The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, St. Peter’s Church, Columbia, February 4, 2024

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mk. 1:35).

Our Gospel today is taken from the first chapter of Mark, from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We’ve been reading from this Gospel for the last several weeks but we’re still no further in than the first chapter. We’ve heard the story of Jesus’ baptism; his call of the first disciples; about his first sermon in Capernaum. We’ve also heard stories of miraculous healings and the casting out of demons, repeated again in our Gospel today. Binding it all together is Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom of God: As it says in that first chapter, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:14).

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry almost acts as an epitome of the whole Gospel, summing up Jesus’ work of teaching, preaching, and healing. It introduces us to the main themes of the Gospel. It prepares us for the clash with the powers of death, for the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is the culmination of his ministry, and the means of our salvation. What’s written briefly in this first chapter becomes fuller and fuller in what follows after.

So it’s significant that this first chapter gives us a glimpse of Jesus at prayer: of the Lord rising early after an exhausting day, and preparing himself for the next by going apart to pray. The rest of our reading is full of kinetic action, of Jesus going and doing, hither, thither, and yon, throughout the towns of Galilee. But Jesus’ departure in order to pray is different. It’s the step back from action in order to recharge and regroup, to find the grounding for everything else.

Prayer is, in essence, the conversation we have with God. It involves both speaking and listening. You may have heard that there’s a reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth: when it comes to prayer we probably need to spend twice as much time listening for God to speak as we do telling God what’s on our minds. Just as intelligent conversation requires us to listen carefully, so in prayer we have to listen for the voice of God. The Apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Philippians, “let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6), but that doesn’t mean prayer is a monologue. Remember the priest Eli, who told the child Samuel to pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).

In prayer, we listen so that we can hear the call of God. As he begins his ministry, Jesus is gathering his disciples; this first chapter is not only about the shape of Jesus’ ministry, but also about the disciples’ call from him. Jesus shows them how it’s done: by listening carefully to God, by going apart in order to pay attention to what God has to say. We’ve got our own ideas about how things are going to go, but God holds all time and place in his hand, and I’m pretty sure that this is decisive. We pray, “Thy will be done,” and whether we mean it or not that’s actually what happens. God’s will is done, no matter how puzzling and inexplicable it may be.

Prayer is also about relationship. We’re praying to Someone. Some of my prayers could be filed under the category of memos to the Head Office: “To whom it may concern!” But this isn’t prayer, which requires a Person. Our relationship with God is fundamental to who we are, the grounding for everything else.

St. Augustine prayed in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Conf. 1.1). God knows us better than we know ourselves; God “searches the heart” (Rom. 8:27), as it says in the Letter to the Romans. So the call that comes from God will be fit for purpose: we may not think we have the gifts but God would not call us if we were not, through grace, up to the task.

Three points about prayer to take away today. First, pay attention. Listen carefully to what God is saying. Prayer is a way of paying attention to what God is doing in the world. There’s a Someone out there who’s trying to get through to you, and what’s required is simply that: attention. Second, intention. Bring your will into accordance with God’s will, and form an intention to be obedient to the call. Make sure that what you do is rooted in your heart. Third, direction. Now’s the time for the move into action, to act in accord with the call. If we’re properly grounded, recharged and regrouped, then we can move out and get going. After all, that’s what Jesus does in our Gospel today, and what he calls the disciples to do. “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” (Mk. 1:29). Attention; intention; direction. God does not require success, but rather faithfulness to the call addressed to us.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee