Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
There are two core practices that Christians value in these few verses.
- The first we find in v35 where we read that Jesus withdrew to pray.
- The second is in v38,39 where Jesus indicates his task of preaching in other places.
I am actually going to concentrate on the first of these. This is partly because I can’t do both justice in the time we have available. We already looked at the second a little when we started our series and looked at the ‘voice of one calling in the wilderness’, so it seems to me that concentrating on v35 is where I want to settle.
v35 simply says:
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35 (ESV).
Firstly, a few general comments about prayer. I have never met a Christian who doesn’t agree that prayer is a vital part of our Christian walk, but I do frequently meet Christians who say their prayer life is an area of both great struggle and great guilt. I would go so far as to say that prayer is probably simultaneously both the most important and the most difficult area of many Christian’s experiences.
There is a whole industry that has grown up around this subject. Books and studies on prayer abound: We have prayer guides, prayer journals, prayer testimony books. Books aimed at men, books aimed at women, bools aimed at children. Many of these promise to reveal the ‘secret’ of effective prayer. You can attend prayer training courses, you can go on prayer retreats to prayer centres. All over the world.
They all have a heart to help people get the better of praying, but for me, the only result of reading such books or attending such courses is to remind me at how rubbish I really am at praying.
This morning, I don’t want to add yet another level of teaching which simply adds another layer of guilt onto people who struggle with their prayer lives. Rather I want to tease out a few things we can learn from this passage about Jesus’s prayer life. I am NOT even going to attempt to unpack everything the Bible says about this subject, merely pick up on what this passage says.
As a general rule, although I try to be thorough, I cannot cover everything Bible says about any subject I am preaching on. Just because you think of something I don’t mention, it isn’t an indication that I haven’t. I may well not mention it because it’s not in the text I am covering.
That said, what can we learn from THIS passage?
Jesus set aside time.
Using the day/night measure nearer the poles than the equator could prove problematic. Remember that Jesus was in the middle east, day lengths stayed much the same throughout the year (I looked online yesterday and in June this year, sunrise was at 5.30am and in December it will be at 6.20am). In the summer in the UK, as we are much further north, sunrise can be as early as 4.30am in the summer, and as late as 8.30 in the winter. In even more northerly locations the sun doesn’t rise in winter or set in summer at all and you might find yourself like one of Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen having to get up ‘half an hour before you go to bed’!
We live in such a busy world, and it seems to me that it is increasingly hard for people to do this. Life has so many claims on our time. Our families (especially if we have young children), our jobs, maintaining our homes and/or our cars.
Some people seem to be proud of their busy-ness. Working all hours, ‘burning the candle at both ends’ seems to be the order of the day. Some even seem to be very proud of the fact they don’t sleep very much: For example, Margaret Thatcher very famously boasted that she only needed 4 hours of sleep a night and that ‘sleep is for wimps’.
This tendency to busy-ness is, I believe, one of the most destructive characteristics of our time. I would suggest it is a significant factor in the prayer-less-ness of people’s lives.
I suspect that one reason people who are older seem to have a better prayer life is this very reason. Our lives slow down as we get older. Quite apart from the fact we don’t have physical energy and ability to tear about from dawn ‘till dusk (and beyond), our children (if we have them) have grown up and left home. And then there is retirement. Older people simply have more free time (we all have the same amount of time available to us). At the very least the time we do have as we get older is more likely to be under our control.
I believe it is vital that we don’t wait until we’re retired before we reap this benefit. I believe it is crucial that we create margins in our lives, not just for prayer, but also for our own well-being. I wonder if part of the cause of this epidemic of mental health we have in modern society is the fact that very few people now are willing to carve out time from their busy-ness.
I would suggest we really grab hold of this issue, not only to improve our prayer lives, but because it will benefit us generally as well. At the risk of sounding too controversial, if you are allowing your time with the Lord and your time with His people to be stolen by your busy-ness, your life is too busy.
How to introduce margin
Some ways we can carve out time suggested by Rick Warren:
Divert Daily. Take time out every day to recharge your batteries. More traditional Christians call this a ‘quiet time’, which for me conjures up images of spending an hour on my knees in some quiet corner. Both Psalm 88:13 and Psalm 5:3 paint a daily reliance on God.
Psalm 88:13 says: “I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you”.
Psalm 5:3 says: “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly”.
This is what Mark here is describing: Jesus getting up in the morning (before sunrise) to spend time with his father.
