What we are going to study today is a deeply convicting passage of scripture for me. Though this passage is short, the concepts, teachings and applications found in this little section is both overwhelming and humbling. That makes it very tough to preach because there is no way I can feel like I’ve ever done it justice. So today I’m going to focus on one topic that is presented here: Prayer.
The topic of prayer, and especially this passage, speaks to my heart in a very powerful way because this is the area of my Christian faith that needs the most work. This may be my chief area of immaturity, the place I fall short the most. My prayer life is my greatest area of spiritual failure. And I’m not saying that because everyone says that even when their prayer life is pretty good. No, if there is one area of my spiritual life that has been a struggle – for years – it has been having a consistent prayer life. I know some here struggle in the same way – and I’m very thankful that there are some who don’t.
It’s not that I don’t know a lot about prayer up here (in my head), because I do. I could probably write a book and teach a class on prayer and no one would ever know my struggle because of all the studying I’ve done about prayer. I’ve read books and have tried many different techniques, but my prayer life has always gone in fits and starts.
I’ve been reading a biography of the great Baptist Preacher Charles Spurgeon and there are two main themes that I’ve been very impressed with: his humility and his prayer life. One would think that one of the most influential people in history, the greatest preacher of modern times, who had success and huge crowds at such a young age, would struggle with pride and dependence on God, but it was exactly the opposite. The more influence he gained, the more dependent on God he was. The more people attended his sermons, the deeper his prayer life seemed to get. And perhaps that’s the point – a deep prayer life creates dependence on God, fosters humility, and opens us to be used mightily by Him.
Billy Graham’s Biggest Regrets
Let’s open up to Mark 1:35-39:
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.’ And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
I don’t watch a tonne of sports, but I do like watching hockey. One sport I don’t watch a lot of is football. I think it’s because there is too much going on for my brain to comprehend – but I do like to watch the Superbowl. There’s so much hype, drama, and craziness that surrounds it, it’s hard not to get swept into the excitement of it.
If you’ve ever watched a big game – no matter what sport it is – you know that the end of the game, as soon as the buzzer sounds, onto the field rush a whole bunch of reporters from every news organization everywhere to get the thoughts of the players who won and lost.
And the winners, no matter what position they were in, what the score was, or how the game went – all kind of say the same thing:
“We were the underdogs, no one thought we could do it. But you know what? The whole team executed. We stuck to the fundamentals and we all knew this was going to happen. We couldn’t have done it without the leadership of coach so-and-so… even when no one believed in us we believed in ourselves… blah blah blah.”
Then they hand out the MVP trophy, go outside and flip over cars… and generally go crazy.
If an MVP trophy was given out for the past 100 years of Christian evangelism, I don’t think anyone would question that Billy Graham would be the one receiving it. He’s had an unbelievable ministry. He’s now 94 years old and doesn’t do a lot of interviews, but on December 20th, 2011 Billy Graham gave a sort of “post-game” interview about his ministry – and it was incredible.
When I first heard it I thought it might be his last, but here we are planning to have a Billy Graham event in our own church in November! God’s work in Him is truly incredible!
I want you to hear what he says.
Does that blow your mind? What did you think he was going to say? I thought he would have said something like “I wish I wouldn’t have wasted so much time doing other things… I wish I would have preached more.” Or “I wish I would have used my influence to do this thing instead of that thing.” But the one thing Billy Graham, the greatest public evangelist of our time would change about his life was that he would “pray more and speak less”?
Her follow up question was: “Why would you speak less, when you had such an enormous audience and people listening? Why would you want to speak less?”
That’s a natural thing for anyone to ask. That’s the same type of thing that the apostles were asking when they came up to Jesus and said “Everyone’s looking for you!” “What are you doing? Your audience awaits! You don’t have time to be wandering off in the dark by yourself; you’re gaining popularity by the second. You need to do more speaking, gain more influence, do more healings. Stop wasting time out here by yourself and get back into the game!”
