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March 8, 2009

The Prayers of Jesus:  Before Crucial Events

Luke 9:10-36; Jeremiah 9:11-13


            We started last week a series of sermons, The Prayers of Jesus.  At that time, we emphasized the fact that prayer is a loving relationship with our heavenly Father who loves us very much.  It is not just making a checklist and asking God to mark off the items we have requested. 

Though our focus today is Luke 9, I want us to begin by looking at Jeremiah 29, beginning at Verse 11.  Some call this passage their life verse.  I want to read this for your hearing because it illustrates a very important part of the personal relationship that characterizes the life of prayer, this personal relationship we have with God.  Hear now the Word of God: 


“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me, and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”


Verse 11 informs us that God has a plan for every life, a plan for every single one of us.  His plan is good.  It gives us hope, a future.  Because God wants us to know of this plan for every life, He takes the initiative toward us in revealing that plan.  Verses 12-13 show us how we can access, how we are to understand, that plan.  We must pray.  Prayer is the way we commune with God.  Prayer is the way we communicate with God in this relationship of love.  Prayer is the way He reveals His plan for our lives.

Let me be somewhat redundant.  You can listen to every sermon ever preached on prayer and still not know how to pray.  You can read a book on how to play chess and never learn to play chess.  You can read every instruction in a recipe book, but you will never know how to cook without going in the kitchen, turning on the stove, and cooking.  If you tear the pages out of the cookbook and eat them, you will not be nourished. 

The same is true in the life of prayer.  You cannot learn to pray unless you pray.  If you are going to experience what prayer can mean in your life, you must take the time to pray.  Just as you would have to learn anything else, prayer is learned by practice.  As we pray, we cultivate within our lives this relationship with God.  As that relationship is cultivated, we are spiritually nourished. 

            The life of prayer has two sides as we see in this passage in Jeremiah.  God takes initiative toward us.  He searches for us.  Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  God expects us to take initiative toward Him.  A double search must occur.  The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). 

Some experiences that we have in life are unforgettable.  One of those for me is standing in the Sistine Chapel in Rome in St. Paul’s Basilica and looking at that ceiling painted by Michelangelo.  The first time I saw that work of art – the only time I have seen it in person – I was so impressed by the artist.  It is hard to imagine this man stretched out on his back, painting that ceiling day after day after day while lying on a scaffold.  It is hard to imagine how he could paint that beautiful work of art free-hand.  Michelangelo did not sketch a drawing first.  What is most impressive is the meaning Michelangelo wanted us to get from that painting.  You may not have seen that work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapter in person, as I have, but you have all seen it in a book.  It shows God stretching out His hand toward Adam and Adam stretching toward God, with their fingertips almost touching.  That is exactly the kind of relationship we have with God in the life of prayer.  God stretches toward us, and He expects us to stretch toward Him.

            Turn with me to Luke 9 so that we may see how God’s plan plays out in the life of Jesus.  According to Luke, this chapter is crucial in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Almost every commentator says that the events in Chapter 9 are the turning point, the fulcrum on which the whole Gospel pivots. 

Allow me to outline the first two-thirds of the chapter.  Jesus calls his disciples together and sends them out on a mission that has a two-fold purpose.  They are to preach, and they are to heal.  A very important concept here is that their purpose is not only telling people about Jesus, but it is also attempting to meet some of their physical needs.  When Jesus sends his disciples out, they experience power that they did not know they had.  Because they obey him, because they look to him as their master, Jesus delegates to them this particular power.  This is confounding to King Herod, who had beheaded John the Baptist.  He is curious about what is going on in his territory, curious about this rogue movement headed by an itinerant rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. 

When the apostles return to Jesus, they report all that has happened.  They are tired.  Jesus is tired, as well.  According to some Gospel accounts, he is grieving deeply because of John the Baptist’s death.  Jesus invites his disciples to go with him to a quiet place so that they can have a kind of retreat, so that they can be alone.  Seeing Jesus and his apostles going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, crowds follow.  According to Luke, near the town of Bethsaida, they gather.  Jesus heals them and preaches to them. 

We learn in Verse 12 that late in the afternoon, the disciples come to him and urge, “Send the crowds away.  Let them go away to find food and lodging because this is a remote place.”  Some translations say “a lonely place.”  Jesus gives his disciples what seems to be an impossible task.  He tells them to feed the people.  How does he expect them to accomplish that?  When Jesus learns that someone has a meager meal consisting of five loaves and two fish, he instructs his disciples to bring this little bit of food to him.  He prays, blessing the food and giving thanks for it.  Then he breaks it and returns the meal to the disciples, enabling them to do something they thought was absolutely impossible.  He empowers them this second time, just as he had done when he sent them out to teach and heal.  Once the food is served and eaten, the disciples collect twelve baskets, full of leftovers.  This is the first of three times in this chapter that we are told Jesus prays.  We see him praying a prayer of blessing for this food, giving thanks for it, and then giving his disciples the authority to do what he has asked them to do.

Soon after that experience, Jesus prays in a private place.  Verse 18 tells us that the disciples come to him, and Jesus asks, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  They provide multiple answers:  John the Baptist, one of the prophets.  Jesus then asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Please note that it does not really matter who other people say that Jesus is.  The only response that matters to him is their answer.  Likewise, it does not matter what theologians say or what leaders of various denominations say.  What matters to Jesus is your response, your personal faith. 

Simon Peter answers Jesus’ question with, “You are the Christ of God,” almost blundering into that answer.  He is so good at blundering; but this time, he gets it right.  He replies, “You are the Anointed One.  You are the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).  You understand that at this point Simon Peter knows nothing about the crucifixion of Jesus.  He knows nothing about the resurrection.  All he knows is what he has seen:  the miracles, the healing, the ministry of Jesus, the preaching of Jesus.  Based on that, he is able to confess that Jesus is the Christ, the anticipated Messiah. 

Knowing that these disciples must understand more fully, Jesus begins to teach them about what it means to be a disciple, about their need to take up their own cross, about their need to find in their own lives points of sacrifice.  He also begins to teach them about his own death, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. 

The two times that we have seen Jesus pray so far in Luke 9 have been before crucial events.  He prayed when he broke the bread and divided the fish.  He prayed before he asked the question of his disciples and heard Peter’s confession. Verse 28 reveals the circumstances surrounding the third time Jesus prays.  About eight days after Jesus questions his disciples, he takes Peter, John, and James with him onto a mountain to pray.  At this third time, the appearance of his face has changed.  It is all aglow.  His “clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning,” Luke’s Gospel says.  Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, also described as appearing in “glorious splendor.”  Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us the content of this conversation.  Verse 31 says that they spoke about what is to be fulfilled in the life of Jesus and his departure. 

Great mystery exists about what the combination of these three individuals means.  We know that Moses is the great lawgiver and that Elijah is the first of the prophets. Perhaps the grouping means that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  Both Moses and Elijah had unusual departures.  We know that Moses’ grave is on the top of Mount Nebo, but we do not know the exact location.  II Kings 2:11 tells us that as Elisha and Elijah were “walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” 

Peter and his companions wanted to build a monument, booths, little chapels, something to commemorate this event.  A cloud surrounds Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  Verses 35-36 tell us “Out of that cloud, a voice speaks, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’  When the voice had spoken, they find that Jesus is alone.  The disciples kept this to themselves and told no one at that time what they had seen.”

Here in Luke 9, we find key events in the life of Jesus, all preceded by prayer, all comprising a pivotal experience in his life.  Through these events, we find Jesus’ true identity.  The most important question asked in Luke 9, we might think,is the one Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  Actually, the stage is set back in Verse 9 with a question posed by Herod:  “Who is this?”  Much of the rest of the chapter answers that question.  Of course, the question has been a key part of Luke’s gospel from the beginning chapter.  At his baptism, Jesus hears the voice, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  After the baptism, he goes into the wilderness where he was tempted.  His responses to Satan clarify his identity.  He is not an economic Messiah, not an expedient Messiah, not a Messiah who is going to be spectacular.  Jesus further clarifies his identity when he goes to the synagogue.  He reads from the scroll of Isaiah one of the servant poems, the suffering servant poem. Afterwards, he sits down, the position of authority for a rabbi, and says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).  Jesus identifies himself as a suffering servant. 

