THE MOUNT OF OLIVES
One of the most important New Testament mountains is the Mount of Olives. That is the 2900 ft. high hill with three peaks where Jesus preached his "Sermon on the Mount." It is one traditional site for Jesus' ascension into heaven. It is the place where Jesus stood, with the view of all Jerusalem in front of him, and wept over the city; and it is the location of the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus often went to pray, most notably on the night of his betrayal and arrest.
So, in general, Jesus did a lot of communicating on the Mount of Olives. From there he taught the people, from there he spoke to God. He also agonized a lot...weeping over the city that was clueless of his mission and later wrestling in prayer to accept the death that was to come. It was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus gave his most famous teaching on prayer, giving us the prayer that we say even now, two thousand years later...the Lord's Prayer.
In fact, as Jesus goes to pray on the Mountain after the Last Supper, his instructions to the disciples who follow is a direct quote from the Lord's Prayer he had taught there years earlier. "Pray that you may not come into the time of trial." The King James has us recite, "Lead us not into temptation," but a more accurate translation is reflected in some of the other English versions like the New Revised Standard version that we read this morning, "Do not bring us to the time of trial." That's how he instructs the disciples that night and that's basically what he prays himself. "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me."
The Garden of Gethsemane sits opposite the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the time of the Old Testament book of Chronicles, the site of Solomon's Temple was considered also to be the site where Abraham took his son Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice, and where God stayed Abraham's hand and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead. That event is the Biblical trial par excellence, and it is not impossible that as Jesus and his disciples prayed to be delivered from the time of trial that they cast a glance across the valley and remembered just how difficult the trials can become. And how much more difficult for Jesus to look and remember that he was the ram in the bushes that would be sacrificed so that the offspring of Abraham could be saved. It is no wonder that he prayed until sweat beaded up like great drops of blood and that angels came to strengthen him.
The overall message that comes to me as I think of the Mount of Olives is that prayer is a serious business. By that I don't mean that it is always somber. There are times when our prayers are full of joy, smiles, and even laughter. When I say prayer is serious, I mean that it is a real thing. It is not just words that we say...it is our means of communicating with God, which means it is the lifeline for our souls.
Prayer is not something reserved only for the spiritual elite. Prayer is the protein of the Christian life. We can know a lot about God from reading the Bible, but it's not enough. Unless we seek out the God of the Bible in prayer, our knowledge OF God will never move to being a relationship WITH God. So I encourage you, as you think about prayer, to think about it in terms of relationship. Prayer is not meditating ABOUT someTHING. Our faith has a place for meditation, it's just not prayer. Meditation is thinking about and focusing on something. Prayer is conversing WITH someONE. Prayer is interactive...it takes two...you and God.
Prayer is personal, intimate, interaction with God. That means that it can take any number of personal and intimate forms, depending on your own personality. Some people have run into blocks in their prayer lives because they think there is only one form or style of prayer. There isn't. Some need silence, some need music. Some need to be still, some need to pace or drive or run when they pray. Some pray silently, I find that praying aloud keeps my mind from wandering. Some need to sit, some need to kneel, others might need to stand or lie down. What is right for you? Well, how do you like to get to know new friends? Do you sit over a cup of coffee? Go for a drive? Walk, or jog or ski together? What puts you in a frame of mind to open up your heart to someone? Do that when you pray.
And what should we say? Think in the concrete terms of relationship. Say what's on your mind. Be honest. We know from our human relationships that intimacy is only possible when we are willing to risk letting someone else into our lives. If we insist on pretending to be something we are not, if we will not reveal the thoughts and desires of our hearts and accept the risks that come with that, our friendships will develop only so far and then stop. It's the same with God. If we keep our prayer time to the pleasantries of casual conversation...lovely weather, isn't it? How ‘bout those Red Sox...Did you read about that fire in the paper?...you will succeed in making God a casual acquaintance. To reap the benefits of an intimate relationship with God...to find real purpose and meaning in your life, you have to be open and honest with the fullness of your joy, sorrow, anger, pain, and hope.
Often the biggest obstacle to prayer, however, is simply the self-discipline to make it a priority. Prayer will not one day jump you from behind the bushes so that you immediately go from never praying to spending an hour a day in intimate conversation with God. Like with human relationships, you have to make time for it and work at it. And like with human relationships, you get less from it at the beginning stages and more as the relationship progresses. Prayer is a reciprocal relationship...you will get in proportion to what you give.
