January 9, 2012

Life of Jesus: The Desert as a Place to Hear God's Voice Mark 1:35-38

We are working our way through a message series called the Life of Jesus. Last week we talked about Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the desert. We looked at the desert as a place or time of trial, testing, and temptation. A dry and lonely place where our character and resolve are tested. But that is not the only metaphor for which the desert was used. The desert was also viewed as a place of silence, solitude, and strength-gathering. It was a symbol of separation from all the normal busyness to gain insight and to hear God’s voice.

In the Old Testament, Moses, shepherding a flock in the silence of the desert, saw a burning bush and experienced the presence of God. In the desert, the Israelites learned to follow and depend on the sustaining presence of God. Following his defeat of the 450 false prophets of Baal, the depressed Prophet Elijah fled to the desert to hear the still, quiet whisper of God’s voice. In the desert, the young shepherd David developed the skills of prayer and worship that sustained a kingdom.

The desert was seen not just as a place of trial and testing...it was also a place of rest and God’s presence. It was a place where people were surrounded by silence allowing them to hear the voice of God in a way they couldn’t in the midst of their busy lives.

There are some messages I get the privilege to preach where I have studied, lived out, and by the grace of God am making headway in living an obedient life in regards to what I’m teaching. There are many more where I am just a traveler on the path alongside everyone else trying to figure out how to live with what God is saying in the passage. And then there are messages like today’s, more than I would like to admit, where I am a complete and utter failure.

This past week is a shining example of how my failure to create margins and times of silence, solitude, and rest plays itself out in my life.

From Monday afternoon until Friday evening, I was confined to the same few feet of couch space with a 100+ degree fever, aches, and coughing...pure miserableness! Except for a few things that had to be done, I never left the couch. And yes, Jason, a shower was one of those things. Literally everything in my life came to a screeching halt this week. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything except lay there.

Anyone who knows me knows that that is the hardest part...laying there. I don’t stand in the same spot for four minutes much less on a couch for four days! But this week my body reclaimed much of the rest it has been denied for quite some time because I have not done a good job of creating margins in my life. I haven’t created that time for rest and gathering strength. I have allowed busyness to win.

And our passage today has a lot to say to me, but I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I’m the only one with this problem. We live in a busy society that expects us to be just as busy as it is. It is as though our importance is based upon how busy we are.

How are you today? Busy! Swamped! Running Ragged!

And it is easy for us to condone and make excuses for all we have to do, isn’t it? We have a responsibility to get this thing done; an obligation. Someone will be disappointed if we don’t. I have to push this out of my schedule because when else is it going to get done. We run from one thing to the next packing our schedules with successive appointments, and eventually what gets shortchanged is the margin, the times for rest and quiet reflection in our lives.

On a spiritual level we begin to wonder why we haven’t heard God’s voice or felt His leading.

Mark chapter 1:14-34 gives us a glimpse into the average day of Jesus. He is walking along the banks of the Sea of Galilee and calls four men to leave all they have built their lives around and follow him into an unknown future. Then in Capernaum, Jesus begins to teach the crowds, and people are amazed and flock to him. He heals people with evil spirits and physical disabilities, and before the day is done, verse 33-34 says, “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons...”

That sounds like a pretty full day. He is a busy man.

But then we find this gentle and unpleasant reminder in Mark 1:35-38, “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.’”

In today’s world, Jesus has just made it! He has hit the big time. It is time for him to hire a publicist, a couple of bodyguards, and a manager to book all the healing and teaching gigs that will come pouring in. His books and DVDs will soon be flying off the shelves. He is expected to make some guest appearances on the talk shows. Videos of his healing and teaching ministry have now gone viral on Youtube.

This is exciting stuff for his disciples. They have no sooner left their obscure fishing careers than they are thrust into the spotlight with the most popular rabbi in the area. “Everyone is looking for you!” Peter exclaims. You can almost sense the giddiness in his voice. But I’m pretty sure Peter didn’t expect the response Jesus gave him. “Let’s go somewhere else...”

Jesus is doing everything wrong by most standards. He has an adoring crowd gathering to listen to him. There are so many people who adore him. He could make a difference in people’s lives with this ability to heal and teach...and here we see him leaving it all to go to the next town.

