Today we are continuing the sermon series called “Empowered by the Spirit”. In this passage that Lyllian read for us, we see Jesus at the end of a period of intense ministry. A lot of stuff has happened in Mark chapter 1. One of the things that makes Mark’s gospel unique is the fast pace of the storytelling. Mark moves from one event to another using lots of action words and giving the impression that things are moving quickly. Mark focuses a lot on Jesus’ power in doing miracles and his authoritative teaching that also held power. Jesus is like a superhero in Mark’s gospel.
We can see this in chapter one which begins with John the Baptist coming and baptizing people in the wilderness while making it clear that there is another coming who is much greater than John who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then in verse 9 Jesus appears, coming from Nazareth and being baptized by John. As Jesus is coming out of the water after being baptized, we have this exciting description of heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Jesus and a voice speaking from heaven, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Wouldn’t that have been something to see?
Then immediately after that, the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tempted by Satan and where angels attended him. Mark doesn’t go into any detail about what happened there choosing instead to move quickly on to Jesus beginning his ministry and calling his first disciples. After Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing jobs to following him, they go to Capernaum. That’s a lot of action in about 20 verses. But when Jesus gets to Capernaum, Mark focuses on the happenings of one Sabbath day and goes into more detail about what Jesus did.
First Jesus and the disciples went to the synagogue and Jesus taught there. The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught with such authority. There was a man there possessed by an evil spirit who cried out “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (v. 24). Jesus orders the spirit to be quiet and come out of the man and it does. Again the people are all amazed because Jesus is exhibiting such spiritual authority both in his teaching and in his casting out the evil spirit. So the news spreads quickly over the whole region.
After they leave the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples go to Simon and Andrew’s home where Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. When Jesus finds out she’s sick, he goes to her and heals her. It’s the Sabbath day so the people aren’t supposed to be doing work. But when evening comes and the Sabbath is officially over, the people from the town begin bringing all their sick and demon-possessed people to Jesus so he can heal them. Mark says that the whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed the sick and drove out the demons.
I’m tired just reading about it. I can imagine how Jesus must have felt after the last person was healed and everyone finally left for the night. He must have been exhausted. When I go home this afternoon, I will not be good for anything for a few hours. After spending the morning teaching, preaching and tending to all the details of Sunday morning, I will be wiped out for a while and will most likely take a nap. Most pastors are the same way. Sunday is our high energy day, where we put out a lot of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy in a short amount of time and it wipes you out. Just to give you an idea of how much energy and sweat is expended, I once weighed myself before coming to church on a Sunday when I was scheduled to preach. After I came home I weighed again and I was 3 pounds lighter. Bethannie said that must have been how much the Holy Spirit weighed.
The point is Jesus was very intensely engaged in ministry here and he must have been physically exhausted. Yet very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and apparently while everyone else was still sleeping, Jesus went off by himself to a solitary place where he prayed. This isn’t the only incident where Jesus went off to pray after an intense time of ministry.
In Matthew 14 Jesus received word that John the Baptist had been beheaded and so he withdrew by boat to a solitary place. But the crowds followed him and, when he landed there was a large crowd already waiting. It’s like going on vacation and finding out your boss is staying in the room down the hall from you. Jesus took compassion on the people and healed their sick. When evening came the disciples wanted him to send the people home because they needed to eat but Jesus ended up miraculously feeding them with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Then Jesus made the disciples get in the boat to go to the other side while he dismissed the crowd. After sending the disciples and the crowds away, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. In this story, not only is Jesus expending energy healing, teaching, and performing miracles, he’s also grieving the death of John the Baptist.
I hope you are getting the picture here that Jesus’ preferred method of self-care is to go off by himself to pray. It’s not to take a nap, it’s not to chill with friends, it’s not to veg in front of the TV, or eat junk food, or take a walk, or go to a spa, or read a book, or any of the other things that we like to do to recharge our energy. It’s to go off to a solitary place and talk with the Father. I think one of the reasons why this was so important was because, alone with the Father was the one place where Jesus could get his needs met.
How many incidents in the Bible can you think of where someone came to Jesus and offered to do something for him? There are two incidents recorded of women anointing his feet with perfume and a few times where people had a dinner in his honor, but these were mostly in response to what Jesus had already done for these people. And the only place I can think of where Jesus ever expressed a need was on the cross where he said he was thirsty. That doesn’t mean it never happened, but it’s not recorded anywhere.
Jesus was constantly serving others but he had needs as well. He was fully human just as we are. But like Mark, we tend to think of Jesus in superhero terms and forget that he got hungry and tired and stressed just like we do. And it seems that when he was drained, what recharged his energy was to be alone with the Father.
