Early Morning Prayer
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
Downton Abbey is an award-winning TV drama that chronicles the experiences of the Crawleys, an aristocratic family living in the early 1900s. In the first series World War I has just begun and Matthew Crawley has been commissioned to the battlefield. In one scene, Lady Mary, Matthew Crawley's love interest, is kneeling beside her bed with a picture of Matthew lying on the bed before her. Mary prayed, "Dear Lord, I don't pretend to have much credit with you. I'm not even sure that you're there. But if you are there, and if I've ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe."
Like the character Lady Mary, it is a common human experience that at moments of deeply felt need, at moments of helplessness, people find themselves calling out to God in prayer. Even people who don’t think about God very much. We know what we want—deliverance from something outside our control—but are not quite sure how to ask or even if we should ask or if there is someone to ask. Yet we seem almost instinctually to pray. Why? What is the source of this impetus? Is it borne of memory from childhood religious experience? Is it possible that we are responding to an echo of a voice calling to us—a voice offering help?
How do we ask? Is there a credit system on which we need to barter? We often project on to God the typical quid-pro-quo arrangements of so many of our human interactions. As we do business with others we imagine this is how business is to be done with God.
This uncertainty of how exactly to approach God could stifle prayer—even for the believer. As a minister, when I am with groups of people and it is time to pray I am, more often than not, the one who gets the nod to offer the prayer. I observe that there are many other people in the room each capable of offering a prayer. Perhaps it is a professional courtesy being offered. Now, do not misunderstand, I am delighted to pray. Talking to God is a glorious privilege. Yet, hesitancy to pray is common among us. As we reflect today on this story of Jesus drawing aside to pray I propose to offer you some observations that I am hoping will help us lose any hesitancy we might have to pray.
1. The first observation I invite you to consider, that we mighty never hesitate to pray, is the reason for prayer. In the portion we read from Mark’s gospel Mark describes a typical day in the ministry of Jesus. He preaches in the Capernaum synagogue; following synagogue worship he comes to the house of Simon and Andrew where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law; in the evening people from all over the city come seeking Jesus many looking for healing. Early the next morning we find Jesus in a solitary place praying.
Why does Jesus take time to pray? In the gospel story of Jesus the characteristic that marks his life is obedience; obedience to the one he calls the Father. Jesus would say to his disciples, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10) Jesus prays because to pray is to obey the Father’s commands. Prayer is implied in the command to love God with all that you are. Humans were the one creature in God’s creation who receives God’s address (speaks with). We are then response-able. We were made for such relationship.
The reason or ground for prayer, according to the scripture, is that God commands us to pray. “Pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) wrote the Apostle Paul about the Christian life. The act of prayer is not rooted ultimately in our need (though we are certainly needy and we need God to meet such needs). The act of prayer is not rooted ultimately in our aspiration (though we certainly long for God). The act of prayer is rooted ultimately in our obedience: we pray because God insists that we pray.
Some hear “command” and think of something akin to Buckley’s cough medicine—it tastes awful but it works. Let me ask, does the God who loves us so much that he will pour himself out without remainder for our sakes, command things that are for our ill? Jesus said that to obey his commands was to abide in his love.
Further, because God insists that we pray we must never think that our praying makes no difference. It is inconceivable that God requires of us, and requires of us relentlessly (“pray without ceasing”) something that is finally pointless. The fact that God commands us to pray can only mean that God has rendered us agents (under-agents) in his governance of the world. We have not been created mere spectators of God’s governance of the world, as if we were spectators at a play, merely watching the real actors on the stage. We are never to be mere spectators; we are part of the play itself, and — this is the breathtaking aspect — we even have a part in the directing of the play.
To be sure, God alone is sovereign. He governs the world and all that occurs in it. But God’s governance isn’t akin to that of a dictator coercing a state; God’s governance is much more like an artist creating a work of art, bringing into it every contribution from every person, including the prayers we offer. Our prayers are part of the “stuff” that God takes up and uses in his furthering his own will in us and others. In short, God wills to have our wills affect his will. Since he wills to have our wills affect his will, we must will in that special form of willing that is prayer.
Does this mean that apart from our praying, the work of God is inhibited? Does it mean that if we neglect to pray, the work of God is restricted? It’s a sobering notion. Then we must look at Mark’s comment (6:5-6) concerning our Lord’s frustration in one particular town, where people were spiritually inert. “And he [Jesus] could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.”
2. The second observation I invite you to consider, that we might never hesitate to pray, is that the God who commands our prayers hears our prayers.
Prior to his death in 2003 Emil Fackenheim, was a world-class philosopher. He was a professor of metaphysics at the University of Toronto. He was also a rabbi, a humble believer in the Holy One of Israel, and a former inmate of Sachsenhausen Forced Labour Camp. Fackenheim has asked the question, “What would undermine the Jewish faith?” Plainly it’s a question whose answer Christians should be listening for too. “What would expose faith as mere fantasy, devotion to God as mere delusion?” Fackenheim’s answer: “If prayer is not ‘heard'”. If prayer is not ‘heard’ then what we are about this morning, at worship, is an exercise in self-deception.
