Sunday, February 24, 2013

Who's On Trial?

Who’s On Trial?
Second in a Lenten series from Luke
Luke 22:39-46                                         
February 24, 2013           
© 2013 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Why are you sleeping?
Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.
Twice he tells them to pray. And both times he gives them the content of their prayer, that they “not come into the time of trial.” What did Jesus mean by that? In just a very few verses, Jesus would be appearing at a trial. Is that what he meant? They should pray so they would be spared from his trial? Or was it more than that? The verses prior to our own lesson were filled with Jesus’ words about his own trials, and specifically, Peter’s coming trial and betrayal. So what is he saying? That we can escape our trials? Or that we can live through them and on out to the other side?
What is the effect of prayer? The circumstances of Jesus’ own prayer reveal that though he prayed God might remove this cup – the coming agony of his passion – from him, that is not what happened. Additionally, though he urged the disciples to pray to escape trial, they fell asleep instead – sleeping “because of grief.” We all know about that kind of sleep, depressed, despondent, the divorce becomes fonal tomorrow, my-world-is-about-to-end sleep. Some might then conclude that this provides evidence that intercessory prayer – prayer which intercedes on behalf of ourselves or others – is not effective. Then Jesus followed his requests to God with. “yet not my will but yours be done.”
How long, do you suppose, was the silent pause he made between the two phrases, between asking God to remove his cup of suffering, and relinquishing control to God’s will in the matter? I don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else, but I’d guess it was a very long time.
Have you ever had your heart’s desire on your lips and in your mind, wearing your hopes like clothing, finding reason to return to them again and again, making them the subject of your prayers as well as your daily conversation? And have you ever discovered that in response there is sometimes only silence? I remember when it became clear my mother’s cancer was going to take her life. I prayed that this cup would be taken from her, from me. Silence. I waited. I slept because of grief. My mother died.
How long is the space between the time you discover your unmet hopes and the time when you find you have said in your life “yet not my will but yours be done”? I’d guess if it was something really important to you, it might have been a long, long time. It was for me. In fact, at this very moment, you may still be waiting for a response to some precious prayer, long on your heart. It’s not easy, is it, this waiting for an answer that does not come?
It isn’t the receiving or not receiving a positive response to our prayers that matters, not so much as the need finally to hand the outcomes of all our unmet desires to God, to seek his will in all things. Easy to say. Not so easy to do. I know this and so do you. Want to know how difficult? Just consider this scene where Jesus awaited God’s response. Jesus. Son of man. The Messiah. The anointed one of God, waiting for an answer that does not come. This is the Jesus whom we worship, left on hold.
Have you ever known someone who had a spirituality that was marked by a sense of handing over, a sense that the will of God was uppermost in their meditations and in their lives? I have heard of such people, saints, an occasional spiritually advanced person, but I’ve never been one of them.
When Jesus told his disciples that they were in the kind of night, the kind of dangerous circumstances where one would be inclined to sell his own clothes to buy a sword, he meant that they were in a desperate situation and they should make no mistake about it. He had told them at his last supper with them that he was going to be arrested and killed, and now they were moving out into the dangerous night. He was right. It is the sort of terrifying circumstance in life where one would sell anything, set aside any of life’s other priorities in order to have this one thing.
I remember the scene from the film Titanic, when the rich antagonist offered one of the ship’s officers a fistful of money to let him have a seat on the lifeboat. The officer looked at him incredulously. What good would money be to him, who would, in the space of a few hours, be dead? What could he buy with it that would be of value to him? The wealthy man thought he was offering what was precious, but its value was only proximate. First one must have an assurance of a continuation of life. Money only has value when it represents something that can be added to life. But that was a night when one would have sold his own clothes to have the one thing that might save him. What good are clothes when in a short time you will be at the bottom of the ocean or stretched out, naked, on a cross? “[The disciples were] prepared to meet the incoming danger by becoming dangerous. This, of course, is not the way of Jesus. In the battles facing the twelve, swords will be useless: a sword would not help Judas, a sword would not help Simon, a sword would not help frightened, fleeing disciples. But they thought so. So do we, truth be told.” If we think our own resources will see us through our greatest catastrophe, Jesus knows we are mistaken.[1] That is the sort of circumstance in which the disciples and Jesus found themselves, up against the wall, with only the protection of prayer to clothe them. And God appeared to be away from his desk, their calls were going unanswered.
