Let's turn to the scriptures for our Bible reading this morning, we're turning to Mark's gospel chapter 1 as we continue our series in Mark's gospel. Mark chapter 1, and we begin to read at verse 35: "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth. And he preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and cast out devils", and we end our reading at verse 39.
I've entitled my message today: 'The Servant's Priority of Prayer'. Now, if you were with us last Lord's Day morning you will remember that our title then was 'A Day in the Life of the Servant', and we looked at the fact that the days of our Lord Jesus Christ here on the earth were filled with service to God and service to men. In that little cameo of a day in His life we saw that in the morning He visited the synagogue, being the Sabbath morning, and there He cast out an unclean spirit from a possessed man. Going from the synagogue to Simon Peter's house, presumably for the Sabbath day meal, He encountered Simon Peter's mother-in-law sick of a fever, and He healed her there. Then, when we see what happens in the evening, we find Him serving as a great company of people - Mark says all Capernaum - gathered at Peter's door out on the street: those who were possessed by devils, and people sick of divers diseases, the Authorised Version says, and Jesus healed them all. His days were filled with service.
Now the danger of emphasising that very important truth is that we think that Jesus' days were only spent engaging in ministry to others. There is a danger that we assume that His whole life was nothing but outward activity. We're going to see this morning, here in verses 35-39, that Jesus' day started much earlier than any morning visit to the synagogue or to a sick house. His day started very early in the morning in prayer. Now I want you to note this please, because this was the essential preparation for the Servant's service, the day of service, morning, noon and evening that He was to embark upon - this was how He prepared for it. Indeed, as a human, I believe that without such prayerful dependence upon His Heavenly Father, our Lord Jesus could not have served as He did. I would cast your mind back to our studies in Mark when we looked at the temptation of the Lord Jesus, and we emphasised there that the Lord Jesus in His incarnation and condescension came to be a man, though He was God. He came to live life as a man, in total obedience to God, and in absolute dependence on His Father. John 5:19 outlines that: 'Verily, verily', Jesus said, 'The Son can do nothing of himself'.
Now, we see that this was self-evident in His prayer life - and prayer, of course, is probably the most graphic demonstration of our dependence upon God. When the Lord was baptised, we are told that at that moment, in Luke 3:21, He was praying. When He was transfigured before the three on the Mount of Transfiguration, and appearing along with Elijah and Moses, it says that as He prayed the fashion of His face was altered, Luke 9:29. Before He chose His twelve Apostles, we read: 'He continued all night in prayer to God', Luke 6:12. Even when all men spoke well of Him and would have Him as a King, in Matthew's gospel 14:34 we read: 'He went up into a mountain apart to pray'. Now listen very carefully: His deity did not render Him independent of the need of prayer. Jesus Christ, the Servant of Jehovah, needed to pray - and, as such, He is our perfect example. He is the blueprint for the life of prayer that we are to live in the Spirit of God, but what we need to note this morning is: this was the preparation for service of the Servant of the Lord - prayer early in the morning.
Now I think it's essential that we take this morning in our series to pause and consider this great truth. We need to note that whilst, at times, it is very difficult to get Christians to serve the Lord; and whilst, as last week, we need to continually emphasise and encourage believers to be involved in some kind of service to the Master; the other end of the scale is equally as dangerous. That is, to be one of those who are almost addicted to activity and often, sadly it has to be said, it is prayerless activity, even in the service of the Lord.
Now don't misunderstand what I'm saying. We saw last week that activity in ministry is so important, and service filled most of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ - but we need, and this is the emphasis in the passage today, to see that Jesus' life was a balanced life. Oh, that we could copy, as our pattern, the balance that He showed. Prayer, in His life, always came before service. Indeed, it seems that the one thing that He interrupted His service to do was to pray. He went from the crowd into solitary places, up the mountainside, into the wilderness in order to pray. Now this is the warning that all of us, particularly those who are heavily engaged in the service of the Lord, we need to beware of becoming so busy that we are too busy to get time alone with God in prayer.
