Once upon a time, a small town that had been historically ‘dry,’ awakened one morning to find an empty storefront on Main Street opened as a bar. The Christians planned an all-night prayer meeting asking God to intervene and close the bar. During that night, lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground. The owner of the bar sued the Christians, claiming their prayers were responsible. The church hired a lawyer to defend them, saying, “We are not responsible.” The presiding judge, after hearing both opening statements, surmised: “So, what I am hearing is that the bar owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not.”
There are many ideas about prayer. Each of my two grandmothers taught me about prayer. My paternal grandmother listened to many people lead public prayers. She distinguished between persons who guide you to be present to the Presence of God and those who make announcements, give devotionals, present theological discourses or preach mini-sermons when they are supposed to be talking to God. She once told me, “It is a good prayer when you are not talking to me.” My maternal grandmother buried three children and nurtured eight to adulthood. She always ended her prayers at meals, “God, use this food to strengthen us for whatever you ask of us. Amen.”
If you only carry one idea away from this sermon, let it be this: You cannot be a follower of Jesus if you do not pray. Jesus prayed; Jesus believed in prayer; Jesus told others to pray; and Jesus taught his followers how to pray. You cannot be a follower of Jesus if you do not pray.
The disciples called Jesus, ‘Rabbi.’ Yet, one of the only stories we have of them asking Jesus to teach them is the day they begged, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They were impressed by his prayer life. Jesus often went away to a place by himself; not merely to be by himself – but, to pray. As Jesus approached his arrest, trial and crucifixion, his praying was intense. He encouraged his disciples to pray and he prayed, both on the way to the cross and on the cross.
The one verse we read this morning, Mark 1:35, gives us an important glimpse into the way Jesus lived. The curtain rises, in Mark’s Gospel, with Jesus at center stage. Mark flings Jesus into a flurry of activity, in Capernaum on the Sabbath. In that one day, Jesus teaches in the synagogue, casts a demon out of a man in the morning, heals Simon’s mother in law in the afternoon and, after sunset, the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed from throughout Capernaum. The whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed many with a variety of diseases. Evidently, the citizens went to sleep overnight. And, then, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” At dawn’s light, Simon Peter finds Jesus and says, ‘Hey, man, where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus knew what you know; there will always be needs to meet, people needing your attention, tasks to accomplish.
I have been watching you. You are busy people. So, if you are capable of taking two ideas away from one sermon, then remember these two:
- You cannot be a follower of Jesus if you do not pray; and,
- You are too busy NOT to pray.
For Jesus, “Quiet Time with Father,” was a standing appointment each morning. For Jesus, prayer was more than a task to accomplish; prayer was a relationship to nurture. Jesus was too busy NOT to pray. And, so are you.
This coming 4 th of July, Paula and I will have been married 39 years. Bless her heart; she has put up with me for two-thirds of her life. Like you, we are busy. We communicate along the way – every day. Yet, our relationship would not have broadened or deepened had we not taken time along the years to get away from the never-ending needs of our children, our work and our ministries in daily life to be together; to focus on one another; to nurture our relationship. Your relationship with God needs the same practice. You are too busy NOT to pray.
I am going to make two assumptions: first, we have people here today who invest more than 15 minutes per week in focused prayer; and, second, we have some people here today who invest less than 15 minutes per week in focused prayer. By focused prayer, I mean praying unto God; not thinking about prayer. So, here is your assignment: I want each of you to invest a minimum of 15 minutes per week in focused prayer. You are too busy NOT to do so. 3
Now, let’s tell the truth. For most people, the barrier to prayer is not time. The barrier to prayer is a docile, dormant relationship with God. When God becomes nothing more than an idea to rationalize rather than a living Being to honor, reverence and obey, it is not God who is dead. As my father used to say, “You will meet some dead people who are up walking around.”
Donald McCullough, in his book, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity, writes about six different ways we put God in a box:
First, there is “the god of my cause;” people who always think, “God is on our side.”
Second, there is “the god of my understanding.” These people don’t want to learn any more than they know already. They have packed their theological suitcase and don’t have room for anything else. And, they’re not about to remove anything either.
Third, there is “the god of my experience.” These folks cannot allow room in their thinking for other people to experience God in a different way than their own experience. Their experience of God is normative for all other people; therefore everyone else is wrong.
Fourth, there is “the god of my comfort.” For these people, God’s only purpose is to protect them and those they love from pain, suffering, anxiety, crisis, etc. In actuality, they do not have a theology; they have a meology.
Fifth, there is “the god of my success.” These people focus on God when all is going well. But, when life is tough or challenging, they wonder what they have done to displease God. These are also the folks of the prosperity gospel. Our friend, Bill Leonard names their motto: ‘Make Jesus your choice and he will give you a Rolls Royce.”
Sixth, there is “the god of my nation.” Although Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” many people have decided that democracy is God’s political system of choice and that to desire any other approach to government is ungodly.
I offer a seventh way that people trivialize God or try to put God in a box. This is “the god of tradition and doctrine.” In Jesus, God does not connect us with a religious tradition or a set of doctrinal statements. In Jesus, God connects us with God’s Self.
Friends, I have heard of snakes and squirrels getting loose in church. What do you think would happen if prayer got loose in St. John’s? As we make our way toward Easter Sunday, we are considering the spiritual practices of Jesus. You cannot be a follower of Jesus if you do not pray. You are too busy NOT to pray – start with 15 minutes a week. And, when you pray, do not rationalize or trivialize God; just tell your honest desires to God and ask God to shape your desires according to God’s desires. Let’s see if that bar owner was right. Amen and AMEN!