In summary, we see in Chapter 9 that as the disciples go out on their ministry, they find that they had unusual authority.  Jesus, a man of authority, has the ability to delegate that authority to his followers.  They see Jesus performing a miracle, empowering them again to do what they thought was impossible, feeding all of those people with just a little bit of food.  Then he pointedly asks them the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter gets it right, responding, “You are the Christ of God.”  Finally, during the transfiguration scene, God says, “This is my Son, my chosen One.”  You can almost hear an echo there from the experience Jesus had at his baptism.  It is as if God is giving His stamp of approval.  All of these events in Luke 9 help clarify the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ of God, the Messiah.  In addition, they help explain his purpose to his disciples. 

We have studied together as a congregation Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life.  Do you remember how this book begins?  It opens with one simple sentence:  “It is not about you.”  One of the most important concepts we can learn as Christians is that living this Christian life is not about us.  It is not about what we want.  It is not about what we need.  It is about God’s plan for our lives.  Think of Jeremiah 11:9:  “‘I have a plan for you,’” says the Lord.”  It is about God’s plan for us.  A part of our walk in faith is to clarify that plan.  How do we discover that plan?  We discover it through the life of prayer.

Brother Lawrence, an eighty-four-year-old monk, dictated a book entitled The Practice of the Presence of God.  Lawrence said that he had learned to experience God’s presence as much among the pots and pans of the monastery kitchen and while he was cleaning out the monastery stable as when he went into the monastery chapel during those set-aside times of prayer with the other monks.  He had learned to practice God’s presence throughout the day. 

We see that here in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus prays before each of the crucial events occurring in Chapter 9.  His life was not just governed by those expected times of prayer.  He followed what the Apostle Paul would later call “prayer without ceasing.”  It is the practice of prayer.  God wants a personal relationship with us, too.  When the life of prayer becomes a relationship with God, we begin to understand that God has more in mind.  This is not just a feel-good experience so that we feel loved by God and we love Him.  There is an agenda:  God has a plan for us.  We begin to understand that by going into deeper levels of prayer.  God is stretching toward us, and we are to stretch toward Him.

I want to give you some examples of this deeper level from some of the classics of Christian devotion.  St. Ignatius Loyola identified what he called the “spiritual exercises.”  People often came to him wanting spiritual renewal.  He outlined a four-week retreat for these people that followed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  St. Ignatius’ method was to encourage people to experience the life of Jesus with all of their senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.  I can imagine that St. Ignatius’ followers would actually stand at the seaside and smell the fish, taste the bread, hear the roar of the crowd and the waves of the ocean.  They would be able to put themselves into the role of Simon Peter and hear the question that every single person must answer:  “Who do you say that I am?”  St. Ignatius’ followers would be able to climb Mount Tabor and stand there in that rarefied air.  They would imagine the experience of the transfiguration, that cloud surrounding them, and the voice of God speaking to them.  When we put ourselves into the Scriptures, we begin to understand the life of Jesus. 

One of the most significant experiences I have had was to follow through the old city of Jerusalem along the Stations of the Cross.  I tried to imagine what it was like to stand where the Roman soldiers whipped Jesus with a lash, to watch Jesus carry that heavy cross and fall under its weight, to see him climb Golgotha and be stretched out on that timber.  I tried to imagine watching as Roman soldiers drove a metal spike through Jesus’ wrists.  St. Ignatius would say that we need to experience the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  That really is what we do as we go through the Lenten season.  It is one of the ways we move toward God. 

