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Too busy not to pray

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Mark 1:35-39

Last Wednesday I was working on today’s message, searching for an introduction. As I leafed through some files, my eye was drawn to a plaque one of my sons gave me a few years ago:

I got up early one morning and rushed right into the day.

I had so much to accomplish that I didn’t have time to pray.

Problems just tumbled about me, and heavier came each task.

“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered. He answered: “You didn’t ask.”

I wanted to see joy and beauty, but the day toiled on gray and bleak.

I wondered why God didn’t show me. He said, “But you didn’t seek.”

I tried to come into God’s presence; I used all my keys at the lock.

God gently and lovingly chided, “My child, you didn’t knock.”

I woke up early this morning, and paused before entering the day.

I had so much to accomplish that I had to take time to pray.

Have you been there? Problems tumbling about you, heavier each task? The day toiling on gray and bleak because you didn’t seek? I’ve been there as well. There’s only one solution to the restlessness and fatigue of our souls. In these days of economic uncertainty, controversy in Washington, frustration and pain in Iraq, stress on our families and hearts, there’s only one thing to do.

As we watch Jesus prepare for Easter, we’ll learn today how to face our own Caiaphas and Calvary, Judas and Pilate, our own problems and fears and pain. We’ll learn how to find the peace and power of God, where we need them most today.

When Jesus prayed

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35). Jesus has just spent an exhausting day. He started the day by preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. He exorcised a demon in the worship service. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law. He spent the evening healing all the sick of this large town.

If I were to preach this morning, and cast a demon out of someone right here in church; then go to a member’s house for lunch and heal his mother-in-law; then spend the evening until late counseling with people from all over North Dallas who have come to me with their problems, I would feel tomorrow like Jesus feels here.

Now it’s the day after the Sabbath–Monday morning to us. Jesus gets up before dawn, around three or four in the morning. He leaves Peter’s house in Capernaum and walks out of town. He goes to a “solitary place,” literally a “wilderness place” in the Greek. Some place where no one else would see him, off the road, out in the country.

If I were to get up tomorrow morning around 3 or 4, get in my car and drive out of the city, pull off the road, and hike out into a field alone, I would do what Jesus did here.

And he “prayed.” The Greek “imperfect” tense indicates that he continued to pray, all morning long. Not for just a few minutes, but from 3 or 4 until daybreak, two or three hours of solitude with God.

What did he pray? Mark’s Jewish readers already knew. We Gentiles, 20 centuries after the fact, don’t know much about first-century Jewish spirituality. But when we learn how Jesus grew up in the faith, what he was taught to pray and how, we see how crucial the practice of God’s presence was to his soul. And should be to ours.

We’ll spend the bulk of our time this morning simply listening to what Jesus said to his Father, watching the Son of God commune with the God of the universe.

What Jesus prayed

From the time he was five years old, Jesus was taught to begin each day with the central affirmation of the Jewish faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). He began this Monday morning in that way.

Then, like all observant Jews, he continued to recite the paragraph: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9). He prayed all of that to God on this morning.

Next, he recited Deuteronomy 11:1-21 from memory. He followed then with a recital of the Ten Commandments.

He concluded his regular morning prayers with the Shemoneh ‘Esreh, the “Eighteen Benedictions,” spoken to God while facing Jerusalem. They are part of the Jewish prayer book, recited by every practicing Jew every morning, afternoon, and evening, and during synagogue services on the Sabbath as well. Jesus had them memorized. I don’t, but want you to hear them as if he was praying them on this early Monday morning.

First, he prayed to the God of history: “Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows lovingkindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake. Oh king, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the shield of Abraham.”

Next, he prayed to the God of nature: “You, Oh Lord, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like you, Oh doer of mighty acts? Who resembles you, a king who puts to death and restores to life, and causes salvation to flourish? And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who revives the dead.”

He prayed for understanding: “You favor men with knowledge, and teach mortals understanding. Oh favor us with the knowledge, the understanding and the insight that come from you. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the gracious giver of knowledge.”

The typical Jew next prayed for repentance and forgiveness, prayers the sinless Son of God did not need to offer the Father. But he would then pray for deliverance from affliction: “Look upon our affliction and plead our cause, and redeem us speedily for your name’s sake, for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the redeemer of Israel.”

He prayed for healing, for himself and his people: “Heal us, Oh Lord, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved, for you are our praise. Oh grant a perfect healing to all our ailments, for you, almighty King, are a faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the healer of the sick of his people Israel.”

He prayed for deliverance from want: “Bless this year for us, Oh Lord our God, together with all the varieties of its produce, for our welfare. Bestow a blessing upon the face of the earth. Oh satisfy us with your goodness, and bless our year like the best of years. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who blesses the years.”

He prayed for gathering of his exiled people: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the ensign to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.”

