LIVING ON A PRAYER
A sermon on Mark 1:29-39
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 7, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he [i. e. Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35
For those of us of a certain age, the title of today’s sermon will likely conjure up the title of a Top-40 song by the band Bon Jovi from the 1980’s. It is arguably one of their greatest hits—“Living on a Prayer.” In the song, the singer tells the story of a young couple struggling to survive against the odds. The guy in the song has lost his job. He is desperate enough for money that even has to pawn his prized possession—his guitar—in order to make ends meet. But he promises his girl that things will get better, even if things look pretty grim now. And it is because of the love they share. The chorus sums up the theme of the song nicely: “O, we’re halfway there/ O, living on a prayer/ Take my hand and we’ll make it, I swear/ O, living on a prayer…” And all the while, the music is a-rockin’…
“Living on a prayer” is an expression in the English language which, according to one definition, means “that things in your life are pretty fragile and therefore you need a prayer to stop them from becoming out of control.” Sounds about right. In normal parlance, it means that one does not have the obvious resources to meet that challenges that one faces. Therefore, the only way that you can make it through the difficulty is if God acts on your behalf in response to your prayer…
In today’s text, we see Jesus during the second half of a very busy Sabbath day. Earlier in the day, he has taught in the synagogue. All the people were amazed and impressed with his teaching. Then at some point in the gathering, Jesus’ teaching had been loudly interrupted by a demon-possessed man. Our Lord responded by healing him. Once again, the people who witnessed it were ast9ounded by his actions. After the action at the synagogue, Jesus went home with two of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew. It seems that Simon’s mother-in-law was quite ill in bed with a fever. Mark tells us that, soon after they arrived, Jesus took her by the hand, helped her up and the fever immediately left her.
You all know about how news in a small town travels really quickly. It was the same way back in Jesus’ day as well. As soon as sunset came around, people from all over brought people to Jesus to be healed. Those who were sick. Those who were lame. Those who were deaf. Those who had leprosy. Those who were possessed by evil spirits. Pretty soon, the whole town had gathered at the door. And Mark reports that Jesus healed many. Nothing seemed to be too hard for him to handle.
After everyone had gone back home, Mark tells us that Jesus got up, and left the house very early. He left in order to be in a solitary place. And there he prayed.
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The truth of the matter is that Mark’s words in verse 35 are more than simply a report about Jesus’ activities that day. It stands as a commentary on his entire life. The gospels report that Jesus was a man of prayer and that he frequently withdrew in order to be alone with God for the purpose of prayer. After his baptism, the scriptures tell us that Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days. Presumably he went to pray. Here are a few more instances where the gospels talk about Jesus at prayer: In Mark 6:46, we are told that our Lord left his disciples and the crowd and, “After leaving them, he went up on a mountain to pray.” In Matthew 14:23, it says that, “After he dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” In Luke 6:12, it says, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and he spent the whole night praying.” In the telling of the story of the Transfiguration, Luke 9:28 tells us, “He took Peter, James, and John with him and went on to a mountain to pray.” In Mark 14:32, Jesus enters the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples and told them, “Sit here while I pray” as he went on a little farther and poured his heart out to the Father. In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples make the request, “Lord teach us to pray.” Obviously they would not have asked him that question if they did not know that he was someone who knew how to pray. And John 17 records a whole prayer of Jesus as he prayed in the upper room with his disciples on the night that he was betrayed.
Frequent and fervent prayer was a hallmark of the life of our Lord. And it has also been an essential of the lives of some of the great followers of Jesus through the centuries. Consider these examples: While he was sharing the good news of Jesus in Burma, it is said that Baptist missions pioneer Adoniram Judson withdrew from business and company seven times a day in order to pray in secret. He began at midnight and would stop whatever he was doing to pray at dawn, at nine o’clock, noon, three, six, and nine o’clock at night. John Wesley, the founder of the Evangelical Revival in Britain and founder of the Methodist church, has been quoted as saying, “God does nothing except in answer to prayer” and was said to have devoted two hours a day to prayer in addition to his itinerant preaching and teaching ministry. The great German Reformer Martin Luther wrote in his diary, “On a typical day, I am charged with the pastorate of three churches. I teach regularly at the seminary. I have students living in my house. I am writing three books. Countless people write to me. When I start each day, therefore, I make it a point to spend an hour in prayer with God. But if I have a particularly busy day, and am more rushed than usual, I make it a point to spend two hours a day with God before I start the day.”
