"Pride, Prayer, and Preparation"
April 1/07 Palm/Passion Sunday Lk.22:28-46
Combat - or Kidding?
A national radio news item this past week featured a Canadian soldier who'd recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The community in Nova Scotia was turning out to see his home movies - not of puppy dogs' antics but real military operations he'd been involved in. That would be rather exciting: there's a real element of risk, a dangerous enemy, a conflict against evil with definite goals and measurable success - you either win or lose the battle.
By contrast, churches are having trouble generating the same degree of excitement or interest. Many churchgoers have lost any sense of mission or objective. "Churchianity" becomes a routine of withdrawing once a week into a nice safe box to sing songs, bask in stories about God's love, enjoy happy emotions and fellowship, then leave feeling valued. At least until the glow wears off and you need to go back again the next Sunday to get your emotional 'fix'. Combat? Risk? Far from it; we're content with a nice cushy retreat.
Small wonder churches have trouble attracting the adventurous, or convincing more active personality types there's anything actually being accomplished. We'll leave that to the corporate world and the military.
That may be churchianity, but it's not what Scripture shows Jesus calling his followers to, and it's less than our heritage down the centuries through the bold Reformers or even in other cultures. Bill Hull quotes some prominent faith-leaders who are critical of the weakness of the Church in the West: "Christians' use of money, priorities of time, attitudes about work and leisure, divorce and remarriage, increasingly reflect culture rather than Scripture. Therefore, the church is weak in skills and weak in character. When Os Guinness says, 'We have left out substance, it is no longer the hol[y] of holies, but vanit[y] of vanities...we worship the god of the gut, no deeper than our last experience,' he speaks of a lack of strength in the church. George Gallup's findings support this view. Only 42 percent of Christians know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most of them know that because of television...Evangelicals show a startling biblical illiteracy...Christians evidence a serious lack of depth of both knowledge and good experience. Francis Schaeffer warned us: 'Here is the great evangelical disaster - the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this - namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.'"
We have backed away from the combat with evil inasmuch as we've opted not to stand for the truth. But as we read about Jesus' preparation for His suffering and passion, we see He places Himself squarely within God's plan as set forth in Scripture - and that brings Him into direct conflict with the powers of darkness. He goes out with guns blazing (spiritually speaking): we see that the discipline of combative prayer makes a difference for both Him and His followers.
The Lamb-Lord's Legacy
To understand what's at stake here, let's back up a bit and look at the context in which we find our passage. It's sandwiched between the Last Supper and the arrest in Gethsemane. Ever since the Triumphal Entry in chapter 19 on "Palm Sunday", there has been an increasing threat from the religious establishment. In chapter 20 Jesus encounters opposition first from the chief priests and scribes, then the Sadducees. Chapter 22 opens with the behind-the-scenes plot involving Judas Iscariot; by verse 47 the arrest is about to take place. So these last moments alone with His disciples must have been very precious to the Lord. He's about to send His agents out to change the world; what will He use the quickly-vanishing moments to focus on? Global strategies? 20 top methods to multiply your ministry? 100 easy miracles to grab attention and impress world rulers? How essential it was for their buildings to be multi-use/multi-purpose, and make sure they allowed for adequate foyer space?
No; not at all. Strangely, His main focus seems to be PRAYER. In John 17 we have His 'high priestly prayer' with the disciples in the upper room. Here in Luke He mentions having prayed for Peter, and then in the garden of Gethsemane He commands the Twelve to pray, while He devotes His remaining free time to praying.
It's as if the key to being on track with God and letting His power be released in the world involves prayer. Prayer works not because we generate our own power through it, but because it connects us to God's sovereign plan and almighty power available to make that happen.