Can you imagine if someone were to be doing a post-game Superbowl interview and asked the same question to the quarterback? “You’ve just won the Superbowl, and you’re holding the Lombardi Trophy in your hands… if you were to do things over again in your life, would you do anything differently?” And they say “Yeah… I really wish I would have played less football.”
Billy Graham’s answer reflects the heart of Jesus. He said:
“I didn’t mean that I would speak less in these great stadiums. I meant that I would speak less at all kinds of conferences and things that I was invited to throughout the world, especially to Great Britain and the United States because I’d get up and travel to those places and I didn’t have time to think and study and pray. And I needed time for that. And if I had it to do over again, I would try to organize it much better.”
I’m also amazed at how quickly the answer to that question came to him. This is something he’s known for a while. Something God’s been talking to him about for a while. As much as God has used him, when he looks back on his life the biggest regret he has is that he should have spent more time in study and prayer. Was that some kind of pious answer? No way. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone – he doesn’t need to. He’s learned the secret to a meaningful life and He wishes he would have spent more time doing the most meaningful thing he could… listening to what God says in his Word, and talking to God more regularly.
Our Feeble Excuses
I think all Christians can at least relate to what Billy Graham is saying. The question is, can we learn from it? He’s 92 year old, has had a long, fruitful career, brought many people to Christ, was married to the same woman for 64 years, and has wonderful Christian children and grandchildren who are all serving God all over the world. By all of our metrics, that’s a successful life. But in this interview, when asked what He would change, he says he would have prayed and studied more.
How can we learn from those words? I know we all have lots of excuses why we don’t study and pray. Some of us use our children as excuses – putting off study and prayer until they are grown and gone. Some use our work – saying that we will get into prayer and study once we achieve a certain status, when the job slows down, or when we’ve finally got enough money. Some use our health – convincing ourselves that we can’t put time into study and prayer because we are not well enough. Some use our ministry as an excuse saying that we are too busy doing God’s work to study and pray. Some use our vices saying that we are too messed up to ever do that. Some use our intellect saying that we don’t have enough training to be good at study and prayer. Some use our aptitudes saying that we don’t like reading and we don’t like sitting in one spot so we must not be built for study and prayer.
What’s your excuse? Mine is my kids. I use them all the time to tell God why I don’t take more time to study and pray. They need me so I come when they call. I work from home so they always distract me and I don’t get enough concentrated time. I’ll study and pray more when they are grown up more. As we’ll see from this passage, those are all feeble excuses.
I’m just saying the same thing to myself that the apostles were saying to Jesus – “Everyone’s looking for you! There are lots of excuses not to study and pray right now!”
Let’s see if we can get practical and take a look at the passage again. Let’s look at what the Master did, pull out a few things that might help each of us in our prayer and study life, and follow after Him.
1. Be Intentional
First, let’s look at his intentionality. Verse 35,
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.”
There are 4 words here that really drive home the resolve that Jesus had for taking time away to be with His Father. “Rising”, “Departed”, “Went”, “Prayed.”
The day before this was a very busy one for Jesus. He had went to Capernaum on the Sabbath and began the day teaching in the synagogue. It was there that he had a public encounter with a demon and showed His divine authority over the spiritual realm. When he left the synagogue he went to Peter’s house for the Sabbath meal, and as soon as the sun went down the entire city left their homes and brought their sick and demon possessed to Jesus. And he spent all night healing them. He did everything on the Sabbath except rest!
So with everything that was going on around Him, He had to be intentional about His prayer life. No one was going to make the time for him. No one would make him. There would be no accountability person calling him to make sure He had His quiet time. If He didn’t do it, no one would.
It’s the same with us. If we are waiting for a “less busy time in our life”, or until we “feel like it”, or anything else, it simply won’t happen. Satan and the world he is influencing doesn’t want you and I to pray and study – it’s that simple. They want Christians weak and distracted — and I’m ashamed to say that I fall into their trap far too often.
The first thing we have to know about prayer is that we have to be intentional about it.
