In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
In today’s Gospel, in many ways, we are shown what a day was like for Jesus. It seems that Mark has put together this section to show us the sort of things that occupied a normal day in Jesus ministry.
All the elements are there: There is the call to follow, there is the teaching with authority, there is healing of body and mind. And lastly there is the retirement away for prayer.
It is interesting to note that in Mark, Jesus praying only gets mentioned 3 times. Once as we heard today, and another happens after the first feeding of the multitude:
After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
The other happens in the garden at Gethsemane, where he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray."
The fact that mark only mentions Jesus praying three times is not to suggest that Jesus only actually prayed three times during earthly ministry. None of us would think that was possible. There are several common factors in each incident: Prayer is always alone, at night, and in times of stress
The stress is the reason for prayer.
It is most clearly stated in the events of the night before his crucifixion, when he takes three of the disciples to the garden at Gethsemane and as the Gospel tells us He “began to be distressed and agitated. He tells the three of them "I am deeply grieved, even to death” then he makes his way apart from them to pray.
It is easy to see why Jesus would be stressed on that particular night. He knew exactly what was about to occur. Everything was turning out as he had predicted. Knowing what was about to occur the next afternoon is a fair enough reason to be stressed.
But what of the other two occasions? The incident after the first feeding of the multitude, where he says farewell to the disciples, and goes up to a mountain to pray, and the incident in today’s Gospel, where he is hunted out by the disciples, because they can’t find him.
I believe that it is still stress related.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has healed the sick, proclaimed the word, and exorcised demons. The crowds are beginning to form, it seems as though it is reaching a fever pitch of excitement. Everyone who hears of his healings and exorcisms wants a part of it. They want a part of this miracle worker.
He teaches with authority, he heals the sick, even spirits obey him.
He really is something else.
But Jesus retires away to pray. We can think that it has been done to refresh himself ready for the next day of healing and preaching. Ready for the ever growing crowds.
The fact that things aren’t going to plan is revealed at two points.
We hear of Simon and his companions hunting for Jesus. Not the disciples, but Simon and his companions. Mark here is showing us that at this point they aren’t acting as disciples, but rather are acting on behalf of the people. They have come with a request from the crowds:
"Everyone is searching for you."
Jesus answer tells us what is really going on:
"Let us go on to the neighbouring towns,
so that I may proclaim the message there also;
for that is what I came out to do."
All these healings, exorcisms, the preaching have done their job where he is. It is time to move on and proclaim elsewhere.
But it is more than this. Jesus is rejecting the crowds. He is rejecting the popularity. The excitement, the exorcisms, the healings, these were not his main purpose. This isn’t what he came to do. The day had really been a great strain and a disappointment to him. This was secondary stuff.
The primary stuff was to proclaim to proclaim the kingdom of God. This was primary. Healings and exorcisms were secondary.
The kingdom of god was primary. The effects and workings toward were secondary.
The healings and exorcisms are fine. There is nothing wrong with them, they are results of the coming kingdom. They are secondary, they aren’t the main purpose.
This is a difficulty we find ourselves today. We get ourselves confused between the primary and secondary issues of the kingdom. We worry about the roof on our church and place our energy on how to fix it. This may be important, but it is not the reason we gather. We can get ourselves tangled up with the secondary issues of church that we forget why we are even doing them.
We can even convince ourselves that we are proclaiming the Kingdom, when really we are doing secondary work. Meetings about who is on what team and who is going to make sure the accounts are up to date can feel like the primary work. But they aren’t. They are important, but they are only important in that they will help the proclaiming of the Kingdom of God.
Secondary issues can seem to be very positive. Gaining a crowd at church and the ways we do that are important, but this too is secondary. The primary purpose of anything we do is to proclaim the good news. The crowd may gather, but unless the kingdom is proclaimed, we are caught up in secondary issues.
This is tricky stuff. There are so many things that feel like they are the important part of our work, but they are secondary to what we are really about. Maybe these secondary issues are like the demons Jesus was exorcising. They are there keeping us from what we are meant to be doing. They tell us that synods, meetings, and administration are what we need to do. It is nonsense. In reality they are things that keep us from what we are about.
And this is why Jesus removed himself and prayed. He saw the crowds, he worked the miracles, and he saw that this was becoming primary in the minds of everyone. His mission was railroaded into the secondary. He removed himself from everyone to centre himself, to hear what the Father needed him to be doing.
When we gather to hear God’s word, we are doing the same thing. This is a time out of the ordinary, a time when we get to hear what it is we are supposed to be doing, hearing about the things that matter. As we go about our week, the secondary issues will come in. That is fine, and they are impossible to avoid. But the trick is to remember why we do them.