This is the core of our personal relationship with God, but it is not everything. we can also:
Withdraw Weekly. Take a day off every week. One day a week where we don’t ‘do’ anything. Don’t fill your day off with all that stuff you have been meaning to get around to, but really, really rest. The Bible doesn’t say “and on the seventh day you will do the washing and the shopping and that little bit of DIY you have been meaning (or the wife has been nagging you!) to do, you shall mow the lawn and you shall wash the car, oh and you shall practice hospitality, and also go and see your parents/children/grandchildren (or whoever else you feel obliged to visit)”. It says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns” (Exodus 20:8-10).
In other words, on the seventh day you shall REST. I have met some Christians who are, frankly, glad of Monday morning because the office is less exhausting than family life!
This is an aside, but if you think about it, a day is one rotation of earth, a month is one orbit of the moon around the earth, a year is one orbit of the earth around the sun. But where does a week come from? Yeah, Genesis. We measure the passage of time in part at least by reference to the Bible. God worked 6 days and rested on one. Let’s take our cue from Him and not from the culture around us.
Taking one day a week to reset, recharge and refocus our week on God will help us, but it will also benefit our relationship with God and by implication, our prayer lives.
Abandon Annually. This doesn’t necessarily directly affect prayer, but it does speak to and reflect our lifestyles. Take time out at least once every year to go on holiday. And I mean actually go on holiday. A mission or ministry trip is NOT a holiday. I would suggest that neither is attending a Christian conference. When I worked for the City Council, I tended to take leave to go on mission, and in His grace, God refreshed me and invigorated me in those times. But the most precious times I can remember are just a handful of holidays where we as a family withdrew and just spent time together (Florida, Scarborough, Spain). If I have one regret about when the children were young is that I didn’t give an annual family holiday the priority it should have been given. I did not make the effort I should have to take those times out.
If, like me your life has been marked by lack of holidays. It’s never too late to start.
Then there are some other ways we can ensure we are taking enough time with God and making enough space in our all to busy lives.
I have talked about why we should follow Jesus example and build into our lives space to spend time with God, but what about how? Here are some thoughts:
Put in the big rocks first. Analyse what you are doing now, and make choices about the things that are important to you at this moment. Prioritise them. Get your diary out and analyse the stuff you fill your life with – prioritise the important, ring-fence it, and stick to it. However, don’t set it in stone, because as we go through life, what is important and what is optional changes, so revisit this regularly and ask the questions ‘is this still a priority in my life?’ or ‘should this become a priority?’ Diarise the important stuff and allow the other stuff to become the margins that can expand and contract as life ebbs and flows.
Remember the big rocks in each day, each week and each year. So, for example a big daily rock will be work/school for most people. A weekly big rock for us at least should be gathering to worship God. An annual big rock might be a birthday or anniversary, or a particular holiday period.
Busy-ness is not Productivity
Just because you are being busy, does not mean that you are being productive.
When I worked in local government, there were two colleagues who epitomised the different ends of the spectrum. One had a rather chaotic way of dealing with his caseloads. His filing system was a stack of files and letters and handwritten notes stacked on a corner of his desk which regularly got knocked off onto the floor, gathered up and put back. He had a ‘I know it’s here somewhere’ system for retrieving files and documents he needed to access. He was always tearing about busily from morning to night and never seemed to have enough time to take a break. The other organised his files. The only file and paperwork he ever had on his desk related to cases he was currently working on. At the end of every day, he’d take a half hour to ensure everything that was needed was dealt with that day, he cleared his desk to his filing cabinet which was neatly categorised and organised. He could put his hand to anything he needed in a matter of moments. He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in the tea room. But, which one was most productive? You will have realised by now, that although one appeared to be busier, the other got more work done! He had learned to prioritise and didn’t waste time lurching from one crisis to another.
Never use busy-ness as means of gaining self-esteem. Your worth comes from God because of who you are and His son Jesus Christ. Not because of what you can do, even for Him.
And this should be true in the church. Your value in church should not be rooted in what you can do, but because of who you are.
Ask for help.
From good friends & mentors. People who love you and want the best for you. Sometimes others see the busy-ness in our lives and can recognise the areas of danger more readily than we can. They also have an unbiased view, and if we chose them wisely, these people are only interested in us becoming the best we can be. I really urge you to find someone to whom you will give permission to say: ‘that thing you are doing is eating your margin, taking time from you and stealing the life Jesus came to give you – STOP IT!’
From God. Don’t underestimate the ability of God to help in this regard. Pray and ask for discernment and help about your life and priorities. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28,29).
The next thing is to carve out not just space in our diaries, but there are other forms of space we must create.
Jesus went off to a solitary place.
