(a sermon for June 19, 2016, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost; first of a series, based on Mark 1:35-39)
It might well be one of the most profoundly spiritual places I’ve ever known.
And the thing is, it’s nothing special! It’s just the wooden dock that sits on the lake shoreline down at the end of a long set of stairs in front of our camp in Maine. It’s gotten pretty old over the years and always in need of some kind of repair; it’s not nearly long enough or wide enough, and can tend to be kind of, shall we say, “eee-awwey;” and don’t even get me started on what it takes it get it in and out of the water every year!
And yet, as I think back over the years, that dock has always seemed to be the place where great things happen. I learned to swim in very spot, and years later, so did my own children. It’s the place where friendships were nurtured, and where I had a front row seat for approaching thunderstorms and summer meteor showers! Lisa and I planned our future together (!) while sitting down on that dock; and I can’t even begin to tell you the number of family gatherings where that dock has been the central point of fun, laughter and a fair amount of chaos! But even more than this, I’ve realized that it’s also been a place where each one of of us in our family has gone for moments of quiet reflection. Friends, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a “morning person,” but I have to tell you sooner or later every summer I’m compelled to rise up in the “wee hours” so that I might go down to the dock and, in the midst of that early morning silence, watch the sun rise over the eastern shore of the lake. And it’s been in those times alone with God that I’ve rejoiced, that I’ve cried, that I’ve worked out many of the uncertainties of life that have come my way; and sometimes, in the utter confusion of it all, I’ve simply looked heavenward and asked, “Why?”
It’s just a dock… “the wharf” as we used to call it, but for me it has truly been that place of quiet revelation; the place to learn and often to be reminded time and time again of who and whose I am. It’s the kind of place where I have to imagine “a summer day with Jesus” would most certainly begin.
And so we read in our text for this morning: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
There’s a writer and biblical commentator by the name of Thom Schuman who says that “like a mystery novel, scripture sometimes gives [us] a clue” as to who Jesus is and how he “is able to do the things he does.” Well, in that single verse – which, not coincidentally, comes pretty much at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel – we find out everything we need to know about how a day spent with Jesus would begin.
Look at different translations of scripture and you’ll find it named in a variety of ways: “a solitary place,” which is how the old King James Version describes it, “a lonesome spot,” or simply “a place where [Jesus] could be alone.” Or, if you want to get literal, the Greek word used is eremos, which gets translated as “desert,” but which in scriptural parlance, is often a word used to represent “a place of revelation.” That’s in fact where we get to the heart of the matter: that this was the place and the time where Jesus found the strength and the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own.
Understand that this is more than mere platitude; put that verse from Mark about Jesus going to a solitary place in the context of what comes before and after, and you begin to realize just how important that time “away” was for Jesus! As Mark tells the story, the day just previous had been demanding, to say the least, and the new one promised to be just the same. The news about Jesus was now spreading quickly throughout the region of Galilee; people were hearing the authority by which Jesus taught the scriptures; they’d seen him cast out demons, and saw evidence of his healing power. And so now, of course, everyone’s seeking him out! All the day before, and well into the night there were people quite literally pressing in upon Jesus with all their problems and all their diseases. They wanted to be healed, yes; but they also wanted to talk to this man Jesus and to hear what he had to say; they needed to find out for themselves if this glimmer of hope was real and if what they’d heard about him was true!
So many people… so many problems… so much need… so many demands on his time and energy and spirit; how could Jesus possibly help them all? Where would he get the strength that he needed to keep up the pace; to fulfill his mission?
It is no accident that, right in the midst of that kind of chaos, Mark makes a point of telling us that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” These, you see, were the moments of spiritual intimacy that took place between Jesus and his heavenly Father; they were moments essential to the day and the work that was ahead; and they were the times when Jesus was reminded of who… and whose he was.
Which begs the question: if Jesus, who was the very son of God, knew that he could not live in the world or face the challenges before him without God’s presence and strength; then why would we ever assume it could be any different for you and me?
The truth of the matter is that for all the times I remember “going to the dock” for that important time away, there are far more times in my life when the regular daily cycle of words and action and moving and busy-ness ends up a higher priority. Unless I miss my guess, I suspect that many of us here can say the same thing; and the hard truth of it, friends, is that this happens at our peril!
