Sunday Night Worship – 2/8/09

“To A Deserted Place”
Mark 1: 29-39

There is a lot going on in this scripture from Mark but tonight I want to focus on just two verses. I want us to spend some time with verses 35 and 36.

First some context. Mark’s gospel is the short, fast-paced, no frills gospel in which a lot of folks do things “immediately.” Our passage tonight starts with the 29th verse of the first chapter. In the preceding 28 verses… we meet John the Baptist; Jesus is baptized then driven out into the wilderness to be tempted; John is arrested; Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, recruiting first Simon and Andrew, then James and John; Jesus teaches in the synagogue and cures a man with an unclean spirit, which brings him increasing renown. All that in only 28 verses.

Then, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, allows her to get up and serve him, and cures the sick and casts out demons from the throngs who gather that night at the door. Then Jesus wakes up very early in the morning, while it’s still dark, and goes out “to a deserted place” to pray (v.35). We don’t know how long he’s there before they find him but I don’t imagine it could have been all that much time, the way things are moving in Mark’s gospel. Jesus gets one verse dedicated to being alone in a deserted place to pray. Next verse: Simon and the others “hunted for him” (v. 36).

Let me make clear that this is not as metaphorical or euphemistic as you might think. An alternate translation is that the disciples “tracked him down,” which sounds a bit like an animal hunting prey, and this is the right sense of what’s going on here (Hearing Mark, p. 20; People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 111). The phrase has a hostile overtone (People’s). We are not meant to read this as if the disciples, having nothing better to do, decide to stroll through the hills around Galilee and see if they might stumble upon their friend. No, they form a posse and are intent on rounding Jesus up and bringing him back to town.

Does any part of this feel like your life? The masses of struggling people desperate for a cure to their sicknesses…or maybe just the one woman who has been healed and jumps right up out of gratitude and renewed life, to serve Jesus…perhaps the disciples, eager and raring to go, and convinced that it’s their job to keep Jesus “on task”…or the ones waiting in the neighboring towns for the good news…Or maybe you even feel a little like Jesus, craving some time alone and apart to pray and sit in a deserted place and put things in perspective. And if you are successful in taking those moments alone, do you get to sink in or do the “disciples” – all those other people and deadlines and pressing needs – come to track you down and bring you back to town?

I suspect that we all have something or someone to relate to in this story. Maybe different people or situations at different times in your life. Tonight I want to suggest that we take our cue from Jesus – I know, I know, that’s what I am always suggesting! But tonight, I want to suggest that we take his example quite literally and find a way or ways to follow Jesus.

In just a couple of weeks we’ll move from this brief interlude of “ordinary time” sandwiched between the cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and the next great cycle of Lent-Easter-Pentecost in our liturgical year together. On Ash Wednesday, with crosses marking our foreheads, we’ll enter into the penitential season of Lent and begin that long journey towards Easter. I’m starting to talk about it now because I want to encourage you all to be really intentional about your Lenten practice this year. I hope that, like Jesus, each of you will seek out a deserted place in your life and choose to spend some time there for the season.

And though I may use this language sometimes, rather than speaking of “giving up” or “taking on” something for Lent, I hope that this year we might consider how to yield. Even as we begin talking about spiritual disciplines and I begin a sermon series to highlight some of them, it may be tempting to think of engaging in spiritual disciplines as an act of willpower. It can be tempting to think of our spiritual life as something that we are doing and creating ourselves rather than as something we are yielding to as God makes it happen within us.

But for that to happen, we have to make room in our lives and our schedules and our living spaces and our bodies for God. In the coming weeks and this long, sometimes lonely season of Lent, I hope you’ll consider engaging God more intentionally than you have before. For some this may be a simple 10-minute-a-day time of prayer or silence. For others this may mean revving up your current prayer practice or going deeper within it. You might consider praying throughout the week for those countries we include in our prayers each Sunday night in worship. Maybe you will make an intentional practice of fasting – certain foods or days or maybe even another type of fast altogether – a fast from technology or gossip, perhaps? Or perhaps you will practice a deeper life of service, beginning with our first-week-of-Lent mission trip.

It will be difficult. It will take effort. It will require making choices – often between two very desirable and good things. And it will be worth it.

Listen again to verse 35: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” I don’t know what sort of alarms they had, other than roosters, during Jesus’ time, but clearly he set his alarm for a time before the rest of the house was awake. He picked a time when it would be easier to get away. He went to a place where it was unlikely he’d be disturbed. And he sat down to pray.

Maybe early morning isn’t your time. Maybe you want to make room for a spiritual discipline other than or in addition prayer. Maybe the place you choose isn’t deserted but you can act like it is, say, sitting in Alderman surrounded by people but choosing to go inward to a deserted place and invite God to be there with you.

And maybe there will be a posse hunting for you. That’s quite likely. Papers, exams, family obligations, Wesley events.

But think again about the story. Here’s verse 36 again: “And Simon and his companions hunted for him.” Jesus doesn’t get rid of all of his obligations first so that he can really enjoy that deserted place. This is probably the number one reason most people say they don’t pray regularly or engage in any spiritual discipline regularly – “I have to get these other things done and out of the way first!” Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t get rid of anything and we know that all those people and things come looking for him shortly anyway. But Jesus doesn’t make any excuses. He simply takes the time he can and makes it his priority to take the time. He got up while it was still dark and tiptoed out of the house to observe his spiritual practice.

The late Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote about this dilemma. He recognized – back in the 1960s! – that the emphasis and pace of our lives was at odds with what many of us Christians claim our lives are about. He recognized the struggle between the work we have to do in the world – especially our work for Christ – and the way we go about it. He recognized that without “re-filling the well,” there would be nothing left to fight all those mighty fires. Here’s what he wrote in 1968 (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander):

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence [and that is] activism and overwork….The rush and pressure of modern life are a form of violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

After all those healings, people pounding at the door, and a house full of disciples, what does Jesus do? Does he get up early and wake everyone up and ask people to form a line for more efficient healing? Does he give into the frenzy or take intentional action to gain perspective and nourish “the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful”?

It’s a good week for this quote and this passage from Mark. It’s a good week to begin thinking ahead and preparing our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies for Lent. After all those cookies this weekend, will you re-engage in a frenzied pursuit of the next task, the next event, the next paper? Have you been to a deserted place in the last week? Have you been so busy that you’ve actually been “carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns”? Have you noticed how violent our lifestyles can be – sometimes especially so in the church?

How will you make your way alone from the house while it’s still dark? And where will you find a deserted place for yourself?

The time will never be right or better or un-spoken-for. And you may have to leave the deserted place sometimes before you had planned to leave. There is a posse around every corner, every day, every year, every graduation….Don’t wait for a deeper life with God. Don’t give in to the common mantra that we don’t have time or that “when it’s summer” or “when I graduate” then you’ll do what God calls you to now. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission and time and a place. Get up in the dark and go off on your own to a deserted place and ask God to meet you there. What are you waiting for?

Thanks be to God!

© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis