When Jesus Prays

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, Matthew 26: 36-40

As a pastor, I get to hear a lot of different prayers, types of prayers, and types of pray-ers. As such, I’ve come up with a few broad categories and generalizations, all of these in the spirit of gentle love. 

There’s the by the book folks, that pray out loud with solely things that have been pre written, and without a prayerbook in hand, seem to mysteriously devote themselves entirely to silent prayer.

There’s the opposite of this, that I like to call the “just-lord” prayer, that’s so extemporaneous that it seems to be composed of filler words rather than supplications. I call it the just lord prayer because they often sound like this: Oh Heavenly Father, won’t you, lord, just lord be with us, just lord, and so on for about ten minutes until you realize that nothing was actually prayed for.

And although that group tends, but is not exclusively so, conservative and traditional in their theology, my liberal and progressive colleagues are not immune to another type of prayer that ends up doing something similar- what I like to call the “name God so much that we forget to ask for anything prayer.”

Those often sound like this, “Oh mystery beyond our naming, heavenly star that shines eternal, morning dew that creates streams of grace, who was with the patriarchs and matriarchs,who…”and so on and so on for another few minutes until everyone in the vicinity is unsure of what is actually going on and someone says Amen and Blessed Be.

And then there’s the “scary boss prayer”

We can tell this one because it sounds like someone who’s scared of their boss trying to ask for a small favor, please, if you get a moment, if you have the time and it’s no bother, do one little favor for me that won’t be a big deal but only if it’s really no trouble for you, but it would mean so much for me if you could just…

And at a certain point, a tiny part of me wants to just yell out, “GO AHEAD AND PRAY FOR THINGS AND PEOPLE.  GOD HAS NO TROUBLE SAYING NO”

This brings us to our Hebrews scripture for today, which includes the wonderful verse “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”

It’s a doozy of a verse, in that calls on us as Christians to do something that’s really quite hard.

Approach the throne of grace with boldness.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, who I spoke about a couple of weeks ago, has this to say about that passage

“Even though the Preacher is focusing here on prayer, he knows that confident prayer is not merely a matter of technique. Ultimately, bold prayer is an expression of theological trust; the practice of prayer rests on what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us. In short, how we speak our prayers of petition and intercession derives from how firmly we hold the creed.”

The practice of prayer rests on what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us. Therefore, how we pray is a reflection of what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us.

So if we go back to those 4 types of prayer that I lightly lampooned at the beginning, what do those prayers tell us about the pray-ers?

And of course, these are broad generalizations, and I say them in the hope and spirit of mutual growth.

I’m pretty obviously one of those book prayer types:

I believe this means that I or tend to have a formal relationship with God.  In my preaching and teaching, as well as in my own prayers, I tend to emphasize God’s sovereign majesty and essential well, otherness to us, to be treated with something like a regal distance.

I do make supplications and ask for things, but do so as a petitioner might to a king.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but our Hebrews passage reminds us that we are called to approach the throne of grace with boldness.  Not as a courtier, but as someone intimately beloved by God.

The “Just Lord” prayer, implies a different spiritual tenor.  This is a spiritual stance that sees God very intimately- perhaps too intimately.  The phrase Heavenly Father often appears in these prayers, and this reflects a stance which emphasizes God’s fatherhood and the familial aspect of relationship with Jesus Christ and God.

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it also tends to diminish the essentially different nature of God’s from humanity, and God’s Majesty and divinity. God gets turned into just another one of the dads at softball practice.

In reading our verse, we are to be reminded that it is indeed a throne of grace, which we approach with boldness.

For my progressive colleagues and friends, who sometimes pray to a God who must be overly named, I believe this reveals a tension in the nature of belief in the midst of a religiously pluralistic world.

What makes our prayers to this God different, effective, or special, when we have friends of many different religions (and no religion at all)?

And that’s a real and serious question that all Christians must be able to reckon with in our society.

There is no easy answer- to say that all religions are the same denigrates the uniqueness and beauty in the diversity of our religions, including the unique witness of our own Christian faith.

And at the same time, to say that other religions are not worthy of respect, tends to lead toward separation, discrimination, and ultimately violence, which is against the Kingdom of God.

Progressives are called to understand that God is alive in the midst of ambiguity, and our boldness in Christian witness does not have to silence the voices of others, but can instead inspire others to speak up.

As an example, back in March I went to a conference at my undergraduate college about the reformed Christian tradition and liberal arts education.

My college, Davidson College, is associated with the Presbyterian Church USA, that’s pretty close to us, and the denomination I would be most likely to transfer to if something happened to the UCC,

Anyways, one of the speakers was a Muslim professor of Islamic studies in the religion department, and he was asked about what it was like to be a Muslim professor at an explicitly Christian school, and his answer surprised me.

This professor, originally from Pakistan, said he loved it, because it allowed him the space to be Muslim and believe in God in ways that a secular university or college might not. 

Muslims, he said, have a much easier time making sense of Christian institutions than secular ones. There’s much more in common between Islam and Christianity than Islam and secularism.

He reminded me that our own prayers to not have to be a cudgel against others.  Prayer is not necessarily a zero-sum game. I know of few religious folks, or indeed, many non-religious folks, who don’t appreciate prayers being said for them.

So yes, let us approach the throne of grace, for to pray for mercy and help in a time of need is universal.

Which brings us to the last of our prayer types, the scary boss type. This one saddens me the most, for it implies a God which doesn’t have the time, or the care, or the heart to love us. It calls the bible a lie when it tells us that God is Love.

It says that we aren’t important to God, and my friends, there is no bigger lie that the forces of evil have spread than that each and every one of you are not an object of God’s care and affection and worthy of human dignity.

So yes, you, yes, me, yes, all of us, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

But this is hard. It’s very hard. Faith itself is not work, but in the life of faith, there are things we must work at. 

Thanks be to God that we do have some examples of what it might look like to approach the throne of grace with boldness.  Fittingly enough, our Gospel passage (funny how that works out), has just an example.

Here we see Jesus at possibly his most human and vulnerable.  He is described as being grieved and agitated, something we see rarely through the gospels.

“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Our Hebrews reading recalls this scene, telling us, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission”

The cup is a metaphor of death, the change that will come about with the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Jesus prays that there might be a way that his blood and suffering not be that which fills the new covenant.

Yet the faithful nature of Christ is always paramount.  Even when he approaches the throne of grace with boldness, asking for mercy, Christ knows that it is God’s will that must be done.  There are three times that Jesus prays in the garden.  By the end, he has his answer.

Let us remember this: Christ is our savior, lord of creation, and he is also our example.  In our prayers, following his example “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”