Back in the 1950’s, A.W. Tozer decried many of the weaknesses he saw developing in American Christianity. One thing he preached about was the desire of American Christians for “shortcuts” to spiritual growth:
“In my creature impatience I am often caused to wish that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short, easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No such shortcut exists. God has not bowed to our nervous haste nor embraced the methods of our machine age. It is well that we accept the truth now: The man who would know God must give time to Him. He must count no time wasted which is spent in the cultivation of His acquaintance. He must give himself to meditation and prayer hours on end. So did the saints of old, the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, and the believing members of the holy church in all generations. And so must we if we would follow in their train.” (A.W. Tozer The Pursuit of Man, p. 5)
Tozer reminded us that time with God is THE key to spiritual growth. A couple of weeks ago, we saw that worshiping God and spending time with Him was the single most important thing that any of us can do. If that’s true, then we need some instruction on how to do it. And that is what we find from the life of Jesus here in Mark 1:35:
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.”
Jesus models for us here several important elements of a morning devotion time with God:
I. You need a certain TIME
Jesus had a time: “In the early morning, while it was still dark …”. Those words, “in the early morning, while it was still dark,” are important. This was the first thing Jesus did, “early” in the morning. It was the most important thing He did — because everything else He would do later in the day would be determined by this.
As we read earlier in the passage, Jesus had been ministering to people at Simon’s house until very late the night before. People were crowding in. Everyone probably assumed that He would continue this successful ministry there. But as we read here, He didn’t. After His disciples found Him, Jesus said in :38, “Let us go somewhere else, to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for.” Jesus did NOT do what everybody thought He would. After He spent time with the Father, He got the specific direction that they were to move on instead.
This is one of the reasons why we need to spend time with God first thing in the day — because our time with God will change everything else we do that day. People say, “Well, I spend time with God before I go to bed.” Hey, that is good. We can and should spend time with God all through the day:
— Psalm 119:164 says “I will praise you 7 times a day”
— I Thessalonians 5 says we are to “pray without ceasing.”
So pray and spend time with God all through the day; that’s good. But make sure that whatever else you do, you spend time with God first thing in the morning — because it will impact everything else you do in the day.
Ephesians 6 says we are in a spiritual battle every day: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood …”. So we are to put on the spiritual armor of God, and PRAY. When do you put your armor on? Before you go in to a battle, or after? BEFORE, right? So we need to spend time with God BEFORE we go into the battles of the day; to put our “armor” on for the day; to pray for the people we love who will be facing the battles of the day, and to get God’s leadership and direction and power for the day. It is vital that we begin the day like Jesus did: with our time with our Heavenly Father first.
David said in Psalm 5:3 “In the morning O LORD, You will hear my voice; in the morning I will order my prayer to You …”. It was David’s commitment that God would hear his voice every morning — and it needs to be our commitment too. Give God FIRST place in your life every day, by giving Him the very first part of your day. For most of us, that means we need to set a time to get up.
— If you have to be at work at a certain time, you set your alarm for it.
— If you have an appointment at the hospital, you set your alarm for it.
— And if you are going to meet with God, you need to set a time for it, and set your alarm, or do whatever you need to, to keep that time with Him.
When I was pastoring at my first church, we did my first class of MasterLife, a discipleship class which teaches how to walk with God every day. Some of you have had it, and I may be teaching it here in the days ahead. But in this first class we had a man who was very faithful in his first weeks of the class — every week he would share about what he had read, and how he was spending time with God every day. But then all of the sudden, one week he said, “I blew it; I had a terrible week. I didn’t read anything all week.” I was shocked! He had been doing so well. I asked him, “Homer, what happened?” And he said, I work hard every day, and have to be out early. So I know if I am going to spend time with God, I have to set my alarm for 5:00 every day to get that in — and I have been doing it, as you know. But last week, I was on vacation. So I didn’t set my alarm. I thought: ‘I’ll just have it when I wake up.’ But then I slept in late, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll have it after breakfast.’ And then we’d go out and do something with the family or whatever and I thought, ‘I’ll read my Bible after lunch.” But I was sleepy and took and nap, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll read it before I go to bed’ — but then then I kept falling asleep, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll get up tomorrow and do it …’ — and it was like that day after day, every single day last week.”
See, when he had a certain time to get up, he was very good at spending that time with God. But when he didn’t; it was so easy to miss it. That’s why we need a certain time. Set your alarm; make it your commitment to spend time with God first thing every day, to get His power and direction for the day, just like Jesus did.
II. You need an appropriate PLACE
This verses says “Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place.” Jesus knew if He was going to spend the time with God that He needed, that He had to be alone, away from all the people and distractions they had in Simon’s house. The PLACE for His time with God was important.
It’s easy to see how important the place you have your time with God is, isn’t it? It needs to be a quiet place; where there is no tv, and no distraction. It needs to be away from other people, who might bother or interrupt you. Jesus said in Matthew 6:6, “when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father.” You need a place.