The environment of prayer is God's power and purpose. Back up to vv15-16, where Jesus highlights what a critical moment, a climax in salvation history, this particular Passover is. "And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God."" Out of the roughly 1480 passovers that had been celebrated since the Israelites left Egypt, this was the one they were all pointing to: here was the real sacrificial Lamb whose blood smeared on the post would save from the Destroyer. The ritual meal begun way back then was about to find its fulfilment now, in Jesus' death on behalf of sinners. Here the real spiritual deliverance or 'exodus' from the captivity of sin would be worked, for all time. Jesus Himself would become the Passover Lamb 'led to the slaughter' as Isaiah put it who would be 'crushed for our iniquities', punished to bring us peace; 'by His wounds we are healed' (Is 53:5,7).
This Lamb would subsequently be raised from the dead (as Jesus had predicted several times) and enthroned as Lord. The one true Power with whom the created universe would have to deal. In vv25-27 Jesus reminds the disciples His power and pattern of leadership is different from that of human selfishness, as epitomized in bossy self-protecting Gentile tyrants. "The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves...I am among you as one who serves."
Whether at committee meetings, doing corporate planning or as a parent at the supper table, Christians are to exercise a different style of leadership, because it's based in a different Source: our power is always delegated. The power and authority aren't from us, but based in our pouring-out, self-giving God. Prayer is the means by which we plug in to that power.
Jesus passes power on to His followers. Look at v29: He doesn't make a big deal of the Father giving Him authority, as if to boast in the fact; it's buried as a secondary clause in the sentence - "And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me..." It's just slipped in there; see the lead-up to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 for a more direct statement of the reality - Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Mt 28:18) All authority, ALL power. He confers or delegates this ruling power on those who stand by Him. The word 'confer' in v29 is related to the Greek for a last will and testament, a covenant; Jesus (who's about to die) is 'bequeathing' the right to sit on thrones and judge, passing it on as a legacy. God will empower His people to carry out His plans. Prayer is how we find out what that is, how this power is to be realized in our setting.
Prayer Succeeds where Pride Stumbles
Jesus' humble, faithful sacrifice stands in stark contrast to boastful Peter's cowardly denial. Both are tested or tried by adversity; Jesus resists and stays true to the end, whereas Peter caves in and must be restored by the Lord after the Resurrection.
Peter seems ignorant of the facts of the situation: the adversary's strength, and Peter's own weakness. Jesus is aware of both Satan's abilities and Peter's susceptibility. Look at vv31 on: Jesus begins, "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat." The 'you' is plural - NRSV has "all of you". The imagery is of a winnowing fork, tossing the wheat up into the air so the chaff can be blown free. Temptations and trials do that - you feel like you're flailing wildly in mid-air, your 'legs have been knocked out' from under you, things are out of control. You've lost your footing. The tempter is doing his job (within the bounds of God's permissive will) of testing you. Note Satan has to ask or demand, as he challenged God about Job's righteousness - and God permitted the devil to bring about trials, within limits (Job 1:11f; 2:4ff)
So, Jesus is aware the wolf is going to worry and harass his flock. But notice He's made preparation for when that occurs. He continues in v32, "But I have prayed for you [singular], Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." Jesus is assigning Peter the task of holding down the fort and encouraging the others to stand firm.
V33, Peter replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." The "I" is emphatic in the original text; Mk (14:29) adds the note of Peter saying, "Even if all [the others] fall away, I will not." He's boasting of a superior commitment here. Actually as it worked out, even young John seemed bolder than Peter when it came to following Jesus through his trial (Jn 18:15f). How little Peter knows himself! How over-inflated his estimation of his own capability! Jesus knows the real state of affairs; He spelled it out bluntly to the big fisherman, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me." (Lu 22:34) Peter would prove to be more shallow than a barnyard bird.
But Jesus had prayed for him; Peter wouldn't end up dead from suicidal remorse like Judas, but fearlessly preaching to the crowds and Council after Jesus was gone. Proverbs 16(18) says, "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." Peter's pride would bring him low, but Christ's intercession on his behalf would restore him. Prayer succeeded where pride stumbled.