Jesus did this by putting physical distance between himself and other people.
a SOLITARY place
I can think of several occasions where Jesus withdrew from the people. For various reasons:
- He withdrew to pray. Here, for example (also reported in Luke’s account – Luke 4:42). Luke 5:16 tells us that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
- He withdrew because people were chasing him after he’d performed a miracle of some sort. So, for example, After he had fed 5,000 people, he withdrew from the crowds: Jesus withdrew into the hills by himself (John 6:15). They chased him and we have the record of him saying you’re only chasing me for what you can get.
- Matthew 4:12 tells us that When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee.
- He withdrew because he was aware of plots to kill him. So, for example, we read in Matthew after he’d healed a man’s hand that the pharisees went a plotted how they might kill him. (Matthew 12:1-14). In Matthew 12:15, we read “Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place”.
- There are other times we simply read ‘Jesus withdrew’ or ‘Jesus left them and went away’ (Matthew 16:4 for example).
You will understand this is if you’ve ever been in a position where you feel like you can never get any rest. I am certain that people who are, let’s say, less gregarious and extrovert in their nature will understand the desire for a bit of ‘peace and quiet’. In this particular account, Jesus’ withdrawing from the world had the first purpose I noted – to pray.
Why and how does this help our prayer life?
Solitary means trying to reduce distractions. Jesus whole life seemed to be filled with crowds and people.
He withdrew on a number of occasions.
It is important to have communal and corporate times of prayer and worship, but personal times with God are foundational for us as well.
Why are we so bad at solitude? Our king did it quite well. As a man, Jesus knew his limitations. He understood his need to connect with his father, to his guidance and to his power. He knew how good that connection was. He wants us to know too.
If it’s such a good thing to do though, why do we struggle? Well, it’s a little because we’re busy. Solitude is hard when you’re working and/or married and/or have kids and/or have friends. And, it’s a little because we’re not well practiced. It’s a little because we’re in a spiritual battle and the last thing our enemy wants is for us to connect to the source of our power. Bluntly, sometimes we have to just discipline ourselves.
Which is difficult because our culture trains us for motion and multitasking—not for slowing down and simplifying.
But it’s not always people around us who distract us. I find that if I am near a TV or have my iPad or computer with me, especially if social media is nearby. The only sure way of not being distracted for me is to unplug completely. leaving my technology behind is very important. Jesus went off to a solitary place. Finding the right environment is important.
Start small. Turn off devices. Take a walk. Go for a drive. Block out time in your diary. Schedule it as a meeting if necessary. Take a walk. Sit outside just before going to bed, or do it just after getting up.
This is easier for some people than it is for others. During the Covid pandemic everyone was being told that they had to isolate themselves – even the healthy people we told they had to distance themselves from other people. This caused all sorts of problems for some people. Others, however, loved the solitude. We had a FaceTime conversation with Joe who was on his own in digs in Coventry, worried about him being all alone. He was loving it!
My point here is that carving out time alone will be more challenging of some than for others, so we cannot, we must not fall into the comparison trap about this. Some will happily spend hours on their own with God, for others 20 minutes alone will be a major struggle.
a solitary PLACE
Carving out time alone can often be location dependent. I’m talking about solitude from people, not from God. The Christian is never truly alone. The Spirit dwells with us, (Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 3:16 both tells us this for example). In a number of places, God says to us: “never will I leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6 for example). 2 Corinthians 6:16 quotes a promise of Leviticus 26:12 which says “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” We can be alone with God, and sometimes that’s a challenge. What if God tells us to stop something we don’t want to stop or start something we don’t want to start. But if we avoid Him because of this possibility, we’ll also miss his companionship, counsel, comfort, restoration, and rescue.
Some people live alone, so it’s not necessarily such an issue for them. Being alone with God is relatively easy to accomplish. Others have such busy lives and/or live in large families, so need to really pay attention to this.
It doesn’t really matter what location you choose as long as it is somewhere you can withdraw from human company.
Some people have a specific room, or chair or corner of the garden.
You might even do something like go for a walk or a drive.
It really doesn’t matter how you do it, just find somewhere that you can be free of distraction.
Wendy and I are away now for two weeks. We come back on Saturday 11th. Why not use the time we’re away to try to put some of what I’ve said into practice?
We are certainly going try to use the break wisely, to recharge our batteries and to reset ourselves so that when we come back we will be reinvigorated and raring to go again!
We’re not meeting on 12th either, as I won’t have had time to prepare something. I really would love it if you would all join Wendy and I as we go to Langford Chapel to try to encourage them. Their meeting starts at 11 like ours and is usually over by 12.15.