Priority of Prayer
Intro – We all know about Tebowing, but Tim did his praying on the sideline. Not so Isadore Irandir, Brazilian soccer team goalie who allowed a kick from mid-field to fly past his ear only 3 minutes into a game in the early 1970’s. He was still on his knees finishing his pre-match prayers. There is a time to pray – and a time to act. Unfortunately most of us confuse the 2. We’re far more prone to act than to pray, right? The Bible invites believers, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Despite that clear and plain invitation, we will do almost anything to attack a problem before praying, will we not? Prayer is the last thing on our mind – literally!
But that was never Jesus’ way. As the crowds diminished and evil forces began to plot His demise, He did not seek new strategies, did not soften the message, did not take an audience survey to determine how to be more appealing. Rather, He sought the guidance of the Father. V. 12. “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” Jesus wasn’t much for methods, but He was big-time into prayer. It’s prayer, not methods, that succeed with God. It always has been. It always will be. How I pray that God will burden us with the need to seek Him.
I. Prayer Has a Time
Notice v. 12, “In these days.” In what days? The days when opposition was building and crowds diminishing. In those days. What did He do? “He went out to the mountain to pray.” Prayer has a time. And that time is before initiating any action. Jesus is about to choose 12 apostles to form His inner circle, 12 who will carry on once He is gone. But before He chooses, He prays. Prayer has a time. And the time is before the decision, before the crisis, before the planning, before the ministry, before the action.
Prayer is our last resort! We act, and when it comes apart, then we pray. A child gets sick. What do we do? Home remedies; go to the doc; ER – and then we pray. We have a ministry need. So – we count the money. Devise a solution – new class; new building; new staff. Then we pray. But that’s backwards, Beloved. Jesus prayed as a first resort, not a last. The time to pray is before the planning, before the crisis, before the decision, not after.
So often when we see a need, we complain, bicker, criticize, backbite, whine. Anything but pray! Ever been guilty? Oh, I have, God forgive me. Beloved, do you see a problem, have a concern? Then don’t complain. Pray!
Prayer has another time, too. In Matt 14:23. Jesus has just finished feeding 5,000 men plus women and children. It was a good day. Good time to rest up. But Matt tells us, “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” Jesus prayed before crisis decisions; He also prayed after great victories. That’s when we are most vulnerable. That’s where Elijah failed. In I Kings 18 he prays fire down from heaven to annihilate the prophets of Baal; then he prays down rain to end a 3-1/2 year drought. Prayed down fire and rain in the same great day. But wicked Queen Jezebel, having found that Elijah killed her prophets “sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow (you got 24 hours to get out of Dodge, Elijah).” 3 Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life” (I Kings 19:2-3). The price of letting up after victory. We celebrate and begin to feel that it’s on us, get vulnerable to pride and then fear. And we go down. Prayer has a time.
You say, “Well, I thought we were supposed to be praying all the time. I Thess 5:17, ‘Pray without ceasing.’” And that’s right. Life should be running conversation with God. But that can never replace specific daily prayer times. Like Daniel had 3 times a day (Dan 6:10). Tweets throughout the day don’t sub for defined times of prayer. They do not. If Jesus needed regular prayer times, how much more do we? Specific times. Intense times. That’s the pattern Jesus shows and that Daniel and Paul teach us.
II. Prayer Has a Place
V. 12, “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray.” Prayer has a place. Jesus constantly sought solitude so He could concentrate. Mark 1:35, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Prayer has a place.
God deserves our undivided attention. Distractions are a major issue in prayer. We all get them. Eliminate them. By having a private place. By praying out loud. Does God know our thoughts? Absolutely. So, yes, we can pray in our mind. But your mind will quickly wander. Pray out loud. Martin Luther used pray aloud because he wanted the devil to know he was praying. That’s reason enough. But it will increase your faith, improve your focus and up the intimacy exponentially if you pray out loud. Feel awkward? Keep at it. I always envision God sitting right there in front of me, which, in fact, He is – I just can’t see Him. Do you fall asleep? Then get up and walk around. Walk around, praying out loud, envisioning God right beside you. Your excuses are now officially gone. Anyone can do this! Be with your Father.
The high school in a small town was using the gymnasium of a church for a spring banquet. Not wanting the kids to get to the main building, someone suggested putting up a sign “Do Not Enter.” However, fearing that would be more invitation than not, someone else put up Prayer Room. Worked to perfection. Beloved, do you have prayer room? Jesus had a suggestion. Matt 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Get alone with God in your room. The KJV used “closet”. Bedroom would be a legitimate translation. Richard Nixon said his mother literally prayed in her closet. It could be an office or a storage area. Anywhere to be with Him alone. Isn’t He worth it?
Someone asked theologian George MacDonald once why prayer if God loves us so much and knows everything we need before we pray. He answered: What if he knows prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God’s idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need – the need of himself? What if the good of all our smaller and lower needs lies in this, that they help drive us to God? Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other needs; prayer is the beginning of that communion. You see, nothing in our experience tells us that our greatest need is God. We don’t naturally get up in the morning saying, “The thing I need most is God.” We just don’t. Prayer is the discipline that supplies that need and it needs a place to do so.
III. Prayer Has a Passion
This brings us to the most amazing part of this verse. You’ve seen it already. “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” Jesus prayed – all night -- 8-10 hours straight. That speaks volumes about the passion of His heart; about the degree of His dependence on God. Ever prayed all night? I never have. I’ve been restless and had sleepless nights where I spent a lot of time in prayer. But never close to praying all night. You have to have passion to pray all night. The issue here isn’t how long. It’s how urgently do you want this for God’s glory!
To pray with passion is to pray for what God really lays on your heart – that you feel deeply about. Do you see a problem in your home, or at work, or at church that really bugs you? Stop complaining – pray about it! Pray passionately. Instead we complain, gripe, whine and defend our rights. Beloved – Pray!! Give it to the Father. If He’s not moving fast enough, pray again. Don’t get impatient with Him. That would be sin, but let Him know your heart. Persist!
So what did Jesus pray all night? Well, I’d guess there was a lot of repetition in His prayer. You say, “Wait a minute, Dave. You’re not supposed to be repetitious in your prayers. I know that; I’ve read that; people have told me that.” But, Beloved, the truth is a little different. Jesus says in Matt 6:7, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Empty phrases . “Vain repetition” in the KJV – “babbling” in the NIV. The word is βατταλογεω (battalogeo) and the dictionary meaning is to “use the same words again and again,” – “to speak without thinking” (that’s the key). The root meaning is to stammer. It’s like a penance prescribing so many “Hail Mary’s” – prayer offered without thought, getting value by repetition. Doesn’t work. Repetition without content is what Jesus warns against.
But that’s different from repetition driven by passion. Turn to Mark 14, the night of Jesus’ arrest. He leads the disciples to Gethsemane to pray. He is in agony. V. 34, “ And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” That’s passionate prayer! But the disciples are clueless which leads to miserable failure. No prayer prior to crisis. V. “37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. Still think repetition itself is wrong? Then Jesus is as guilty as sin. Listen, passion-driven repetition moves the heart of God. More importantly, it moves our hearts toward His. Repetition in prayer prepared our Lord Jesus for the cross. Passion drives repetition and dependence.
John R. Rice was a great 20th century evangelist who knew how to pray. He had a passion for a project one time, I’ve forgotten what, something heavy on his heart. He was praying diligently day and night. One night, his wife was ill. She couldn’t sleep, so she awakened her husband to ask if he would pray for her. With eyes half-closed he knelt by the bed and began to pray – only he was praying for the project that was on his heart. It took some doing to get him awake enough to change his request! That’s passionate prayer, Beloved.
Tell you a secret. You can tell the prayer life of a Dad and Mom by looking at the family. You can tell the prayer life of a church by looking at the body. If it’s all complaints and criticism, there is no passionate praying going on. Passionate praying eliminates complaints. Prayer takes the onus off our back and puts it right onto the back of our Father. Tim Keller says in The Reason for God, “We usually begin the journey toward God thinking, ‘What do I have to do to get this or that from Him?’ but eventually we have to begin thinking, ‘What do I have to do to get Him?’ If you don’t make that transition, you will never actually meet the real God, but will only end up believing in some caricature version of Him. That’s where the passion is – to desire Him and His will above anything. Are we praying with passion?
IV. Prayer Has an Object
Now, this is obvious, but oh, so important. “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” Those last 2 words are the most important. Prayer has an object – the object is God. We are not talking to thin air. This is why people sometimes have difficulty praying out loud at first. It feels like talking to thin air. We feel like anyone watching would think we had lost our mind. To get over that, we must by faith see that God, though invisible, is even more real than we are. He’s really there. We’re not just mouthing words. We’re talking to God.
