The last time I was in China, I visited the grave of one of my hero’s. Robert Morrison’s mortal remains lie in a small churchyard in Macau, just across the Pearl River from Hong Kong. Robert grew up in an austere Scottish Presbyterian home. When he told his parents he wanted to become a missionary, they were distraught. His mother insisted young Robert promise that he would not go abroad while she was still alive. Robert obeyed and waited till she had died before beginning theological studies at the Gosport Academy. The London Missionary Society accepted Robert in 1805. He then continued his studies in medicine, astronomy, and Chinese. When his father fell seriously ill, his brother and sisters pleaded with him to return. He loved his father, but wrote this letter,
“Honoured father, brother, and sisters… the account of my father’s leg growing worse and worse concerns me; but what can I do? I look to my God and my father’s God… You advise me to return home. I thank you for your good intentions; may the Lord bless you for them. But I have no inclination to do so; having set my hand to the plough, I would not look back. It hath pleased the Lord to prosper me so far, and grant me favour in the eyes of this people”.
In 1807 he was ordained and sailed for Canton or Guangzhou (pronounced Gawnszoh) as it is today. He was just 25. Two years later he met and married Mary. Their first child John, born a year later, died at birth. Two more children followed. Mary became pregnant again but died in childbirth along with the child. Despite his grief and loneliness, Morrison wrote home,
“He (the missionary) should endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. To complain of difficulties inseparably connected with the work, is unworthy of him.”
Robert died in 1834 aged 52. In 27 years in China, Robert baptised just 10 believers – about one every 3 years. Was the pain and suffering worth it? It depends on one’s perspective and priorities.
In these opening verses of Mark’s Gospel we encounter what Mark Galli describes as “Jesus: Mean and Wild”. He writes,
“Nearly everywhere we turn, in the gospel of Mark … we find a Jesus who storms in and out of people’s lives, making implicit or explicit demands and, in general, making people feel mighty uncomfortable.”
For example, Jesus “sternly charges” or “strictly orders” people he heals (Mark 1:43; 3:12; 5:43; 8:30); he looks upon religious leaders with “anger” and “grief” (Mark 3:5). He destroys a herd of swine while showing no regret, providing no compensation to the owner (Mark 5:1-20); He overturns the money tables in the Temple in a moment of rage (Mark 11:15-17); He rebukes Peter as demonic (Mark 8:33). He is “indignant” with the disciples (Mark 10:13-14). He says the Sadducees are biblically and spiritually ignorant (Mark 12:24), He describes his entire generation as “faithless” (Mark 9:19). Jesus repeatedly makes it clear that following him will entail suffering and death (Mark 9:35-37, 43-50). On one occasion, his ‘appeal’ to the crowds included this promise,
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35).
I wonder how many takers there were that day. In our gospel reading from Mark 1:29-39, we are given an insight into Jesus priorities. The verses describe a typical day in the life of Jesus. What were his priorities?
“That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” (Mark 1:32-34)
Picture the scene. “The whole town gathered at the door”. Hundreds of distressed people were gathering around Peter’s home. The noise and commotion must have reached a fever pitch as people jostled to get near the door. Why did people wait till after dark to come? Because it had been the Sabbath. The day began at 6:00am and ended at 6:00pm. The Sabbath was considered over when three stars were visible in the sky. So when the sun had set, and the stars were beginning to glow, people carried their sick and suffering relatives to see Jesus. Jesus appears from the door, and is immediately surrounded by the sick and dying. Jesus heals many, one person at a time. He drives out many demons too.
It is by now late into the night and at some point Jesus retires, exhausted. Many go home, reluctantly, disappointed or perhaps they camp out nearby. The desperate ones will be back at dawn. What would you expect Jesus to do? What were his priorities?
1. Spending Time Alone with God
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”
Remember Jesus had got to bed late. The evening surgery had began at sunset, yet Mark tells us Jesus got up while it was still dark, left his warm bed, and went out to a cold solitary place to pray to the Father. We don’t know what he prayed. What is more instructive is the fact that he got up in the early morning while it was still dark, and found a place to be alone to talk to the Father. If Jesus felt he needed to do it, how much more …. do we. Free from distractions, like the phone, emails, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Can you cope with that? Being alone with God? In silence? When I was single and I lived alone I was very punctual at having a quiet time before breakfast. Then there was a 25 year interlude called family. Now I have to use my watch to vibrate to remind me when to go to bed (10:30pm) and when to wake up (6:30am) to have my quiet time.
We are all wired differently but there is nothing more important than to cultivate our personal relationship with God the Father, in times of solitude, with an open Bible, in prayer. Because as God’s word is read, God’s voice is heard. When better, than at the beginning of the day? I know that if I don’t make time before I begin my day, I will never find the time afterward. And the precious opportunity to commune with him is lost. Like Jesus, make it your first priority.