For some people, that “place” could be a chair in your office, or at a desk. Some people make a little “prayer bench” or something like that. Jesus went out to “a lonely place” — prayer walking can be a good way to do your prayer time; I’ve done that a lot. (Prayer walking also has the added benefit of keeping you awake! One of the difficulties of prayer is falling back asleep; especially if you’ve had to set your alarm to get up early like we talked about. It can be hard to stay awake. But I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep walking!) So walking out by yourself can be a great way to pray. I might begin by reading a Psalm, or maybe my daily Bible reading, and then go out and prayer walk, and then come back and finish my Bible reading. Or whatever the plan is. But the important thing is: have a quiet place — away from the tv, people, and as many distractions as possible.
I am not a Stephen King fan, but I did read his book about writing. In it he talks about the importance of having a place where you are not distracted, in order to be a successful writer:
“If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. … But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door.”
(Stephen King, On Writing, pp. 156-157)
If it is important for a writer, it is even more important for us in our time with God. It needs to be a place where we can “eliminate every possible distraction.” We need that specific place.
Now my wife Cheryl says her favorite part of this passage is :36-37, where it says that Simon and the other disciples went out and found Jesus. She says, “This is just like having kids. You try to have your quiet time, but the kids will always go out and find you, like Jesus’ disciples did! You can even go to the bathroom, and close the door, just to try to get a couple of minutes away, but soon you’ll see their hands reaching under the door, while they call out ‘Mama! Mama!’”
So it can be hard at certain times of life to get that time alone with God every day. Especially mothers of preschoolers and children. Cheryl said it seemed like whatever time she’d set her alarm for, our son David would wake up 5 minutes earlier, and there went her quiet time. It’s hard. She said to some extent, she felt like she lived off her last few years of Bible reading and prayer before she had kids, and just added enough to “survive” during her child-rearing years. And she says the key is just to get some time with God whenever you can. If you’re a young mom in our church, wrestling with your time with God, talk to Cheryl. She has been there, and she can give you some tips — or at least a sympathetic ear!
I read where Suzanna Wesley, the mother of John & Charles Wesley, who raised 10 children, would just cover her head with an apron, and the kids knew that mama was talking to God, and were not to bother her. (I guess you might be tempted to just stay under that apron all day!)
The point is, there are times when it is hard, and you’ve just got to do the best you can. But as much as is within your power — and for most of us, it IS within our power — set a TIME to meet with God each day— and the best time is whatever for you is first thing in the morning, so you can start your day by worshiping God, and getting His power and direction for the day ahead.
III. You need a PLAN or procedure
So when you meet with God first thing, what are you going to DO in that time alone with Him?
It says here that Jesus was “praying.” So certainly you want to pray. Praying is how we talk to God. There is a lot to learn about how to pray. Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, and He gave them The Model Prayer in Matthew 6. We’ll talk some more about this later, but we need to see that this Model Prayer is NOT a “script” Jesus gave us to pray back to God, but it’s an OUTLINE of the things God wants us to talk with Him about when we pray. For example:
— It begins by praising God: “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” So it is teaching us to begin our prayers with praise and Thanksgiving. This is just what Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise.”
— Then we pray about the things of God’s kingdom (His church, His ministers — here is where you can pray for your pastor, please!); His missionaries and mission works — all the things of His kingdom.
— Pray for areas of His will to be done, including what you have to do in the day ahead. Not what you want to do, but HIS will for the day. This is where I prayerfully make a list for the day, that what I do would be His will, and that He would bless the works of my hands that day as I do His will.
— Then “give us this day our daily bread” — that means pray for needs, for yourself and others.
— Then you spend some time asking forgiveness for your sins, and not to be led into temptation to sin.
As I said, we’ll look at this outline Jesus gave us in the Model Prayer in more depth in the future. But suffice it to say, one of the most important things we are to do when we meet with God each morning, is to pray.
Psalm 5:3 says “in the morning, O LORD, You will hear my voice.”
A second thing, and it does not specifically mention it in this passage, but it is vital for us as we spend time with God, is to read His word.
We KNOW that Jesus was committed to the word of God. He said in Matthew 4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” We’ve got to see God’s word as more important in our lives than our food. It has got to be a priority to get it into our life every day.
When I was serving at our church in Tulsa, I preached one Sunday on how important it was to make God’s word our priority every day. After the service, I had a woman come up to me, and she said, “Shawn, I love the newspaper. I read it every morning, from cover to cover. That is just what I have done for years.” In fact, she said, if she went on vacation and missed reading the paper, she would come home, and gather up the papers from that missed week, and lay them on top of one another, and read them through in chronological order! Now THAT is loving the newspaper!
But that Sunday she came to me, and said, “I am going to change my morning habit. From now on, my motto is going to be: ‘No Bible; no newspaper.’ I will read my Bible first, and if I haven’t read my Bible, I will not read my newspaper.” And she made good on that commitment.
Some of us here today may need to make that same kind of commitment today. You might say like my friend Nancy, that you’ve been more faithful at reading the paper than praying or reading your Bible. Or you’ve been better at running, or going to the gym, or whatever your physical exercise is, than your spiritual exercises for the Lord. Or you’ve just had to watch that morning tv show — or whatever. And God’s convicting you this morning that you need to put HIM first. From now on, you’re going to have a time, a place, and a plan, every morning, that includes spending time in God’s word and prayer first.
