Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
"In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed." Mark 1:35
Last week we witnessed Jesus deliver his inaugural sermon in the Galilean village of Capernaum. Jesus entered the synagogue. He spoke the truth of the tradition of the Law and the Prophets. As a result of his teaching, unclean spirits tried to shout him down.
You may recall that for me the interesting aspect of this story is not what Jesus taught. Instead, I was more intrigued by the sages. The Bible doesn’t tell us what these traditional religious leaders were teaching. But whatever they were teaching, it apparently brought calm and comfort to unclean spirits. Whatever they were preaching, it made unclean spirits feel safe and secure.
Woe to the preacher who is so duplicitous, devious, and disingenuous that demons feel safe in your sanctuary.
Jesus comes with the vocal chords of virtue and a tongue of truth. This causes the unclean spirits to lash out. But even here the unclean spirit must acknowledge the truth of Jesus’s presence. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The truth may be inconvenient. It may make us uncomfortable. It might be inopportune. And the truth is disadvantageous to the demons of deceit among us. But as the man with the unclean spirit experienced, no matter how comfortably deceit reigned in their community, the truth is still the truth. And the truth will set us free.
This week’s gospel lesson picks up where the story left off. Jesus leaves the synagogue serenaded by the crowd. Jesus leaves the synagogue a champion of the people. He leaves the synagogue adorned by the chants of their praise. His reputation is on the rise. It’s early in his ministry, but Jesus’s prestige, prominence, and popularity are on the upswing. The people appreciated his ability to speak truth to power in the synagogue. The people were impressed by his capacity to speak with authority on behalf of the least, the left out, and the left behind. And if these attributes weren’t enough, they are now overwhelmed by Jesus’s internal medicine.
Jesus enters a house with his disciples. Here Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with fever. Jesus raised her up from her sickbed, and a healing revival broke out. The writer says that all through the night the whole city gathered at the door. Jesus healed varying diseases one-by-one. Early in the morning, before the break of day, the Bible says that Jesus got up, went out to a deserted place, and he began to pray.
In the middle of the healing celebration, Jesus pulls away. With admirers and onlookers crowded at the door, Jesus pulls away. Jesus pulls away to search out a place of prayer and supplication. He pulls away to seize some time for communion and contemplation.
The writer of Mark says that he goes to a deserted place. Biblical scholars note that there were no deserts around this Galilean village. So, it is more appropriate to interpret this text as Jesus went to a “lonely place.” Again, an ironic contrast. Jesus is surrounded by an adoring crowd. He is admired and appreciated. He is prized and popular. Yet Jesus withdraws to a lonely place. He pulls away from the adoration and onlookers to seek out silence and solitude.
I think you and I can learn a lesson from Jesus here. There comes a time where we must all pull away from the comfort of the crowd and titillation of all things popular. There are times when we must suspend our social calendar and keep at bay our constant amusements. With so many distractions, diversions, interferences, and interruptions, when do we ever have time to sit with God? When do you and I ever have time to sit with ourselves?
Let me admit that I am the chief of all sinners here. At any waking moment of the day, you can find me reading from a Kindle while listening to music from my computer, engaged in a text conversation on my iPhone, while checking football scores on my apple watch. Some have accused me of having the attention span of a two-year-old. This is why I know the importance of carving out time at least twice per day to do nothing but sit in silence. Time away from the hustle and bustle. Time away from buzzing and pinging. Time to let our minds be at rest so that we can talk to God, but more importantly, God might talk to us! Pulling away is important.
I wonder if something else is going on here. Jesus could have remained to relish in his popularity. He could have stayed to ingest the aroma of his celebrity. He opted to go to a lonely place. I suspect that Jesus chose to do willfully what he knew was coming inevitably. For Jesus understood that there will always come a time when we must choose between popularity and responsibility. There will come a moment when we must choose between fidelity to our call and the mere pursuit of fame.
This is an inconvenient truth that Jesus accepts early in his ministry. If we are going to commit to moral principle rather than a mere profession, then we should prepare to walk alone sometimes.
Jesus came with a mission. He laid it out to the sages in the sanctuary. He demonstrated compassion to the people at Simon Peter’s house. But I am confident Jesus realized an inconvenient truth. Though some may appreciate, applaud, and admire the principles he professes today, the second he starts teaching the personal implications of those ideals, commendations can turn quickly into denunciations.
Let me see if I can give you an example. Ask Moses. When Moses showed up on the scene speaking truth to power, it was inconvenient for the power structure of Egypt. Unclean spirits jumped out to silence him. And the people celebrated. But what happened once they exited Egypt? What happened when they had to count the costs of their freedom? The people began to grumble. Appreciation turned to criticism. Adoration turned to a complaint. Moses found himself in a lonely place.
Ask Jeremiah. Jeremiah will tell you that he earned the nickname “the weeping prophet” honestly. When political corruption started to tear the nation apart, Jeremiah sounded the moral alarm. When enemies from the outside started exploiting corruption from the inside, Jeremiah spoke the inconvenient truth. But soon everyday people—not just corrupt kings and queens—but those the prophet cared the most about, his flock, labeled him the prophet of doom and gloom. “Why do you have to be so negative, Jeremiah? Other prophets are telling us that all will be well real soon — as soon as we get a new king, we’ll be fine. But you are telling us to look at ourselves? Stop being such a buzzkill!”
One day they celebrated Jeremiah. He had courage. He had candor when talking about those folk over there. The next day they excoriated him for daring to hold his own community to the same standard of honesty and integrity. That’s the inconvenient nature of truth. It is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. Thus, Jeremiah found himself in a lonely place.
And in prayer, God may have revealed to Jesus visions of his future. “Don’t get high on the contact smoke of compliments, Jesus. The same people who sing your praises when you seem to be on their side, are the same ones who will try to punish you when truth seems to land you on the other side.” That’s the problem with the truth. It doesn’t pick a side. Truth and righteousness reside above our puerile allegiances and petty affiliations. This is why the same crowd that will exalt and honor you when you heal is the same crowd that will deny you when the cross of suffering appears. The same truth that will cause some to celebrate you in Capernaum will land you on a cross at Calvary. The cross of truth that we must bear will put us in a lonely place.
This is the inconvenient truth that emerges from this text. This is the moral lesson for all of us today. Like Jesus, we should all be okay being out of favor sometimes. We should all accept that there will be times when we are ostracized and execrated. If you live well enough and long enough, one day you will be detested and despised for doing right. But this is what it means to live a life of principle rather than power. This is what it means to live a life of conviction rather than just seeking a life of comfort.
We must make difficult decisions and contentious choices. So start practicing now. Find your lonely place. Here God can restore us. God can comfort us. And God can encourage us.