Jesus first priority? Spending time alone with God. Second priority:
2. Training the Disciples for Mission
“Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”(Mark 1:36-38)
Simon is exasperated. Notice the exclamation mark in the text. There’s even a hint of criticism in his response when they eventually track Jesus down to a lonely spot some away from the village. The people have been gathering again. There is great anticipation and expectation in the air. “Everyone is looking for you.” could be roughly translated,
“You’re late for your surgery Dr Jesus. The waiting room is packed out and your playing havoc with the appointments we’ve made for you. Please hurry up. Everyone is so excited at what you’re going to do for them today, but your delay is very embarrassing for our public image.”
The tone suggests that after a night of prayer, Jesus would have been a little more compassionate toward the crowds of sick and dying gathering in the village below. But no, the disciples were in for a shock. A rude awakening. Gently but firmly Jesus explains the agenda for the day. Jesus wasn’t going back to heal the rest. It was time to move on. Jesus would not be deflected from his priorities. Notice Jesus says “Let US go”. Because this was a group training exercise. Training the disciples played a vital part of Jesus ministry. That is why he invested so much time with them alone, away from the crowds. He took time to explain his actions, explain his parables, answer their questions, prepare them for a future without him. Succession planning played a significant part of Jesus three-year ministry. Jesus knew it would only be as His disciples embraced and passed on his priorities to others that the world would hear the gospel. The word “Christian” is much devalued.
I prefer the term “Christ follower” because a Christian is – a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Maturity does not come by accumulating more and more knowledge about God. Maturity comes by reproducing ourselves. Becoming spiritual parents. Jesus priorities must determine our own. Jesus first priority? Spending time alone with God. Jesus second priority? Training the Disciples for mission. And His third priority?
3. Teaching the Good News of the Kingdom
“Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.” (Mark 1:38-39)
Jesus came to preach that the Kingdom of God was near because the servant king had arrived. Jesus cast out demons because they stood in the way of people hearing and responding to that message. Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead to authenticate his claims to be the Messiah, just as the scriptures predicted. His miracles of healing and deliverance caused great interest but they were not his priority. In fact, often the miracles got in the way because people sought health and wealth rather than forgiveness and eternal life. It is important to stress that Jesus didn’t use healings as a means of evangelism. What does he say to the healed leper in Mark 1:43? “Don’t tell anyone.” What does he say to the evil spirit in 1:25? “Be quiet” Again in 1:34 he wouldn’t let the demons speak, because they knew who he was…. Jesus knew who he was, the demons knew who he was, but the people didn’t yet understand what kind of Saviour he would be. So Jesus would not to let the demons lead people astray. Why had Jesus come?
“Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1:38).
Jim Packer, the author of ‘Knowing God’, said this,
“Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers – in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats.”
Jesus came to teach and fulfil God’s purposes revealed in scripture because the Word of God reveals the will of God. Through scripture, Jesus led people back into a right relationship with God. He came to call people to repent of their sin and trust in Him. He came to die in our place, to ransom us, to redeem us, to reconcile us to God, all in fulfilment of the scriptures. And when Jesus was crucified, how many followers did he have? What had he achieved? He left behind only a handful of disciples, entrusting them with responsibility for what?
“Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Jesus commanded them to take the gospel to the entire world by reproducing themselves. Think about the enormity of that. That is why we are here. That is why Robert Morrison went to China. What did he accomplish? In 27 years of ministry, he baptised just 10 new believers. But he was a pioneer. The first Protestant missionary to China. In his spare time he translated the entire Bible into Chinese. He founded the first theological college in China, the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. By the time he died in 1834, through his efforts, China possessed a Bible; a grammar of the Chinese language; translations of the Book of Common Prayer and other Christian texts; many shorter works on Chinese history, culture, literature; a history of Christian missions among the Chinese; a vocabulary of the Cantonese dialect; and a handful of indigenous disciples trained, resourced and dedicated to proclaiming the good news.
By God’s grace, Robert established the foundation of the Church in China. A Church that survived the Boxer Revolution when all foreign missionaries were either killed or expelled. A church that survived the Japanese invasion and internment camps during the Second World War. A church that multiplied under Communist persecution. A church today of more than 40 million members – larger indeed than the Communist Party. A church that has not only survived, but flourished, against which the gates of hell cannot stand.
Jesus Priorities were really very simple: Build, Send, Win. Talking with God the Father, training the disciples for mission, and teaching people how to enter the Kingdom of God. Win – Build – Send. These were the priorities of Jesus. And by God’s grace, may they remain ours too. Let us pray.
“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people, through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
(The Book of Common Prayer)