Following Jesus in Prayer

Following Jesus in Prayer

Mark 1:35-39

“Follow me.”

That’s how Jesus invites people to be his disciples.  Open up a gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and you’ll see Jesus asking people to “follow me” all over the place.  That’s why we Christians also call ourselves “followers of Christ.”

But Jesus wasn’t the first one to ask his disciples to “follow me.”

This expression was in common use in the first century Jewish world.  Rob Bell has explained it like this:  Rabbis were teachers who took on a large part of the male Jewish population as students, starting at a young age.  As those students grew older, some would be weeded out; only the best would continue their studies until the age of 13 or 14.  At that point, just the cream of the crop would be left – and those exemplary students would seek to become a “disciple” of a rabbi.  A young man would present himself to a rabbi and say, “I want to follow you.”  And if the young man passed mustard, the rabbi would invite him: “Come, follow me.”

And it was a very literal invitation.

The rabbi’s disciples followed him everywhere.  Through the streets, into the synagogue, into homes – everywhere.  A good disciple would aim to follow his rabbi so closely, Bell says, that he’d be covered with the dust that the rabbi kicked up while walking.  All this close-following had a purpose:  to see and mimic everything the rabbi did.

So when Jesus invites his disciples to “follow me,” it’s with that same intention:  follow and mimic.  And for us, as well:  follow and mimic.

This Lent, let’s really be followers of Christ; let’s follow Jesus and mimic his actions.

In order to do that, each week from now until Easter we’ll look carefully at a characteristic of Jesus – something that, if we had literally followed him around, we would have seen him do many times.  Then, having gotten the “dust” of that characteristic on us, we’ll go into the week with the goal of doing the same.

On this first Sunday of Lent we begin by following Jesus as he prays.

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Jesus Goes Up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray, James Tissot (1886-1894)

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This story about Jesus praying is far from an isolated incident; the gospels tell us that Jesus went off by himself to pray about as many times as he told people to “follow” him.  Knowing that Jesus did this regularly, let’s pretend we’re there with him; let’s watch what he does like he’s our rabbi and we’re his disciples trying to mimic his every move:

In the morning, while it was still very dark…

The first thing we notice is that Jesus gets up early to pray.

I know, I know – not all of us are morning people.  (On this “Spring Forward” Sunday, none of us are morning people.)  Most of us aren’t cut from the same mold as John Wesley, who was known to wake at 4am for his quiet time with God.  But you don’t have to get up at FOUR IN THE MORNING to get up early enough to pray.  It can just be setting your alarm 5, 10, 15 minutes earlier than normal.

Sacrificing that bit of sleep is worth it, because the easiest way to make something a priority in your life… is to literally make it a priority.  You do it first.  Maybe you’ve learned this lesson with exercise:  if you do it first thing in the morning, you can’t talk yourself out of it later.  And on the flip side, if you skip that AM workout, the odds of working out later are iffy at best.  So we can follow Jesus’ example and do the same with prayer:  get up a little early to pray.

…he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 

Next we see that Jesus goes to a “deserted place” to pray.

“Deserted” sounds like “desert,” right?  That’s not a coincidence; the desert was the place to meet God in Jewish tradition.  Think:  Moses on Mount Sinai, or even Jesus in the wilderness near the Jordan River after his baptism.  Interestingly enough, there’s no “desert” near Capernaum – it’s a lush, green land around the Sea of Galilee.  That doesn’t stop Jesus, though; lacking a desert, he goes to a “deserted place.”

I’ve got a few places in my life that are like the Jewish desert, “holy ground” kind of places.  There’s an outdoor chapel in the mountains of Virginia, for example, that has a way of turning my heart to a state of quiet prayer.

I don’t live there, though.  It’s a four-hour drive from front door to that outdoor chapel, so in my everyday life I have to find “deserted places” instead.  Places that might not be “holy ground,” but that are a little more quiet; places where I can more easily talk with God.  It can be a certain chair in a quiet room or kneeling beside our beds at night; a park bench in a secluded area or an empty sanctuary.  Andrews UMC has an indoor walking track where I love to walk and pray, walk and pray, walk and pray…  It might not be my outdoor chapel, but it’s a pretty good “deserted place” for me.

And Simon and his companions hunted for him.   When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 

Now we see that Jesus has chosen to pray even when “everyone” was looking for him.

Life is like that.  The moment we sit down to do something, the phone rings or the children call, “Mom!” or you remember that seemingly-more-urgent task from earlier in the day.  Prayer is especially vulnerable to these real-world demands because prayer can feel unproductive.  After we pray, we don’t have anything tangible to show for it.  If we fold that load of laundry, however…

Prayer is something we need to do even when “everyone” is searching for us.

Maybe:  especially when “everyone” is searching for us.

During my last year in seminary my school needed an interim Vice President.  One of our professors, Tom Troeger, had been tapped for the job and was willing to take it on in addition to his other duties.  I was asked to sit in on one of his interviews, and as a busy student I knew just the question to ask:  “With everything that’s already on your plate, can you add this and still have time for your spiritual disciplines?”

“Oh!” Dr. Troeger said, in what seemed like genuine surprise.  “I’ll be so busy, how could I not pray?  Because I find the busier I am, the more I need to pray.”

I was really intrigued by that answer.  It stuck with me, and over the years I’ve learned – the hard way – that Tom Troeger was right.  In my seasons of extreme busy-ness I am tempted to cut corners on things like prayer.  But if I’m too busy to pray then I am dangerously busy, and it won’t be long before I start dropping balls or feeling depressed – or both.  I cannot be too busy to pray.  My soul needs prayer.  It cannot be cut from my life.

He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Finally, we see Jesus deciding to go elsewhere after his time of prayer.

Maybe this was his plan all along.  But maybe his early morning prayer in a deserted place, away from the demands of the disciples and the crowd, helped him to see more clearly what he needed to do next.

Jesus had had a successful few days in Capernaum, after all.  He had cast out a demon in the synagogue and healed Peter’s mother-in-law and healed a bunch of other people.  Apparently he had achieved celebrity status; “the whole city was gathered together about [his] door” (Mark 1:33).  If it was me – people pleaser that I am – I’d be tempted to stay right there in Capernaum and soak in the adoring crowds as long as the approval ratings were high.

Prayer, though, has a way of bringing us clarity.  Prayer removes us from the adoring (and often fickle) crowds.  Prayer pauses our forward momentum and gives us time to reflect with God.  Prayer can give us the clarity we need to make the less-obvious but better choice.

Okay, disciples:  watch Jesus one more time:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

How might we follow Jesus’ example in prayer?

By praying early in the morning.
By praying in a “deserted place.”
By praying even when “everyone is searching for us.”
By allowing prayer to redirect us.

But above all – do you know how we follow Jesus’ example in prayer?

By praying, plain and simple.

You can’t do it wrong, so just pray.  Start talking to God.  Do it every day.

And may it develop you into a true follower of Christ.

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