Prayer's success is rooted in God's attributes and authority, not our own merit, ability, or deserving. You can see hints of these attributes back of what Jesus says. V37 points to God's sovereign plan, priorities, and purpose, what He's intent on making happen as Yahweh: Jesus quotes "It is written" and adds, "I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment." It's got to happen because God planned it and foretold it.
God's foreknowledge and wisdom are reflected in 32/34/36: "when you have turned back" - Jesus knows Peter won't stay a failure; He knows just how soon and how many times Peter will deny Him; and Jesus knows the attitude of the public is going to change so the disciples will be persecuted and need to be on their guard, perhaps even with swords to defend themselves. Persecution is coming - but that doesn't take the Lord by surprise, He divinely foreknows that. "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Ro 11:33)
The Lord's protection is seen in 32 in that Jesus has been praying for Simon. That didn't stop with Jesus' earthly life: Romans 8(34) says He "is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." Hebrews 7(25) notes Jesus "is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them."
Jesus is your prayer partner - He's got you covered!
And in this brief discussion with the disciples, Jesus also hints at His provision. V35 He asks, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?" [what did they answer?] "Nothing." He provided for them, looked after their needs when they were about His business. So Paul could say things to the early church like, "My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus;" and, "...God...richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." ( Php 4:19; 1Ti 6:17)
Think of prayer kind of like docking with the 'mother ship', for a modern analogy. Like the space shuttle coming in to dock with the space station. It's not our docking or talking that makes prayer effective; it's the resources of the 'mother ship' that matter, prayer is just making the connection. For the two objects to join, the shuttle has to have the right 'attitude' or angle relative to the station. Do we let the world or Scripture determine our frame of reference? Is our focus getting something for ourselves, or for God to be honoured in our circumstances? The shuttle needs the right approach - humbly, gently, modestly, in faith. We need the right position in prayer, coming to God on His terms, washed in the blood of the Lamb to remove the stains of our sin. The shuttle has to connect: sinners can only come before a holy God through the Redeemer. And the shuttle then has to actually receive the payload (or vice versa); are we 'receptive' in prayer, or just presenting God with a long wish-list, somewhat akin to Satan 'demanding' to sift the Twelve?
God is great, and good, and merciful; He still answers prayer, often in unexpected or wonderful ways. A praise report came through our denominational email this past week. Jared Parker is the son of EMC pastor Matthew Parker who serves at the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto. Jared had been diagnosed with lupus. A prayer request was circulated. Then this week a note came through from Jared's dad:
"Jared was originally diagnosed with lupus, and since last Friday was being treated as such. During his sickness and over last weekend many people were praying for Jared. Then the initial biopsy results which came in this Monday suggested he may not have lupus, or as the doctor said they did not "Shout" lupus. Then the complete biopsy results came back later in the day and showed that he did not have lupus but rather what is called a post-viral nephritis, or an acute kidney failure from which he will recover. As the doctor was explaining the news, he said it was unexpected given the lupus diagnosis and that Jared's case was a "conundrum". I guess that's the medical word for miracle. We couldn't be happier. Jared is home now and doing well. He's expected to make a full recovery.
We are extremely thankful for all the support we have received. We have been overwhelmed really by the generosity and good will of our friends. We are blessed to have so many caring friends and to be part of the YSM community which is truly an extraordinary community of faith. Thank you so much for your prayers and your support! God is good beyond words, all the time."
