As Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives down into the Kidron Valley and up to Jerusalem, the crowd burst into enthusiastic praise. "Hosanna!" they shouted, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" He entered the Holy City at the head of a populist procession riding on a donkey as the crowd continued cheering, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!"
That was probably the peak moment for the disciples. They must have felt the energy, excitement and encouragement of the crowd. It must have boosted their confidence when so many others turned out to cheer their master. However, very soon, the celebration ceased and the crowd dispersed. It was the beginning of the end.
For three years, Jesus carried his message and ministry to small towns and villages, purposely avoiding the Holy City. The high priest and all who held prominent positions within Judaism, lived in Jerusalem, and they were the adversaries of Jesus. It was their duty to uphold the religious traditions, but this outsider was questioning their integrity and undermining their authority.
Jesus was well aware that his staunchest critics were in Jerusalem. Why did he go there? Why did he head directly into such a hostile environment and confront his adversaries head-on?
It is possible that he had enjoyed such a high degree of success in the countryside, that he underestimated the opposition. Perhaps he had won over so many others, that he assumed most people would eventually embrace him.
We had good friends in Kentucky whose son ran for a congressional seat. Although there were six candidates in the primary field, he believed he had a good chance of winning. He is an extremely bright young man. He had a perfect SAT score, graduated from Harvard Law and gained political experience working on a presidential campaign. He assembled a strong team of intelligent and politically savvy advisors. He was articulate in his speeches and interviews, and he raised more money than his opponents. His supporters were devoted to him and kept telling him that he would win. But when the primary was held and the votes tallied, he finished fifth out of the six candidates. He was stunned. He had been surrounded by such faithful supporters that he had become too insulated. He did not realize how much opposition there was to his candidacy. Perhaps Jesus was in a similar situation. Maybe his dedicated supporters had led him to believe that the majority was on his side and that he could win over practically anyone.
Or, if that's not the reason he entered Jerusalem, maybe it was because he underestimated the fury of his opposition. He may have believed that he could enlighten them by shedding light on the errors, and offering them a hopeful alternative. Perhaps Jesus did not realize the degree of their disdain for him.
Either of these scenarios is possible. However, I think Jesus could foresee that his mission was doomed. I don't believe he had precise knowledge of future events, but I think he was wise enough and intuitive enough to figure out that in going up to Jerusalem he was heading into a perilous situation. Yet, he still felt driven to confront the religious leaders and to demonstrate the contrast between their understanding of the faith and his. Why? What compelled him to enter Jerusalem and then cause such a ruckus in the Temple?
I think it was one thing. Jesus sincerely believed that this is what God wanted him to do. I think he heard the whispers of God and felt the nudges of God urging him to go to Jerusalem. How did he hear those whispers and feel those nudges? Surely it was primarily through his prayer life.
On numerous occasions, Jesus withdrew from others and spent long periods of time alone with God, because he knew this was essential for discerning God's will. Jesus fostered a life of prayer that helped him become attuned to the voice of God, and that is what gave him such confidence and courage in the face of danger. You can do amazing things if you believe that what you are doing is what God wants you to do.
None of us can acquire the same intense relationship that Jesus had with God; however, it serves as a model for us. We, too, can develop an intimate connection with God through prayer. And, if we do, we gain a clearer sense of purpose. How we are to live comes into sharper focus.
Sometimes I wonder if all of us have a touch of amnesia. We forget that we are not simply physical beings, but also spiritual beings. Our physical nature needs food and the experience of pleasure. We need shelter, clothing, transportation, entertainment. But these are not enough because we also experience deep yearnings in our souls. We need to have a meaningful purpose for living. We need to be released from guilt over past failures. We need to experience the spiritual truths that seem counterintuitive: that it is more rewarding to generously give than to hoard; that we find true joy when we sacrifice for another; that the visible world is not all there is; that prayer can change you and it can have an impact on others. We yearn for the One beyond ourselves who can give us courage in times of danger, guidance when the path forward is unclear, strength to do what is right, inner peace in the midst of pain, and hope when we have good reason to despair. To nurture our spiritual nature, we must connect with the Creator of heaven and earth through prayer.
Teachers from various religious traditions concur that one of the chief purposes of a spiritual life is to help us wake up. Most people go through life sleepwalking, unaware of God's presence. Prayer opens our eyes to see the same old world in fresh ways. Barbara Brown Taylor says that "between the time her doctor gave her bad news about her health and the day of the surgery to have the bad thing cut out, she found it possible to love her life in ways that had never occurred to her before. She never thought she could value simply being able to walk around her house and look out all the windows. She never thought of the sound of people laughing on the sidewalk outside as welcome signs of life...(she said she) lived in a whole different world from those who thought they were fine. She could spend fifteen minutes admiring a rose, a whole hour enjoying a meal...simple pleasures constituted an answer to her prayer for more life, even if that life turned out to be shorter than the one she wanted."1 Prayer can help us wake up to the world around us.
You may be one of those who struggle with prayer because you do not know what to say. In situations where someone might suggest prayer - at the beginning of a meal or a meeting - you live in fear that someone will call on you to pray and you have no idea what to say. You may have heard about the little girl who was suddenly thrust into this position. Her mother had invited some people to their home for dinner and when they all gathered around the table, the mother turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, "Honey, why don't you say the blessing?"
The little girl replied, "But I don't know what to say."
The mother said, "Just say what you hear Mommy say."
The little girl bowed her head, put her hands together and said "Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite these people to dinner?"
If you struggle with what to say in prayer, you don't have to create an original prayer, you can purchase a book of prayers or save prayers from worship bulletins. Praying the prayers of others can help you find your own voice.
However, as you know, prayer is not simply talking to God, it also involves listening. Listening to God's voice in Scripture, in the people and events of our lives, our dreams, and the quiet voice that emerges from within us.
Theologian Eugene Peterson suggests that Jesus' life was framed by two prayers. The first was spoken by his mother, Mary, before he was born. When the angel visited Mary and told her that she will give birth to a child who will be called the Son of God. Mary replied, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
Dr. Peterson suggests, that if this prayer was foundational for Mary, then she would have taught this prayer to Jesus. "Let it be with me, according to your word." This is essentially the same prayer that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane before he was arrested and sentenced to death: "Not my will, but yours be done." Perhaps Jesus spoke some form of this prayer every day and it shaped his core beliefs. "Let it be with me, according to your word; not my will, but yours be done."2 And when Jesus taught his followers to pray, what did he tell us to pray? "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Yet, so many of us pray, "Thy will be changed to what I want." Too often we pray, "God, give me what I desire," rather than "God, change what I desire." Too often we pray, "God, get me out of this trouble," rather than "God, give me the courage and wisdom to handle this trouble." What would happen to our lives if we began each day praying, "Let it be with me, according to your word; not my will, but yours be done?" I suspect most of us would experience deeper satisfaction and greater joy. I suspect that our lives would feel more complete and we would have the sense that we are on the right path.
In prayer, we seek to open our minds and our hearts to God's Spirit, in order to discern God's voice among the numerous voices competing for our attention. But this is a struggle, because by nature, we are self-centered. We want to believe that our personal ambitions are identical with divine desires. We are quick to rationalize that what God wants for me is what just so happens to be advantageous to me, as well as not too demanding. However, Jesus' ride into Jerusalem and his overturning of the tables in the Temple set in motion the steps that led to his death, reminding us that sometimes what God desires requires extraordinary courage.
The year was 1989. The place was the city of Pretoria, South Africa. On an autumn day, the inauguration was held for F. W. de Klerk to become the country's President. As a Christian who regularly attended church, he invited his favorite pastor, a man named Peter Bingle, to lead a worship service in Pretoria. During the sermon, Pastor Bingle said, "Mr. de Klerk, as our new President, God is calling you to do his will. Today God calls you to serve as the President of South Africa. God's commission is not to serve as the President of some of the people, but as the President of all the people of South Africa."
By the time the service reached the benediction, de Klerk was weeping He called his family and friends together and said, "Pray for me. God has told me what I must do. And if I do it, I will be rejected by my own people. Pray for me, that I might have the courage to do the will of God."
Soon after, President de Klerk took steps to release Nelson Mandela from prison. Then, he began to negotiate with the African National Congress, which led to the dismantling of apartheid - the unjust system that prevented South African blacks from enjoying the same rights as the white citizens of the country.3
While none of us will face such high-profile decisions, there will still be times that require courage to follow where God leads. We do not pray to escape the world; we pray to put the world in the proper perspective, to see it from God's vantage point. Prayer helps us to figure out what is major and what is minor. It helps us to sift out the trivial so we can hone in on what is vital and life-enriching.
When you pray "Let it be with me, according to your word; not my will, but yours be done," you are praying to catch a vision of the world as God intends for it to be; and you are praying to discern your role in helping it come to pass.
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, (New York: HarperOne, 2009), p. 183.
2. Eugene Peterson, from a talk given at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina, on June 1, 2000.
3. Susan R. Andrews, "Saved by Scandal,"@printed in Lectionary Homiletics, July, 2000, p.16.
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