Prayer in Pain

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Good morning everyone.

I talked to someone the other day who had a big professional exam coming up the next day. And you could tell they had that sick feeling, maybe you’ve had it yourself where your stomach is in a twist, you feel sick, maybe you wake up in a cold sweat in the night, because of the intensity of something you are facing or about to face. It might be an exam, or a review at work, an operation or some bad news for you or a family member.

How do you react in those intense, often painful situations? Maybe you need to talk? Or maybe you hide yourself away? Maybe you turn to Haribo or chocolate?! [hold up] I’m pretty tempted right now! How do you respond?

Those moments are hugely personal, aren’t they? And yet today, in our next passage from Luke’s gospel, we have the incredible privilege of joining Jesus at the most intense time in his life on earth. These verses take us into Jesus’ heart as never before, and as one commentator put it, they “demand of us a profound reverence, almost a reticence, in case we get it wrong”.

So, let’s pray before we go any further.

Father God, we pray that we would not approach these verses flippantly this morning, but rather with reverence and wonder. As we look at them, we pray that you would teach us what it looks like to trust you in the painful times in our own lives. We pray particularly for those watching who are experiencing painful times right now - we ask that you encourage them today, and we pray for all of us that we might treasure Jesus all the more as we look at your word this morning. Amen

Well, if you were watching a couple of weeks ago, you might remember that Ken did his best ready-steady-cook act and gave us a visual representation of the Passover meal that Jesus and his disciples ate together.

We saw Jesus initiate the Lord’s supper, saying to them “do this in remembrance of me”. And one thing that was crystal clear, was that Jesus knew exactly where he was headed. He knew that the time had come for him to suffer at the cross.

But even at this difficult time, and after all Jesus has said during the meal, the disciples seem pretty oblivious to what he is facing. In fact, we saw that straight after the meal, the disciples are so focused on themselves that they’re even having a dispute as to who is going to be the greatest among them! And Jesus has to say “come on guys!” – “I am among you as the one who serves”, and you are to follow my example.

And so, Jesus must have felt very alone, humanly speaking, as the meal finishes and he heads off with his disciples to the Mount of Olives, where he often went to pray. He must have had a great weight on his shoulders knowing what was to come.

And yet, wait a minute. This is Jesus we’re talking about! Surely, he can handle it. I mean, let’s not forget all that’s come before in Luke’s gospel. This is the same Jesus who doesn’t seem to blink an eyelid when he’s challenged by the devil, or when he’s suddenly confronted by a demon-possessed man. This is the Jesus who is so relaxed in the face of a life-threatening storm that he’s able to sleep, and then calm the storm with a word. We’ve seen him heal people and even bring people back from the dead. He’s in complete control, he seems totally unflappable and fearless.

But here’s the shocking thing that Jesus prays at the Mount of Olives, verse 42, Jesus says:
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

1. Jesus’ Agony

Jesus has faced up to so many challenges before, with total composure. And yet this is a completely different scale. We read that Jesus is in agony. He’s so distressed that he’s sweating, as if it’s blood falling to the ground. Do you get the shock of this? Why is there such fear, after all that’s gone before?

There are others throughout history who seemed to have managed to die bravely, at least in terms of outward appearances. The story is told of Joachim Murat, who was king of Naples under Napoleon who was executed by his captors. He was lined up in front of a firing squad. But instead of taking the seat that he was offered, and a cloth to cover his eyes, he said that he wanted to die standing up with his eyes open, and as a last request, he wanted to give the command himself to the firing line. And with a little smile, he said “aim at the heart, save the face”. And after a last look at a picture of his wife, he said the final command, “fire!”.
Cool as a cucumber! Or at least seemingly so. Such apparent fearlessness. So why is Jesus in such distress?

It’s because he knew that at the cross, he would take on himself the sin of the whole world (even though he himself knew no sin). And that in his death, he would face the full wrath of God for that sin. He would face spiritual abandonment as he took responsibility for those sins. He would cry “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.

We struggle to fully grasp what happened at the cross don’t we? But as we see Jesus’ emotions here, after his fearlessness previously, maybe we can grasp a little bit more of what he went through?

And as we look into his heart at this point, we can learn from how he responds to this agony. And the first thing we see is that he comes before the Father in prayer. Pray is always the place to begin.

- Pray! Take it to God first.

I wonder what your first response is in those stomach-churning situations we mentioned at the start. Is it to pray? And how do we pray in those situations anyway?

Let’s have a look at how Jesus prays.

2. Jesus’ Prayer

We read that Jesus withdrew, and knelt down and prayed, and the first thing he prays is, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me”.

We see elsewhere in the Bible that the ‘cup’ is a cup of wrath or suffering. It’s what he is going to face on the cross. And the amazing thing we see first, is that Jesus…

- Prays openly and honestly to the Father

He says, “this is how I’m feeling, if there’s any other way, please take this from me”.

And we too can be honest with God.

I wonder if you’ve ever prayed that prayer yourself? Father, please take this from me. Or please take that from someone else. “Father, please take this illness away, or this situation at work.”

You see, it’s ok to be honest with God, to tell him all your anger, all your frustration and all your pain. Like a good father with a child, he wants us to come to him and pour out our hearts, and be honest with him.

Psalm 55 says, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you”.
The psalm we read earlier says:
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.

So, if you’re carrying a burden at the moment…bring it to the Lord. Pour out your heart to him. Don’t run away from him, run to him.

So, the first thing we see is that we can pray openly and honestly with our Father God, and here’s what Jesus prays next, he says,
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

We see that Jesus…
- Pray(s) trusting God and submitting to his will

Whilst Jesus is honest, the heart of his prayer shows an amazing commitment to follow the Father’s will, even if it means death on a cross. Jesus is saying, “if this is necessary, it’s necessary, but if there’s another way then let’s go with that.”

