What I Came to Do
Have you ever walked into a room, stopped short, and asked yourself, “What did I come in here to do?” It has happened to me plenty of times. I suppose I am not single-minded enough so that between getting up from my desk and arriving at the front desk my thoughts have moved on to some other task or priority, and for a split second (sometimes longer) I cannot remember why I got up in the first place. That happens to you, too?
On a more serious note, have you ever paused to take stock of your life – all the activities that you are involved with, all the people who surround you – and asked yourself, “What am I here for?” I suspect we have all asked that question at one time or another, probably with varying degrees of comfort about the answer.
When we take a close look at the gospel reading for today, we discover that we may be encountering Jesus in just one of those moments. In the story, it is still the same Sabbath day that we read about last week. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum and cast out a demon from a man there. In the evening, he retired to the home of his good friend and disciples, brothers Andrew and Simon. Upon arrival, Jesus found Simon’s mother-in-law to be sick with fever, so he took her by the hand and healed her. (What a powerful symbol in the flu season where we all walk around afraid to touch anyone!) As the sun set and the Sabbath came to close, the whole town came knocking on Simon’s door, looking for Jesus to cure what ailed them. In the wee hours of the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus left Simon’s house and went off by himself to pray.
It seems to me that we are prone to think of Jesus’ solitary prayers as sweet, peaceful times But Mark gives us a different idea about Jesus’ prayer on that Sunday morning. Mark says that Jesus went off to a deserted place. The Greek word is eremon. We also translate the word “wilderness.” Within in this first chapter of Mark, we have already seen two deserted places, two eremon: the wilderness on the edge of the Jordan River where John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing and the wilderness where Jesus was tempted for forty days by Satan after his own baptism. When the same word appears back-to-back in three different stories, the reader cannot help but make a connection: the time and place of prayer for Jesus was not simply a peaceful retreat; it was a wilderness time marked by temptation and transformation. The disciples went searching for Jesus while Jesus himself was searching for the answer to the question that plagues all of us from time to time, “What am I here for?”
Jesus’ ministry had taken on two different dimensions, both of them good: a preaching and teaching dimension in the synagogue and a healing dimension both in the synagogue and in the homes of his followers. Some commentators wonder if Jesus was searching to understand what shape his ministry should take. Was he here to preach? Or was he here to cast out demons and cure the sick? Which should he prioritize? Others wonder if Jesus was searching to know where he should carry out his ministry. He has found a home among the people of Capernaum, a place where he feels the warmth of friends that are like family, even as his own hometown of Nazareth rejects him (Mark 6). Perhaps Jesus is tempted to settle in at Capernaum and establish his own spiritual center for healing where the multitude will come to him. Perhaps he could have avoided all that trouble that would come in Jerusalem.
Some of this, of course, is speculation. We do not know what Jesus was thinking when he went off to pray in a deserted place. But we can be quite sure from Mark’s account that Jesus went off because he was really struggling with real questions that needed real answers, some of the same questions we struggle with today. When we have many competing allegiances in our lives, many of which are good and worthwhile, how do we know what God wants us to pursue? When we have many, many people – all of whom we care about – clamoring for our time and attention, how do we determine who gets the lion’s share of our care? When there are many sets of expectations for our lives, how do we know what God expects of us?
Rob Bell has a sermon illustration that I am particularly fond of. Some of you have heard it before. He tells the story of walking on the beach with his young son who is collecting shells and fragments of shells in his small hands. The boy sees a starfish floating the water just a few yards from the shore. The boy runs into the water, but then turns back, looking frustrated. Encouraged by his father, the boy runs in again and again turns back. After the third failed attempt, Rob says to his son, “Why don’t you go get your starfish?” And the boy, looking up at his father says, “Because my hands are too full of shells!” What do we do when we find ourselves like the little boy, too full of good little things to commit to the wonderful big thing that God has prepared for us?
First of all, we look to Jesus’ example of solitary prayer. I know it is advice that you have heard over and over. I have heard it over and over again, too. But I will tell you the truth, I need to hear it over and over again. When we spend time alone with the Lord in prayer, so many things about our divided, fractured lives become clear. Jesus left his time of solitude by saying to his disciples, “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.” The times when I have felt easily distracted or sidelined, the times when I did not know which way to go, are the times when my prayer life has not been as rich or as committed. When I am in regular conversation with the Lord, I have a much stronger sense of clarity about what I am here to do, in my work life, in my home life, and even in my social life.
Prayer is like exercise, it is a disciple that works, even if your heart is not in it one hundred percent. You do not have to feel like exercising to get in shape, you just have to do it. The same is true of prayer. Even half-hearted prayer, if kept up regularly, can begin to transform our hearts until the prayer is whole-hearted and our lives take on clarity of purpose that is rooted in God’s purpose for our lives.
Another answer to these big questions comes in the example of Simon’s mother-in-law. We never get her name, but after she is healed of her fever she begins to serve Jesus. The word for “serve” in Mark’s gospel is diekonei, and some like to think of her as the first deacon in the church. She is contrasted to her son-in-law who sits around idly as Jesus heals the crowds and then searches anxiously (and with a bit of a bossy attitude) when Jesus goes off to pray. Simon’s mother-in-law is grateful for the healing that she receives, and she expresses that gratitude in the form of service.
If we are wondering what we are really here for, if we are wondering how to prioritize the many competing allegiances in our lives, we might look to gratitude and service as complementary guidelines. In what ways have you experienced God’s power in your life? Where are the places that God has brought you healing? This may be physical, as is the case in our story, but it may also be the healing of a broken relationship or the healing of some emotional trauma in your life. Taking time for gratitude helps us remember that God is looking out for us, and that frees us to look out for and serve others. When you are seeking God’s direction for your life, consider whether the paths before you are self-serving or serve others. Simon’s mother-in-law reminds us that grateful service to others is the way of Jesus.
Most of us live busy lives with schedules that are too full. We wish for more balance even as our culture tells us that being busy equals being valuable. Most of us are more distracted than we would like to admit by all our gadgets, and this has produced something of a deficit in our ability to focus even when we are disconnected. Most of us are also seeking to hear God’s call and live faithful lives with a sense of purpose. While there is no prescription in Scripture for what a faithful purpose looks like in each individual life – yours will look different than mine – there is clear guidance for discerning “what you came to do.” When we take time for prayer, when we reflect with gratitude on God’s power at work in our lives, when we look for opportunities to serve, we can trust that God will use us to do the work of his kingdom on earth. And we remember that our friend and Savior, Jesus, has asked these same questions and will encourage us along our way. May it be so. Amen.