Early in the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus faced with an interesting dilemma. His ministry has been met with acclaim in a town called Capernaum. The people there have been awed by his teaching, and he has performed many healings and exorcisms. In the early morning after a full evening of ministry, we are told that Jesus “got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35b, NIV) The dilemma comes when his disciples come looking for him. They exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” (1:37) It seems that Jesus has an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the previous day.
The proper response to such news seems obvious: Jesus should take the opportunity for further ministry. God has blessed his efforts, and a door stands open. It would be irresponsible to turn away from such an opportunity! But Jesus does just that. With what I assume was incredible presence of mind, Jesus replies, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (1:38) When faced with this great opportunity, Jesus walks away.
As I read this account, I am convinced that there is such a thing as a “holy no.” There are times in our lives when we are faced with great opportunities, sometimes even great opportunities for great good. But the mere presence of an opportunity does not necessitate that we take it. Indeed, there are times when we should not, when a “holy no” is the proper response. This statement may seem counter-intuitive or even irresponsible, but the example of Jesus points to a more discerning way.
Note a couple of things about Jesus in this passage. First, his choice to walk away from this great opportunity is preceded by prayer; he got up early in the morning to pray. Second, Jesus’ “no” to one opportunity meant “yes” to another. Because Jesus refuses to return to Capernaum, he is able to go to other places. Indeed, he must say no to Capernaum in order to fulfill his ministry. After all, preaching in different places is why he came. (1:38) It seems that Jesus knows exactly what he is to be about and is willing to pursue it to the exclusion of all other opportunities, even good ones.
So just how does Jesus know what he should be about? I would argue that his prayer and his presence of mind are linked. Perhaps Jesus is rooted in his purpose because he was first rooted in prayer. His time on his knees informs his time on his feet, and he is empowered to discern between the opportunities set before him. Thus, Jesus is able to offer a “holy no” to one opportunity in order to offer a “holy yes” to another.
We are coming to a time in congregational life when this kind of discernment will be important. In the coming months, members of Immanuel will be asked to consider serving in various ways in our community for the coming year. When such opportunities arise, we sometimes respond with too-quick responses. Some reply “yes” in excitement for service or reluctant duty, while others reply “no” because of poor past experience or feelings of inadequacy. The example of Jesus, though, points to the more discerning way – the way of prayer and purpose.
I encourage you to pray about your place in Immanuel in the coming year. I encourage you to have the presence of mind to discern between opportunities, having the freedom to offer “holy no’s” to good things in order to offer “holy yes’s” to best things. I encourage you to refuse to take on too much, and I also encourage you to refrain from taking on too little.
May we all pray for discernment, both corporately and individually, as we seek to serve God, one another, and the surrounding community. And may our time on our knees inform our time on our feet as God grants the wisdom that we seek.