The most commonly discussed spiritual discipline is that of prayer. I think I'm pretty safe with this assertion. I suppose in the past five or six years the market has exploded with “how to” books on prayers from The Prayer of Jabez and Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? To Intercessory Prayer: How God can use your prayers to move heaven and earth and even a novel: The Yada Yada Prayer Group! Recently I’ve even taught a series on prayer during Wednesday nights using Larry Crabb’s book The PAPA Prayer as a resource.
The problem with prayer is it often deteriorates into a practice of self-centered manipulation. I don’t say this to castigate anyone—I think it’s just some perversity in our nature that drives us inward rather than upward and outward. We tend to view prayer as a means by which we can get God to change our circumstances whether it be health, wealth, or happiness. And the stories we tell of answered prayers aren’t always helpful. Because for every triumphant story of healing and success there are a hundred stories of continued illness, failure, and death.
And so we search for the perfect prayer formula that will guarantee God’s power to make everything work out the way we imagine as best. We try the Jabez prayer, until someone comes along with a new formula and a story to suggest it works better. And again, it begins to sound very uncomfortably like an attempt to manipulate God. Do we really think all we need is a new magic formula? What are we saying?
But, I can’t resist: not to be left out in the cold—I have decided to offer a formula for you to consider. Resurrection Sunday brought this prayer to my mind. If we were going to follow the liturgical calendar, I suppose I would have preached this sermon early on Friday morning or late Thursday evening rather than today. Unfortunately, no one would have shown up for such an early service, so I thought I’d wait. The prayer rightfully belongs there—early Friday morning or late, late, Thursday evening.
Jesus has just completed the Passover meal with his close friends and followers. He knows what lies ahead. Judas has already left to meet with the religious leaders in order to betray him. Jesus leads his friends across the Kidron Valley to a favorite retreat site for him: the garden of Gethsemane. And there we encounter the true Jesus Prayer –what would appropriately be called The Lord’s Prayer.
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch."This is not a prayer to pray if you want things to turn out well for you. This is not a prayer to pray if you want that high paying job, or the cancer to go into remission. Hitting more closely to home—this isn’t even the prayer to pray if you want your church to become successful and well known.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."
It is a most dangerous prayer. It is a prayer to say: God, whatever you think is best for your glory—whatever you think is best for the benefit of the world and those in it—I’m open. God I want that job! God I want my finances to work better! God, I want the disease to be eradicated, the charges to be dropped, my spouse to come back, my children to accept me—but God, I am prepared to accept the “No” answer to all of that if your will demands it. In fact, if it calls for a long drawn out and painful death—bring it on! Not my will, but yours be done!
Do you think a prayer such as this would make you sweat bullets? Do you think it would make you sweat blood? If it doesn’t, then you haven’t thought it through. Why would anyone pray this kind of prayer? What would make someone truly pray this way—fully accepting the consequences? I think a solid belief in the two greatest commands: love God with all you are and have and love your neighbor as yourself. That kind of world view scoffs at the American dream. It’s a world view that says love is more important than comfort and happiness. But most importantly—it’s a world view that trusts in the wisdom and power of God.
The person who can pray this prayer can look fully in the face of death—and still believe life can be found on the other side. I think it interesting one would have to look long and hard to find the kind of prayers we commonly hear today in the pages of the Bible—it is especially difficult to find the prayers we pray on the lips of the Christ followers in the New Testament. More often they pray—not for deliverance from difficulty—but for trust and boldness in the face of difficulty. Their thanksgivings are more often than not “thank-yous” for being found worthy to suffer as Jesus did.
On this day people all over the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. We sing triumphant songs and hear powerful and positive messages of victory and triumph. And all of those sentiments and messages are right on! However, we must be very careful not to ignore the Friday before and the attitude of the One who experienced the victorious empty tomb. Resurrection does not happen apart from death. Resurrection Sunday would not have come had there not been the dark Friday. And redemption would never have taken place had there not been One who would pray this dangerous prayer.
Of the writing of prayer formulas there is no end. But this prayer for “God’s will to be done” is not really a formula. It is a gut wrenching, heart-felt, and dangerous prayer. It doesn’t matter exactly how you word it—there is no magic in it. What matters is your overwhelming desire to trust God no matter what the consequences; your desire to see redemption brought to the world; your desire to be used up by God for something so big that it will out live you and your children and your children’s children.
May you learn to love God so much you can pray for his will. May you discover his power is seen most often in self-sacrificial love. And may you, together with all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, surrender yourself to his desire—trusting in the Spirit of him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Now to him who is able to do far more than we can ask or even imagine, to him be glory forever and ever. Amen.