Which is, of course, an answer of sorts. Sometimes the answer that silence provides is hard, but it is still an answer. It may not be the answer we want, but it will become the answer to the ultimate prayer, the one that relinquishes control, relinquishes the idea that we can have things the way we wanted them, that we can sell our clothes and buy our salvation.
A line in the Holy Week hymn titled “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” suggests that we not turn away from Jesus’ own griefs, but that we “learn from Jesus Christ to pray.” What do you think we we are supposed to learn about prayer?
One thing we learn is that Luke presents us with a picture of Jesus as one who prayed throughout his life. He did not just pray at this, his hour of critical need, but throughout his life and ministry. Prayer was his pattern. Luke records Jesus’ determination to pray at his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, before he chose his disciples, before Peter made his confession of Jesus’ Messiahship, at the Transfiguration on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, before he taught the disciples about prayer, here, before facing his arrest and execution, as he was dying, and, finally, in Luke 24, when he was risen from death, he prayed with two of his disciples who had walked with him to Emmaus, and they recognized him as he prayed.[2]
Other things we learn about prayer from Jesus: He was not bashful about saying what he wanted and waiting for an answer. He knew he might not receive what he had asked for. And he determined above all to align himself with what God is doing in the world, even when the entire picture and reason for this was out of his own view.
Of all the prayers we may find in the Bible, this prayer from Jesus reminds us that prayer in crisis means the most when it is preceded by a lifetime of prayer discipline. Jesus could handle the silence that confronted him because he had been in prayer so often before. One friend of mine wrote once, “Prayer is an exercise of faith, in the fullest sense of the phrase. Prayer requires a good bit of conditioning, and there are no shortcuts to fitness. This is hard news, of a hard work, especially for lumpy people like me. Some of us are simply too lazy to work that hard. And when the crisis comes, we’re too flabby to respond. We wear out quickly.”[3] This is what led to the disciples grief-filled slumber.
Jesus could pray to his Father in his hour of greatest anguish because his life had been characterized by prayer. Some fail to pray through resignation. “When my time comes it comes,” we say, or “Whatever God has in mind is what I’m going to get, why bother praying?” But apparently the struggle we undergo in prayer has great value, no matter the outcome. Jesus told his heavenly Father what he wanted, in hopes that his request would intersect with the Father’s intentions. Some cynics say that prayer is like throwing an anchor onto a rock, and then imagining that by pulling on our prayer like a rope we are pulling the rock to us, when we are really pulling ourselves to the rock. But that is only a caricature. Here, Jesus was deliberately trying to pull himself to the rock, he wasn’t fooling himself. It takes a lifetime of prayer to know that as one of the chief goals of prayer.
Several years ago, professor Carol Zaleski reflected on the peculiar practice of prayer in a short article.[4] I really appreciated what she wrote:
 “Recently we learned about a young girl in our area who has been diagnosed with a virulent cancer. Doctors say her odds of survival are at best 20 per cent. She has just begun chemotherapy and her immune system is so ravaged that the most innocuous virus could kill her. This little girl is being prayed for around the clock by friends and strangers – and now, I hope, by readers of this column. Her disease will be fought with every weapon in the medical arsenal devised by God-given human ingenuity. At the same time, her family will storm the gates of heaven with prayer, commend this girl to her Creator, her guardian angel and the saints, and call in all reinforcements, for resignation is not a Christian virtue.
 “It would be different if we were adherents of a Star Wars religion, latter-day Stoics who believe that the universe is ruled by an impersonal Force; then our task would be to adjust ourselves to its ordinances without complaint. We would follow the counsel of Marcus Aurelius – the philosopher-emperor [whose reputation experienced] a small revival with his appearance in the film Gladiator and the recycling of his Meditations into a neo-Buddhist self-help manual – to...reflect that ‘all things are little, changeable, perishable.’
 “If we think that suffering is a result of misinterpretation, that individuals are sparks cast off by the infinite spirit and destined to return to the mother flame, we do well to practice composure. It is, however, a characteristic peculiarity of Christianity (as of Judaism) to fancy that God wants us to complain and commands us to intercede. Moreover, the creed tells us that we belong, by calling, to the communion of saints both living and dead for whom intercessory prayer is the natural medium of communication.”
The best way to understand prayer is to start. To pull ourselves toward the Rock. And to keep on. And on and on and on.

[1] Luke:Interpretation Commentary Series, Fred Craddock, John Knox Press, 1990, p.260.
[2] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:28-29; 11:1-2; 18:1; 22:39-46; 23:34, 46; 24:30-31.
[3] Bill Carter, in an unpublished paper presented to the Homiletical Feast in Tampa, Florida, January, 2001.
[4] in Christian Century, “Storming Heaven,” February 17-24, 2001, p. 24.