The single most important thing you can do to jump start your prayer life is to make time for it. Real time...not the five minutes before bed when you are exhausted anyway and can't stay awake. You have to give it a time apart...quality time with God when you are awake and alert and able to engage the relationship to its fullest. It's a help if you can find a regular time and place...something that becomes a habit, so that it begins to feel wrong if you don't do it. That way you are more likely to stick to it long enough to really develop a relationship. A daily routine is the best.
But if you're brand new to this and don't yet feel you can do every day, join us for our weekly prayer time here on Wednesday nights. Or come to the prayer services on the fourth Sunday night of every month. Tonight at 6:30, here in the sanctuary, Jan Whitten will again lead those who come into a time of silent, centering prayer. Those times can be a way to get started.
If you are really feeling stuck for words, go with Jesus' advice to the disciples and use the Lord's Prayer. Have it written out, if you don't know it by heart. We print it in the bulletin each week for those who are new to faith and don't know it. Use that. A lot of people find benefit in expanding the words of the Lord's Prayer to fit their own situation. Instead of just saying, "Forgive us our debts"...or trespasses...or sins...or whatever you say, add the very specific things for which you would like forgiveness. Instead of only saying "Give us this day our daily bread," ask for the very specific things that are on your heart. If it is hard for you to relate to God as Our Father, call God "Mother" or "Friend" or "Lion" or "Rock." "Father" is just one of many ways that people in the Bible address God.
If you are just getting started, or even if you have been praying all your life, it is often a great help to pray the prayers of others. Most bookstores have collections of prayers and every Bible has the book of Psalms, which was...and is...Israel's prayer book. Not every prayer will connect with your style and situation, but you will find many that express what you are feeling...often different ones at different times. Prayer is not false if the words are not your own. It is only false if your heart is not seeking after God.
I want to be careful in saying that, because there are times when every Christian goes to prayer and it seems empty. Maybe we just say the Lord's Prayer without really thinking about it or we talk to God and just don't seem to connect. I don't want to imply that those times are false prayer. Again, think about relationships. Think about a couple who set out to work every morning. Before heading in separate directions, they give each other a quick peck on the cheek and say, "Love you, Bye!" They are not feeling particularly passionate, they may not even like each other at that moment, depending on what happened over breakfast. They may not even really hear what they say because it is an ingrained habit. But is it helpful? Absolutely.
Or think of friends who see each other in the mall or out somewhere. They may both be preoccupied with other things and not really in the mood for socializing, but it is much better for the friends to connect with a perfunctory, "Hi! How are you?" than it is to pass each other by and leave the words unsaid. It is the same with prayer. There will be times when you are not in the mood, when pressures and concerns so occupy your mind that real engagement with prayer is difficult. Do it anyway. Stop for two minutes and say the Lord's Prayer as your own "Love you, Bye" or "Hi! How are you?" to God. Like in a human relationship, those little perfunctory gestures are a way of acknowledging the importance of a relationship even in the down times or the busy times.
When I say that prayer is false if your heart is not seeking after God, I mean that in the large sense of your general attitude rather than in the specific way you are feeling at any given moment. The perfunctory prayers actually can indicate your general commitment to a relationship with God. It all depends on where you are coming from. If I see a friend in the mall and wave hello, I might either be taking a moment to engage an important relationship in the only way I can at the moment, or I might be hurrying along hoping that I won't have to engage any further with someone I'm not really interested in.
It's the same with God. If a perfunctory recital of the Lord's Prayer is my way of stopping and saying to God, "You're important, but I'm just not with it right now," that's fine. If it is taking care of a social obligation to a God that I really don't want to engage any further, then even the Lord's Prayer just hits the ceiling and falls back on your head.
When your heart is truly seeking after God, you cannot pray wrongly. No matter if you stumble in prayer, no matter if your words are inelegant or even crude. When you come to God in prayer because you want a relationship with God, your prayer is every bit as holy and sacred to God as any prayer by Mother Teresa or any great saint of the church ever was or is. When you come with that attitude, your prayer is always heard with love.
The Mount of Olives teaches us that when we meet God on the mountain, God wants to communicate with us. Without a strong prayer life, your communication with God is going to be like a bad cell phone connection. You'll miss half of what God has to say, and probably mis- understand the other half.
It's up to you. Nobody is going to make you pray. But if you neglect the discipline now, you won't have a clear connection on that day when the great trial comes. Abraham had developed a relationship with God and so was able to hear God say "Stop!" at the most critical moment of his life. Jesus had a well-developed prayer life and could receive God's strength through prayer when both he and the world needed it most. The disciples fell asleep during their prayer time and when the trial came for them in just a few hours, they could not face it but turned and fled. The choice is up to you.
© 2003, Anne Robertson
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