After the Passover meal on what we now call Maundy Thursday, Jesus and his friends left the Upper Room and stole through the dark, dangerous streets of Jerusalem. Jesus well knew his life was on the line. For that matter, he knew that changing the world hinged on his actions. The disciples too knew the danger. Sometime during the night Peter had strapped on his sword. I imagine the Sons of Thunder, James and John, were also prepared for action. They were ready to do more than just pray to change their world.
How to Do More than Just Pray to Change the World
Once out of town, Jesus led Peter, James, and John to a safe and silent place, the Garden of Gethsemane. Something wicked loomed on the horizon. And Jesus knew he needed a miracle to face the approaching darkness. Would he arm and prepare his three most trusted friends for battle? How would he face the coming storm? Would he do more than just pray?
We too have been living in a life threatening storm for the last two plus years. And that’s not counting our personal battles of depression, illness, financial insecurity, etc. Like Jesus’ three friends, we too have armed ourselves. But mere swords haven’t been enough.
What Does Jesus Do Besides Just Pray?
Jesus climbed a hill into an ancient olive grove. The gnarled trunks of the trees, as big around as the massive mill stones which pressed their olives into oil, stood supporting the star speckled sky. Their maudlin shadows crisscrossed the path and Jesus’ somber mood transformed Gethsemane into a many-pillared temple. In this shadowy sanctuary Jesus stopped the procession saying, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Peter, James, and John may have grabbed Jesus’ shoulder, flexed their muscles, and nodded their willingness to do anything. Peter fingered his sword. Then the boys fanned out and stood guard. Peter had voiced the disciples’ willingness for war and preparation for the coming fight saying, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” Like us, they were not about to just pray. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
And Jesus took desperate measure. And he did not just pray. But pray he did. He slipped into the shadow of the olive trees, kneeled down, grabbed hold of the Father’s heart, and hung on for dear life.
Were Peter and team baffled when Jesus kneeled to pray instead of drawing a battle plan? Were they then lulled to sleep by his perceived prayerful passivity?
We smile at at their naiveté. At their ineptness.
But we are no different. Many of us no more believe prayer is adequate preparation for a coming battle than masks are adequate protection against a virus, though we may don them. Likewise we may pray all the while wishing there were something more tangible, more powerful we could do. We tire of the saccharine “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” In these life threatening crisis we know something miraculous and powerful is called for but we don’t really know what. We don’t know what else to say or do. As Eugene Peterson says in Working the Angles, we use prayer as a starter pistol. We point the prayer, close our eyes, and shoot blanks.
Stop Just Praying
We often ask of this story why can’t the disciples stay awake to pray with their beloved, heartbroken friend? One answer is because they and we don’t believe prayer can change the world. The real question, however, is not how they couldn’t pray but why Jesus does? Wasn’t he the Messiah? Wasn’t he already in tune with the Father? Not without prayer. Jesus prays because his kind of prayer is the only thing that can change the world.
But it’s Jesus’ prayer is more than just prayer.
Notice how many of us use this phrase, “God, I just want to pray.” By this we hedge our bets. We don’t really believe prayer will change anything but we should just do it anyway. The least I can do is just pray. And the word just keeps our distance between us and Almighty God. It’s a verbal shrug of the shoulders. In an interview with Krista Tippet Eugene Peterson says he believes prayer is more than that. “Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.”
Philip Yancey writes about the pain of unanswered prayers here.
Prayer Is a Wrestling Match
Jesus didn’t just pray. He prayed so passionately he sweat blood. This prayer is Jesus becoming, aligning his will with the Father’s. And it’s a knock down, drag out match. This account exists not to portray slothful disciples, but to teach us the first function of prayer—aligning ourselves with God’s thoughts and ways. Notice that Jesus’ prayer produces no angels ripping open the heavens to rescue him. Jesus simply rises from his knees with new vision and strength–strength hard won from the Father. Not because the Father is reluctant to give but we are often reluctant to receive. What does the exchange of wills look like if not a sweat and blood wrestling match?
I know my prayers are too often just cosmic shopping lists for God to fulfill should God care to.
But prayer is a hard conversation, more listening than talking. Then often hard actions follow, like dying to self. Prayer may resemble a long, frustrating session with your wise 100-year-old grandmother who is telling you through her strange stories that life is more than social media slogans. That what you expect from life is not what life can give. That life is more often grit and grind and God than it is pursuing your passions.
“It’s delight and death and disease and dancing all woven into a complicated beautiful tapestry,” she says with a faded glint in her eyes. “It’s damn hard but it’s damn good too.”
In that moment you know you can either leave with a soul deep perspective change begun in you. Or you can remain the same. This is our choice in conversation with God too.
Is prayer for you entering into a deeper relationship to be changed by God? Or is it a tool to manipulate miraculous escapes? Yes, Jesus asked for an escape: “may this cup be taken from me.” But after listening to the Father, Jesus knew the deepest miracle is the change inside him not a change in his destiny.
“Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he calmly says to his friends, “Rise, let us go. Here comes my betrayer.”
It’s safe to say the transformation of the world turned on that prayer. We cry, “Don’t just pray. Do something!” And rightfully so. On the last night of his life Jesus did not just pray. Jesus did something. He wrestled, wept, bled, and battered his heart against the will of the Father. Then and only then could he act.
A man named Israel wrestled with God too and limped from his tent with a broken hip, a new name, Jacob, and a transformed relationship with God and his brother, Esau.
I’ve wrestled with God over my relationship with my children and what it means to be a father.
“I’m a better father than you,” I yelled at God, blubbering tears. God did not break my hip. But rather broke my heart and is now making it new.
Still when battle-worthy struggles come, like Peter, I strap on my sword, shoot off just a prayer, and start a fight. But God calls me back to the wrestling match saying, “Come, my child, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
Here’s a prayer I prayed that was more wrestling A Prayer Against Violence: An Honest Conversation with God