Sermon for Sunday, February 27, 2022 || Last Epiphany C || Luke 9:28-36
I’ve spent the last 12 days recovering from jaw surgery. During that time, I have felt so enfolded in love and care by the prayers of this congregation. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve also done a lot of praying recently myself; mostly prayer as pain management. Also, a lot of prayer for the state of the world, prayers for peace, prayers for the people of Ukraine and the courageous protesters in Russia. So I want to talk about prayer this morning, specifically when we feel the need to pray and what that says about who we think God is.
Back in January, I noticed for the first time that Jesus is praying after his baptism when the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. Likewise, in today’s story of the Transfiguration, Jesus is praying when his clothes grow radiant. That got me curious, and I looked it up. The Gospel writer Luke speaks of prayer more than any other book of the Bible except the Acts of the Apostles (which Luke also wrote) and the book of Psalms. Luke mentions prayer as many times as Matthew and Mark combined. Twenty-seven times Luke talks about prayer, and in a quarter of these, Jesus himself is the one praying. This morning we’re going to look at each of these times Luke narrates Jesus praying and see what we can see about God.
I already mentioned the first instance. Still wet from his baptism, Jesus is praying when he hears God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In his prayer, Jesus hears from God an affirmation of his fundamental belovedness. Now, the Gospel story is just starting out. Before Jesus can do anything to earn God’s love, he’s already got it. Likewise, we come to God in prayer to remember and embody our own belovedness.
Jesus’ fame spreads, and soon he can’t enter a town without people mobbing him. Luke tells us, “But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” When Jesus was feeling overwhelmed by the needs around him, he prayed in solitude. His solitary prayer – just him and God – kept him from burning out. He paid attention to his own needs, which allowed him to pay better attention to the needs around him. Likewise, we come to God in prayer when we’re burning low and need rejuvenation.
Jesus recognizes the needs are too great for him to address them alone, so he plans to call a group of people to help him. Luke says, “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them.” Jesus spends the night in prayer, working through his decision-making process with God. When he returns to his followers, he has new clarity about whom to choose. Likewise, we come to God in prayer when we are struggling with decisions, especially those that do not have a clear “correct” answer.
Jesus’ ministry continues on in Galilee. Then Luke says, “Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’” I really wonder what Jesus was praying about to prompt that question. I honestly think he might have been confused. He had a clear idea in his head about what his mission was, but did others see it that way? I think Jesus wondered how his clarity of purpose might be blinding him to others’ realities. Likewise, we come to God in prayer when we need to see something, to let go of our preconceptions, our biases, our blinders, and let God focus our vision on how things really are.
Soon after asking this question, Jesus goes up the mountain in today’s Gospel passage: “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Moses and Elijah come to him and speak with him. This story takes place right before Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem for the final time. Perhaps Jesus prayed to speak with those heroes of old in order to bolster his confidence so he could see his path through? Likewise, we come to God in prayer when we need encouragement to walk the Way of Love.
Along the road to Jerusalem, Luke tell us, “[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” They’ve been watching Jesus pray for months. They finally ask for a tutorial! And because he prays all the time, Jesus is equipped to instruct them. He does so by teaching them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Likewise, we come to God in prayer to participate in our relationships with God, in order that we might support others in the Beloved Community of God in their relationships.
Jesus reaches Jerusalem, and everything goes as he expects. His arrest is nigh, and he finds himself in the garden on the Mount of Olives. Luke says, “Then [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’” Jesus knows what is coming. He also knows that all of God’s creatures share two things in common. There is suffering. And God loves them through their suffering. Jesus prays in the garden to remember that God is with him as he sees his mission through to the end. Likewise, we come to God in prayer because we suffer in small ways and in large ways, and God’s love in the midst of suffering binds us together. On this day, we may not be able to do anything materially to help the people of Ukraine. But we can pray for them: binding our hearts to their suffering, elevating their courage, and standing as a united front against evil and wanton violence. We pray for such strength in the midst of suffering.
The reality of suffering. Participating in relationships. Encouragement along the Way of Love. The need to see. The need to decide. The need to renew. The truth of our fundamental belovedness. These are just a few of the multitude of reasons we, like Jesus, come to God in prayer. What does prayer look like in your life? Why do you pray? Which of these reasons resonates most for you right now and why?
Jesus prayed throughout his lifetime, as Luke records in the Gospel. Following his example, we reach out to God, and we discover again and again that God has always been and will always be reaching out to us. We believe that our very desire to pray is already evidence that God is acting through our prayer, always present, always listening, always responding. Thanks be to God.
Art: “Christ in Gethsemane” by Vasily Perov (1878)