15 However, the report went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities.
16 So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.
Where do we find God? Or, perhaps more appropriately, where can God find us? It's not as if God is particularly hard to find. This is, after all, His Creation, and He has sworn to never leave nor forsake His children. (Deuteronomy 31:6) And being all-seeing and all-knowing, God knows every move we make, whether in public or in private. (Ecclesiastes 12:14, 1 Corinthians 4:5) No, the point is more this: Where can we go to interact with God, to experience His presence without interruption or distraction, to dwell in His Spirit even as His Spirit dwells in us?
Jesus set us a good example in this regard. If we look at the times Jesus prayed, we will note that He always separated Himself from others, departing to a mountain, a garden, or, as in today's verses, the wilderness. The Greek word translated here as "wilderness" is "eremos," which literally means "lonesome" or "deserted." In short, Jesus would retreat from the world to spend one-on-one time with His Father.
Of course, with our busy modern lives, we often find it hard to utterly retreat from the world. Even when we honor the Sabbath and spend a day resting from the chaos of our lives, we still often find ourselves in the midst of family and friends and home life. Yes, it is a rare moment that we truly get away from the race of life and go to that empty place to speak with our God.
Jesus knew we didn't always have the opportunity to be like Him and retreat into the wilderness to pray, and so He gave us a different direction.
"But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
Shut the door--i.e. get away from others, shut the world out of your life, seclude yourself, make a point of being alone, retreat. Go to your own "eremos." It is only then that you can have any hope of spending quality time with God. That is not to say that God may not surprise us with His living presence in the midst of our busy schedules, but for us to find Him, we must get away from the world.
In the verses above, look at WHY Jesus separated Himself. Writer Stephen R. Covey might call it "sharpening the saw." It's that time to recharge, to rebuild our strength, to bring order to our thoughts and feelings, and, in the case of a Christian life, to seek the presence of the Holy Spirit again. Let's admit it: even when we think we're keeping God foremost in our lives, everyday matters intrude, cause us to lose focus. In fact, I have heard many Spirit-led people say that their daily lives leave them drained and worn, almost even feeling forsaken. That is when it's time to retreat to the wilderness to find God again.
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus stepped away from His disciples and prayed alone, leaving them together to watch and pray. But, as He remarked on His return to them, "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41) The disciples were still too attached to their worldly concerns, still not focused on the kingdom of God, and so they failed to make that connection with the Father that would have strengthened them for the time soon to come.
On the mountain, Elijah was told to come out of the cave to meet God. God wasn't found in the strong wind nor the earthquake nor the fire that came when He passed by. No, Elijah knew God was there when he heard a "still small voice." (1 Kings 19:11-13) If Elijah had not been in the wilderness, away from people hunting him for good or ill, he might not have ever heard that delicate whispering voice.
When my children come down to spend the weekend, I rise very early to spend quiet time with God. If I don't get up several hours before my little ones, I might not have the opportunity to be alone with God in my own "eremos," my own lonesome place. I might never hear the small voice of the Holy Spirit whispering to me as I write each day. I might never know the daily presence of God in my life.
A few weeks ago, I was the last one leaving the church one Sunday. The kids were home with their mother, and I didn't have to rush off to my secular job. It was a quiet day, and as I finished tidying up the church, it was as if I had gone off to that deserted place. I spoke aloud with God as I put things away, took out the trash, straightened things. And when I turned off the lights, it was even more peaceful. Our church is not a particularly glorious building. It has no tall, vaulted ceilings, nor is it decorated with stained glass or fancy artwork. But our little church is right on the edge of the wilderness, and as I finished locking the door that Sunday, I could smell the fresh scent of spring, hear the birds calling to each other, feel the wind on my face. It was a lonely place but a place full of the presence of God. I wanted to linger there, but I knew in my heart that I had done all the "sharpening" I needed to do that day. I was ready to go back, and so I left that brief retreat and came back to the world.
Where is your "eremos," your place of quiet? Do you have a place and time set aside to be alone with your Maker? If not, make the time, find a place, and go there. Retreat into your room, hike into the woods, ride your bike into the countryside, walk by the river, and be with God. Recharge your own spirit with the Holy Spirit of God by spending time away from schedules and worries. "Sufficient for the day is its own trouble," Jesus said. (Matthew 6:34b) Don't let those troubles keep us from seeking God and His kingdom and His holy presence.
Brothers and sisters, God is with us always, but we cannot always hear Him. His Spirit dwells in all true believers, and yet we often let the world overwhelm His presence. Jesus is beckoning to us, calling us to follow Him, but we are caught up in the things of the flesh. Let's take the time to separate ourselves, to go to our lonely place, to "eremos," the place where there is only us and God. Let us all go there, seek Him, and be renewed in spirit, mind, and strength to serve the Lord our God.
Holy Father God, please accept this time I spend with You. Take this time and make it worthy of Your presence. Come into my life and revive my spirit. Purge me of worldly concerns, strengthen me for the day ahead, and put my feet back upon the path You would have me tread for Your kingdom. Amen.