If you have seen the movie Chariots of Fire you will surely recall the runner Eric Liddle, son of Scottish missionaries to China, deciding out of Christian conviction not to run on the Sabbath ”“ much to the consternation of the Prince of Wales and others rooting for a British victory in the 1924 Olympic Games.
To underscore his decision the film depicts him preaching at the Church of Scotland parish in Paris to a packed house as the Olympics march on without him. The text he reads is the same as ours this morning. I spare you my effort at a Scottish accent but let your imagination supply a brogue:
“He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.”
And not leaving out the verses: the nations are as a drop in the bucket – He brings princes to naught – Rulers are counted as nothing before him.
The clergy of the Presbyterian tribe get to choose their texts for preaching and on that occasion Liddle mounted the pulpit with heavy caliber ordnance.
In Mark’s Gospel, and especially its opening chapter, Jesus goes about his business with a resolve and a steadiness of purpose that makes even an Eric Liddle look weak by comparison. He routs demons. He heals. His teaching and his rapid movements are all executed with authority, greater than the greatest athletic discipline. The trainer Sam Mussabini tells Liddle’s fellow runner Harold Abraham he is over-striding and he can find him several seconds more. By contrast Jesus does not put a foot wrong. Step by precious step Mark chronicles a Jesus whose authority takes the form of magnetic and irresistible victories, without diminishing his compassion or his special concern for the weak, including this morning a mother-in-law with a fever in a one room house in Galilee.
“Have you not known, have you not heard, he gives power to the faint, and lifts up the lowly.”
He lifts her to new life as he lifts us all into a new realm he calls the kingdom of God. Which is wherever he is, speaking his word of life.
There is something ominous then when Mark records that while it was still very dark Jesus withdrew to, as our translation has it, “a lonely place.” “Lonely” is fine, but the word means desert. A deserted place. His withdrawal creates an anxiety on the part of the disciples who then hunt him down. Upon finding him, they offer meekly it is all the others who are asking for him. The desert did not seem the proper next destination for this man showing himself to be unlike other men.
Several things require noting in Mark’s Hemingway-like prose. The desert is often the place of solitary and difficult decision making: for Moses in the wilderness, for Elijah wrapped in his mantle, for John the Baptist. It is a place of testing, a word which in the bible means ”˜road testing’ ”“ seeing what one is made of deep down inside. “Push her ”˜til the bolts rattle.” Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by Satan. The Prophet Isaiah is speaking to people in the desert, “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Apart from table grace at a meal for 5000, only twice does Jesus pray in Mark’s Gospel. Here in the desert place and in Gethsemane.
To the degree that Jesus is so publicly successful in all he does, he knows his cover has been blown. It belongs to the heart of Mark’s depiction that Jesus must command silence or at least””for those he tutors””great care in understanding who he is and where God intends to take him. So after a full day in Capernaum and with little sleep he rises before everyone and goes into the desert place to pray.
The Prophet Isaiah speaks of questioning hearts, of weariness, of desert places. Jesus does not avoid these places as he marches through his own Galilean backyard. He confronts sickness and bondage and need, publicly and with great power. But his greatest display of power is entering the desert place and determining through prayer it will not have the last word. The same prayer we will see in Gethsemane is costly fellowship with his heavenly father, whose will it is he loves to do, in spite of the cost, above all else. “Let us go on, for this is why I have come out.” This is why I am here.
In one of her more penetrating insights, Dorothy Sayers put it this way (adapted):
[blockquote]Jesus of Nazareth was not a demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. Yet he was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”””he was God.[/blockquote]
This is not a pious commonplace. For what it means is this: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is””limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death””God had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought all that just the point.
Such is the character of God, and of God’s love.
Mark’s craft is subtle. He strings three scenes together – A swift healing – A global casting out of demons and all the sick of the town – And then a withdrawal to the desert to pray. The first two are not more dramatic than the third. Jesus has authority. Power to heal and release from bondage. But his power is not allergic to poverty, but is made perfect in poverty.
The soaring rhetoric of Isaiah rings from the pulpit with energy and authority as the defiant Liddle prepares to address the Sabbath crowd. But the film-maker shrewdly lets the backdrop of all that be, not a champion’s podium, or a gold medal ceremony, but instead all the agony of hard work, drudgery, and defeat. We see the kindly Aubrey Montague, covered in mud, exhausted, hands on his knees searching for breath, the hurdles having defeated him – Harold Abraham collapsing in a heap, having been badly beaten in the grueling 200 meters by Americans Shultz and Paddock.
We all want to live a life without pain or sorrow, and properly discipline ourselves for victories, hard won, and rich in their rewards. But inside us and around all of us is sickness, and bondage, and fear; things larger ourselves, and yes seasons of defeat. Desert places.
“Spirituality” is a popular idea today, yet the Bible has no word for it. Still, the psalms and Isaiah know what the word is getting at. ”˜They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.’ To wait upon the Lord in expectation of renewal is the discipline of spirituality. We must wait, must learn to wait on God, because God is doing things in and through our suffering and our fears and our struggles. Jesus goes into the desert place while it is still very dark. That image is crucial, set against all the drama of healing and exorcism, all the authority properly seen to make Jesus who he is; a man unlike any who walked among us; a man whose very word makes men drop their nets; who accepts the anxious searching of those he has chosen, because he will transform it and them.
It is his trip into the desert that is the pledge he will go the distance for you and me. There he will face the sure knowledge that his fame and his victories will lead to the Cross, and there he will pray for the resolve that empowers him to say: I am not returning for a ticker tape parade in Capernaum, but must go on to all the towns in Galilee before the night, and in time the final night, cometh. For that is why I came out.
To follow this Jesus today is not to be handed a GPS device. God will not protect us from what he will perfect us through. We might think that a grand idea were it not for the fact that he has done this very thing himself, in and through his own son.
When he was a man he played the man, and in him every desert place we are asked to go we find him there ahead of us.
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up as eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk on and not faint.”
The Reverend Canon Dr. Christopher Seitz is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe College, Toronto and Canon Theologian in the Diocese of Dallas