from Pete Williamson
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. - Mark 1:35
This verse came to serve as a challenge to me last year when we read it as part of a Mark Bible Study on campus. Here, the author seems to go to lengths to describe Jesus’ pursuit of isolation in his prayer. It is “very early”. That’s more than just early! There is no light. Like the author of Psalm 88, his only companion is darkness. He goes to a desolate place. There is no life here. It is clear from the following verses that he is awake before the disciples and is far away from them. He is alone.
This desolate place stands in stark contrast with the previous evening in Capernaum. The text describes the whole city coming to Jesus for healing and to be set free from the oppression of demons. Piles of people crowding in and around Peter’s house, hoping desperately that this healer who had caused a stir at the synagogue might show mercy upon their sick family member, their disturbed friend. The previous night, Jesus had given life to many. He had restored people to wholeness. He had silenced the voices of hatred that had been whispering lies into the minds of the oppressed.
But from this flurry of activity, Jesus fled into obscurity. From the thankful adoring crowds, Jesus went to the silent stones of the desolate place. For his mission, Jesus did not need to hear the voices of the masses who may rightly shower him with thankful praise, but the voice of his father, who told him to leave these crowds and preach in other towns.
Jesus had quickly become famous in Capernaum. He could have had a very successful ministry there. But in the desolate place, Jesus knew that his father had a bigger vision for him. In light of this, it was easy to leave Capernaum.
Upon healing a leper, Jesus suddenly gets propelled into regional fame. He became known in all the nearby towns. So not only does he flee the crowds at Capernaum, but he avoids any towns and returns to the place where he hears his father’s voice, the desolate place.
In our cultural moment, Jesus’ constant retreats away from the crowd seem to be poor uses of his opportunities. Whether it’s business, non-profit work, or ministry, we spend most of our time trying to gather people. Gather an audience, a clientele, a consumer base, a community for some purpose. The last thing to do once you have gathered people is to leave them!
So why is Jesus fleeing to desolate places? Because he has a mission that is much bigger than these crowds. He wants to set people free, to heal, to show people that the Kingdom of God is at hand. But if he enamors himself too much with these crowds, then they will force upon him an identity that is lesser than the identity that God gives him in the desolate place. The only ones in the crowd who have a glimpse of his significance are the demons, whose testimony Jesus is quick to silence. The crowds want him to be a healer, a teacher, a miracle worker, and perhaps even a messiah who can expel the Romans. The Father wants a servant who does not value his own life or status, but who will pour himself out like a drink offering, for the benefit of many. One who knows that his longevity is not in seeking to preserve his life, but in laying it down as a ransom, fully trusting in God’s resurrection power.
What does this mean for us? It should veer us away from the pursuit of success as the ultimate goal. Even if that success is for a good cause. Our ultimate goal ought to know fully our identity in God, and then act in the world in a way that is wholly consistent with that identity. How easy it is to chase success even if it costs those small compromises in our true purpose and identity! It can be especially easy if we are succeeding for some ‘good’ purpose, like running a successful non-profit, or proclaiming the Gospel. But the theoretical goodness of the outcomes is not a factor here. Our ultimate goal is to know fully our identity in God, and then act in the world in a way that is wholly consistent with that identity.
How can we know this identity in God? We need to flee from our successes and crowds. We need to go to the dark desolate places, even if we can only find those very early in the morning, and pray. We need to turn from the cheering crowds, the cheering performance indicators, and turn our faces toward God. Not once as an occasional spiritual getaway, but regularly, modelling ourselves on Jesus who never ceased seeking God in the desolate places.
Pete Williamson is a Deacon at Church of the Cross and a Campus Minister with InterVarsity with Harvard Grad Students. He lives in Somerville with his wife, Kelly, and son, Malachi. He’s from New Zealand, but he never talks about it.