IV. You need to be PERSISTENT
You need to be really committed and stick to it. And if you mess up and “drop the ball” and miss your time with God — just start back up again. Be persistent.
Jesus was relentless about His time with the Father. He had a horrendous schedule here in Mark 1. Can you imagine how late He had been up the night before, with all those people coming to Simon’s house so He could heal them? But as late as He stayed up, He still made time to get out and be with His Father first thing in the morning. That is persistence.
And we need that same commitment and persistence for our time with God. David said in Psalm 5:3, “In the morning, O LORD, You will hear my voice. In the morning, I will order my prayer to You, and eagerly watch.”
David’s commitment is just “dripping” in the words that verse: He says, “In the morning, O LORD, YOU WILL HEAR MY VOICE.” He says, it WILL happen! You WILL hear me. I WILL pray!
Thats the commitment that we need too. Listen, you are not going to spend time with God each morning unless you are committed to it. “The world, the flesh, and the devil” are all fighting against you, to keep you from having that time with God. I promise you, the LAST thing the devil wants you to do is to walk with God each day in His word and prayer. So he will do whatever he can to keep you from it. It is war. But you’ve got to realize that you are in a war, and fight the good fight. Be committed. Set your alarm. Get an accountability partner. “Just do it.” And when you fail (and we all DO fail) then pick yourself back up and get started again the next day. Proverbs 24:16 says a righteous man falls seven times, but rises again. You may fail a HUNDRED times, but you haven’t really failed as long as you start back up again the next day. Be persistent, and keep at it, until it is the most important habit in your life, which is what it should be.
V. Most of all, remember the PERSON you are meeting in that time every day.
Verse 35 says Jesus “was praying there.” WHO was He praying to?
This is important. Someone may say, “Well, I guess He must’ve been praying to Himself, because He was God, right?” This is where an important doctrine comes into play, a doctrine which has been neglected by many modern American Christians: the doctrine of the Trinity. Biblical Christians believe that God exists eternally as three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t come into existence at Bethlehem. He has always existed as God the Son.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have always had a relationship with each other; THE perfect love relationship. God didn’t create us to have somebody to love; He already had perfect love in the fellowship of the Trinity. Rather God created us to know Him and to invite us to share that perfect fellowship of love He already had in the Trinity.
The problem came about, that we sinned, and our sin separates us from fellowship with a holy, holy, holy God. Unforgiven sinners can’t know God, and can’t go to heaven.
That is why God the Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth: to die on the cross, and pay for our sins. I Peter 2 says “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross”, so our sins could be paid for, and the barrier between us and God would come down.
So now, if we repent of our sins and trust our lives to Jesus (like we talked about last week) we can be forgiven, the barrier between us and God will come down, and we can know Him, and have a relationship with Him.
We will have that perfect relationship with Him forever in heaven. But here’s thing: we don’t have to wait to get to heaven to start that relationship. We start it NOW, the moment we ask Jesus to be our Savior, His Holy Spirit comes into our life, and we begin to know Him. And the way we learn to know Him, is by spending this time with Him every day in His word and prayer:
— we talk to God in prayer
— He speaks to us in His word.
THAT is what this daily time is supposed to be: meeting with God. It’s not just some “religious thing” we do. We are spending time with God Himself.
Don’t ever want to lose this focus that it is the THE PERSON OF GOD that you are meeting in your morning devotion.
— You are not just “reading your Bible.”
— You are not just “saying some prayers.”
— You are meeting the Person of God! When you say your prayers, you are taking to God. When you are reading His word, you are hearing directly from Him. Make sure you keep it about that relationship with Him.
Smart phones and social media can be a good thing: it is good to be able to keep in touch with people — both here and around the country. I can still see what is going with my family, and former church families, even though I am halfway across the country from them. But it is also possible to get so caught up in the phone, or the media, that we neglect our relationships with people. We’ve all seen couples who were out on a what was supposed to be a “date,” to spend time with each other — but they were each looking at their smart phone instead of paying attention to each other, which is what they were supposed to be there for in the first place!
And it can be the same with us and the Lord too. It is possible to get all caught up in the techniques of “Bible study”, or following the right outline or prayer, or the mechanics of the daily devotional time, or whatever — and neglect what we are really there for in the first place: to meet with the Person of God Himself!
Every morning when I walk into my office at home to have my worship time, I try to remind myself: I am here to meet with God! I often quote Psalm 85:8, “I will hear what God the Lord will say.” I am there to HEAR HIM. I am there to talk TO HIM.
Don’t ever lose that focus. Do all of the things we talked about today, that Jesus modeled for us:
— Make sure you have a certain time
— Prepare a specific place
— Have a plan or procedure for what you are going to do
— Be persistent and keep at it
But more than anything else: DO NOT FORGET WHO YOU ARE THERE TO MEET WITH! You are there to meet with the Person of God. He created you to live with Him forever in heaven, but you can begin to meet with right NOW, every day, in your own daily walk with God — just a foretaste here on earth, of what we will enjoy with Him forever in heaven.