By Pastor Tracey Leslie
I remember when I was a kid seeing Calgon Bath commercials. There was one where a woman was standing in front of a screen. In the background are pictures broken into quadrants as she recounts the challenges of her day – heavy traffic, an angry boss, a crying baby, a barking dog. She ends her litany with the urgent plea: “Calgon, take me away!” The next scene shows her lounging in a bathtub filled with bubbles with that glow of inner peace on her face. Now that’s where we all want to be, isn’t it? But often we’re not. Often we race through our week just struggling to cram everything in. We’ve become the masters of multi-tasking… or at least we think we have. Rarely do we have any quality “down time” to even collect out thoughts. Did you know, the word “retirement” means to “withdraw or draw back?” In the mid-1600’s, it was employed as a military term meaning “to remove from active service.” That is a far cry from our contemporary retirement experience, right? Today in America, many retirees joke that, they are so busy; they don’t know how they ever found time to work.
Perhaps naively, I often find myself wishing for simpler times. But maybe I’m just deluding myself. You know bible scholars have noticed that the gospel of Mark, even though it’s the shortest of the four gospels, carries with it this sense of urgency. In a gospel with only 16 chapters, we encounter the word “immediately” 27 times. Talk about the tyranny of the urgent. According to Mark, Jesus lived his time on this earth dogged by the urgent and the important. Talk about stress.
In keeping with that concise approach, Mark’s gospel – unlike the others – has little in the way of introduction. Within just a few verses, Jesus’ ministry is up and running. Before the conclusion of the first chapter, Jesus has gathered disciples, participated in weekly worship, exorcised a demon, attended a dinner party, preached, healed a village worth of sick people, and cleansed a leper. And nearly all of that has been accomplished in the course of one day. Talk about efficient and productive.
What immediately precedes this morning’s scripture is an account of that day; a day Jesus spends in the village of Capernaum. It is the Sabbath… ironically, a day devoted to rest. Jesus enters the synagogue with his disciples and begins to teach. But his teaching is interrupted by a man possessed by a demon. So Jesus exorcises this demon. They leave the synagogue and Jesus heads to the home of one of his disciples, Simon Peter. We can assume that this will be for the purpose of a good meal and a Sabbath afternoon nap. But when they get there, Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever, so Jesus heals her. Restored to health, she prepares dinner and they eat together. Well, Jesus has probably lost that window of opportunity for an afternoon nap, but at least he can hit the hay early, right? Except that, by now, word of what Jesus had done in the synagogue has hit the streets and by sunset, people all over town with a variety of ailments begin to show up on Peter’s doorstep so Jesus can heal them. Now, I don’t know what the population of Capernaum was, but I’m guessing it turned out to be a pretty late night for Jesus.
When it’s all said and done, this Sabbath has been anything but restful for Jesus. And yet the next morning, before dawn, Jesus rises very early in the morning. In the original Greek, verse 35 identifies this as the fourth, or last, watch of the night. It would have been between 3 and 6 a.m. And at that, dare I say ungodly hour, Jesus gets up and heads out of town to a deserted place where he can pray before the day begins. This is eremos – a deserted place, a wilderness place, a solitary place. It’s not a very happening place; there’s not much going on there. It is barren, desolate and quiet.
Now I don’t know about you, but over the years I have sometimes wondered about Jesus’ need for prayer. I mean let’s be honest; I know why I need to pray. I need a lot of help; and a lot of help figuring out what God wants me to do. But Jesus is filled with God’s power; and Jesus understands his God-given mission, right?
Well, here’s the thing… According to bible scholars, prayer is, not only the means by which we are strengthened in our faith and gain access to God’s power. But, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ prayers function to keep Jesus oriented or focused on his mission. Let me say that again. The time that Jesus spends in prayer keeps him focused on his God-given mission. Apparently, even Jesus, in a human form, ran the risk of distraction. You know; scientists have conducted tests and discovered that, when we are over-worked and over-stressed, our capacity to focus declines. It’s hard for us to keep the main thing the main thing when our bodies are over-worked and our minds are cluttered with distractions. It’s tough to keep on keeping on when we never have any down time. It’s difficult to function at our best when we are being pulled in a million different directions. Again, research shows that, unlike taking up a sport or musical instrument, we don’t get better at multi-tasking the more we do it; in fact, we get worse. And so Jesus goes off to a deserted place, a wilderness place.
Now folks, this morning I hope I am able to convince you that we all need a little wilderness times in our lives… and I’m not talking about a trip to Yosemite or Yellow Stone. I’m talking about down time; setting aside time and space in our lives when we shut out all those voices vying for our time and attention and we narrow our focus in on God’s presence, God’s voice, and God’s purpose for our lives; when we set our various tasks and demands aside in order to hear the still, small voice of God. Because, if we don’t do that, not only will our bodies and minds be stressed; our spirits will feel stressed and exhausted and we’ll be missing out on the amazing things God wants to do in us and through us.
So, let’s talk about this wilderness space, this quiet place. There are two things we need to notice about it. First of all, deserted, wilderness places are devoid of distraction. This wilderness place, this eremos, refers to places that are uninhabited by humans and they don’t even have a lot going on in terms of wildlife. In a desert, wilderness kind of setting, there’s just not much there to capture our attention and distract us. It can truly be down time.
Now friends, you might not have the time or the resources to literally, take off to the wilderness. But here’s what we can all do. Create for yourself a wilderness space where you can enter into prayer; where you can eliminate distractions, you can create a little down time and get reoriented and refocused on God’s purpose for your life. Make it a place where you won’t be distracted by other stuff. I have one place in my house that is my prayer space and I rarely do other stuff in that space. It’s nothing fancy. But it is space conducive (for me) to meditation and prayer. It looks out over the pond and I can watch the ducks and geese glide effortlessly across the water. In that “wilderness space,” I read, I reflect and I pray. And that’s pretty much it. And why? Because our minds easily fall into habits or patterns of behavior. That’s why doctors tell you, if you have insomnia, don’t lie awake in bed. Get up for a while and then go back to bed. Otherwise, if you lay in bed awake, or if you do other things in bed – watch TV, surf the web, even read – your mind learns to be active, not restful, in bed. So find a time and a place that can become your wilderness place, your quiet place – make it time and space reserved for you and God so your mind and spirit will be conditioned to listen for the voice of God within that time and space.
Number two, the second point about deserted places is that, because of how sparse and thin, yet open they are, they remind us of our own vulnerability. They remind us that we live dependent upon God; we live at the mercy of God’s mercy. Friends, I don’t care how gifted or talented or capable we are; there is still a limit, frankly an enormous limit, to what we are able to do and control on our own. We live at the mercy of God’s mercy.
You know, a few years ago, I went on a retreat. I went to this place in rural Texas. It was pretty close to the border so it was kind of semi-desert land. The retreat center was a silent community. The Catholic sister who “checked me in” spoke just long enough to get me settled in and then, she disappeared. The next morning, after breakfast, I decided to go for a walk. I found what appeared to be a trail and began to walk. The silence was just amazing. I was enjoying it and I was really feeling pretty serene and tranquil and pretty spiritual. And then, I stopped short. Right in front of me was an animal carcass that I could clearly see had been picked clean fairly recently. And that’s when it hit me. There were still wild animals in this place and here I was… a sitting duck… or some standing version of whatever that carcass was that I was staring down at. It was not a very good feeling. I felt very small… smaller than usual and very vulnerable.
Friends, we all need to have a quiet place – a wilderness place – in our lives. A quiet place where we can tune out the clamoring of the world – the boss, the spouse, the kids, the dog, our friends and co-workers. A place where we can embrace our vulnerability before God and let our guard down. A place where our goals and human strivings can be transformed for God’s purposes. The wilderness isn’t always the most comfortable place to be; but the wilderness is often the best place to be because in the wilderness we are stripped bare of all the stuff we try to hide behind and there is nothing to come between us and God. And that’s a big part of what prayer is about. Prayer is the wilderness space we carve out in our lives so that nothing and no one outshouts the voice of God; we can simply be vulnerable and still and listen. We can focus and reorient our lives so that God’s desires for us become clear to us. Sometimes our minds become cluttered with some much stuff – even good stuff – that we aren’t in a place where we can see and hear what God wants to reveal to us. Jesus pronounced many beatitudes, my friends; but “blessed are the busy” was not one of them.
Folks, it’s good to “do good” and certainly Jesus did a lot of good while he was here on earth. But, most of all, Jesus carried out God’s plan… which sometimes meant not doing stuff. When Jesus’ disciples find him out in that wilderness place, they want to drag him back to Capernaum to heal some more people. After all, people there are really impressed with Jesus. He’s like a rock star; wildly popular. But Jesus knows that it’s not about popularity or pleasing people. His goal is to work God’s plan and to please the heavenly Father. It’s about fulfilling and revealing God’s purposes during his life here on earth. And his time in solitude, his time in prayer, has given him the strength he needs to keep going, to move on to the next place and to continue God’s work.
Brothers and sisters, you can pray anywhere and anytime. Squeeze it in as often as you can, wherever you can. But if that is the only way of praying that you know, then you haven’t plumbed the depths of prayer. If our lives are going to have meaning, if we’re going to live out God’s purpose for our lives, then we need to escape to the wilderness once in a while. We need to cultivate time and space that is quiet and solitary; where we can breathe in God’s Holy Spirit, our minds can relax and our muscles can unclench and we can really tune in to what it is God wants to do with our lives. We’ve got to have that focus because God has a purpose for our lives and we need to be focused enough to keep making the main thing the main thing.
The book “Dropping Your Guard,” tells the story of Flight 401 bound for Miami with a load of holiday passengers. As the huge aircraft approached the Miami Airport for its landing, a light that indicates proper deployment of the landing gear failed to come on. The plane flew in a large, looping circle over the swamps of the Everglades while the cockpit crew checked out the light failure. Their question was this: had the landing gear actually not deployed or was it just the light bulb that was defective?
First, the flight engineer fiddled with the bulb. He tried to remove it, but it wouldn't budge. Another member of the crew tried to help out...and then another. By and by, if you can believe it, all eyes were on the little light bulb that refused to be dislodged from its socket. No one noticed that a lever controlling altitude had been bumped and that the plane was now going down. Finally, it dropped right into the swamp. 101 people perished while a highly skilled and experienced crew poked and fiddled with a seventy-five-cent light bulb. The crew was distracted; they’d lost their focus. They forgot that the point of piloting an airplane is to keep it safely flying.
Brothers and sisters: some of us have allowed ourselves to become so frantic, so distracted and unfocused that we are running the risk of crashing and burning… figuratively speaking. We need some down time… wilderness time; quiet time to be with our heavenly Father so that we, like Jesus, can have renewed focus and strength to carry out God’s purpose for our lives.
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