Go to the Mat: Wrestling Prayer
Jesus isn't a hypocrite, saying one thing and doing another. He practices what He preaches. In this passage we see him both admonishing and demonstrating the importance of prayer. VV40&46, twice He tells the disciples, "Pray so that you will not fall into temptation." Pray to be spared the testing, because God is ultimately in charge; pray also that, when trials come, you don't cave in like Peter, you don't 'enter in' to the enticing trap. There are echoes of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6(13), "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
V42 could be another 'model prayer' of Jesus: He prays, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." Two parts - first the asking, "take this cup [of suffering, pain, separation, unjust condemnation] from me..." It's OK to be totally open and honest to God about whatever's weighing on you. Express it, get it out there. Note too the acknowledgment of God's ultimate control, sovereignty, and Lordship: "If you are willing..." We don't know the big picture, He does. Our passing pain may play a part in a much larger plan, as it did in the case of Jesus. So Paul could say to the church at Colosse, "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Col 1:24)
If the first part is asking, the second part is adjustment or acceptance: "yet not My will, but Yours be done." Jesus submitted His well-being and safety to the greater good of God's redemptive purpose. Hebrews 2(9f) says Jesus "suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone"; and that it was fitting for God, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, to make "the author of their salvation perfect through suffering." Though it would hurt terribly, to the limits of human endurance - and though the association with sin and separation from the Father must have been abhorrent to Jesus' soul - He embraced God's will over His own wants. An angel appeared to strengthen Him as He prayed over this. Luke the physician records the physiological note that as Jesus prayed more earnestly or fervently, "His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." Aristotle and Theophrastus wrote of this phenomenon known as 'hematidrosis'; though it's rare, it's well documented. When people are under severe stress or mental anguish, the blood vessels constrict; when relief comes, the vessels dilate, sometimes to the point of rupture - and droplets of blood are released into the sweat glands. What kind of pressure must Jesus have been under?!
Look closely at the start of v44, "And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly..." 'Anguish' here translates the Greek word agonia (like our English word 'agony') which the lexicon defines as "1) a struggle for victory: gymnastic exercise, wrestling; 2) of severe mental struggles and emotions, agony, anguish". It comes from the Gk 'agon' which referred to an assembly such as that for Greek sports, or in general any struggle or contest, 'a battle'. In the garden, at prayer on His knees, Jesus was fighting - for us. He didn't just pray for Simon, or the Twelve: He was praying so you and I could be here today. He was wrestling in a spiritual combat for our souls.
There's an expression from the wrestling world of the early 1900s, "Go to the mat". (Referred to deviantly in the Godfather and You've Got Mail as 'go to the mattresses'.) It meant the wrestler wouldn't give up until his opponent finally had his shoulders pinned to the canvas. Jesus determined to 'go to the mat' for us, stopping at nothing, being obedient even to death on a cross. Prayer is that active, that vital.
Prayer as Warfare
Watchman Nee talks about prayer as combat in the spiritual zone. Here are some concluding thoughts from his book, The Spiritual Man...
"Upon realizing how his inner man is strengthened with might through God's Holy Spirit, a spiritual child of God learns the absolute necessity of overcoming the enemy. His inner man grows sturdier as he attacks the foe with prayer and wrestling. In the same manner that the muscles of the wrestler develop in physical combat, just so the strength of the believer's spirit increases as he battles the adversary. The latter mounts an assault in order to depress the believer's inner man and thus to afflict his soul. If the child of God has come to appreciate the wiles of his assailant, he will not surrender at any point but will instead resist; and his emotional soul is thereby protected. Resistance in the inner man forces the enemy to go on the defensive...
"...we must attack Satan incessantly. This is to prevent ourselves from being attacked. When a believer has crossed into the domain of the spiritual he daily ought to maintain a combat attitude in his spirit, praying therewith for the overthrow of all the works of Satan done through the evil powers.
"The spiritual path does not yield any enjoyment to the person himself; it is instead a life of daily fighting. To remove warfare from a spiritual life is to render it unspiritual. Life in the spirit is a suffering way, filled with watching and labouring, burdened by weariness and trial, punctuated by heartbreak and conflict. It is a life utterly outpoured entirely for the kingdom of God and lived in complete disregard for one's personal happiness...A spiritual life is one of spiritual usefulness because it is lived to mount assault upon assault against God's spiritual enemy. We ought to be zealous for God, relentlessly attacking that enemy and never allowing this most useful spirit of ours to sink into passivity."
Challenging words, aren't they? Sound like a call to arms! Maybe there's some excitement, challenge, and potential victory awaiting believers after all- as we discover the power of prayer. Let's pray!