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Learning From the Legends: John Baillie Teaches Us Prayer

Mark 1.32-39

John Baillie’s life and faith were forged in the fires of war.

Baillie was born in Scotland in 1886, and thus lived through two world wars that forever impacted his homeland.  He was a theologian, a professor, and a pastor and denominational leader in the Church of Scotland, and thus tried to lead the Church through incredibly painful and tumultuous times.  He had already received much of his theological training by the times the bombs fell in World War I.  He lost two dear friends during that war, and for him it was the beginning of a life of ministry that tried to make theological sense of the horror that was happening around him.  Between the wars, he moved to North America as a scholar and professor at theological schools, including the distinguished Union Seminary in New York.  But then he moved back to Scotland to take a position as a professor at the New College at the University of Edinburgh in 1934, the same year that the soldiers of Germany all took an undying oath of unconditional allegiance to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler.

Baillie is often associated with what is sometimes called natural theology, which argues that knowledge of God and even proof of God’s existence can come through the natural world that we see around us – in nature itself, as well as human institutions of art, science, history, and morality. His theology is a natural outgrowth of a Celtic spirituality, which suggests that God is present in the world and that we can look to the world to see God. As you can imagine, Baillie’s theology had to be re-worked as the atrocities of World War Two piled up around him.  As the bombs fell in Edinburgh, and the city was evacuated in fear of German blitzkrieg, Ballie was trying to figure out how – or if – God was truly present in the horror of the Holocaust.

Baillie wrote profusely during his career, as you see in a partial list of his publications: The Interpretation of Religion (1928); The Place of Jesus Christ in Modern Christianity (1929); And the Life Everlasting (1933); Our Knowledge of God (1939); Commission for the Interpretation of God’s Will in the Present Crisis (1941-1945); Invitation to Pilgrimage(1942); The Belief in Progress (London, 1950); What Is Christian Civilization? (1945); Natural Science and the Spiritual Life (1952); The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (1956); Christian Devotion (1962); The Sense of the Presence of God (1962); Baptism and Regeneration (1963); and A Reasoned Faith (1963).

But the one that catches my eye is right there in the middle.  He was the head of a commission of the Church of Scotland from 1941-1945, as the depth of evil surrounded him titled, the “Commission for the Interpretation of God’s Will in the Present Crisis.”  One has to wonder about Baillie’s internal struggle, a crisis of faith in the midst of the world falling around him.  Baillie lived and wrote in the middle of personal and social and even theological chaos.  The demands on his time and his talents were great: for many, Baillie was the “answer man” to whom they looked for comfort and clarity.

The world was falling around him, and he was being asked to speak on behalf of God to those who are hurting and afraid and in pain.


It is an imperfect comparison, but I think of Baillie as I read this morning’s Scripture passage.  It is the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has begun his ministry.  The word is out that Jesus is able to heal and send out demons, and the line to see him is out the door.  The passage tells us that late into the night, people are literally piling up to be healed by him.  Here is Rembrandt’s depiction of this event, as you can see the mass of humanity running, walking, hobbling, even being wheeled in to see Jesus and be healed by him.

Do you all remember the old 80’s movie Benji the Hunted? It was a part of the line of Disney movies about a lovable dog and his adventures. In this one, the dog has gone missing from the movie set, and is lost in the wilderness. Everyone and everything is hunting Benji…his owners, the evil hunter looking for a reward, a cougar, a wolf.  Everyone is hunting Benji.

Today’s passage could be named “Jesus the hunted.”  Look again at the words used to describe the pursuit of Jesus:

  • 33 says that “the whole city” of Capernaum is gathered around his door
  • 35 says he went out to a “deserted place” in order to get away from everyone
  • 36 says Simon Peter and the disciples are hunting for him; the Greek word is the same one used for someone tracking and hunting prey
  • Then in vs. 37, the disciples plea with him: “everyone is searching for you!”

Jesus is the hunted.  He is a prey of those who would gather around him with their demands; a victim of the pressure of unending expectation.  And as the chaos swirls around him, he is already worn and weary. The expectations of those around him are already steep.  The world is falling around him, and he is being asked to speak on behalf of God – indeed to be God – to those who are hurting and afraid and in pain.


Again, the comparison is not a perfect one, but I would wager that some of you feel a somewhat similar set of expectations weighing down on you.  OK, so your role is not to explain how God is at work in the middle of the Holocaust.  Nor is it to heal the sick and drive out demons from an entire city.  But, maybe it feels like it sometimes.

How many of you all ever feel like the demands and expectations around you are weighing you down? How many of you feel like the world is hunting you: Your boss texts you late at night needing you to get that form turned in, Your co-workers are at each other’s throats and you are the only peacemaker to take all their calls and keep everything running smooth. Your kids need you to run them all over town to this event and this practice, and “oh I need another $20 by Friday.”  Or the grandkids need to get picked up from the babysitter.  Or your aging parent fell and is in the hospital and this is the third time in six months and what are we going to do long term? Or your spouse needs you to pick this up or send this bill in or “dang it, we haven’t even thought about the taxes yet this year.”

How many of you feel the need to be the perfect mom? The perfect dad? The perfect child? The perfect employee? The perfect student? And then you show up to church and the preacher wants you to be the perfect Christian?  How many of you ever feel hunted and crowded and weary by the expectations that surround you?

The world is falling around you, and you are being asked to do the impossible – some would go as far as to say be God, or at least some form of perfect divinity – to those who are hurting and afraid and in pain.


In those days, I wonder if there is a word of hope in the experience of Jesus this morning.  The passage says that the whole town is on his doorstep until late in the evening.  Sounds like a perfect excuse to sleep in the next morning.  But what does Jesus do instead?  Verse 35 tells us he rises early in the morning, “while it was still very dark, and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  Given the circumstances, no one would have blamed Jesus for hiding underneath the covers.  But instead he rises early and goes out to pray.

This was an important moment in the ministry of Jesus.  He has already experienced the Temptation by Satan in the wilderness, in which he is tempted with supernatural power to perform magic tricks that would impress people.  But now, that temptation has come to him in the real world. In the first days of his ministry, he finds himself overwhelmed with popularity and cultural power.  Throughout Mark, especially in the early chapters, the demons that Jesus exorcises all threaten to tell people who Jesus really is, and he demands that they keep quiet.  It’s all part of the same temptation from the beginning – a temptation to use one’s popularity for power.

And Jesus rejects that notion at every turn.  Mark says the whole town could was at his door, and the power he has over them could easily allow him to become the town’s healer, the whole region’s “answer man.”  But just like his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus pulls himself away in order to re-center and re-focus and listen to the specific call of God on his life and his ministry.  In the daily grind of his ministry, he has to pause and ask God, “what do I do here?”  It would be simple to give the people what they want, to bow to their expectations and their needs.  But Jesus for the first time in his ministry experiences that in order to be who God made him to be, he will have to disappoint some people. Will have to leave some expectations left unmet.

In that moment of prayer with God, Jesus “finds” himself. He sorts through all of the expectations and needs of everyone else and discerns who it is that he needs most to be. In the darkness of his early morning prayer, Jesus discerns in the midst of the chaos of the important needs around him, which is the most important.

And on cue, Simon Peter shows up to tell Jesus he is doing it all wrong and he needs to get his butt down into the city so that he can heal some more people. And Jesus looks him in the eye and tells him, “no.”  “No, that is not what I am going to do.  We are actually going to leave this town, and its chaos, and its deep need. And we are going to go out to the rest of the towns and the rest of the communities so that I can preach the good news.”  Why?  It says it there in vs. 38: “for that is what I came out to do.”  That was his purpose, and in the quietness and darkness of prayer, he has discerned his calling and his need for the day and the days ahead.  He knew there were good things to be done in that community, but there were better things to be done beyond its borders.

What a wonderful passage of Scripture for Lent!  For Lent is a time of sorting.  A time of sorting out of the expectations and the needs around us, in order to ask, “what is the most important thing in our walk of faith.  What am I called to do?  Who am I being called to be?”

I like this quotation by Sal Sapienza.  He says “The Season of Lent is not about giving up the things that bring us joy, but about giving up the things that are keeping us from our joy.”  How often do we trivialize Lent to giving something up to show our self-control or self-discipline! But Sapienza gets it right – Lent is about sorting through the good things in our world as asking how many of them are actually getting in the way of our joy, in the way of our walk with Christ? Jesus had to give up his good role as popular healer – a good thing in and of itself – in order to embrace his better role as Messiah and proclaimer of Gospel.  In the same way, Lent invites us to give up the things that keep us from long-term joy, long-term peace.

And where do we find these things?  How do we sort through the expectations of our world?  Just like Jesus did…in prayer.  It is in prayer that we sit in silence before God and ask what is the most important thing, who are we most foundationally to be?  Again, the point is not about what we are giving up.  Don’t hear me say that you have to start giving up your sleep, and rising early in the morning and praying like Jesus in order to be a good Christian this Lent.  Ironically, that would just add another task to the “to-do list of perfection” that we are trying to get away from.

Instead, I invite you to find a time, a way, a practice of prayer that allows you to step away from the swirling expectations, to sit with God in the darkness and the desertedness, and ask who you are really meant to be. That is what Lent is about. Not adding something else to the list, but asking God to re-make your list according to what you really need, and the world really needs from you.  Lent is a call to pause in the darkness, in order to re-enter the chaos with a new clarity of purpose and focus.

In fact, that is exactly what John Baillie did.  Baillie is known for his theological work, and his philosophical contextualization of God and God’s Will in the midst of the chaos of the Holocaust.  He wrote all of these works in a career of great scholarship.

But what Baillie is perhaps best known for is not all of that scholarship, but for this little book: A Diary of Private Prayer.  It is a slim volume that simply contains his prayers.  A prayer for the morning.  A prayer for the evening.  A blank page to write your own prayers and journal your own thoughts.  Two prayers a day for 31 days – a month of praying.  He knew that that his life wasn’t about being the hero.  The Answer Man.  Instead, he knew the power of submitting himself to prayer…that’s where the real answers lie!

The bedrock faith of a man who was fiercely intellectual, and deeply spiritual. Who understood how to explain and proclaim God in ways incredibly profound and complex.  But who also woke up in the morning, went to a dark and deserted place, and prayed a prayer to his loving creator and parent.




10 Responses to Learning From the Legends: John Baillie Teaches Us Prayer

  1. David Holt January 4, 2021 at 2:06 am #

    HI Matt, Thanks for this detailed post. I’m reading Baillie’s book, The Interpretation of Religion, right now, making notes, analyzing the ideas. I’m not in church these days, exploring my personal experiences of religion out in the community.

    • Susan Pauls January 14, 2021 at 3:14 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, David! I’ll make sure Matt sees it. Glad you found the sermon on Baillie. It’s a good time to explore right now and experience the way many different congregations worship and minister in their communities. And, to focus on the fact that church is more than the building, it IS what happens out in the community as people minister to each other there! Blessings to you as you explore. If you find yourself wanting to connect with a church community, peek in on our livestreamed worship at 10:45 a.m. CT on Sundays from wherever you are (or watch anytime—but at that time on Sundays, we’re all watching together). (https://youtube.com/LawrenceFirstBaptist) —Susan Pauls, Digital Outreach Coordinator

  2. Nancy schmidt February 23, 2020 at 12:06 pm #

    Thanks for writing back so nicely.
    I was looking for a bio on John Baillie, and it somehow showed up subsequent to that.
    Great choices for this series of sermons! There are so many to bring to people who want to know the wonderful diversity of “saints” (that we are all called to be)….. so many ways to be faithful, to love God and his Creation, to show the little Light that one has been sheltering. The Communion of Saints, right? How about Brother ? who urged the Practice Of The Presence of God. That little writing was important to me. Brother Lawrence, I believe.
    Good idea about suggesting that my kids might rather be involved in doing something instead of just listening to something being talked about.
    Thanks again.

    • Susan Pauls February 25, 2020 at 9:36 am #

      Yes, there are quite a number of others who’ve modeled for us that there are many ways to be faithful! Maybe at some point we’ll have a Learning from the Legends: Part 2. 🙂 Hope you’re having a good week, Nancy.

    • Susan Pauls May 4, 2020 at 3:25 pm #

      FYI, since March 22 and social distancing due to COVID-19, we’re now doing full worship services online on Sundays at 10:45 a.m. Central Time on YouTube on our channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiSlsmUZEJi0zMOjNRiZEEg. It just now occurred to me to invite you! If you’re already worshiping somewhere, we wouldn’t want to pull you away from that, but if you happen to be looking for a place, here we are. 🙂 It’s been interesting that although we are socially distanced locally, this has actually brought us closer with a number of people who are in far away places who used to worship with us in Lawrence, as it has enabled them to join us in worship again.
      Blessings, and we hope you and your family are well.

  3. Nancy Schmidt February 12, 2020 at 12:53 am #

    Sorry for the midnight mistake.
    It is “God Was in Christ”, by John Baillie’s brother, Donald Baillie,that helped me think about the Holy Spirit.
    Nancy Schmidt. Abilene

  4. Nancy Schmidt February 12, 2020 at 12:35 am #

    Try “God and Human Suffering” by Douglas John Hall.. if you have not read it of course.
    Book Study? Intense. Great and necessary.
    Nancy Schmidt. Abilene ks

  5. Nancy Schmidt February 11, 2020 at 11:42 pm #

    I was amazed to see a sermon that drew on the work of John Baillie. I am old now, but the prayer texts I have turned to for 50+ years has been A Diary of Private Prayer, given to me in 1965 before I married. I have given it many times to others.
    I grew up in the Ohio Valley, Covington area then Louisville. I did my nursing school at the Kentucky Baptist hospital, then on Barrett Ave., so walked to town down Broadway many times past the old Presbyterian Seminary. As a liberal minded “generic Christian”, with acquaintance with many Southern Baptists I was pleased to read your sermon, which touches on several not very conservative Christian thoughts. ( I realize that Southern Baptist and Baptist are not the same.)
    I married a Kansan, raised 3children in Abilene who now all live and work in Lawrence. They were not raised in a church, but are each Believers in a generic way I think. I may recommend your church to them as a place to look into “organized religion” if they ever wish to try.
    Should I look for your sermons each week on line, or might your church send them out weekly to persons who “signup”?
    Do you have a list of your sermons Learning from Legends? I was so pleased that someone is bringing light to the lives and work of the greats of the recent past. Reinhold Niebuhr is a hero of mine, and his brother’s book on the Holy Spirit allowed me to understand much more about the Third Person than I ever had before. (It’s midnight and I can’t bring up those names while I’m writing to you.)
    Merton? Bishop Tutu? CSLewis? Do you know of Douglas John Hall? His books on being Christian in our time are great. He’s recently alive, but maybe not now,
    We’ll, I just wanted you to know that the internet can bring about some good, of course. Finding your sermon introducing your church to John Baillie reassured me that the Word goes on….”blowing where it listeth. Thank you. Nancy Schmidt.

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