To learn how to “walk just as (Jesus) walked” (1 John 2:6), we must look at Jesus’ sayings, actions, and teachings. The Gospels portray Jesus as faithfully walking where God leads instead of seeking success in God’s name. We will spend the remainder of the posts in this series looking at examples of that.
An argument can be made that how we live our spiritual life is simply a reflection of how we pray. There are two separate stories that occur at the beginning and end of Jesus’ public ministry that give us insight into his prayer life. Comparing Mark 1:21-39 and 14:32-42 reveal how Jesus wrestled in his prayer life with being faithful over successful.
We will look at the later story in Mark 14:32-42 first. We find Jesus praying in Gethsemane during the last free moments of his life before He was arrested. The focus of the passage is actually Jesus’ repeated disappointment with Peter, James, and John. Jesus brought them along and asked them to stay awake, but they keep falling asleep! But our focus is on the content of Jesus’ prayer: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” The prayer has four components.
- “Abba, Father” – Jesus begins by addressing God with an intimate term, that of a loving father. One of my seminary professors would tell the story of being in Israel and seeing a small child holding his father’s hand, looking up to him, and then trying to get his attention by saying, “Abba! Abba!”
- “For you all things are possible” – Jesus acknowledges that God can do whatever God wants, however God wants to do it. He accepts God’s authority in all and over all things.
- “Remove this cup from me” – But while acknowledging God’s authority, Jesus implies He knows where God’s call is leading— a painful and shameful death that will end the human community with his disciples— and confesses that He does not want this path. Jesus is not shying away from where God is leading but is making a plea as part of the freedom within his intimate relationship (“Abba”) that what lies ahead is horrible. A very logical temptation would naturally underlie such a statement as Jesus would know that God’s reign could be brought about in a different manner. Surely there must be a more successful way to accomplish God’s work in the eyes of everyone than the shame and humiliation of criminal execution while leaving a group of disciples who are clearly not ready to lead?
- “Yet, not what I want, but what you want” – But despite all that Jesus is grappling with because of where being faithful is leading Him, He ends by strongly professing that He will be just that— faithful.
Turning to the first passage (Mark 1:21-39), we find Jesus in the very early days of his public ministry. It opens with a story of Jesus exorcizing an unclean spirit from an attender at a sabbath service in the synagogue. Mark then narrates that “at once his fame began to spread.” This fame leads to people taking the first opportunity they can “at sundown” (because that signals the end of the sabbath when no work is allowed and healing was considered work) to come where Jesus was staying and bring “him all who were sick or possessed with demons.”
There were so many that “the whole city was gathered around the door.” Jesus “cured many” and then a long day finally comes to end. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place” where he prayed. Jesus apparently did this without telling anyone what He was doing or where he was going because the disciples “hunted for him.” “When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”
With Jesus’ sudden popularity and the influence that would come with it, why would Jesus feel the need to get away from everyone and pray? The answer could be simply that it was a pious act, but the context of the passage clearly indicates a causal relationship. Jesus was faithful through his synagogue and healing activities but they brought an instant and unbelievable amount of fame.
I think Jesus was tempted to allow this early success to cause Him to reconsider whether He should remain in that town, at least for a while longer before leaving. It is a very intuitive reasoning that would think to capitalize on this sudden fame by staying and building upon it. But Jesus’ decision to move on reveals that that reasoning, however logical, was a temptation to serve God successfully (i.e., to strive for God). It was met immediately with a focused and solitary time of prayer— a time that reinforced the faithful direction where God had been leading as he told his followers, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Jesus, ever the unconventional shoemaker!)
We do not have any of the content of Jesus’ prayer in this passage, only that his time of prayer appears to reinforce the direction which Jesus understands is faithful to God’s leading. But the prayer of Gethsemane may shed light on what this earlier prayer might have been like. I think the structure of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane was not born in that moment. More likely, He developed it while preparing for public ministry and then used it often thereafter. If that was the case, I think his prayer after his newfound fame could have sounded something like this: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; I would love to remain in this village a while longer; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” The same pattern in his prayer would align here as Jesus could have addressed God in an intimate manner, acknowledged God’s sovereignty, confessed his own thoughts of struggling with a more successful option, but ultimately realizing and accepting to be faithful to where God had been and was still leading.
Too many times we can experience a success in our church or see a success in another church and decide more of that must be what God wants. The lure of success in God’s name can cause us to bypass the simple question, “Is this what God wants?” Similarly, if a ministry endeavor appears to be heading toward failure, we should not assume on our own to end it but instead meditate on the same question, “Does God wants us to be faithful to this ministry?” Jesus’ prayer life modeled what needs to be our foundation— stay focused on what God wants, not what we decide seems most reasonable.
Reflection: When you pray, do your words hope for successfulness or to be faithful?
Next post: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector