I know that the scripture readings have been really short lately, but that’s not totally my fault. I’m into a sermon series on the sayings of Jesus found in Mark’s gospel (if you have a red-letter Bible these sayings are printed in red ink); and so far in Mark, Jesus hasn’t had a whole lot to say. His kick-off sermon only ran 16 words. After that he issued a brief invitation to four fishermen to join his kingdom tour, followed by an even briefer command to a demon to quit blabbing about him being the Holy One of God. The problem with focusing on these sayings by themselves is that it can be hard to tell what Jesus is talking about. His first saying in Mark—“The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news”—works fine on its own, but sayings like tonight’s “Let us go somewhere else” need their context to be understood. For this purpose, the sayings of Jesus come packaged in units of thought called pericopes from the Greek word meaning cut out. A pericope is a selection of text surrounding a saying or action of Jesus that provides context, and subsequently meaning, for that saying.
The pericope for tonight’s saying begins in verse 35 with Jesus getting up very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and going to a solitary place to pray. Now if you are a Christian, prayer is one of those things you do. Jesus did it so you should too. And not only should you do it, but based on this verse, you should do it by yourself. Spend time alone with God like Jesus did. And not only should you pray alone by yourself, but according to this verse, you should do it, like Jesus did, very early in the morning. And moreover, even though the text doesn’t say this, you really should do it very early every morning. Verse 35 provides the indisputable basis for that practice known as the “daily quiet time,” or as we called it in my college fellowship, the DQT, or the QT to make it sound cool. Aside from its obvious value for connecting with God, the QT can also serve as a valuable indicator of one’s spiritual health. Show me a Christian who gets up every morning before the sun to pray, and I’ll show you a Christian who’s serious about prayer—unless that is, he brags about getting up every morning before the sun to pray. That’s just a Christian who lies.
My wife Dawn writes that prayer is communication with God—give and take. In prayer we entreat, praise, thank, and make confession. And through prayer we receive direction, encouragement, peace, conviction, rebuke, and mercy. Prayer is also communion with God—a sense of connection and unity, belonging and being. Prayer as communion nurtures prayer as communication by improving the actual give and take with God, but it does more than that. It transforms our communication abilities into the very skills of Christ. In this way, prayer is a spiritual discipline, and as with all disciplines, we learn best by doing. However, discipline can be difficult work. Which is why it takes discipline. Routines like daily quiet times are designed to help. My problem is not so much with prayer per se (though I do confess that prayer has never come easy for me). I’m fine with being quiet (though my mind can wander). I’m OK with the daily part too (though some days are better than others). I do however have a problem with the very early in the morning part. If Jesus had only waited until noon.
In my college fellowship, for adolescent reasons, prayer could get a little competitive. The QT was our way of keeping score. When asked, “How’s your QT?” someone might lie, “I got up and interceded for the entire planet this morning.” Somebody else would be like, “You got up? Shoot, I never went to bed, praise the Lord!” Now, if I’d been smart back then, and really wanted to win this competition, I would have noted how Jesus got up to pray very early in the morning only this one time. In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus only prays three times total. I could have got up early one morning, said three prayers and declared victory. As it was, I guiltily struggled with my QT so much that I figured the only way I would ever get myself to pray and read my Bible more was to become a minister. So here I am. Now one of the things you learn when you’re training for ministry is how English translations of Greek words sometimes mislead. For instance in your pew Bible verse 35 reads that Jesus went off to a solitary place to pray, the picture being one of quiet and peaceful serenity (ergo the Q in QT). But solitary is probably better translated as lonely or even desolate. Which is definitely how prayer can sometimes feel. What’s significant is that it’s the same word Mark used back in verse 12 to describe that desert place where the Spirit drove Jesus to be tempted by Satan. For Jesus to pray in a desert place here somehow implies temptation again. What was going on that was a temptation for him?
Dawn and I have gotten sucked into this season’s American Idol. Our fingers are arthritic from all the texting. We’re rooting for David Cook. However, we both sat dumbstruck watching this past week as finalists as they returned to visit their hometowns. Did you see it? It was ridiculous. Following obligatory appearances on their local FOX news affiliates, the contestants were paraded through town and rabidly fawned on by mobs of squealing teeny-boppers and their giggling parents, effusive city officials and paparazzi buzzing around them like flies. Not only was it ridiculous, but for each of the finalists, it was overwhelming too. Photographers’ prying lenses zoomed in on them all breaking down into tears at the frenzied outpouring. They were superstars living their dreams! Yet mention “Britney Spears” and we’re all quickly reminded how superstardom can be a nightmare too. Applause comes at a price. It has a serious dark side. The praise that initially blows your mind eventually blows up your head. You lose perspective. Endearment becomes entitlement. Adulation an addiction—a drug for which you’ll sell your soul in order to keep the fame aflame.
We’re not through the first chapter of Mark and already Jesus is a Superstar. Having healed many sick people and driven out their demons while preaching really short sermons, his popularity had spread all over town. Verse 33 reports that the entire city gathered at his door, pressing for a glimpse, a glance or a touch. It had to be overwhelming. As with last Sunday, teeny-bopping demons squealed out Jesus’ true identity as the Holy One of God, threatening to derail the whole project. Making Jesus a Superstar Messiah was nothing but the devil’s way of using fame to divert Jesus from his true calling, just as Satan tried to do in the desert before.
