Starting the day with Jesus is better than avocado toast

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By Mark Ellis —

I want to share with you about one of my favorite verses contained in Mark chapter one, a verse that’s been most impactful on my life.

I met Jesus and my wife, Sally, in the same year.  They both took on a long-term project. My wife is an artist, best known for her work in pastel and oils. She has done a bit of sculpture, but not much.

I look at God as a master sculptor. He takes an unformed block of stone or marble and starts chipping away the rough edges, until eventually Christ-likeness emerges.

This is the purpose of journey we’re on, to pursue Christ-likeness.

If you have seen the sculpture of David in Florence, Italy, it started with a massive block of Carrara marble, over 17 feet high, weighing seven tons. Other artisans at the time called this block of stone “The Giant.”

Size of marble block used for “David”

Over 60 years, three or four artists started to work on it and gave up. The block of stone stood neglected in the yard of a cathedral for 26 years. Leonardo da Vinci passed on it, but a 26-year-old upstart named Michelangelo took on The Giant.

He worked on it two years, and a masterpiece emerged from that unformed hunk of rock that still takes your breath away when you see it in person.

Working on “David”

What emerged from the hands of Michelangelo? Young David, with a sling over his shoulder and a rock in one hand, just before he fought a giant named Goliath.

Both Michelangelo and David slew a giant. God wants to help you fight the giants in your life!

Who gave Michelangelo his genius?  You would have to say God gave him his talent, and therefore God is an even better sculptor than Michelangelo. He’s chipping away at my rough edges and yours.

He’s not only working on the externalities, he’s a like a master surgeon,  working on the internal recesses of your heart and soul, the internal motives that drive us to do what we do.

This long-term “art” project is called sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.”

Philippians 1:6 says, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”In John 17:17 Jesus says, “Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth.”

For the first 15 years I was a Christian, I was largely growing on my own, with little guidance from anyone. I heard about disciple-making, but I wasn’t quite sure what was involved. Then I got a call from a retired pastor, Ray Ortlund, who invited me to be part of a small discipleship group of men for one year.

Ray and Anne Ortlund

This wonderfully turned into nine years that he took me under wing to help me grow. I must say it was the greatest gift I received as someone making a transition from the business world into full-time Christian ministry.

One of the first lessons Ray taught was about the importance of having a morning devotional. In the Old Testament, we see the principle of giving God the first fruits of the harvest. We don’t give him the leftover part of anything. I have learned there is great benefit in applying this to my day.

This brings me to my favorite verse in Mark 1, which takes place in Capernaum. I recently had opportunity to visit “Faux Capernaum,” a re-creation of the ancient town on the shore of a manmade lake for The Chosen.

“Faux Capernaum”

Jesus had a long day of ministry. First, he taught in the synagogue and cast out a demon there. Then he went to the home of Simon Peter and healed his mother-in-law.

Simon Peter’s house on the set of The Chosen

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door (as many as 2000 people), and Jesus healed many who had various diseases and drove out many demons. (Mark 1:32-34)

All this went on until late in the evening!

Now we come to the verse that’s had the greatest impact on my life in verse 35:

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.

He could have slept in! He had a long ministry day that went into the night. He must have been exhausted.

But his highest priority to begin his day, was to have a time of quiet communion and fellowship with his Father, where I believe Jesus received guidance and instruction about where he would go, what he would do, what he would say from his father.

John gives us a clue about this: I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.

In John 14, Jesus says: I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

This is where I believe Jesus received his father’s commands, his assignment, his mission for the day. This is where his spirit was fortified, refreshed and renewed, in relationship with his Father.

If Jesus, who was sinless, needed to have a morning devotional, how much more do I need it?

Here is where we find God’s vision for our lives. As Pastor Jon Courson has observed: “Vision always begins away from he crowd, away from the busy-ness — in a quiet place, through a quiet time, with a quiet heart.”

What is in a quiet time? In its simplest form: Reading the Bible and prayer. Just as Jesus went off to a solitary place, it’s important to find a quiet place to be alone with God. I have a favorite chair in the corner of the living room that is my secret place, next to book shelves with my favorite resources that aid my Bible study.

The author’s devotional place

I like to have an hour for a morning devotional, but if I only have 30 minutes, I take it. If I only spend 15, it still makes a qualitative difference in the rest of my day.

You can choose your own Bible reading plan, or a devotional classic like My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers. This year, I’m going through the New Testament with a group of men.

After reading the Word, I spend some time in Prayer, which is talking with God. I let him speak to me thru the Bible, then I speak to him in prayer. You are getting to know a person by spending time with them. At the end of my prayer, I take a little time to listen for the “still small voice of the Lord.”

If God impresses something on my heart, it will usually be something simple, like: love your wife, or encourage your son.

Getting up early to do this will not be easy for everyone. I happen to be a morning person, so I am usually awake early. Sometimes, my spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. If you are unable to get up early, find time for your devotional some other time of the day.

When I talk about my devotional practices, these are ideas and suggestions. We don’t earn points with God depending on how many minutes or hours we spend in prayer and Bible study. I’m so grateful Jesus doesn’t place heavy burdens on people. We don’t follow the 600 laws of the Old Testament, we follow the commands of Jesus as directed by the Holy Spirit. He said his yoke is easy and his burdens are light.

Why do I do press into this, getting up early, giving him the first part of my day? First, to get to know God and have a relationship with him. I want to know more about who He is, and how he wants me to respond.

I know what a mess my life could be if I didn’t do this. I have failed the Lord many times. The problem is with the flesh. It never grows up. It never gets better. So if I walk in the flesh, I am capable of doing the things I do not want to do.

One thing I’ve noticed as I get older, I get less sleep at night, and feel more like sleeping during the day. So what do you do if you find yourself awake at three, four or five in the morning. If you have insomnia, you can fight it with sleeping pills, toss and turn, you can process all the worries and cares of life.

The problem is that problems seem to get magnified in the middle of the night. Let’s consider a possible alternative to this scenario.

In Luke 6:12-13, we read:  One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.

Before Jesus made a major decision, he prayed thru the night. Jesus felt the need to spend a whole night praying before he chose the 12.

So, if you are lying awake at night, perhaps God is calling you as a prayer intercessor. What is a prayer intercessor? These are special saints called to stand in the gap between God and man, heaven and hell, asking God to help friends and loved ones who may be in trouble.

Daniel was called “greatly beloved” by God, after he began interceding for his people. Exodus 32 records that Moses even changed God’s mind in response to his intercession. (if that is possible) (Ex 32:32, Ps 106:23) Many credit the miracle of Dunkirk during WWII to an intercessor named Rees Howells and his group of prayer warriors.

How we need prayer warriors to intercede on behalf of our country today!

If I find myself awake, I can also begin my morning devotional even before I get out of bed. Of course, I’m quietly whispering, so I don’t wake up my wife. But you, in the quietness and stillness of the morning, can turn your bedroom into a cathedral of praise.

Instead of magnifying your problems, you can magnify the Lord!

I usually begin by reciting Scripture. Some of my favorites come from John 1, Ephesians 1, and Colossians 1, which I consider three mountain peaks in God’s Word. When you hike among those peaks, you find exhilarating views of God’s splendor and majesty.

I also like to recite the names of God, going through the alphabet from A to Z. This also helps me make a vertical connection with God giving him the first fruits of the day.

Lastly, if you are still awake in the wee hours, instead of counting sheep, consider praying for lost sheep.

Nurturing your devotional life will make a qualitative difference in your day. It will help you slay the giants in your life. Starting your day with Jesus is better than a breakfast of Wheaties and OJ, better than avocado toast.