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March 1, 2009

           The Prayers of Jesus:  As a Lifestyle

Luke 3:21-22; 5:15-16; 6:12-16; 15:5; Mark 1:29-39


            Today, as we begin a new series of messages on the prayers of Jesus, I want us to have prayer together.  Gracious God, You have sent Your Son, Jesus, into this world, not only to be our Savior, but also to be our teacher, our master.  It is through his life that we learn how to live.  It is through his prayer life that we find our best model for praying.  We ask that in these times together, You will give us eyes to see and ears to hear as we gather around Your Word and Your Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.  In his name, we pray.  Amen.

            How is your prayer life going, day to day?  May I remind you that prayer is absolutely essential to the Christian life.  Some of you may say, “This sounds like a broken record.  How many times have we heard our pastor preach sermons on prayer?  Have many times have we heard him teach about prayer?”  I know, but I feel led to come back by this topic again because so much needs to be covered.  We are not going to get to the bottom of all of it.  We certainly cannot say it all today.  I take great comfort in Richard Foster, a devotional Quaker writer, and in his wonderful book Prayer:  Finding the Heart’s True Home.  In the first chapter, “The Prayer of Beginning Again,” Foster reminds us that we have to revisit repeatedly the life of prayer.  All of us must come back by a self-examination of our experience of prayer.  Those of us who follow Christ must renew our assessment over and over again. 

We have absolutely no better occasion to focus on the subject of prayer than during the season of Lent.   These forty days that remind us of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness offer us a perfect opportunity to experience this kind of re-examination, this kind of renewal, together. As we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, we will focus on the life of prayer as presented in the Gospel of Luke.  I selected this approach because while studying for the Sunday evening lessons on the parables, I came across a statement that drew my attention:  the Gospel of Luke records numerous occasions that Jesus prayed that are not mentioned in any of the other Gospels.  As I puzzled over this fact, I gained some new insight. 

Joachim Jeremias, a biblical scholar who has done much study on the life of prayer, said that we must remember why the Gospels were written.  Some of the Gospels seem to be sparse on teaching about the prayer life of Jesus.  Those Gospel writers made the assumption that their readers would have understood the importance of prayer.  Matthew and Mark, you recall, wrote primarily to a Jewish audience.  They both assumed that their readers knew that devout Jews were expected to pray three times a day.  Still to this day, Orthodox Jewish men gather in the synagogue every morning for a time of prayer.  They are also expected to pray at mid-day and in the evening.  Throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus, a very observant Jew, went to the synagogue to worship.  He would have prayed three times every day.  Praying would have been a regular practice for him.  It is as Matthew and Mark say, “This information can go unsaid.  We do not have to emphasize this practice.”

John makes a similar assumption in his Gospel.  He does, however, give us three remarkable prayers of Jesus, all near the end of his life:  one at the tomb of Lazarus, one in the Garden of Gethsemane, and one in the wonderful Chapter 17, which is a priestly, pastoral prayer Jesus offered for his disciples and for all of us who are believers.  John, who has primarily a theological emphasis in his Gospel, highlights those particular prayers of Jesus because they fit his purpose. 

Luke, on the other hand, includes ten occasions when Jesus prayed that the other Gospel accounts do not mention at all.  Why would Luke do that?  Luke, you remember, was writing to a Gentile audience.  Most of the people who would read the Gospel of Luke knew nothing about what it meant to be a devout Jew.  Coming from a Greek and Roman background that was basically pagan, they had to be taught more specifically about the prayer life of Jesus.  We can think of the Gospel of Luke as helping us return to basics in the life of prayer.  It gives us a much clearer picture about prayer in the life of Jesus, assuming nothing. 

            Three particular passages from Luke help us understand how prayer was part and parcel of the lifestyle of Jesus.


Luke 3:21-22:  When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.  As he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”



Luke 5:15-16 is bracketed by two events, Jesus’ healing a leper and his healing a paralytic: 


Yet the news about him (Jesus) spread all the more, so that

crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.  But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.


Luke 6:12-16:  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:  Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas, son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.


            I would like to make three important points.  First, we need to go back to the standard Jewish custom of praying three times a day.  Jesus did not just have a quiet time.  He had a regular pattern in which he prayed to his Father in heaven three times a day.  That certainly informs us that we need to make a daily appointment with God.  You may call it quiet time, meditation, devotion, worship, or whatever you choose to call it.  Regard this prayer time as an appointment, and keep it as faithfully as you would any other appointment.  Likewise, if you promise to pray for a person, please keep that promise.  Do not just idly say those words. 

Luke 5 emphasizes that Jesus prayed during those regular times but at other times, as well.  One of the ways we can learn more about this is to go back to the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, a very important passage.  Beginning at Verse 29, you will see that Jesus had been in the synagogue, teaching.  Jesus’ healing a person, casting out an evil spirit, created much criticism.  Healing on the Sabbath was not viewed with favor among Orthodox Jews.  Then you notice that he left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon Peter in Capernaum, where he planned to have a Sabbath meal.  He found that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed sick with a fever, so he healed her.

            Verse 32 tells us that soon after sunset, the whole town of Capernaum, which was a major city, brought their sick and demon-possessed to Jesus and gathered at the door.  Can you imagine all of these people showing up and requesting that Jesus heal those who had various diseases?  How far into the night could that have lasted?  You would think Jesus might want to sleep in the next morning.  Jesus had had a long day, but he knew he needed another kind of refreshment, another kind of restoration.  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.” 

