First Presbyterian Church

of Hemet
Pulling Back 
February 4, 2018 
1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:29-39 
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off 
to a solitary place, where he prayed. Mark 1:35 
 
It’s been 40 years since I’ve ridden a horse. But I remember a key part of saddling up is getting the bit into the horse’s mouth. When properly positioned, it’s what slows down a horse. When you pull back on it, the horse slows. When you want to go faster you raise your voice and let the reins go loose. (A kick in the side sometimes helps, too.) When you want to slow down you give it the command and pull back on the reins. You have to know when to pull back. 
 
Jesus had just completed the first day of his public ministry. The Evangelist gave us a kind of “day in the life” of Jesus with a teaching at the synagogue, an exorcism of an unclean spirit, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and then more healing outside the door to Simon Peter’s house as night fell. Jesus was no doubt tired after such a long Sabbath.  
The Evangelist says “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Other translations say “a deserted place”, another “a remote spot.” I wonder how he got out the house without waking Peter, Andrew, James and John who were presumably sleeping in the same room. I wonder how early in the morning it was. All we know it was “still dark.” I wonder what he prayed about. 
 
This simple statement concludes with Simon Peter finding Jesus in the deserted place and telling Jesus “everyone is looking for you.” In effect, Peter is saying let’s get on with it. And Jesus agrees to go and says that his central mission at this point in his life is to preach to the nearby villages. 
A while back I heard a piece on the radio about 4am. They portrayed 4am as the loneliest hour of the early morning because if you cannot sleep there is little for you to do. You don’t want to wake other people up and interrupt their sleep. All of us have practices when we cannot sleep, like get a bowl of cereal, or cool down so the covers will feel so much better, or read a book. The suggestion sheet from my doctor says that after you’ve tried to go back to sleep for 20 minutes, get up and do something passive—don’t look at computer or TV screens, especially at 4am. 
 
I want us to notice that teaching, exorcism, healing and even being entertained by Simon Peter’s mother-in-law took energy out of Jesus. Depending on your assumptions about Jesus you will guess whether Jesus went out to pray to get his batteries recharged or simply to be alone. In the rest of Mark, this fast-paced, Greek-like drama, Jesus prays only six times—before he feeds the 5,000 and the 4,000, before he walks on the water, at the Sedar Supper which become the Lord’s Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Only once, before he walks on water, does it portray Jesus as going up to a mountaintop—a deserted place—to pray. The other times where around a meal or when he was in distress. Jesus prays as both a way to unload a burden and to recharge his batteries. 
I believe Jesus combined prayer with Sabbath. Jesus was intentionally pulling back. His soul is crying out, whoa Nelly, time to slow down. A Christmas carol we just sang says it well, “And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low/Who toil along the climbing way/with painful steps and slow/Look now! For glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing/O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.” In this story Jesus is resting beside the weary road 

I think Jesus was repeating what happened to him in his temptation where it says “the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness . . . and the angels attended him.” Was Jesus looking for angels when he got up early in the morning while it was still dark? 
 
You and I have an opportunity to follow Jesus on a weekly basis. It’s called Sabbath, which in Hebrew means cessation, as in cease and desist. Once a week we are commanded by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel to cease from our labors and give praise to God 

This past week I received a wonderful note by someone who I had invited to the new members class. He enclosed his note a copy of a sermon given by a Christian Reformed pastor. It was a sermon about paradise, or the next life. In it, he quoted from the catechism.  
 
So I looked up what one of our catechisms says about Sabbath. The Heidelberg Catechism is the most pastoral. After saying “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy” is the fourth commandment, it asks, What does God require in the fourth commandment? the answer is “first, that the ministry of the Gospel and Christian education be maintained, and that I diligently attend church, especially on the Lord’s Day, to hear the Word of God, to participate in the holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian service to those in need. Second, that I cease from my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” I know that’s 400 year old language and thought forms but did you hear that: Sabbath is both something we do—go to church, hear the Word, take Communion and give to those in need in Christ’s name—and it’s something we are—cease from doing evil, being open to the Holy Spirit and practice Sabbath every day of our lives. Sabbath is both an act and an attitude. 
 