Henri Nouwen once wrote that seeking out the “lonely places” is, in fact, essential to our very lives. “Somewhere, we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger,” he said. “Somewhere we know that without silence, words lose their meaning; that without listening, speaking no longer heals; that without distance, closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures. The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community form the basis of the Christian life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention.”
Indeed; how often do you and I become so preoccupied with the minutiae of daily life that we’ve ended up neglect the source and strength of that life; running ourselves ragged, day in and day out, because we’ve somehow failed to acknowledge or embrace the very reasons we were running in the first place!
Let me tell you friends, for every one of us here, it is a question worth asking! It is so very easy to let our spiritual tank run empty, so to speak, and that has a way of negatively affecting everything else in our lives. Maybe, for instance, you’re sitting in these pews this morning and realizing that this worship service is the first chance you’ve had to sit down all week! Maybe you’ve asking yourself why you’re so tired all the time and why the things that used to get you “jazzed” just don’t seem to hold as much meaning anymore. And maybe, even as you’re thinking that life could not possibly get any busier than it is right now, there are still tons of things out there you need to get to! Maybe at one time you were one of those people who used to get up every day and proclaim, “Good morning, Lord!” but now, all you can muster is “Good Lord, it’s morning!”
Well, if that’s the case, I would suggest to you that you are in dire need of “a lonely place” of quiet revelation; an opportunity for renewal of our very relationship with God; and a time to be refreshed by his very presence. It’s there that we begin to get a handle on that what is truly important; to learn when to hold on tightly but also when to let go lightly; to find the strength and vigor to do what really needs to be done and to wholly embrace God’s gifts for accomplishing the task. To lead the kind of meaningful and purposeful lives we all want to live; to, as the old poem puts it, to “go placidly amid the noise and haste;” this begins with that essential time of solitude and prayer.
I love what Cynthia Hale has written about prayer; she says that “prayer is coming to God. Prayer is seeking God. Prayer is the appeal of the soul to God. Prayer is standing before God as ‘an empty pitcher before a full fountain.’ Prayer is connecting with God who is the power source…. [but] not to pray is to be guilty of the incredible folly of ignoring the possibility of adding God to our limited resources.” I love that; and isn’t it true how so many of us, including myself from time to time, have been guilty of that “incredible folly” of not connecting with our God in prayer.
Friends, for that relationship with God to be strong, for that connection to real, we need those regular and purposeful moments “very early in the morning” to actually be with God. Now maybe for us non “morning people,” that time is in the evening, or perhaps a few moments taken in the midst of a busy day. Perhaps it’ll happen on a lakeshore, or while walking on the beach; maybe sitting out on the deck with birds singing in the trees above you; or else in some quiet corner of your home: maybe you’ll be like the woman I heard about a few years back who was so focused on having a place for prayer, she literally went into her broom closet with all the dust mops and canned goods because that was the only quiet place in her house she could find to be alone and pray!
Wherever that “solitary place” happens to be, the point is that we go… and that we purposefully spend the time with God; and not simply speaking to God, either; but also and especially listening to God’s voice in the silence, and discerning what it is that God might be saying to you!
In spending this summer day with Jesus, it is likely it’ll be a busy one. There will be stories and teachings of the good news of God’s redeeming love; there will be acts of healing and renewal; and more wonders to see and experience than we can even begin to imagine. It’ll be joyous, it’ll be challenging, and it’ll be full… and that’s why, as Jesus himself knew, it’ll need to begin… and end… with prayer! And why would we not? With so much stress in our lives; with so many questions before us as we seek to make our way in this world with integrity and peace, why would we ever presume to move forward without having the presence and guidance of the only one who really knows us and loves us as we are, where we are?
My prayer for all of us as this summer season begins in earnest is that we do seize those opportunities to go into the quiet and be with the Lord… to turn off the cel phones for once; ditch the iPads and iPods and fling Facebook for a bit! And, for then, as the Psalmist wisely advised, “Be still and know that I am God.” I pray for each of us, as we spend these summer days with Jesus, that might truly be refreshed, refueled and renewed by his presence… and then sent forth by his power and his Spirit.
And in every one of these moments, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry