Today we are starting a six week series on prayer and the hope is that by looking at how Jesus prayed and what he taught about prayer, it will help us grow in both our understand and practice of prayer. If you go to a place like Amazon, you can find almost a quarter of a million books and resources on prayer and many that I have read offer easy answers on how to improve our prayer life, this series is not going to be one of them. We aren’t going to look at quick fixes or easy answers, we are going to look at the life of Jesus in hopes of having our lives look more like His when it comes to prayer.
Prayer is one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines we face. We want to pray more often, we want to pray more faithfully and we want our prayers to reflect the heart of God more than our own heart, but we struggle. We struggle to be consistent. We struggle to be intentional. We struggle to be faithful and yet for most of us – the desire to pray remains strong so I want to invite you open the door to a deeper relationship with God by examining prayer during this season of Lent.
While the book of psalms reveal to us an amazing life of prayer by King David where he cried out to God in good times and bad, and questioned God in all his doubt, fear and anger, in the days of Jesus, most people prayed only at specific times of the day and their prayers were the required prayers given by the religious leaders. People prayed at sunrise and sunset as well as the third, sixth and ninth hours which would have been 9:00 AM, noon and 3:00 PM. Prayer was more a regimented, regulated and a religious activity than any kind of personal connection with the living God, which is why the disciples really didn’t understand Jesus and his constant need and desire to pray.
One of the things we quickly learn about Jesus is that he sought out times of personal prayer and this was most often seen when he faced difficult situations or decisions and today we are going to look at three of them. The first one comes at the beginning of Jesus ministry in Mark 1:32-38. At the beginning of Jesus ministry, he faced a crucial decision. Was Jesus going to spend his time as a miracle worker, healer and messiah who drove out demons or was he going to teach and preach and share with people the good news that God had for them? From his first day on the scene in Galilee, Jesus was a successful healer. He cast out demons and healed people of diseases and huge crowds gathered where he was staying. Jesus could have continued this very successful ministry but was that what God wanted. To get clarity and help him make a decision, Jesus went off alone to pray.
Jesus often found solitary places to pray, which in itself teaches us something. There are times when we need to find quiet solitude so we can pray. We need to find times and places where we can be alone and quiet and without distractions so we can speak to God and more importantly listen to God. In our world, it’s hard to do this. We not only have phones everywhere we go, but through these phones or tablets we have all the news, sports, weather and entertainment that the world has to offer. It’s with us everywhere we go so to find solitude where we remove all distractions has to be a conscious choice we make. To find quiet in order to speak and listen to God means intentionally leaving phones and all our links to the world behind so that we can watch for and listen to God.
That’s what Jesus did, he got up early while it was still dark because it was the only way he could go off unseen and he went to a solitary place because if he stayed in the village someone would have found him. Jesus needed to hear from God, he needed to speak to God and he needed that connection with God so he went off by himself and the disciples didn’t understand this so they went to look for Jesus. Actually, the word, to look, really means, to hunt. The disciples went out to hunt Jesus down because they wanted him to come back and heal people and lead this great popular movement. They had an agenda for Jesus. They had plans for him which is why Jesus went away by himself to make sure he was focused on the plans God had for him. Jesus prayed at this crucial time to make sure he was following God’s will.
At another important time in Jesus ministry he again went away to pray, but this time he took Peter, James and John with him. We heard this story last week and Jesus sought solitude with these disciples by going to the top of a mountain. During this prayer time Jesus was not only transfigured into light but Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus. Let me say, this is some time of prayer. The power of God seen in the light and then the cloud, hearing words of assurance, directions, support or whatever from Moses and Elijah, Jesus’ prayer life is like no other and Peter, James and John actually got to experience that. But what is really important about this moment is that it was another turning point in Jesus life where he turned to God in prayer.
We heard last week that right before this time of prayer Jesus told his disciples that if anyone who wanted to follow him they had to be willing to deny themselves and take up a cross and the reason they needed to do that was because Jesus himself was going to deny himself and die on a cross. Jesus had just told his disciples for the first time that he was going to die and Peter didn’t want to accept this. In fact it says that Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus responded that Peter didn’t have in mind the plans of God. God’s plan for Jesus was to die on the cross and Jesus was going to face all kinds of pressure and temptation to go in a different direction and what was going to keep him focused on God’s will was prayer. By taking Peter, James and John off to pray, Jesus is teaching us that without prayer, we will focus on our own plans and not God’s plans.
It’s not just the ability for Jesus to stay focused on God’s plan that came through prayer, the power Jesus needed to carry a cross and die came from his times of prayer. Prayer gave the direction Jesus needed but it also gave him the strength to actually do the hard things God asked of him. This is why prayer and our connection with God is so important because it not only gives us direction to live the way God wants us to but the power to do it as well. It was Jesus consistent time with God in prayer that enabled him to live the way he did and he is trying to teach us that if we want to be faithful and strong enough to do God’s will – we need to pray.
What’s interesting is that when they come down off the mountain Jesus is asked why some of the disciples were not able to drive out a demon. Jesus replied, this kind can come out only by prayer. Jesus is not saying that there is a certain prayer you need to know in order to drive out demons but that the strength to drive them out comes from God and the power of God comes to us and flows through us only through consistent and ongoing times of prayer. The ability to do and be what God has planned for us comes when we consistently and intentionally connect with God in prayer.
The final time of prayer we are going to look at comes near the end of Jesus life and ministry when, once again, he has a final decision to make. Jesus knows the cross stands before him and his death is coming and so he takes his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane where he tells them to sit and then he takes Peter, James and John deeper into that garden where he tells them to watch and pray. When Jesus says to watch he is not telling them to stay awake or keep a look out, he is telling them to be spiritually alert and pray with him so they can hear and be faithful to God’s will. This is important to Jesus because he is wrestling with his final decision.
When Jesus tells the disciples that his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into what he is thinking. Jesus knew God’s word and he used it often and this phrase, overwhelmed with sorrow actually comes from Psalm 55:4-5. It’s not just the cross Jesus is thinking about, it’s also the decision he has to make. Jesus doesn’t have to take up the cross, he could run away and seek shelter in the desert. That’s what the rest of Psalm 55 talks about. Look at Psalm 55:6-8. This is the struggle for Jesus, does he stay and take up a cross or does he flee to safety and avoid the storm that he knows is coming. Jesus wants this cup of sorrow to pass from him, as he prays, but he wants to be faithful to the will of God and in this crucial moment Jesus not only prays but takes Peter, James and John with him for support but to also teach them, and us, that when we face difficult decisions and hard choices, we need to pray.
When we face difficult situations and hard choices, we need to pray, but those prayers need to be offered up on the foundation of a life of prayer. Jesus consistently and intentionally made time for prayer because he knew prayer is what gave him direction and strength. All through his life and ministry we have seen that Jesus found times of solitude and quiet so he could speak to and listen to God. Jesus didn’t wait until the most critical moment to pray, he knew those moment would come so he prayed regularly and often. His prayers weren’t religious, but person. They weren’t routine but specific to his life and they weren’t passive but times that gave him power to act.
If we need direction and strength and power for the difficult things of life then we need to pray but we don’t pray for just in those critical moments, we pray over a lifetime for deeper faith and obedience. When trouble comes, what enables us to stand firm is that we have watched and prayed not once or just at crucial moments but consistently throughout our lives. Jesus watched and prayed all through his life so in the garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus – he stood firm. The disciples didn’t watch and pray and their strength, power and faith quickly fall away and they ran away.
In Gethsemane we also see that prayer helped Jesus wait. He knew what was coming and he was concerned about it – who wouldn’t be, but he prayed as he waited and prayer helped him wait. Many times we also pray as we wait. We pray as we wait for test results. We pray as we wait for doctor’s appointments and surgeries. We pray as we wait for healing and as we wait for jobs and as we wait to hear about whether we made the team or got passing grades or made it into college. We wait a lot in life and what can help us endure through the waiting and uncertainty is a lifetime of prayer.
For Jesus, prayer was not reserved for specific times of the day and it wasn’t just what you did when you gathered at the synagogue or Temple. Prayer was not religious and routine it was personal and powerful. Throughout his life Jesus watched and prayed and at crucial moments he invited others to watch and pray. That invitation is offered to us today. If we want to become people of prayer and if we want to open the door to a deeper relationship with the living God then we need to watch and pray. We need to find or create times and places of solitude and quiet where we can set aside the agenda of others and the distractions of the world to gain the perspective and power of God.
Prayer is not a luxury given to use only when we want it and it is not a lifeline to be used only in a problem or crisis, it is a habit of life that brings strength, direction, power and even health, but only if we will pray continually and not just as needed. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 it says pray continually and this doesn’t mean verbal prayers 24/7 and it doesn’t mean living forever in solitude and quiet, but it does mean continually seeking moments of stillness and silence where we can watch and be spiritually alert. It does mean devoting ourselves to times of speaking to and listening to God where, as Paul says in Colossians 4:2, we can be watchful and thankful. So this week let us make room for those times and seek out those places where we can watch and pray.
Opening the Door – WATCH
1. Read and reflect on what Jesus teaches us about prayer in
• Mark 1:32-39
• Mark 9:9-29
• Mark 14:32-42
2. Identify a time and place each week where you can watch and pray without any distractions for at least 5 minutes. Increase this prayer time in the weeks to come.
3. What difficult decision or hard choice do you need to pray about this week? Like Jesus, who can you invite to watch and pray with you?
4. When He was in need, Jesus asked His disciple to watch and pray with Him because He understood that prayer was a powerful tool in helping people stand strong in their faith. As many of our brothers and sisters around the world face unspeakable evil and persecution, let us watch and pray with them. Pray for the church in Egypt and Libya as well as those being hunted down by ISIS and Boko Haram.
5. The prayer life of Jesus was shaped by the prayers of King David (the book of Psalms). Use these 5 psalms to give direction and depth to your prayers. (The first 4 are from our Ash Wednesday worship and the 5th could be the psalm Jesus had in mind as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane)
• Psalm 25
• Psalm 51
• Psalm 63
• Psalm 86
• Psalm 55