Jesus was the Holy One of God, the very hope of Israel. As described by the prophet Isaiah, the Holy One of God was Israel’s Redeemer, their hero who would save them from their oppression and perversity and establish them as an everlasting kingdom. Jesus announced the nearing kingdom, but unlike your usual kingdom, his would not be established through military might or political power. Instead, the kingdom of God would come through the surrender of might and by yielding to power. Injustice would be overturned by succumbing to it. The futility of violence would be exposed by suffering its cruelty. Sin would be taken away by taking it on. Death would redeemed by dying. Victory won through defeat. This is not how superstars operate. This is not how superheroes save. Which is why Jesus preached repentance. The people needed to get over their delusions of conquest and trust in God’s way of doing things instead. The only problem was that God’s way of doing things was so upside down that it wasn’t easy to trust, not even for Jesus. Turn to his last prayer in Mark, and Jesus is heard praying in the garden of Gethsemane for some other way to do this holy thing the Holy One would have to die to do.
But why not the superstar way? American Idol does Idol Gives Back. Celebrities like Bono and Bradgelina raise awareness and money to fight world poverty and diseases that ravage so many millions in developing countries all over the world. What’s wrong with that? Why not use your fame to draw more crowds to yourself? When you’re famous you can heal more, feed more, comfort more. Why not use rock star celebrity for good? Jesus was already rocketing up the charts. Why not be a superstar?
Because superstardom has a serious dark side. And for Jesus, the dark side was the dark side of evasion: giving in to the fame and thereby going around the cross. “How can I die when the people need me? Wouldn’t it be better to stay and make their lives better now? Why not establish a kingdom and be the king here? Israel is oppressed. Rome is the oppressor. I can take Caesar. There’s a whole lot of good that needs doing now.” Yet as Jesus will make clear in Mark and throughout the gospels, while the kingdom of God does exist for the sake of justice and goodness and compassion on earth, all of that remains a mere appetizer, a down payment on the kingdom to come. Beyond the temporal bounds of this world, the kingdom of God transcends time and death to encompass the glories of eternity. But for eternal life to happen, somebody had to deal with the darkness of human evil and sin, which meant sacrificing your own life for it—something that superstars simply don’t do. Their fans won’t let them.
And therefore Jesus needed to get away from the fans. He needed to pray. But he’s not even a verse into his prayer before Simon Peter tracks him down. There’s another mob scene back in town. “Everybody is looking for you,” Peter urgently says, meaning everybody who hadn’t gotten their ills cured or their demons cast out the day before was waiting for Jesus to do it today. But instead of returning and doing the good that needed doing, Jesus says, “Let’s go somewhere else. I need to preach there too, you know. This is why I have come.” Now, I assume that Jesus’ traveling sermon stayed the same: “the kingdom is near, repent and believe the good news.” To say kingdom implied power and popularity, but people needed to get over their delusions of conquest and fame and trust in God’s way of doing things instead. The only problem was that God’s way of doing things was so upside down that it wasn’t easy to trust, not even for Jesus. Which is why Jesus had to get away and pray. We’re not told what Jesus prayed that morning, but I’m guessing his prayer was not unlike the one Mark records him praying in Gethsemane. If Jesus was tempted at all by the acclaim and by a desire to bypass the cross, he likely prayed: “Not my will but Thy will be done.”
That’s a hard prayer to pray. I’d rather pray for what I want. “Ask and ye shall receive,” and all that. Now I know “ask and ye shall receive” doesn’t mean ask for selfish things, but for proper things like healing cancer, or repairing a marriage or finding a job, or for wars to end and for relief for those devastated by earthquakes and cyclones—but that’s OK, I want that. And this is why I struggle with prayer. I ask for these things yet don’t always receive them. Why? Mark offers no explanation except to narrate how Jesus departs Capernaum without healing everybody who needed healing. And of course Jesus never gets married or holds down a paying job himself. And as for disasters, the only mention in the gospels is that time in Luke where 18 people get killed by a tower that collapses on them in Jerusalem. Told about that Jesus replies rather harshly, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
There’s that repent word again. Just like in his sermon: “Repent and believe the good news.” But what’s so good about unanswered prayer? I guess that’s where repentance comes in. We’re accustomed of thinking about repentance only in terms of being sorry for our sins. But there’s more to repentance than just that. Repentance is a change of heart, a conversion of mind, a reorientation of will. For Jesus to say “Not my will but Thy will be done” is a move of repentance on his part. Not that Jesus ever sinned, but he did want something other than God’s will for his life. The same is true for you and me.
Jesus says “ask and ye shall receive.” He also says “God knows your needs before you even ask,” which could mean that God gives you what he knows you’re going to ask for. But since that’s not always the case, it may be better to it like this: “God knows what you’re going to ask—so he gives you what you need.” Jesus prayed for God to let him off the cross. He asked that God’s cup of wrath against human evil and sin pass him by. He wanted the Father to find some other way to save the world. But God knew what Jesus needed. Or more to the point: God knew what we needed—even before Jesus asked. And Jesus did too. Which is why Jesus prayed, “Not my will but Thy will be done.” In the end, prayer is not getting God to do what you want, but getting yourself to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. Are disease and divorce and unemployment and war and natural devastation things that God wants? No, but they’re clearly things that God allows for reasons the Bible does not always explain. We don’t like that. But maybe this is another place where we need to repent. The tendency can be to imagine God’s will for our world as one where disease and disaster never exist, that somehow faith should shield us from all of life’s sadness and horrors. But that’s not how faith works; at least no faith in the crucified Christ. We need to repent and to get over those delusions of God that insist He act like we would act if we were God. We’re not God. We need to trust God and to trust his way of doing things instead. But God’s way of doing things is so upside down at times that that it isn’t easy to trust. So we need to pray too.