Keep in mind that Fackenheim experienced firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust and was one of the Jewish peoples’ most profound thinkers on the Holocaust. According to Fackenheim believing people can cry with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!” But believing people cannot cry, “Though he hear me not, yet will I trust him!” We can contend with the God who slays us, says Fackenheim; we cannot do anything with the God who ignores us.
Jesus makes the most astounding promises when he speaks about prayer borne of our needs (intercession). “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19) “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22) “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24 ) These promises made of prayer appear utterly unqualified; the promises are astounding — and for this reason, the shattering disappointment that so many people undergo is heartbreaking. The matter of (apparently) unanswered intercession may be an intellectual puzzle when we are musing in our armchair; but it is something else when our child is dying.
Then what are we to do? Are we to stop praying, stop interceding, on the grounds that our life-experience exposes our Lord’s affirmation as fraudulent? I have not stopped praying, for I continue to believe that God adopts, takes up, our intercession and uses it somehow, in mysterious ways we cannot penetrate, in blessing men and women in ways that we often cannot see now but shall surely see on that day when faith gives way to sight.
When Jesus was in Gethsemane he pleaded, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” The cup did not pass. His specific request was not granted; we cannot pretend anything else. But was he himself ignored? To be sure, his request was not granted in the manner he had requested. But he himself was resurrected; his sacrifice on behalf of the world was sealed; his lordship over the cosmos was established. His prayer was in fact taken up into the purposes of his Father as the Father honoured his plea.
When Jesus tells us, his followers, to ask, seek, knock, he does not promise that we shall receive precisely what we ask for when we ask for it. But he does promise that we shall never ask, seek, knock in vain. God will never taunt or tease his people; he will never insist that we plead, only to smirk and say that our pleas are finally futile.
3. The third observation I invite you to consider, that we might never hesitate to pray, is that the God who commands and hears our prayers loves to bestow his benefits in our lives.
In Mark’s gospel he records three occasions where Jesus drew aside to pray—each at crucial junctures in his ministry; (1) here at the beginning of the ministry; (2) after the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:46); (3) and in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42). This is not to say that Jesus only prayed at times of crisis or at times of strategic decision. A reading of all four gospel shows Jesus to be a man of continual prayer. Mark shows us early in the gospel that Jesus draws aside to pray which his readers are to understand typified his life as he shows in these other times in the middle of his ministry and at the end.
In these early days the success of his ministry at Capernaum is astonishing. People are ever seeking him out to heal their diseases. We can see, in his decision to leave Capernaum to now preach his message elsewhere, that he understands his ministry to be more than healing of diseases. A more profound human spiritual need requires a cure. He draws aside to pray looking for mission clarification. Clearly Jesus doesn’t just pray at times of strategic juncture but surely prayer is for such strategic times. Jesus believes that it is the Father’s desire to bestow benefits—the benefits of such clarification for his life and work.
We read earlier in the service from Psalm 147 (vs. 11) of how “the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Prayer is not the wrestling of things from an unwilling giver or trying to pry open the fingers of a tightly clenched hand. The same Psalm declares that God “gives the animals their food” (Psalm 148:9) an observation Jesus developed to say that if God feeds them he will surely feed us. “If we know how to give gifts to our children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him,” said our Lord.”
I delight in the promise of God announced in Isaiah 40 (vs 31) “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I have lost count the number of times a believer has said to me that they have no idea of how they would have managed in the face of difficulty without faith. This is to acknowledge that the Lord does renew strength and does aid us to walk and not faint. Many of us carry burdens that are unrelieved and yet seem to still be able to stretch wings, so to speak, and know ourselves borne by the Spirit (wind) of God.
To be sure waiting is never waiting around. If you notice your shoe is untied you don’t put your foot up on a step and ask God to tie that for you. This is to treat prayer as some sort of magic. We confuse prayer with magic whenever prayer becomes a substitute for work or when we pray for others to do things we are unwilling to do. When our foreparents maintained that we are to work as though everything depended on us and pray as though everything depended on God, our foreparents weren’t being clever; our foreparents were profound.
To wait for the Lord is to pray for those blessings that are of his kingdom; to pray for the blessings he promises consistent with his will. I have noted with you before of something our Puritan foreparents noted, that all God’s commands are covered promises—obedience to them has in view the blessings God intends for life. If Jesus could pray for and receive strategic guidance for his ministry than we too can ask God to guide us in the strategic matters for our work.
I trust that these truths revealed in scripture about prayer will remove any hesitation to pray. I intend to return to this text of scripture again and reflect on the “early morning” aspect of Jesus’ prayer life. Permit me one brief reflection in conclusion. I recognize that “early morning” means different things to different people. (How early is early?) I would reflect that to put prayer in the routines of the beginning of your day issues in countless benefits. Personally speaking, I find that in early morning prayer God does renew strength—particularly spiritual strength—to meet the activities and work and responsibilities of the day before me. On those days when I think I am in too much of a hurry to get stuff done to take time to pray, I experience having missed something key for the day.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.