            I would suggest to you that if our Lord needed that kind of time in prayer though he was very busy, we do, too.  If our lives are so busy that we think we do not have time to pray, we need to consider Jesus’ life of prayer.  St. Francis De Sales said, “Every Christian ought to pray one hour a day unless that Christian is very busy.  Then that Christian ought to pray two hours a day.”  In other words, the more load you carry, the heavier your burden, the more you need the life of prayer. 

We sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”  When is the last time you prayed for an hour?  Have you ever tried to pray for an hour?  Most of us can get in about five minutes before we run out of things to say.  That is exactly the problem.  We think that prayer is a monologue.  We think prayer is our talking, but it is not.  Prayer begins with listening, by falling silent, by “centering down,” as the Quakers put it.  It begins by focusing on God and allowing our heart to be still before Him, screening out the noises, all the static of life, that interfere.  Most of the noise I hear does not come from external sources.  It comes from inside me.  I have to get a quiet heart before I can really pray.  It is the meaning of Psalm 46:10:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  Once we do that, we find that our prayers can extend.  We might actually be able to pray for an hour.  Prayer is not just talking.  Prayer is a relationship.  Prayer certainly has a predictable rhythm about it, but we need to turn aside to pray for extended periods of time at other opportunities, as well.

We tend to think that prayer is asking.  We often treat God as if He were a divine bellboy, telling Him, “Give me this.  Give me that.”  We act as if we have a Christmas list we want Santa Claus to fill.  God does not check off a list.  Do not think of prayer as putting in a request to God.  It is not like putting a coin in a vending machine and receiving a goodie.  That is not the meaning of prayer. Again, prayer is a relationship, a relationship in which we come into the presence of God. 

            I walked into a hospital room to visit a man I had seen several times.  His son, who was there in the room, looked at me and said, “Your prayers are not working.  My dad is not better.  You are doing something wrong.  You have to change your prayer.”  I had failed.  The problem was that I had failed to teach him what prayer really is and what it is not. 

Do you know how God answers our prayers?  He answers prayer just like you answer your children.  When your children ask you for something, sometimes you say, “Yes.”  Sometimes you say, “No.”  Sometimes you say, “Let’s just wait a little while until the time is right.”  God always answers prayer, but He does not always answer “Yes.”  He may answer “No” or “Let’s just wait a little while until the time is right.”  God sometimes does not give us what we want.  He knows that our need is different from our desire.

            I want to emphasize that this relationship with God has a dual dynamic.  We must be faithful in the life of prayer.  Jesus taught us that we are to pray and be persistent in praying.  We can certainly offer short prayers.  Prayer is an ongoing act.  A proper translation of the teaching of Jesus is, “Keep on asking.  Keep on seeking.  Keep on knocking.”  He promises that if you ask, you will receive.  “Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9).  Our faithfulness, our persistence in praying, is required.  A part of the life of prayer is learning to trust God more and more at deeper and deeper levels.  The other side of that dynamic is that God is trustworthy, faithful.  God will answer.  Again, you will not always get what you want, but God will grant what you need.

            I want us to look at a passage in John 15, Verse 5:  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; but apart from me, you can do nothing.”  This “abiding” is the life of prayer.  John Bunyan put it this way, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.”  Prayer is not the last resort.  Prayer is the beginning.  When we pray, we open ourselves to a companionship with God in Christ.  It is the only way we can accomplish anything.  Apart from Him, we can do nothing.  If we are connected through the life of prayer, as a branch is grafted into a vine, we can bear much fruit.  Prayer is always the place we begin.

            The prayers of Jesus reflect a private and personal relationship with God.  That is not to say that he did not sometimes pray aloud so that others could hear him.  He did.  His prayers were always very personal.  The very first words of Jesus that appear in the Gospel of Luke are spoken in the temple when he was a boy:  “Didn’t you know that I would be about my Father’s business?”  The last words of Jesus in this earthly life were spoken from the cross, according to Luke’s Gospel:  “Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  The word Father is better translated by the Aramaic word Abba.  It is a term of endearment.  It is similar to saying, “Daddy.”  Jesus used this translation in the Lord’s Prayer.  Luke says that Jesus prayed at his baptism.  Afterwards, the heavens were opened.  The Holy Spirit descended on him.  The voice of God told him, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus and his Father had a close, intimate relationship of love.  If we are going to be effective in praying, we have to approach that kind of relationship with God. 

            I love the story about the father kicked back in a La-Z-Boy rocker.  The throne of heaven must be like a recliner.  I do not view it as being ostentatious. 

The father’s teenage son came in and asked, “Dad, could I have the car tonight?  I have a date.” 

The father took out the keys and handed them to his son, saying, “Please be careful.” 

His teenage daughter came in a little later and asked, “Dad, I am going to movie with my friends.  Can I have some money?” 

The father reached into his wallet, pulled out a bill, and gave it to her. 

When the father’s little eight-year-old daughter came in and crawled up on his lap, he asked, “Young lady, what do you want?” 

Her response was, “Daddy, I just want to be with you.” 

That story explains the meaning of prayer.  Prayer is the desire to be in the presence of a loving Father who knows what is best for His child.  That Father may grant a request.  He may also deny the request, sometimes saying, “No.”

            Do you want that kind of relationship with your Father in heaven?  Do you know how much God loves you?  Do you know that He wants your love in return?  We ask, “Have you accepted Christ as your Savior?”  What we mean is, “Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart?”  The Son of God was sent into the world as an act of love.  When you accept Jesus, you accept the unconditional love of God.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His Son” (John 3:16).  As we examine the prayer life of Jesus in these next weeks, my hope is that we will learn much more about this wonderful experience, that we will grow as Christians, that we will grow as a church family, that together we will grow as people of prayer.


Kirk H. Neely

© March 2009

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