2. Make the Time
So as the crowd dissipated late into the night, Jesus went to sleep, but set an appointment in his heart not to sleep too long. He woke up “early in the morning, while it was still dark”. The term there refers to the last watch of the night, between 3AM and 6AM. It was the last few hours before the next day began and Jesus had not spent enough time alone with His Heavenly Father. So, He made an appointment with Him and kept it.
This piggy-backs on the last point – Jesus was intentional about the time. He set it, kept it, and made it happen. He didn’t “find the time” he made it. It wasn’t a passive thing where He waited for a good moment to arise, or was watching for a moment to dash out. No, He made the time.
He chose a time when He wouldn’t be disturbed, and when no other obligations were pressing Him. He chose a time when distractions were low, and where concentration was high. He didn’t skip sleeping, but shortened it for that occasion so He could be with God.
Jesus was many things, but He wasn’t religious. This wasn’t about making sure that He checked His “did my devotions and said my prayers” box, off of His to-do list. The previous day was hectic and very meaningful. There was a lot to process, and much that needed to be brought to God. He had seen many hurting people, and there were many more He didn’t see. What did God want Him to do? He may have been tempted to be proud, and had to deal with that emotion with His Father. And He had been in spiritual battles all day long with various demons and needed to rest with his Father and thank God for all of the victories He had seen. There was much to discuss with God, and there would be no time for it after the sun rose.
What is your intentional time of prayer? Have you chosen one? It doesn’t have to be 3AM, in fact, it may be 9AM, 9PM or lunch time. There’s no rule about when to do it… just that we do it. Is it in your appointment book? That’s what I’ve done in the past – and need to do better at from now on. I need write it into my day, decide it’s going to happen, and keep the appointment. Without an appointment it will get crowded out – you can count on that. We all need to resolve to make the time, take the time and keep the time for prayer and study. What about you?
3. Set the Place
Jesus was also intentional about the location of His prayer time. Not only did He choose a time that He wouldn’t be disturbed, but he “went out to a desolate place”. When Jesus was teaching about prayer during the Sermon on the Mount, right before He teaches the “Lord’s Prayer”, He says this in Matthew 5:5-6:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Our personal times of prayer are not done for show. The building of your relationship with God is not done in public. If your prayer life is something that you save only for public times like during grace, at prayer meetings, in small group, or on Sunday, then your prayer life is unhealthy. In fact, you may be as hypocritical as the Pharisees of Jesus day.
That is not to say you shouldn’t pray in public, but it should be an overflow of what is done in secret, not your main prayer time.
So, where is your place? Where is your “prayer closet”? If you’ve been struggling with your prayer time it may be because you’ve simply never resolved to have a set time and place to do it. If prayer is really as important as Jesus, scripture, Billy Graham and every mature Christian we’ve all ever met says it is, then it needs to be something we make happen! We put lunch in our schedules because we need to eat. And when we skip breakfast and lunch so we can work, we get tired, hungry, and grumpy. Our stomach rumbles and rumbles until we put something in it.
In the same way, when we skip our regular time with God, our souls get hungry. And our soul rumbles within us, asking us to connect with our Heavenly Father. Often, instead of making the time like Jesus did, we learn to tell our souls to be quiet and learn how to ignore the rumbles until we can’t hear them anymore. And our soul begins to whither, our relationship with God grows distant, our confidence diminishes, worship becomes work, service becomes frustrating, and humility slips away. We need to be with God regularly or our souls will starve.
4. Realize Most People Won’t Get It
Look what happens next in the passage. Jesus has been praying for a while, probably a few hours, when Simon leads a posse to find Him. They panic and go looking for the missing Jesus. The words “searched for him”, or “looked for him” could just as easily be translated “hunted him down.” The language and verb here suggests that they were engaged in an urgent manhunt for Jesus.
“And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”
Chances are that the people of Capernaum had come back to Peter’s house early that morning and had been banging on the door looking for Jesus. When Peter awoke to the noise of half the city beating his door down, he looked around to find Jesus so He could get to work. But Jesus wasn’t there! What had happened to Him? They were probably quite surprised that Jesus wasn’t raring to keep building on His amazing success from the day before. So their plan was to go and find Him and get Him to come back and keep going.
One of my commentaries says:
“This episode is the first hint that the disciples… will create more trouble for Jesus than support. They are looking for him in Capernaum because of the miracles, not because of his worlds, and the disciples would like to accommodate this surge in popularity: more evening healings with a band concert, perhaps they could even develop a Capernaum healing theme park.”
They simply didn’t understand why He was there.
That’s going to happen to you. A lot. The world, your spouse, kids, job, friends, family, and everyone else is going to try to tell you that you need to do more. They will come beating down your door trying to get you to do more, read more, buy more, earn more, work more, clean more, teach more, speak more, fix more, rest more…. It is the rare person who will look at a man, woman, or child of prayer and say, “leave them alone, they are doing the best thing they can do right now.”
Even your own mind will tell you that you need to get up and get going. Remember Jesus who walked away from ministry opportunities and even hurting people who could have used His healing touch, because He knew His greater mission and greater priorities.
5. Seek Clarity
Look at Jesus’ response to them. Read verse 38:
“And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.’”
Jesus says, “Let’s go somewhere else.” I find this to be a very powerful couple of verses.
Jesus is absolutely crystal clear about his mission. He wasn’t distracted at all. Why? Because of His time in prayer He had the answers to the most fundamental questions of His life – the same ones that many of us ask ourselves. Where am I to go? What am I to do? What is my purpose in life?
I know you’ve asked yourself those questions. How many movies have you watched, websites have you visited, books have you read, conversations have you had, trying to figure out the answers? How much journaling, and soul searching, and talking to mentors, friends, parents, counsellors, and teachers have you done trying to figure out the answers to those questions? Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to be doing? What is the ultimate purpose of my life?
Those answers will come through prayer. No human being can give you that answer because you were not designed by a human being. Those answers are found when we get into our prayer closets, at our appointed times and ask God, and listen to His Word.
Without answers to those questions we fall into the traps set for us and settle for a lesser life than God desires for us.
As a teenager Billy Graham prayed for what God desired of him while all alone one evening on a golf course, lying on his back on the 18th hole. He was wrestling with God’s call on his life to preach, and while praying finally relented and accepted what God had called him to do. What if he would have let distraction win out and had just gone to bed that evening? What if he had conditioned himself to ignore the promptings of God, to tell the Holy Spirit to talk to him later, when he had more time?
Even Jesus needed to talk to God about His mission, His focus, and His purpose. Jesus need to go to His father in prayer, and after His time with God there was no doubt what He would do. He couldn’t stay in Capernaum, even though there were many people who would have been healed. His primary mission wasn’t to heal people, it was to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, and ultimately to save people from their sins by dying on a Roman cross for them.
The disciples may have thought it was flattering to tell Jesus that everyone was looking for Him, but Jesus response was to know in His heart that the response of the people was shallow and superficial, and that they were only interested in what Jesus could do for them and not in His message. I’m convinced that His clarity had come because He had just been talking to God.
Without a regular time with God our mission can get fuzzy, and we can fall for the devil’s schemes. We need that time with God so that we can be clear about where we’re supposed to be going and what we’re supposed to be doing… and also to be given the spiritual sensitivity to know what’s going on behind the scenes, not just what’s in front of us.
So I encourage you with the message that most of us have been told hundreds of times, but still haven’t been obeying.
Find a consistent time to be with God. Find a sacred space to be with God in. And talk to God, read His Word, and listen to what He is telling you. Seek clarity in your life from God and then write it down. If the God of the universe tells you something during your prayer time, it’s probably a good idea to write it down so you don’t forget it!
Let’s work at holding each other accountable to this. Hold me accountable too! Maybe instead of greeting our brothers and sisters with “how are you?” we should ask “how have your times with God been lately?” Imagine how different you would be knowing that question would be asked to you each week. Imagine the spiritual, supernatural power that would be flowing through this church if each one of us committed to spend time with God every day, in a special place, talking and listening to Him.
Let’s work towards that together.