Now let me say that I'm still trying to strike the balance, I haven't got it right yet - but one thing I have observed in my own life, I can't speak for others, is that it is hard if you are constantly in a frenzied hurry, it's very difficult to be still before God in order to pray. Though the Lord Jesus, as we saw last week, was always serving, you never ever see Him in a frenzied hurry. You never see Him in a tizzy. There is a need in our lives, as the servants of the Lord, to become disciplined enough to provide quality time for unhurried, unhindered prayer. For the Servant of the Lord that had to be so early in the morning that it was still dark. So, before His day filled with service, a great while before day, Jesus arose, went to a solitary place, and there prayed.
Now there are many lessons that we can learn from the example of our Saviour today, but the first thing I want you to see that I believe He shows us is the need for unhurried prayer, the need for unhurried prayer - verse 35, the verse that I just mentioned to you. Now remember that we said in our introduction and in subsequent weeks that we believe that Mark's gospel comes in particular from Peter's perspective. The apostle Peter relayed to Mark many of the instances that are in this gospel account, and it would not surprise us that this was relayed by Simon Peter himself: that Jesus was sleeping at his home, probably, during that evening after the great service outside his door to the many people in Capernaum - and, waking up in the morning, Simon noticed that Jesus had disappeared. Very early in the morning when everyone else in the household was asleep in darkness, the Lord Jesus delicately stole out of the house and found His way to the street, and before long He was out of the village ascending a hillside, or entering some remote spot in order to get a place and an environment where He could, in an unhindered way, lift up His heart in prayer to His Heavenly Father.
I imagine Simon probably thought that he was up pretty early, but when he rose he found that the Lord was not there - because of that he initiated a search, probably along with James and John and his brother Andrew, to find where Jesus was. Now in Mark's gospel we see Jesus praying only three times, and it's instructive to note when those occasions are. First, at the beginning of Mark's gospel, where the ministry of the Lord Jesus is being defined here in this verse, we find Him praying - so at the start of His ministry. Then when we turn to chapter 6:46, He feeds the 5000, and we find Him praying to His Heavenly Father, blessing these loaves and asking for the miracle. It's not until near the conclusion of Mark's account, chapter 14, where we find the Lord in Gethsemane, that we find Him again praying. Just as His whole day was spent in service, and the beginning of His day was spent in prayer, we find that this is almost like a panoramic view of His ministry: that His life and service started, and ended, and continued with prayer.
It's worthy also of noting the setting for each of these three accounts in Mark's gospel of His praying - all of them, without exception, were during the night, in the dark hours, and in a place of solitude. Even in Gethsemane, Peter, James and John were separated from the Lord as He prayed alone to His Father. Now there are two things that are very instructive in that fact: that not only on this occasion, but the other occasions in Mark's gospel, Jesus went out at night time or the very early hours of the morning, and He went to a solitary place. It helps us to pray, because we need to have a time of prayer just like the Lord Jesus; a time when we can get alone for unhurried prayer and for preparation for service. The time was very early in the morning, Mark says, and that means that it cost the Lord Jesus some sleep in order to pray in this way.
Therefore, right away, we learn that prayer is not a matter of personal convenience. Prayer is not something that we just fit in in the spare time that we can get after we do everything else that seems to be, practically at least, more important - but prayer entails self-sacrifice. It means that we're going to have to discipline our lives during the day to make time to pray. It's interesting also to note that the Lord probably was up late the night before healing the sick out in the street in front of Peter's house, but His late hours the previous night did not keep Him from His morning appointment with the Father. Now that's not a rule to burn the candle at both ends, that won't work, but there are times that we do have to make sacrifices in order to get time alone with God to pray.
In Isaiah's prophecy chapter 50 and verses 4 and 5 we get a prophetic view of the Servant of the Lord and His prayer life. There Isaiah depicts the fact that God opened the Servant's ear every morning to instruct Him. Listen to those words: 'The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward'. So Isaiah shows us that in the life of the Lord Jesus, morning by morning, God opened His ear to instruct Him concerning what He would do in the day of service that lay ahead. It's also interesting to note that this was Sunday morning. He had spent the Sabbath in the synagogue, in Peter's house, and then on the street healing, and this was the next morning - Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath. Matthew Henry, the commentator, aptly notes that prayer is not something just for the holy days, it's something for every day. So Jesus, a great while before day, rises early in the morning to pray.