[Most of us would likely respond in the opposite way than Luther, wouldn’t we? We would say that we just have so much to do on our plate today that we just couldn’t possibly spend a significant
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amount of time in prayer to begin the day. Maybe that is why we sometimes feel so harried and lacking a center of gravity in our lives…Maybe that focus on prayer was part of the secret of Luther’s success in the spiritual life…]
So Jesus left early in the morning before anyone else was stirring. I imagine that he tread lightly and maybe even went out the back door in order to leave unnoticed. What is it that you suppose drove Jesus to quietly leave while everyone was sleeping in order to be alone with God and pray?
This passage from the gospel of Mark is very early in the Jesus story. He has just begun his ministry of preaching and teaching. And it must be said that he has had some phenomenal success in those endeavors. In addition, the word has gotten out about Jesus and his ability to heal and cast out demons. In addition to the success that Jesus enjoyed, they obviously loved him there. It would be easy for him to stay and continue to work among the people of Capernaum. So he had to face the question: What would he do next? How would he proceed from this auspicious beginning?
Sure—he faced the temptation of wanting to stay put in Capernaum—at least for a little while. And why not? No doubt there was still much more to teach the people. There were still other disciples to gather around him. And the crowd—I’m sure there would be a never-ending stream of humanity seeking him out to be healed. Yes—there was lots of work still to be done there. What should he do? Should he stay…or should he go?
During his time of prayer, Jesus got the clarity that he needed. Maybe in that time of silence and communion with God, he was able to see the situation that confronted him more clearly. The crowd indeed was impressed by him. But when it came right down to it, their devotion to him was rather shallow and superficial. They were mostly interested in what he could do for them by healing their physical ailments and afflictions. It was obvious that they were not so much interested in his teaching. So during that time alone with God, it was clear what he needed to do.
In the morning, Simon and the others went looking for Jesus and they eventually found him. In verse 37, they tell Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.” My guess is that they fully expected to bring Jesus back to Simon’s house once they had found him. That way, there would be another round of teaching and, most of all, healings. But that was not was Jesus had in mind. After his time of prayer in the quiet place, Jesus was able to say “no” to the well-meaning disciples. Instead he tells them, “It’s time for us to go to the neighboring towns, so that I can proclaim the message there also; for this is what I came to do.”
I imagine that their departure from Capernaum later that day was tinged with sadness. Jesus had done significant work there. And now Simon, Andrew, James and John were leaving home and family to journey with Jesus. I imagine that they would have preferred to stay close to home rather than travel with this itinerant rabbi. But that was not the plan. Jesus had something greater and more important in mind…and they were going to follow after him regardless of where he led them…
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This is really the point of regular, ardent prayer in the life of the Spirit. It is so that we can find clarity in our relationship to God and to discern where it is that the Spirit would lead us next.
We sometimes sing that old gospel hymn that goes “Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer/ that calls me from a world of care.” And yet I suspect that it has been a long time since many of us have actually spent an hour in prayer. And then, it usually is only when we are confronted with a crisis—a sick child, a loved one with a terminal diagnosis, or a situation for which we can see little hope. It is then that we get serious about our prayers.
But prayer is not merely to be a last resort when all else fails. It is to be an essential mark of one of Jesus’ followers. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster glowing describes prayer in these terms:
Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. It is original research in unexplored territory…It is prayer itself that brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit. Real prayer is life creating and life changing. Prayer—secret, fervent, believing prayer—lies at the root of all personal godliness.1
As this sermon about prayer comes to close, I hope that you will take a few minutes to examine your own prayer life. What do I really believe about prayer? How often do I take the time to spend time alone with God in prayer? Do my prayers more resemble and ongoing conversation with God…or are they more like “Hail Mary” passes that I launch, hoping that God will hear? I pray that we may all become more immersed in the goodness of God through prayer as we seek his will for us.
Let us pray:
Lord, we are sorry to say that we tend to seek You more when we fail than when we succeed. It is easier for us to know Your leadership when we are lonely…or frightened…or in trouble than when we are happy and things are going well. Help us to listen better in the good times. And in our thanksgivings, let us hear the still small voice of Your Spirit, encouraging us and directing our paths in the ways of Jesus. Amen.
1 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline—The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), 30.