You know we talk about needing prayer for ourselves, meaning we need other people praying for us about certain things. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s important that people are praying for us. It’s encouraging to know that others are thinking about us and asking God to help us or to meet a need we have. But do we think of needing some prayer like Jesus needed prayer? What we see from this episode in Mark 1 is Jesus needing to do the praying. He needed to get away and talk things over with the Father. We don’t talk about needing prayer in that sense. But that’s exactly what we do need. There are times when we just need to be alone with the Father, to be in His presence, just experiencing His peace and His strength, listening to His voice and letting Him interact with our spirits for a bit, renewing our strength and giving us direction. This what we mean when we say “empowered by the Spirit.” It is in the place of prayer, the place of solitude with God, that He fills us with what we need to fulfill our mission.
Look at the front of your bulletin where our mission statement is printed and let’s read it together. “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we present Christ’s message of hope in the Oxford Circle neighborhood and beyond; by appealing to individuals to be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus, and by living out this peace and wholeness in relationships in our diverse church body and the world.”
We can’t do this if we aren’t all spending some time in the place of solitude, talking things over with the Father, receiving the energy, direction, power and creativity that He gives. This is what Jesus is talking about in John 15 when he tells his disciples “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” A branch that withers is one that no longer is receiving nutrients from the vine. It dries up and wilts. How many of you have felt sucked dry before? The demands of job, family, life, the stress you face have just left you feeling empty and dry. That’s when we need some prayer, some time alone with the Father, letting Him fill us back up with His life. We have to remain in Him if we hope to have enough life in us to bear spiritual fruit and that comes from a regular practice of being alone with God in prayer.
Another thing that strikes me in this story of Jesus going off to a solitary place to pray is that, when the disciples find him and want him to go back with them to where they were before, because everyone is asking for him, Jesus says he must go on to other places. A lot of people would have stayed there in Capernaum. He already was experiencing success there. The whole town had turned up at his door the night before with the sick and demon possessed. He could have planted a church right then and there. But after being alone in prayer, Jesus left and went on to other places. Being with the Father in prayer gave Jesus the direction he needed and he walked away from a place where he was experiencing success to go on to other places, because that’s what he was there for. No one could ever accuse Jesus of seeking after worldly success. If the gospel writers were trying to describe a successful messiah, they never would have told the story of the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t about success as we think of success. He was about faithfulness in doing the Father’s will. Success would say stay here in Capernaum where they love you and build a ministry here. But Jesus knows the Father wants him to go on to other places, even places where he will be rejected.
Success in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like success in the world. Yet when it comes to prayer, we have a mindset of wanting to be successful. We think if we don’t pray for a certain length of time, we are not successful. We think if we pray for something and it doesn’t happen we aren’t successful. We think if we pray and we don’t “feel” anything, we aren’t successful. But success has nothing to do with prayer. Emilie Griffin wrote “You should have it firm in your mind that prayer is neither to impress other people nor to impress God. It’s not to be taken with a mentality of success. The goal, in prayer, is to give oneself away.” And Henri Nouwen wrote “…what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.”
The prayer that Jesus modeled in the place of solitude is a form of relationship. It’s about being with God and talking with Him. It’s about receiving life from Him, being renewed in our own strength. It’s about submitting to Him, being willing to lay out our own plans and thoughts and dreams and ideas and letting Him sift through them and shape them as He knows best. It’s sharing intimacy with God, being real with Him and learning about Him. God wants to be real with us about who He is. That’s an incredible thought. We have the privilege of getting to know personally the God of the universe. And that happens in the place of solitude in prayer.
As a congregation, we are a body made up of many parts. Each part of this body is a branch on the vine, in going back to Jesus’ words from John 15. Each one of us needs to be spending time in the place of solitude, seeking life from the Father, if we as a body are going to be empowered. This is so important. Nothing we do at OCMC is done apart from prayer. To try to live out our mission statement without prayer would be like trying to grow a plant with no roots. There would be no way to receive life.
This story of Jesus seeking a place of solitude for prayer comes at the end of a time of intense ministry. But it also comes at the beginning of a time of intense ministry. Jesus leaves the place of solitude and meets a man with leprosy and heals him. This man spreads the news about Jesus so far and wide that Jesus can no longer openly enter a town without being mobbed. Jesus had to have a rhythm of ministry and prayer, of being with people and being alone with the Father. It was how he was able to sustain himself and keep going. We also need that rhythm of doing and being, of living life and receiving life. We can’t give out to others what we haven’t received ourselves.
Prayer is our lifeline. We can’t let go of it. It’s the place where we get to know God, the place where we are known by Him. It’s the place where our needs can be met, where we can receive life. We have to make the commitment to regularly spend time in the place of solitude, in prayer, if we truly want to have life.