The second thing we note is not only the time, but the place: He went to a solitary place. It infers a desert place. That just teaches us that solitude is important, it's important to get alone with God. It's not enough to meet corporately as a congregation, though that is necessary. It's not even enough to meet with your family, you need to have time alone with God - and often that will entail a solitary place. That's why the Lord Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that we ought to go into a closet, there pray to our Heavenly Father in secret. The sad fact is that Jesus Himself had no door of His own to close, so He found His closet in nature, in the wilderness, in the mountaintop, in the garden. I would encourage you to discover and explore the closet, the place of prayer that there is in all of nature. The heavens declare the glory of God, and nature is an unwritten book that helps us get in touch a little with God.
But the point that I want to labour this morning is this, emphasising the time and the place, we need not miss this fact: that the public ministry of the Lord Jesus had to be backed up and balanced with private prayer. It's the same for you as it was for Him, whatever your ministry is. I'm not talking, don't misunderstand that I'm talking about people in the pulpit who preach - no, no, no. People who teach children at children's meetings, Sunday School; you serving your Lord in your everyday workplace - that's what your life is to be, a life of service and sacrifice to the Lord - whatever you do, and wherever you do it, and however you do it; you, if you're involved in a public witness, which you should be as a Christian, it must be backed up by private prayer. Jesus realised that He had to get alone with God, especially because He was so often with people. If we are going to be any use to the crowd like Jesus was, we need to be alone with God. If He was to meet men, He knew that He needed to meet God first.
Now let me ask you: have you learned that lesson? Have I learned that lesson? I think I'm still learning it - to realise that if I'm going to be continually giving out, and you're going to be continually giving out, as Jesus was ministering out, there has to be some time in your day, in your week, in your month, in your year where you take in. Now is it any wonder that the Lord had so much authority, because He was spending time alone with God. When we contrast this authority that Jesus had with the lack of authority that the disciples had, we see the distinction and the reason for it. If you turn with me to Mark 9 you see this occurrence of the disciples' inability to cast out a demon as Jesus did. In Mark 9:28 we read: 'And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out? And he said unto them, This kind', this kind of demon, or this kind of condition, or this kind of ministry, 'can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting'.
So this was, on a human level, the secret to the Lord Jesus' authority in words and works. He was absolutely dependent on His Father, and that was manifest in the practice of prayer. Now maybe the axiom is too simplistic for you, and I suppose it is in a way because prayer isn't everything that gives us authority in our lives, spiritually, but it's a big lot. The axiom goes, you've heard it: 'Little prayer, little blessing. Some prayer, some blessing. Much prayer, much blessing'. Now, there's holiness involved, and there's faithfulness involved, and there's integrity involved, there's a whole lot of other things involved - but unhurried prayer must saturate our service, that is what Christ shows us: the Servant's priority in His life was prayer. It came before everything.
Now here's the second thing that develops out of that first point, the need for unhurried prayer, and I think we find it in verses 36 and 37. The reason why we need to create space for unhurried prayer - what is the reason? Simply: ministry needs will never go away. What I mean is: there would never be a shortage of sick people, or demon-possessed people for the Lord Jesus to serve and minister to, and it's exactly the same for us. Never will there be a shortage of people without Jesus, and people who have many other needs that we can minister to. I don't know whether you've ever thought of this analogy, but I have: Christian service, in whatever capacity, is often, I feel, like the job of a housewife. They always say that's the hardest job - I have never tried it, mind you, but I have a bit of sympathy. When I say that it's like the job of a housewife, I don't mean that you're dealing with big babies all the time, but what I do mean is that it's like a never ending story. You women know what I'm talking about: the washing keeps coming, and the ironing never seems to stop. The service of the Lord is like that: there are so many people to minister to, so many opportunities, so many things to be done that the danger is that you keep going and going and going without spending time in prayer, and time before God.
Some of you young mothers, and even older ones, can remember being told: 'Now when the baby goes down for a sleep, you go down for a rest as well' - and how many do it? What happens is before long you're absolutely exhausted, run ragged, and it's the same in the spiritual realm. If you don't determine to order your service, before you know it you won't have a waking moment for time with God. This is the reason why we need to create space in our lives for unhurried prayer - why? Because other things will gladly take its place. Some very legitimate things, let me add, even some very spiritual and necessary things - but they're not the priority things when compared with unhurried prayer.
