Jesus of Nazareth possesses a dual nature: he is simultaneously fully divine and fully human. As a man Jesus needed his rest like any of us. He also needed solitude to renew his spirit exhausted from interpersonal interaction and spiritual confrontation. Mark’s Gospel supplies us with a sample of Jesus’ schedule. At sundown in Capernaum, Jesus begins to heal the sick and to cast out the demons. Mark notes that the entire city gathered around Jesus. Archaeologists estimate Capernaum to have been home to 1,500 residents in Jesus’ day. And so, Jesus could have been busy healing and casting out demons for several hours into the night. After an exhausting evening, Jesus rises early in the morning while it is still dark to pray in a desolate place. He prayed until the disciple’s search party found him. His sweet moment of solitude and prayer is broken by Peter saying, “Everyone is looking for you.” In the late morning, Jesus transitions from prayer to leadership announcing that he and his disciples are departing Capernaum to preach extensively throughout the region of Galilee.
Much has been recommended regarding early morning prayer in the Christian tradition. Many of us have read Martin Luther’s quote: “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.” While this is instructive to all of us, many of us have experienced guilt and shame for not rising early to pray, let alone investing three hours daily in prayer. We are more like Peter, James and John in Gethsemane, slumbering while Jesus is praying.
We would do well to meditate upon this text to discern the reasons for Jesus praying in the early morning before sunrise. The first reason that comes readily to mind is that Jesus was busy throughout the day. In this particular setting, Jesus has spent the Sabbath morning in the synagogue, casting a demon out of a man, then spending the afternoon in Peter and Andrew’s house, healing Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever. In the evening the entire town of Capernaum comes to Jesus for healing and exorcism. Late Sunday morning Jesus is announcing to his disciples that they are going to begin traveling through the entire region of Galilee to expand the ministry of the gospel. The only time Jesus had to pray was in the wee hours of the morning. Think for a moment what it must have been like for the infinite Son of God unfettered by the limitations of time and space in heavenly glory to incarnate and as a true human being submitting to the confinement of time and space as we are. As a man Jesus only had 24 hours a day to do the Father’s will. He was given a mere 33 years to accomplish the mission of our salvation.
A second reason becomes clear as we read of Jesus seeking a desolate place. He prays in the early morning in a desolate place to gain solitude. I would suggest two reasons why Jesus sought solitude for prayer: 1) He needed quiet space to pray to his heavenly Father, seeking his will and focusing upon his mission; 2) He desired quiet space in which to enjoy sweet communion with his heavenly Father. Jesus’ days were filled with preaching the gospel, performing miracles, and teaching his disciples amid pressing crowds. In the early morning he would pull away to refocus, to consider the progress of the unfolding kingdom of God and to plot the next steps of the mission. He prayed to receive from his heavenly Father his marching orders. All four Gospels make the point of Jesus seeking to do the Father’s will, his entire mission set upon the cross, that epoch moment when he would give his life a ransom for many. With each morning of prayer, Jesus would fix his mind and heart upon this climax of redemptive work. His final prayer vigil in Gethsemane was the most difficult as he knew that his hour had come. In the dark, in the first moments of morning after midnight, he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Any of us who sense our lack of focus in mission, in life, can appreciate the discipline of Jesus to rise early to seek the will of the Father. For us, such discipline serves us as we desire to live in response to God’s redeeming of us. For Jesus, such discipline served his redemption of us.
Many Christians have discovered the importance of prayer, its connection to the mission of God in this world, the fighting of the spiritual battle, the expansion of the kingdom of heaven in this world. In 18th century England, William Cowper who has given to the church some of the most thoughtful hymns we sing to this present day, struggled under clinical depression, given to suicidal mediations, discovered prayer to be a non-negotiable part of his spiritual battle. He wrote, “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest Christian on his knees.” In a Nazi prison camp, Corrie ten Boom did not have the luxury of solitude or the comfort of blissful peace as a secret garden for prayer. Years later, as she toured the world telling her story, she said, “Don’t pray when you feel like it. Have an appointment with the Lord and keep it. A man is powerful on his knees.”
Jesus sought solitude not only to plot his next steps in the mission, but also to enjoy sweet communion with his heavenly Father. Prayer in a quiet, rare moment can be most refreshing, the rejuvenation of our spirits. The Christian life is one of the more missionally driven lifestyles of human history. But it is not wholly defined by constant service and kingdom building. The Christian life includes sweet communion with our God, enjoying his presence, hearing his promises preserved in the Holy Scriptures, reveling in the grace indelibly imprinted upon our hearts. Jesus, the Son of God, who enjoyed infinite fellowship with his Father in heaven, uninterrupted by the tyranny of time and the boundaries of space, maintained in this world structured by time and space, a few blessed hours daily devoted to his enjoyment of his unshakable relationship to his heavenly Father.
Edward McKendree Bounds, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War published ten books, nine of which were devoted to the subject of prayer. Though he opposed slavery, he consented to be a Chaplain of the Confederate Army, suffered a severe head injury from a Union saber and was taken prisoner of the Union Army. As a prisoner he discovered prayer to be sweet communion with God in the midst of his suffering. He wrote, “Prayer should not be regarded as a duty which must be performed, but rather as a privilege to be enjoyed, a rare delight that is always revealing some new beauty.”
Fanny Crosby, one of the best known of American women, despite her blindness, wrote 8,000 hymns, mostly experiential, first person prayers. One day during on one of her regular visits in the home of William Doane, my great, great uncle, and the composer of many of the tunes set to Crosby’s lyrics, she gave to him her freshly written prayer, “I am Thine, O Lord, I have Heard Thy Voice,” including this line, “O the pure delight of a single hour that before thy throne I spend.” In the darkness of her blindness she enjoyed sweet communion with her Father in heaven. One morning this past week, a member of our church telephoned our home at 7:00 a.m. and my son answered to announce that I was still in bed. Our sisters and brothers at Eden Korean Presbyterian Church in Aloha had already gathered to pray at 5:30 a.m. and were one their way to open their shops. Their secret is more than Ginseng tea; it is mostly raw spiritual discipline. It is an expected part of their culture.
A group of students arrived early one Sunday morning at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for a tour of the facilities, where Charles Spurgeon preached for 38 years. A man welcomed them and asked them, “Would you like to see the boiler room?” This was not the first room on their list, but they politely agreed. The man led them down the steps into the basement where they discovered a room full of people praying for the Holy Spirit to work in the upcoming worship meeting. The man who led them was Charles Spurgeon who told them that this was the most important room in the entire tabernacle. Spurgeon, in his “Lectures to My Students,” wrote, “I would rather teach one man to pray than ten men to preach.” The preacher who stands before you is going to have to get up a bit earlier each day to pray if he is going to teach you. In Psalm 143, David prays, “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust.” Amen.
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