The Primacy of Prayer

Readings

1 Samuel 17:37-50 and Mark 9: 9,14-29

Both David and Jesus faced what seemed impossible odds. A handsome young lad, ruddy and with beautiful eyes, so we read (1 Sam 16:12), pitched against the gigantic Goliath about 9 foot in height and armed to the teeth! Or one person faced with a violent and berserk young man whom a crowd of willing and experienced helpers had failed to restrain or help. But they both triumphed in spite of the odds. So what was their secret?

That was what Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when they tackled him later in private: ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ Jesus responded: ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ (Mk 9:28f)

Now I am quite sure that the disciples had prayed over the young man and maybe at some length. So what made the difference? It certainly was not any special formula of prayer that Jesus knew and that they did not. I think the difference was that Jesus’ whole life was rooted in prayer.

So throughout the Gospels we see Jesus praying before doing. And then, after doing something returning to prayer. At his baptism Jesus is praying (Lk 3:21) and instead of dashing into his ministry he spends 40 forty days in the wilderness where his prayer is accompanied by the devil, wild beasts and angels (Mk 1:12-13). Only then does he make himself known to people. But when he meets with great success and demands, he goes to pray by himself early in the morning and decides to move on (Mk 1:35ff). He spends a whole night in prayer before choosing the twelve apostles from amongst his followers and sending them out (Mk 3:13-19). Jesus continually seeks out times of quiet, accompanied by his disciples (Mk 4:35f; 6:45f, and it was while he was praying in a certain place, that after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ And so He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Our Father …’ (Lk 11:1ff). Jesus takes three of them up to a mountain top where he is transfigured or transformed before them whilst … you’ve guessed it … whilst praying (Lk 9:29). It is after that episode that he encounters the sick young man and only a little later he set his face to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51). And what does Jesus do before facing his death on the cross? They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John … he said to them, ‘… remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed … (Mk 14:32ff)

I believe that these are just the illustrative and highly significant examples of prayer in Jesus’ life. There would have been a daily practice of prayer for Jesus – returning to his Father God. No matter how busy he was Jesus’ priority was always this returning to prayer.

In the story of David and Goliath one could easily think that a bold and brash young man just got lucky. But his declared confidence was in God: ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine … You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand’. (1 Sam 17:37,45f). This was the young lad, who alone with the sheep, had communed with God and traditionally composed some of the Psalms. His was a young life already rooted in prayer.

Some of the Psalms bear witness to how David returned to the Lord throughout his life. Sadly as he grew older he seems to have lost that habit and his effectiveness as a ruler and as a father declined.

The priority for a Priest and any Christian is this returning to God and the life of prayer. It is all too easy in this busy, pressurised life to neglect prayer. We tell ourselves that we need to be getting on and not wasting our time. But these readings affirm that prayer should be our priority and not what, where, how and who is doing what. And then, out of prayer will flow the what, the where, the how and the who.

William Sirr, known as William of Glasshampton, who founded an Anglican monastery, wrote this about the Eucharist and prayer and life: It is no good to distribute unconsecrated bread to the people: the life must be lifted up before it is given out. In Jacob’s vision (of his ladder) we are told of the ascending angels first, of the descending angels second.

When I read a biography of Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic 400m Champion (portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire), his Christian character, work and witness was put down to the time he spent each day with God.

And have you noticed the order of the Jesus two great commandments, which we often hear at the beginning of our communion services: The first commandment is this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God …’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

And so how can we learn to pray? It is not an easy task: especially for those of us running a home, caring for children and family, shouldering a demanding job and numerous anxieties, or struggling with ill-health. Even those of us who have got more time to play with curiously find it difficult to get down to prayer and stick at it and find many other things to fill our time with! None of this struggle should be surprising – for when Jesus cleared his diary for forty days and forty nights Satan was there trying to divert him off course and we are told when that time was up: When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Lk 4:13)

And as though opposition in ourselves and from without is not enough – we struggle to know how to pray? The disciples voiced that very difficulty when they said to Jesus, whom they had seen praying so often, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …’ At its simplest prayer just means chatting to God where and wherever we are with whatever comes into our minds. But what about those regular times of quiet Jesus kept. Presumably if Jesus needed them so do we! What do we do during those?

Well there are aids around to help us. That’s why I was delighted when Hazel shared last week about Lectio 365. If you use a smart phone you can search for it and download the app in the Google Play Store or the iPhone equivalent. That app will give you a short time of prayer and Bible reading for morning and evening – to read or to have a recording read to you. But there are other possibilities with phones and computers, or, if you don’t do smart phones or computers, there are a few suggestions printed with copies of my sermon here in church or to be downloaded with my sermon from our church website.

In all of the ups and downs of life and in all the ups and downs of trying to find space for prayer – let us remember that God is with us day by, even if we cannot feel him there and delights to respond to our cries for help. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ (Mt 7:7)

So let us be quiet together for a few moments.

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to
him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …’

Imagine that all that hinders us from praying is like that giant Goliath – standing tall and menacing – seemingly impossible to overcome. David said: ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine … You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand’

‘Lord, teach us to pray …’ Amen.

Resources:

Scripture Union produce two sets of printed Bible Reading Notes for adults: Daily Bread &
Encounter with God. They cost £19 for a year – and the next quarter starts in October. Ask me about those and I could get you some. Alternatively you can get them and digital versions of them for £4.99. Go to their website: https://content.scriptureunion.org.uk/bible-reading-guides. There are also materials for children and young people.

Scripture Union also do a free daily email for free called Word Alive: https://content.scriptureunion.org.uk/wordlive/alive-light – go to the bottom of the page and click on the link to request it.

A simpler possibility is to have emailed to you each day a thought and scripture verse from the writings of an inspiring RC priest Henri Nouwen: https://henrinouwen.org/ – go to the bottom and fill in link for daily emails.

If you want something ‘more Church of England’ you can: either get a paper copy of Reflections for Daily Prayer (£16.99) – this starts in Advent (end of November/beginning of December), but I have a current copy that I am not using for anyone to have. After that you can order it from Book Stop in Tavistock; or there is an app for this, but I haven’t found it very good. Reflections also contains, inside the front cover, a simple Morning Prayer to use; and, on the last pages, ‘before bed’ night prayers, often called Compline.

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