Now what Christian servant does not feel empathy with these words that, while Jesus was there in that solitary place, verse 36, 'Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee'. I have a friend who is involved in evangelism, and in order to take a holiday one summer he went up to the County Antrim coast and got a caravan - that's all people knew, that he was going there and he was in a caravan. There was one family that felt they needed him there and then, and they decided to drive up and travel round every single caravan site in that North Antrim coast area, asking at reception was so-and-so staying there. I read a book recently entitled - I read it years ago, but I read it again recently - 'Ordering Your Private World', I would recommend it, by Gordon MacDonald. He relates an incident in his life that talks about how ministry needs are always there, and if we don't order our lives and make room for unhurried prayer, we'll never have time for it.
Let me just recount it to you as he does. He says: 'One Saturday afternoon the phone rang in our home. When I answered, the woman's voice at the other end of the line sounded quite upset. 'I've got to see you right away', she said. When I learned her name I quickly realised that I had never met this person before, and she had rarely ever visited our church. 'What is the reason that we have to visit right now?', I asked. It was an important question, one of several I've learned through experience to ask. Had this been many years ago', MacDonald says, 'when I was young, I would have responded immediately to her sense of emergency and arranged to meet her in 10 minutes at my office, even if I had previously hoped to be with my family or involved with study. 'My marriage is breaking up', she responded. I then asked, 'When did you become aware that it was going to break up?'. She answered, 'Last Tuesday'. I asked another question, 'How long do you think the process of breaking up has been going on for?'. Her next comment', MacDonald says, 'was unforgettable. 'Oh, it's been coming for five years''. He says, 'I managed to muffle my real reaction, and said 'Well, since you have seen this coming for almost five years, and since you knew it was going to happen since last Tuesday, why is it important to visit with me right now at this moment? I need to know that'. She answered, 'Oh, I had some free time this afternoon, and thought it might be a good time to get together with you''. MacDonald says, 'I said, 'Now I'm going to very candid with you. I have to preach three times tomorrow morning, and frankly my mind is preoccupied with that responsibility. Since you have been living with this situation for several years now, and since you've had several days to think about your situation, I'm going to propose that you call me on Monday morning when we can arrange a time where my mind is in much better shape. I want to be able to give you the utmost concentration, but that's probably not possible this afternoon. How does that sound?'. She said, 'That's a terrific idea''.
Now here's how George MacDonald concluded, and why I tell that story. He says this: 'Not everything that cries the loudest is the most urgent'. Not everything that cries the most loudest is the most urgent. Jesus knew that truth, He had to hide to have time with His Heavenly Father. MacDonald also quotes Elton Trueblood from his book 'While It Is Yet Day', and this is what he says - and it applies to all of us involved in any kind of ministry - 'A public man', or woman for that matter, 'though he is necessarily available at many times, must learn to hide. If he is always available, he is not worth enough when he is available'. Did you hear that? If he is always available, he is not worth enough when he is available. In other words, we've got to have non-negotiables. One non-negotiable must be unhurried time in prayer with God.
Now what are the practical implications of this? Well, I'll tell you one: we need to make choices. We need to prioritise in our lives: that will mean we need to say 'No' at times to folk. I'm not talking about in order to lie in in bed, or in order to go out round the country entertaining ourselves, I'm talking about in order to spend time with God. Not that leisure time isn't important, it is, and time with our family, that is important too, and we need to prioritise for that. But we need to get over the stigma of trying to please others in the Christian church. Our job is not to stop disappointing people, or not let people down, our job is to do God's will. I'll tell you, other people will gladly manage your life for you, and tell you what to do and when to do it, and what they think you ought to be fulfilling your life for - but you have a greater responsibility to God, and that responsibility to God is to be in unhurried prayer that will feed your constant service for Him.