He makes known the desire of his heart to God, but his primary concern is to accomplish God’s will. We see that his choice to go to the cross is incredibly difficult, and it’s an act of supreme service and sacrifice.

I heard an amazing interview on the radio the other day with a man called Pete Goss who single-handedly sailed non-stop round the world as part of the Vendee Globe race. The biggest challenge of the race was when a huge storm with hurricane force winds came over in the Indian Ocean.

Goss was on his own in a little boat, in huge waves the size of buildings. And he said it was a massive relief to make it through the storm. But pretty much at that moment, a mayday came through from another competitor, saying his boat was sinking. Goss wasn’t able to communicate with him any further, and he didn’t know him, but he knew he was the only boat close enough to help.

And at the moment, he had to make a choice – would he turn round and sail back into the storm, at great risk, but with the chance of saving this man’s life? Or would he carry on? But he decided to turn his boat around.

And 2 days later he ended up pulling Frenchman Raphael Dinelli out of the water and into his boat – saving his life. And even though they didn’t know one another at that point, Pete went on to be his best man at his wedding. And a great friendship and trust built up between them.

Jesus made a choice to rescue us, when we had no hope of a rescue apart from him. Jesus could calm a hurricane-force storm with a word – that wouldn’t have worried him. But as he faced the storm of the cross, it made him sweat with anguish. It didn’t mean possible death, it meant certain death. It meant taking the weight of the sin of the world. And yet he chose to walk that path for us.

And that means we can trust him, even more than Raphael Dinelli can trust Pete Goss. We can trust him as our closest friend, who wants the best for us and who has given his life for us.

We can trust him with those burdens that we talked about earlier - all those situations where we want to come before God and say ‘take this from me’. All those situations where we want to say ‘why God?’.

I wonder what those things are for you? Maybe it’s an illness or mental illness that won’t go away. I’ve prayed every week for 20 years for someone in my family – yet it’s hard to see any progress - and it’s really hard. Maybe there’s something, or someone, you’ve been praying for, for years? Maybe you want your spouse or your children, or someone else, to come to trust Jesus. Maybe you’d like to be married? Or to have children? I wonder what it is for you?

As we look at what God did for us, we can put all those situations into his hands and trust him. We can hold them out, even if it’s with tears in our eyes, and say ‘your will be done’.

If you’re finding that hard, and it is often hard, let me encourage you, whatever else you do, to trust God, and trust his love, compassion, power and goodness – that we see at the cross. Be honest with him.
And it might also be helpful to find some trustworthy friends and ask them to pray for you in that situation.

Sometimes God will take those painful things away. But sometimes he has a different plan that we might only understand fully the other side of heaven.
In this passage, we see that as Jesus prays, the Father listens, not by delivering him from death, but by giving Jesus strength as he goes through rejection, and by vindicating him after his death – by raising him from the dead and seating him at the right hand of the Father.

God sustains Jesus through the trials. And he promises to sustain us too. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that when we bring our anxious requests to God,
“…the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”
Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

And many have found that to be true. So, let me encourage you to bring those burdens to him.

Prayer is powerful. Prayer is always the best starting point. And Jesus emphasizes that once again at the end of this passage, as our attention is turned to the disciples.
3. The Disciples’ Failure

Before Jesus goes off to pray, he asks his disciples to be praying. He says,

Pray that you won’t fall into temptation

They are about to face a great trial too. Their friend, their teacher, the one they had pinned their hopes on is going to be killed. And Jesus has warned them that Satan wants to sift them like wheat. He’s warned Peter that he is going to deny him. And so, Jesus encourages them to pray. He knows that it’s the greatest weapon they have.

And yet, we read in verse 45,
when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Just before this, they’ve shown eagerness to fight for Jesus (they even find a couple of swords!). But Jesus, in his wisdom, encourages them to pray. Because it’s prayer that will protect them from unfaithfulness, it’s prayer that will help them to persevere through what is to come, it’s prayer that expresses a need for God and a desire to rest in his care. And Jesus knows that’s what the disciples need most in these difficult moments. And that’s what we need too.

So, are they going to listen? Are they going to back Jesus at his time of greatest need? Are they going to be diligent in prayer?
Sadly not. They don’t listen, do they? They fall into temptation. They deny Jesus. They let him down.

And we so easily do the same don’t we? We’re so easily faithless. At the times when we’re called to stand up for Jesus, or speak out, we often don’t. Or at the difficult times, the times when we’re most able to demonstrate our trust, we’re so easily faithless.

And yet even at this time of being let down by his friends, Jesus chooses to listen to his Father’s will, and he walks the path towards the cross.

At the Mount of Olives, the Father listened to his perfect son’s pleading. And if there had been any other way, he would have done it. But this passage, possibly more than any other, shows us that there was no other way.

It was the only way for the sin of the disciples to be forgiven. And it was the only way for our sin to be forgiven. It was the only way for our relationship with God to be restored, so that we can call him ‘our Father’ and pray to him.

So, as we finish, let’s be thankful for Jesus and what he went through for us. Let’s be a church family who

- Pray with thankfulness.

Let’s never forget that this was the only way that we can be certain of a future where there will be an end to all those painful things that we want to hold out before God [in prayer] this morning. We struggle to understand them, [these painful things we face], but we see here that we can trust God. And we’re to come before him as his children, and pray with honesty, trust and thankfulness.

So, let me encourage you to pray now, and hold out those things to God, in a time of silence.

Amen.

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