Another way that we can move toward God is by learning from the classics.  The Rule of St. Benedict had one primary purpose: to teach humility.  The idea is that we cannot really grow spiritually, we cannot grow in the life of prayer, until we learn humility.  This is a slippery slope.  It is a great temptation for people who strive for humility to be so proud of their humility.  St. Benedict had what he called the Twelve Steps, which I suppose was the first twelve-step program.  It follows the analogy of the rungs in Jacob’s ladder.  Three of his steps focus on disciplining the human tongue:  what we say, how we use speech, the way we slander, the use of profanity, the telling of lies.  Three steps concentrate on discipline.  Maybe the most difficult step in the Rule of St. Benedict is focusing on learning contentment.  We read in Philippians 4 that the Apostle Paul found the secret of contentment. 

Those of you who are gardeners are familiar with the term humus. The word humility comes from humus.  Humus is fertile soil, soil that can produce good plants.  I take the refuse from our kitchen, the vegetable waste, put it in the compost at my house, and turn it and turn it and turn it.  Over time, that waste becomes fertile soil.  Something like that has to happen in our lives.  We must repeatedly turn over the useless aspects of our lives to God so that He can create the fertile soil of humility, so that we can grow spiritually.  We stretch toward God in these ways, and God stretches toward us. 

Like Jesus, we must give ourselves some solitude, some time of quiet, some time when we shut out the noise of the world and the noise of our own hearts.  “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10 says.  How can God ever reach us if we are frantic, if we are always rushing, if we allow our lives to be always noisy?  Henri Nouwen has said that without solitude, it is impossible to have a spiritual life.  Solitude, we believe, is being alone.  I love the way St. Jerome put it:  “We are never less alone than when we are alone.”  He means that when we carve out time for solitude, we are not alone at all.  We are in the presence of God.  Notice here in Luke 9 that Jesus wants to take his disciples to a lonely place where he can ask the important question, “Who do you say that I am?” He takes his disciples to a mountaintop in order to withdraw from the crowd and find solitude.  If he needed that seclusion, so do we. 

One of the ways we stretch toward God is to come face to face with our own death.  Doing so is difficult for us.  It is much easier for us to believe that we are immortal, but we are not. 

Alfred Nobel had to face his own death.  While reading the newspaper one morning, he saw his own obituary.  The paper had printed an obituary for Alfred Nobel by mistake, identifying him as the man who had created explosives.  The paper actually called him “The Father of Modern Warfare.”  Nobel did not want to be remembered for that role in history.  From that point on, he started giving his great wealth to people, especially those who sought peace.  The Nobel Peace Prize was one of the prizes he established.  He also gave prizes for literature, science, and research.  His life changed because he faced his own death.  Our life will change, too.

I want to give to you one more image.  In Jeremiah 18, we read the story about Jeremiah going to the potter’s house.  There he saw the potter working with soft and pliable clay, shaping it into a vessel.  In the life of prayer, we, too, we become clay in the hands of the Potter.  We can see the same happening right here in Luke 9 in the life of Jesus.  God took the life of His only begotten Son, molding him and shaping him to assume the purpose that God had for him. 

God had a plan and a purpose for the disciples of Jesus, too.  He molded and shaped them.  God has a purpose for all of us, as well.  God wants to change our life, so He molds us and shapes us.  When we come before God in prayer, we come not just to enjoy a loving relationship.  That, of course, is a big part of it.  We also come to place our lives in His hands so that He can begin to make of us the vessels He wants us to be.  We sing the words to “Have Thine Own Way, Lord”:  “Mold me and make me after Thy will.”  We access that molding through the life of prayer.  God seeks us, and we seek Him.

I want you to look at Verse 51 in Luke 9.  As the time approaches for Jesus to be taken to heaven, Jesus resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem, the capital city.  His destiny is to head to the cross because that is God’s purpose for him.  As he goes, we go with him, following his life of prayer as we cultivate our own. 

Have you discovered God’s purpose for your life?  Do you know that He has a plan for you?  That plan begins when you surrender yourself to Him, when you enter into this loving relationship.  When you do that, God begins to do a wonderful work in your life.  As we mature, we begin to understand that this purpose involves our humility.  It involves our surrender, our surrender to God.  He wants to do that in your life.  If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, I encourage you not to put it off another day.  Let this be the opportunity.


Kirk H. Neely

© March 8, 2009

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