you think that maybe even you might need that too?
The next thing that happens in the text – v.36 – is that his disciples come hunting for him. It suggests an anxiety on their part – like they don’t yet understand this rhythm of prayer that Jesus has.
And it says in v.37 that when they found him they report that the whole town is looking for him.
Think that through.
The whole town was not up at 4am looking for Jesus. The logical story is that they had woken up in the morning utterly moved, and thunderstruck, and awestruck, and wonderstruck from what they all experienced the day and night before and now they want more of this kingdom stuff that Jesus was revealing. So when they woke up that next morning they looked for him.
Reading between the lines we can discern that Jesus was off by himself, immersed in prayer, for around 3 or 4 hours!
Some of us have trouble staying prayerful and quiet for 3 or 4 minutes!
We’re all so busy we think we don’t have time to pray like that. Or we think that’s just something dreamy introverts do while extroverts are out there accomplishing things.
[somewhat sarcastically] Because everybody knows that enacting justice is what we’re all about, right?
So that prayer stuff is nice for those who like to do it but it’s too much navel-gazing when there’s important things to do! Right?
Hmm. Consider this.
If even Jesus needs quiet, reflective, spiritual, prayerful time with God what makes us think we might not need it?
Or might not have time for it?
I’ve often heard United Church people saying that as they engage in social justice ministry endeavours that they are refilled and refuelled and get all the spiritual energy they need from that. They are do-ers, and quiet time is for be-ers.
Jesus would argue otherwise.
It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
It’s do AND be – over and over again in the deep spiritual rhythm of Jesus.
Do be do be do! That’s Jesus’ modus operandi – his method of operation.
Do be do be do! That’s Mark’s gospel so far in a nutshell.
Jesus preached and called and worshipped – then he retired to Simon’s house for an afternoon – then he healed and helped all evening – then he went off by himself to pray – and finally in v.38 he explains to his disciples his mission and ministry focus.
He says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
And what’s the message he’s proclaiming? We did that a couple of weeks ago – which is only a few verses ago in Mark. It’s Mark 1:15
“The time is now! God’s kingdom is right here, right now. Change your perception and have an epiphany and awaken to it. Trust me, this is awesome news! Join me, and we can change the world into people who can see it too.”
And instead of going back and setting up shop in Capernaum they went to share their mission and message.
I wonder where Jesus got the inspiration for that vision of ministry?
I wonder how Jesus was able to move beyond the desire to be safe and comfortable at home and risk going into the world to minister?
I wonder how Jesus was able to set aside his own desires and so fully embrace God’s desires for him?
Actually, I don’t wonder at all. I know exactly where he got that.
In prayer. In deep, quiet, solitary, set apart prayer.
And it’s so much more than just a good rest, or even a spiritual pick-me-up like Sunday worship might be.
It’s a fundamental redefining and reorientation of your will to God’s will.
And it was that rhythm of doing and being, of action and reflection, of serving and praying, that fuelled his entire ministry and life.
And Mark makes sure we see this and get this rhythm established right here in the very first chapter!
Do we have it?
What’s your rhythm of “helping” and “praying” like?
Are these two things in balance in your spiritual life? Are they in competition?
What might you need to achieve a good balance?
What might it take for you to Be – to make your mind quiet, your heart open, and allow the Spirit the room to redefine and reorient your will?
Your probable first answer will be time. If only I had more time. Jesus felt that too. The whole city was demanding his attention.
But he made time. He carved it out.
Because solitary time to Be (not just rest, but really just to Be with God) was so fundamentally important to Jesus’ ability to Do ministry.
The sacred rhythm of helping and prayer was Jesus’ MO – his modus operandi.
Do be do be do!