He prayed for the righteous reign of God: “Restore our judges as in former times, and our counselors as at the beginning; and remove from us sorrow and sighing. Reign over us, you alone, Oh Lord, with lovingkindness and compassion, and clear us in judgment. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the King who loves righteousness and justice.”

Jesus prayed for the righteous and converts to Jewish faith: “May your compassion be stirred, Oh Lord our God, towards the righteous, the pious, the elders of your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, towards proselytes, and towards us also. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name. Set our lot with them forever so that we may never be put to shame, for we have put our trust in you. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the support and stay of the righteous.”

He prayed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem: “Return in mercy to Jerusalem your city, and dwell in it as you have promised. Rebuild it soon in our day as an eternal structure, and quickly set up in it the throne of David. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.”

He was taught to pray for the Messianic King, an interesting petition for the Messiah himself to make: “Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who causes salvation to flourish.”

He prayed for the answering of prayer: “Hear our voice, Oh Lord our God; spare us and have pity on us. Accept our prayer in mercy and with favor, for you are a God who hears prayers and supplications. Our King, do not turn us away from your presence empty-handed, for you hear the prayers of your people Israel with compassion. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who hears prayer.”

He prayed for thanksgiving for God’s unfailing mercies: “We give thanks to you that you are the Lord our God and the God of our fathers forever and ever. Through every generation you have been the rock of our lives, the shield of our salvation. We will give you thanks and declare your praise for our lives that are committed into your hands, for our souls that are entrusted to you, for your miracles that are daily with us, and for your wonders and your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon. Oh beneficent one, your mercies never fail; Oh merciful one, your lovingkindnesses never cease. We have always put our hope in you. For all these acts may your name be blessed and exalted continually, Our King, forever and ever. Let every living thing give thanks to you and praise your name in truth, Oh God, our salvation and our help. (Selah.) Blessed are you, Oh Lord, whose Name is the Beneficent One, and to whom it is fitting to give thanks.”

And he prayed for peace: “Grant peace, welfare, blessing, grace, lovingkindness and mercy to us and to all Israel your people. Bless us, Our Father, one and all, with the light of your countenance; for by the light of your countenance you have given us, Oh Lord our God, a Torah of life, lovingkindness and salvation, blessing, mercy, life and peace. May it please you to bless your people Israel at all times and in every hour with your peace. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, who blesses his people Israel with peace.”

As Jesus prayed, he gave his problem to his Father: how should he conduct this ministry? Should he stay in Capernaum and minister to the teeming multitudes coming to him? Or should he go to the rest of Israel and to the Gentiles beyond? Should he wait for them, or go to them?

In the midst of this time alone with his Father, he sensed the purpose he needed: “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38). In prayer he found the purpose and power of God.

This would be his pattern for the rest of his ministry. Luke 5:16 says that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

After feeding the 5,000, he prayed until 3 a.m. (Matthew 14:22-25).

Before he chose his disciples, the men who would carry on his work after his ascension, he spent the entire night alone with God in prayer (Luke 6.12).

In the Garden of Gethsemane, facing the cross, he agonized alone with his Father (Mark. 14.32-42).

On the cross, he trusted his spirit to his Father in prayer (Luke 23:46).

Hebrews 5:7 says, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

Jesus is praying for us, right now: “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Jesus, the divine Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, needed to start the day alone with God. He needed to end the day with God. He needed to pray before making decisions, before solving problems and helping people. He needed to pray for God’s power to fulfill God’s purpose.

He needed to speak with God, and he needed to listen to God. He needed a personal, intimate relationship with his Father. If the soul of the Son of God needed such communion with God, does yours?

Conclusion

Do you begin the morning with God in prayer? Reading his word, thanking him and worshipping him, asking his help with your problems? Do you pray before you make your decisions through the day? Do you confess your sins when you commit them? Do you thank God for his gifts when you receive them? Do you trust God with the problems of other people when you discover them? Do you end the day in prayer, thanking God for his faithfulness and mercy and grace? Do you walk through the day with God in spoken and silent communion and prayer?

If not, why not? The only reason I don’t walk with God in prayer through the day is that I don’t think I need to.

I see time in prayer as time I’m not at work, doing what needs to be done. Until I realize that I don’t know what to do unless God tells me; and I can’t do it unless he helps me. Until I realize that my day of hard work is wasted unless he directs it and uses it. Until I admit that I’m an airplane which doesn’t know how to fly and needs a pilot, a scalpel which doesn’t know how to operate and needs a surgeon. Until I admit that God made me with a God-shaped emptiness in my soul, and that my heart is restless until it rests in him (Augustine, Confessions 1.1). Until I admit that if Jesus needed to walk with God in prayer, who am I to think I don’t?

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed.” “I woke up early this morning, and paused before entering the day. I had so much to accomplish that I had to take time to pray.” Now the decision is yours