We often urge people to pray, but it’s not enough to just pray. Prayer without an object is useless. Lots of people pray. Most people in the world pray. The prophets of Baal prayed their hearts out to no avail. Every time disaster strikes, we hear people everywhere saying, “You are in our prayers.” And they are no doubt sincere. But, Beloved, prayer is useless without access to God. And access to God is not granted to everyone. It is the most precious possession anyone can have. God is not just waiting around to do the bidding of desperate people who otherwise have no use for Him.
Access to God requires a relationship. Jesus said it plainly in John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” There is a gateway to the throne of God and it is Jesus. And his position as mediator between us and God is based on His dying for our our sins. If we have not confessed our sinfulness and accepted His righteousness, there is no way our prayers can get above the ceiling, no matter how urgently felt, how eloquently phrased or how desperately needed. First is salvation and confession. The Bible says in Psa 66:18, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” To be effective, prayer must be addressed to God, but to get to God, sin must be removed by repentance and acceptance of Christ’s death in my place. The one prayer of the unbeliever God hears is “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.”
But when we have done that, it’s like every door opens to us and access is total. Remember the old Get Smart TV show? Remember all those doors that opened at the beginning of the show as Maxwell Smart entered the headquarters. Not with God. Only one needed. Only Jesus. Heb 4:14, “Since then we (repenters, believers) have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near (access granted) to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Prayer must be addressed to God and access must be granted through Jesus. But that access is precious. It guarantees an answer that will be for our good and His glory.
One woman who had joined the military said one basic training lesson stood out above all the others. Keep your mouth shut unless give permission to talk. She went on to say she hadn’t realized how much that lesson had been taken to heart until one evening at dinner her companion started her evening prayer with, “God, request permission to pray!” That’s what we have in Jesus, Beloved. Permission to pray. Permission to enter the greatest of all throne rooms and bring our requests to a loving Father. Prayer on any other basis is a waste of time. Prayer has an object and the object is God.
Now, access has its privileges; it also has its implications. If you are going to God, you must allow God to be God. Isa 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” The older I get, the more I see that God doesn’t do anything the way I would do it. To pray to God is to believe He always does right. Always! And it may look nothing like I would think. I’ve told you before about Helen Roseveare, British medical missionary to Congo. During an uprising in the 60’s, this pure, godly, gracious, innocent woman was captured, raped, assaulted, and humiliated. Prayer effected a miraculous release. A friend in the States was praying through the night not even knowing that anything was wrong. She quit only when her spirit ceased it urgent need for prayer, just at the time Helen was released. A miraculous answer. But there’s a bigger question? Why did it have to happen at all? Helen said God answered her question with a question: “Can you thank Me for trusting you with this experience, even if I never tell you why?” That’s a question we will all have to answer sooner or later, Beloved. Is God in charge, or is it us? The prayer of faith isn’t the one that demands, “Do it my way.” It’s the one that submits: “Your will, Father, not mine.” That kind of submission put Judas into the 12 – the traitor. But the Father had a plan. That kind of submission sent Jesus to the cross when He would rather have done anything else. Prayer isn’t getting what I want; it is getting what I need.
Conc -- So, how’s your prayer life? You can tell instantly by asking, “Is my life riddled with uncertainty, complaints, discontent, unhappiness, whining, regret, anxiety, anger, or fear of the future.” Is it? Be really honest. That will tell. Because you see, when all is said and done, prayer is simply putting God in charge and accepting whatever happens as the answer of a loving, omnipotent, all-wise Father who love us infinitely. That’s what Jesus was doing. That’s why He could leave there and move with confidence and joy to what came next. When you are there, all those other negative attributes have to go. God’s in charge! All true prayer is answered. May not be what we want, but we can trust it will be what we need. So we can relax. Do you see?
A few years ago, J. Redford Wilson, director of Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions, entered a hospital for heart surgery. The doctors told him the surgery might help his condition. But they warned that it was risky and his chances were marginal. But Wilson was undeterred. With steady voice and a twinkle in his eye that had characterized his life he said, “Either way, Doc, I win.” I’ve heard at least half a dozen men in our own congregation say the same thing. Isn’t that the way we want to live. Beloved, that’s what prayer does. It makes us instantaneous winners. If the SS class goes well, Great! If it’s chaotic, God is in charge. If the decision leads to prosperity, great! If it’s a financial disaster, God is in charge. It’s great to live with God in charge. It’s not getting what I want; it’s getting what I need. That’s even better. That’s what prayer does, so let’s pray!