Though we minister, and though we serve others, if we are to be truly useful to others we must, at times, starve ourselves of others to have time with God. I'm going to repeat that, because this is what we see in the practice of Christ but see very little in Christian service today: though we minister and serve others, if we are to be truly useful to others, we must at times starve ourselves of others to have time with God. You see, we tend to define people - their worth, that is - not only by what they do, but how much they do. Often productivity defines our service, and is misunderstood as success in service - how many things we're involved in, how much we're doing for the Lord, how often we are out doing it. One evangelist I knew had, for a long period of time, seven, or thereabouts, engagements every day. It wasn't long before he hit a brick wall. Richard Foster puts it well when he says: 'A mind that is harassed and fragmented by external affairs is hardly prepared for meditation'.
The church fathers often spoke of 'otium sanctum', 'holy leisure' - it refers to a sense of balance in the life, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves. Now this is what Christ's example is asking you, and asking me: do we have otium sanctum in our lives, a holy leisure to spend time with God? Do you have leisurely time with God? E. Stanley Jones once described prayer as time exposure to God, I think that's tremendous. He used the analogy of life being like a photographic plate which, when exposed to God, progressively bore the image of God in keeping with the length of exposure.
Verses 37 to 39 show us that it appears that the crowd that were at Peter's door the night before, returned looking for Jesus. So Simon, and presumably, as I said, Andrew, James and John, searched for Him, 'followed after Him' the Bible says. That word used actually means 'they hunted for Him', and He was difficult to find, because He made Himself difficult to find - but eventually they found Him. They were intent on locating Him and interrupting Him, and Peter - note - mildly reproaches Him and says: 'All men are seeking for You, they're all seeking for You!' - which, to be interpreted in our vernacular, is saying, 'What are You doing here when there are people looking for You? There are people needing You!'. Or, to be a little bit more cynical, they were saying: 'Come back! Capitalise on the success of last night!'. Simon and his friends seemed to think that Jesus was making a mistake, He was missing a great opportunity that the recent publicity had brought Him. That's often the reaction of other Christians when we want to spend time alone with God. They wouldn't say it or articulate it, but they think it's a waste of time. You must resist that.
It's interesting to ponder why the Lord Jesus did not return to Capernaum. He refused Peter's invitation, and surely one of the main reasons - I think there are many, but the main one must be that Jesus did not want to be known as a mere miracle-worker. He wanted to be known as Saviour and Lord. He shows that the nature of His ministry was to preach the kingdom, and if He wanted more adulation and more amazement from the crowd, He would have went back to Simon Peter's home - but He wanted to see repentance and faith in the lives of men and women, so He began preaching in a tour of the synagogues in Galilee, using the synagogue in the main town as the point of contact with the people. He preaches the kingdom of God, He confronts them with God's claim on their lives, but He goes elsewhere.
This is the point: though He served the crowd, He would not be controlled by the crowd but by His Heavenly Father alone. Make sure you don't let any crowd, or anyone come between you and your relationship with your Heavenly Father - even if that thing is a thing of service, though service is very important. Now we noted that Jesus never separated His words from His deeds, and now we are seeing that Jesus never separated prayer from His work. So often we separate our words from our deeds; and equally as often, if not more often, we separate prayer from our work. May we see in Christ the Servant's priority of prayer, the need for unhurried prayer, the reason why we need to create space for unhurried prayer - because if we don't, something else will take its place. May we all make it our priority today.
Now I'm not suggesting that you decide to give up some work for the Lord in order to have time for prayer, when maybe all you need to do is set the alarm half an hour earlier in the morning. But maybe there is someone who does need to cut down a little bit of what they are doing, in order to have more time with God. I'm not suggesting that you spend three hours in the morning - whilst that would be wonderful if some were - but if you could get five minutes, or 10 minutes where there are no minutes at present, that would be something that I believe would revolutionise your life, and you would see very quickly an evident change. Start small, this week, tomorrow morning, and see the change that will come into your life and your service for the Master.
Father, we thank You for not only the salvation of our Lord Jesus, but His example. Help us to follow Him in practising unhurried holy leisure, exposed to the presence of God; that we might have power and authority in our service to God and others. Teach us this lesson to take time to be holy, deliver us from frenzied lives, even in the work of God - but help us to have the holy balance that we find in the life of Your beloved Son, through whose Name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the eleventh recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Servant's Priority Of Prayer" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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