The Seventh Day Adventist and the legalists can debate whether the Sabbath is the seventh day or the first day of the week. When I was growing up in a Christian home we could watch football on television on the Sabbath but not play football in the Pop Warner leagues. That was considered a desecration of the Sabbath. We also had a large family meal either at home or at a restaurant after worship to make the Sabbath special.  
 
But it takes the teaching of the Letter to the Hebrews, our ninth from the end of the New Testament and tightly argued letter to discouraged Christians to tell us that Sabbath is also a an attitude. “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for those who enter God’s rest also rest from their own work, just as God did from his [Hebrews 4:9,10].”  
I practice meditation on a daily basis from an Application called Daily Calm. Each morning a woman named Christa Tippett leads us in five minutes of deep breathing and then usually has us relax our attention and then talks about some aspect of meditation. She always leaves us with a quote. Thursday’s quote was: “Sometimes you need to step off the worn path, lay down with your eyes up the blue sky, interlock your fingers behind your head and let the grace grow up around you {Leo Christopher].” 
 
That’s exactly what Jesus was doing on Day 2 of his public ministry. He was getting off the worn path, of people’s need, evil’s sway, meals and interactions and found the only time to interlock his fingers behind his head was in “the wee small hours of the morning.” What did he find there? The Evangelist doesn’t tell us. We only know that he wanted to get back to work in the nearby villages upon the heels of slipping out of bed early in the morning. 
 
What does Sabbath look like for both students who are with us in the choir, and late working years and retired folk who are in the congregation. I’ve always believed in the maxim which now might be a little dated, “old age is not for sissies.” I think what that maxim is trying to say is that for all of us life is hard. I was helped twenty years ago with a little saying drawn out of a bowl full of aphorisms: “remember, everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle.” Living in an over 55 community does not make you immune from burnout, exhaustion, people wanting more of you than you can give, and just plain boredom.” So we come back to Sabbath as a way to invigorate our lives. 
 
I know of a small church in the San Gabriel Valley which put all of its committees on sabbatical for the six weeks of Lent. Maybe they even cancelled Session and Deacons—I don’t know, but it was the pastor and the Session’s way of saying “this time is different.” I know of another council, as we now call governing bodies, this time a presbytery, that put all of its standing committee except those required to meet on Sabbatical for one year after it came up with a new mission statement on retreat. The idea is “we need breathing space to re-imagine what God has in store for us for the next five years.” I left when they were in that Sabbatical year but that presbytery went on to a happy relationship with their new presbytery leader and to whole new directions. 
 
This church may need to declare a Sabbatical either before or after it is clearer about its mission. Remember, a Sabbatical is a time when you don’t just cease to do things. You also take on some spiritual disciplines, like weekly worship, Christian service and allowing the Lord to work in your through his Spirit. Sabbath is an act and an attitude.  
 
But we’ll have to be creative to have a good Sabbatical. In 2013 one church gave a pastor who had served them for 7 years a 10-week Sabbatical in which she went on retreat with her girlfriends and then took a five-week trip to the place where Christianity first came to Scotland, then to the place where Francis of Assissi renewed Christianity and then to a community in France which does more to bring Christians together in worship and learning than any other. She did something on her sabbatical, not just sit around and rest. And in many ways that has renewed her for the life she’s been living for the five years since her 10-week rest. 
 
There remains, then, a Sabbath rest, for the people of God. Your task, my task is to follow Jesus in this one specific way, to find a solitary or deserted place, and go there to pray. Don’t worry about what you’ll say, or do. Just make a point to find someplace—in your bedroom, in your living room, on the back patio, where you put yourself in a position to hear God’s still, small voice. That’s how you can go back into the fray and be effective. It all begins with finding the rhythm of exertion and rest, pulling back. Amen.