A sermon by Rod Benson
There are thousands of books on prayer. You can attend prayer retreats, seminars and conferences. You can practise Christian meditation, experience different forms of prayer, and participate in all kinds of prayer meetings.
You can read the written prayers of Christians through the centuries – from Teresa of Avila to Henri Nouwen, from Gregory of Nyssa to John Baillie. You can analyse and personalise the wonderful prayers recorded in the Bible: the prayers of Abraham, Job, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Hannah, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Paul.
But we often overlook the prayers of Jesus. Of the books on prayer in my library, only one examines the prayers of Jesus, and only in its last few pages.
Millions are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13). As a pastor in Sydney, I regularly opened meetings of the Hurstville City Council in prayer, and at the end of my extempore prayer I recited the Lord’s Prayer – and most of the councillors recited it with me. It’s part of the residual Christianity embedded in Australian culture.
But there are ten other prayers of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, and references to his prayers, and the times and places when he prayed, and descriptions of awesome events that occurred as he prayed.
The Jews were people of prayer. A faithful Israelite was expected to pray at sunrise, midday and sunset every day (Ps 55:17; Ezr 9:5; Dan 6:10; 9:21; cf Ac 10:9). We do not know what Jesus’ daily practice of prayer was like, but we know from the Gospels that he grew up in a devout household, and that he attended the local synagogue on the Sabbath (Lk 4:16), where he would join the faithful in prayer as well as listen to Old Testament scriptures read and expounded. Jesus also regarded the Jerusalem temple pre-eminently as “a house of prayer” rather than a place of sacrifice or worship or teaching (Mk 11:17; cf Isa 56:7).
Jesus was not only a gospel-preaching, radically living, miracle-working, disciple-making, paradigm-shifting, salvation-bringing spiritual leader: he was a man of prayer. His life was steeped in prayer. His ministry was strengthened and his mission sustained through prayer.
For example, early in his public ministry Jesus goes out to a mountainside to pray, spending the night in prayer to God before choosing the 12 disciples. This was an excellent investment, because – with the exception of Judas Iscariot – those 12 were later to become the pillars of the early church and leaders upon whose doctrine the church’s faith rests (Lk 3:21).
In Mk 1:35 we find Jesus alone in a solitary place, very early in the morning, praying. In Mk 6:46, after feeding a crowd of 5000 with five loaves and two fish, he leaves his disciples and goes up on to a mountainside to pray. Matthew adds that he remained there alone until evening (Mt 14:23). It seems this was a common practice for Jesus.
In Lk 9:18 and 11:1 Luke prefaces his descriptions of Jesus’ actions by noting that they occurred while he was praying. Luke also records that, at his baptism by John in the Jordan River, it was “as he was praying” that heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him, and the voice from heaven proclaimed him Son of God (Lk 3:21).
It was also “as he was praying” that the appearance of Jesus’ face miraculously changed and the glorious event occurred that we call the Transfiguration (Lk 9:28-29).
In Matthew 11:25-26 (see also Lk 10:21), Jesus praises his Father in heaven for revealing hidden truth to little children. In Matthew 19:13, children are brought to him so he can place his hands on them and pray for them. I wonder what words he used in that prayer?
Jesus reveals something of his private intercessory ministry for his inner circle of followers in Lk 22:31-32 when he says to Peter after the Last Supper, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Peter’s leadership and ministry after Pentecost illustrate how God answered this prayer of Jesus.
John characteristically presents a unique profile of Jesus in prayer. In Jn 11:41-42, as the stone is rolled away from the entrance of the tomb of four-days-dead Lazarus, Jesus looks to heaven and prays,
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” And then, at a word from Jesus, life returns to the dead body of Lazarus.
In Jn 12:28, amid dialogue with a multicultural crowd, the Apostle records an extremely brief prayer by Jesus: “Father, glorify your name!”
And Heaven responds in a thunder-like voice: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
C.S. Lewis once said, “Often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.” It was not so with Jesus: he was in immediate and profound communication with God.
Finally for John, in perhaps the most theologically significant of all the prayers of Jesus apart from the Lord’s Prayer, John records a 26-verse prayer of Jesus warranting a series of expository sermons in its own right (Jn 17:1-26).
Here Jesus prays for himself (vv 1-5), for the disciples (vv 6-19), and for all believers (vv 20-26). We don’t have time to unpack the treasures of this prayer today.
This leaves two very significant sets of prayers: those in Gethsemane, and those on the cross. In Gethsemane’s garden Jesus contemplates the cross and prays three times in agony of spirit; and on the cross he prays three more prayers in agony of spirit and body.
In Mk 14:35-42 (see also Mt 26:36-46; Lk 22:39-46), after leaving the Upper Room, Jesus crosses the Kidron brook and draws aside Peter, James and John. Ascending the gentle slope of the Mt of Olives, he motions them to stop. Going a little farther, he falls to the ground and prays, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (v 36).
An excellent prayer to memorise.
Twice Jesus returns to the three, and twice he goes back to pray. And as he finishes, amid conflicting emotions, the footfalls of Judas and the crowd armed with swords and clubs fall on his ears – and those of the slumbering disciples.
Then, the very next day, cruelly nailed to a cross raised outside the City of Peace, Jesus utters seven sentences – three of them prayers.
Witnessing soldiers at the foot of the cross gambling for his clothes, and casting his pain-tormented mind back on all that had befallen him since that night of joy and hope in Bethlehem three decades before, Jesus breathes this amazing prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
Later, after three hours of supernatural darkness during which he endured the holy wrath of God against the sins of the world, absorbing in his own body all the world’s moral darkness and injustice and pain, Jesus cries out in a loud voice a very different and terrible prayer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46).
As the sun reappears, and the great curtain in the temple is torn in two, Jesus calls out again with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Matthew adds, “he gave up his spirit” (Mt 27:50b).
These are the prayers of Jesus recorded for our instruction in Scripture. What do they teach us? How can we pray them ourselves?
We cannot fully identify with the unique relationships that exist between the three persons of the holy Trinity. We cannot identify with the deity of Jesus Christ. We are mortals, sons and daughters of Adam. There are differences in essence as well as in quality between ourselves and the Son of God.
But we can identify with the humanity of Jesus: with his expressions of worship and thanksgiving, his identification of personal needs and the needs he observed around him and heard about from various sources.
Above all, we can learn from Jesus the vital practices of unceasing and habitual prayer; and echo the abiding faith that God is present, that he hears us, and that he answers our prayers sovereignly and according to our needs. Raymond Brown puts it well in his commentary on Hebrews:
To be prayerless is to be guilty of the worst form of practical atheism. We are saying that we believe in God but we can do without him. It makes us careless about our former sins and heedless of our immediate needs.
The prayers of Jesus follow the pattern of the helpful acronym “ACTS” – with the notable exception of confession. Jesus had no sins to confess, but he taught his followers to confess theirs (Lk 11:4). It is good to shape our prayers around these four themes of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.
Take heart: Jesus understands what life is like for you. He has been there before you in tough situations, when to move forward is far worse than to stand still, when you can’t explain what is happening, and where you feel utterly inadequate to the tasks and responsibilities life throws at you.
My message today may not be profound, but it is sincere and I pray that it will release some profound, God-directed changes in your life. Tennyson was right: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
Sermon 670 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Wednesday 4 May 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 John White, People in Prayer (Leicester: IVP, 1977), pp. 143-160.
 C.S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves, December 24, 1930.
 Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews (Leicester: IVP, 1982), pp. 96-97.
 Alfred Tennyson, “The passing of Arthur,” Idylls of the King (1869) line 414.