We know the rest of the story, we know Jesus is really making the right decision. We know he is choosing the greater mission of God instead of what would be temporary fame and a greedy, self-seeking audience. We have the big picture here with Jesus, but in our own lives it is easy to lose focus in the midst of all those clamoring voices. Jesus does something very important, though, to stay grounded and focused in the will of God that we would be wise to take note of...look at Mark 1:35 again, “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.”

While everyone else was still asleep in bed, Jesus was seeking a solitary place to hear the voice of God. It would have been easy for him to just sleep in. Look at the day before...teaching, healing, teaching and healing some more, then casting out demons, the whole town at your door wanting you to do stuff for them...that’s a full day. He must have been worn out, and yet he awoke early to spend time alone in prayer.

And this isn’t the only time we see this in Mark. He makes a point to show Jesus going off alone to pray. In Mark 6 Jesus feeds the 5,000, and then sends the disciples off in a boat while he dismisses the crowd. After the crowd is gone, we see in Mark 6:46, “After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” Later in Mark 14, Jesus, awaiting his betrayer and his arrest, leaves his disciples again to pray alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus makes it a habit to step away from the hustle and bustle and busyness to spend time praying.

Jesus understands what I so often fail to grasp...the body needs rest. The body needs time to recover strength, to regain what it has exhausted, and not just physically but spiritually as well. When things get busy or I allow myself to do just one more thing...the first thing I stop doing is creating time for rest and margin and prayer in my life.

Jesus sought out the silence of the desert because it was a place for him to rest and pray and hear God’s voice. It was a way to discover the will of God.

There are so many times when people have asked me, “How can I know God’s will for this upcoming decision?” And I find out they have not spent any real time praying. They have talked to God, sure, amidst all the busyness and clamor or their regular lives they had spoken words in God’s direction with an “amen” at the end, but they had not withdrawn to the silence and the solitude of the desert...they have not really been seeking God’s will or they would have spent more time in a place where they could listen and not just talk.

Have you ever attempted to carry on a deep conversation in a busy restaurant? It’s impossible. Everyone ends up shouting, and no one can be heard. That’s why coffee shops and patios and living rooms are important...they are places where we can speak as well as be heard, and we need those spaces in our lives.

If we want to know the will of God for our lives...if we want to find the spiritual strength we need to make it through...if we want to hear the voice of God...we must make time in our lives for rest and silence...we have to make room for the desert. We have to seek it out and protect those times in our schedules.

I am always challenged by a quote from the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. If I could just just hit his first mark I would consider myself a major success not to mention the second. But I think the underlying principle holds true. He says,
“If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”  
Don’t get caught up in that two hour-three hour thing...or you will instantly feel guilty for not doing enough. Is it a good thing to spend that much time in prayer? Of course, and it may be a challenge God wants you to meet. But first our call is to recognize the principle that we must maintain the space in our lives for prayer.

We often say I’m too busy to add one more thing to my schedule, I can’t pray. But Martin Luther reminds us that the busier we are...the more we need to spend time in God’s presence.

This passage in Mark challenges us to make time for silence and solitude away from all distractions so we can hear the voice of God because Jesus did. The reality is we cannot hear God over the clamor of our lives. Cell phones ringing, notifications going off, radios and ipods...we have created a cocoon of sound around us, and then add on that all the busyness. We try squeezing prayer in in the car or at work or any number of other places, and I don’t want you to get the impression that those are wrong or are not prayer...we need those times. But they are not enough...they are not silence and we are often not really able to listen to God.

Have you ever wondered why your best ideas come while taking a shower? It’s because that is one of the few places where you are alone with little to no real noise and your mind is free to relax. Now imagine what might happen in your life if you were to step out of some of the busyness and begin to schedule regular times of quiet and solitude?

It might mean saying “No” to something that people tell you is important. It might mean getting up before everyone else or staying up a little later than everyone else. It might mean going to a quiet place for lunch. You know your life and schedule better than me. The important thing is that begin to see our need for a time of silence, solitude, and prayer and make it a priority.

As we look forward to the new year, let’s schedule in the times of rest and silence our bodies and spirits need to stay connected to God.

I believe once we make the time for silence and rest and prayer a priority...we will begin hearing the voice of God and recognizing His will more often in our lives...

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