© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Simon and Andrew, James and John. That list of names is familiar. Two Sundays ago, we heard Jesus call out to those four fishermen and say, “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and became his disciples. But, over the last two weeks, they haven’t made it very far.
Actually, it hasn’t been two weeks for them, of course, but Mark’s frequent use of the word “immediately” makes it hard for us to tell how much time has passed between one episode and another. After they “immediately” dropped their nets and “immediately” left their father, they “immediately” appeared at the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath. But we know that the fishermen wouldn’t have been working on the sabbath, so at least a day or two must have gone by since they left their boats. However long it was, we read about what happened in the synagogue last Sunday, when Jesus, wielding his own spirit-enabled power, cast an unclean spirit out of another person.
This Sunday, Mark picks up right where we left off last week, with our hero and his companions exiting the synagogue and word of his new and authoritative teaching spreading “immediately” throughout the surrounding region. Although not much time has gone by, Jesus is beginning to make a name for himself, and now it’s time to build upon that success with a bold new missionary venture. So where does Jesus lead his new and faithful followers? Back home, to Simon and Andrew’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever.
I wonder if it occurred to the disciples that following Jesus was a lot less involved than I made it seem two weeks ago when I preached about bringing our whole lives with us as we follow Jesus into the kingdom of God. Instead of going out in search of new opportunities for ministry, Jesus and his disciples waited at home until those opportunities literally presented themselves at their door. As soon as the sun had set and the sabbath observance was over, the whole city, we are told, gathered at the entrance to the house. Throughout the evening and into the night, Jesus worked, healing the sick and casting out demons. When the night was over, perhaps after catching a few moments of sleep—we aren’t told about that—Jesus snuck away while it was still dark, in the wee hours, in order to pray.
When the disciples woke up, already there was a crowd standing outside with more sick and demon-possessed people for Jesus to heal. Everyone in the city and from the surrounding villages was looking for the miracle-worker, so the disciples went out hunting for him—a word that means more than just looking or searching but actually stalking him the way a hunter might stalk its prey. So urgent was the need back at the house that the disciples didn’t stop to consider that maybe Jesus wasn’t going back. It didn’t occur to them that the size of the crowd and the fruitfulness of the ministry back in Capernaum didn’t matter to Jesus. Jesus was focused on something else. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he said when they found him, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Something happened to Jesus while he prayed. We don’t know what he said or what God said in reply, but that time of prayer became a turning point—a moment of transition from the first chapter of his ministry to the next. Usually, I think of Jesus going out into that desolate place to pray in order that he might recover after a long night of exhausting work, but that probably says more about my own approach to prayer than Jesus’. Instead of seeking strength to meet the unending needs of those who waited at the door, he prayed in order to receive strength to respond to the needs of those that waited down the road.
This week, a friend and colleague asked whether that time of prayer might be less a time to recharge and more a time of agony like Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane. His question helped me discover that there are only three moments in Mark’s gospel account when Jesus stops to pray. This is the first, when he goes out early in the morning to pray before taking the message of God’s kingdom to some new places. The second comes in Mark 6, when, after feeding the 5,000 and sending the disciples across the sea to Bethsaida, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray by himself. After that, he walks across the water to meet the disciples who were struggling to make it to the other side. The third and final moment comes in Mark 14, when Jesus takes his disciples to Gethsemane, where he prays before being taken into custody by the religious authorities. Each time Jesus prays, he does so not in response to what has happened but in anticipation of the challenges that lie ahead. Is that how we pray? Is that how we approach ministry?
For Jesus, the success of his ministry was never measured in terms of diseases cured and demons cast out. If that were his focus, he never would have needed to leave Capernaum, where he and his disciples had a place to sleep, family and friends to support them, and a synagogue ready to hear him preach at any time. Instead, that time of prayer reminded him that the real fruit of his ministry always lay ahead, down the road, wherever God would lead him next.
What about us? What do we consider to be the measure of our success in ministry? Is it meals served and evictions prevented? Is it classes taught and prayers offered? Is it anthems sung and sermons preached? We are really good at what we do right here. We are a successful church. Our ministries help meet the needs of our parishioners and the members of the wider community. But what if following Jesus means doing more than that? What if being faithful means leaving those successes behind and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom to people who haven’t come up to our front door?
This isn’t an easy time to be trying something new. We can’t even do the things we’re good at right now. How in the world are we going to pick up and move on to new opportunities we haven’t even tried yet? And what if our efforts aren’t successful? What if we run into trouble or meet opposition along the way? Why not just stay put and focus on doing all those things we know how to do so well? Because following Jesus into the kingdom of God may start with the successes we already know, but he always leads us beyond them, into new opportunities for proclaiming the good news of God’s reign. We did not become followers of Jesus in order to stay put and wait for the kingdom to come and find us. We answered Jesus’ call because we believe that we find that kingdom by following him into the fullness of God’s reign.
I don’t know what is next for us. I don’t know what is waiting down the road. But I do know that, if we are going to be faithful, we can expect what lies ahead to come with great challenge and hardship. And I also know that, if we are going to find the strength we need to be faithful to whatever opportunities await us, we must commit ourselves to prayer. By that, I don’t mean the kind of self-assured prayer in which we tell God all of the things we would be comfortable doing in God’s name and ask God to make our best intentions prosperous. I mean the kind of risky prayer that puts our whole lives on the line and says to God, “I don’t know what you have in store for me, but I believe that you will use me for something better than I can imagine.” We had better be sure we mean those words before we say them. But, when that becomes our prayer—when we start seeking God’s strength to leave our successes behind and embrace the opportunities we haven’t even dreamt of yet—big things are going to happen.