As we continue in our sermon series on prayer, and as we turn to Matthew 26:36, you are probably thinking that we are going to examine the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane this morning.
Indeed, an examination of Jesus' praying in the Garden would teach us a great deal. In the Garden we see the earnestness and the deep emotion with which Jesus prays. We see the perseverance of Jesus in prayer and we see His commitment to pray for the will of His Heavenly Father.
While we would indeed profit from a study of the prayer of Jesus in the Garden, this is not my focus for this morning. My focus this morning is on the lack of prayer of the disciples in the Garden.
Anyone who struggles to persevere in prayer (and I count myself to be one), would be wise to note how Jesus addresses His disciples who are failing to pray.
Keep in mind the context here. Jesus has just predicted that He would be betrayed by one of the disciples (26:21) and that, "this very night", Peter will deny Him 3 times (26:34). The arrest of Jesus is eminent, and so He calls upon, not just anyone, but His 3 closest disciples to keep watch and to pray with Him (26:37). We read, however, that Jesus' most loyal disciples let Him down.
Before Jesus leaves them to pray by Himself, He says to them, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me"(26:38).
What does Jesus mean when He says, "keep watch with Me"? The pew Bible version renders the Greek, "stay awake with Me". Both of these translations can be misleading. When we think of keeping watch, we might be tempted to think that the disciples were being commanded to guard against intruders. And with the translation, "stay awake with Me", we might conclude that Jesus simply wanted some company.
Let me suggest that a better translation would be "keep alert with Me". I realize that doesn't read as well in English, but I think it more closely describes what Jesus was asking for. Jesus was asking the disciples to have a certain disposition. And the disposition Jesus called for was alertness.
If we want to know the reason for this exhortation, we need only to examine Jesus' rebuke when He returns to them and finds them sleeping. Jesus says to Peter, "you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"(26:40, 41). Jesus wanted the disciples to be alert for the purpose of prayer.
We then read that Jesus goes away a second time to pray. He returns to the disciples and, guess what? They are sleeping again. Jesus goes away a third time to pray and when He returns the disciples are still sleeping and so Jesus says to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?"(26:42-45). Friends, please note that this is a rhetorical question! Jesus is clearly displeased with His disciples.
The lesson our Lord gives us on prayer here is simple and straightforward. Prayer is something to be done with a disposition of alertness. This is not some haphazard activity. This is not something we can take lightly or do half-heartedly. Prayer that honours God is prayer done with a disposition of alertness.
Prayer must be focused. Prayer requires concentration. And this, I admit, is not easy. If we have not trained ourselves to be alert in prayer we will inevitably find that our mind wanders in prayer.
I recently heard of a discussion that took place between a couple of the early Church fathers on this matter of concentrating in prayer.
The one Church father was lamenting on how difficult it was to remain focused in prayer. He went on to assert that he doubted whether anyone could pray the Lord's Prayer without allowing their mind to wander. The other Church father disagreed, indicating that he thought he could do it.
And so the one Church father said, "OK, I'll bet you a horse that you can't pray through the Lord's Prayer without your mind wandering. I'm trusting you, so you will have to be honest with me on this."
The other Church father then began to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name . . . " And then he stopped.
"Why did you stop?" asked the one Church father.
"You are right. I couldn't do it. When I got to "hallowed be Thy name", I began wondering if you would throw in a saddle as well."
It is a difficult thing to maintain a disposition of alertness in prayer, but it is oh so important!
The call of Jesus to alertness in prayer is not a unique exhortation. The apostle Paul, writing to the Colossians, tells them to "devote (themselves) to prayer, keeping alert in it"(Col. 4:2). And to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance"(Eph. 6:18). And finally, the apostle Peter, who evidently learned his lesson, writes, "cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert"(1Pet. 5:7, 8).
Why is alertness so important? Jesus gives us our first clue when He tells us that a disposition of alertness keeps us from falling into temptation (26:41).
And if we examine the other biblical passages where we are exhorted to be alert, we will quickly discern a pattern. Let's have a look at Paul's statement to the Ephesians again, "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance"(Eph. 6:18). The question we must ask of this verse is, "What does Paul have in view here?" He says, "with this in view, be on the alert".
To see what Paul has in view here, we have to go to the beginning of the paragraph in verse 10 and following, "Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armour of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."
What Paul has in view is a spiritual battle. The reason we must be alert in prayer is because we are offering prayers in the midst of a spiritual war.
I recognize that this is not something the average Christian wants to admit. I remind you, however, that I did not cook this up. I am the waiter and my job is to deliver the Word of God to you without messing it up. The Bible, which we confess is God-breathed and authoritative, states that we are in a struggle against "spiritual forces of wickedness" that we cannot see. I am not asking you to be comfortable with this reality, but I am imploring you to believe it and to respond appropriately.
And if we are uncomfortable with the notion that we are in a spiritual war, let me suggest, that is a good thing. If the idea of a spiritual war makes us nervous, the appropriate response is to be alert and to pray. The armour will not help a sleeping soldier. The armour will only help the soldier who is alert in prayer.
If we turn to 1Peter 5, verse 8, we will see much the same. Peter, after learning first-hand of the need to pray with alertness, writes, "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."
This passage is not meant to scare you. This passage is meant to motivate you to pay attention in prayer! The apostle John, in his letter, assures us that "greater is He that is in you than he who is in the world"(1Jn. 4:4).
We can prevail in this struggle if we persevere with prayer. And your alertness is critical to the effectiveness of your prayers. We struggle daily against sin and Jesus tells us to pray. Jesus tells us, "Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter temptation"(26:41). Puritan writer, William Gurnall, echoes this when he writes, "Cease to pray and you will begin to sin."
We must also be alert with regard to the spiritual war going on within the church. Charles Spurgeon reminds us that "The Church never was earnest without sooner or later discovering that the devil was earnest too."
Friends, when you come to the Lord in prayer, do not regard it as a light thing. Focus your prayer. Concentrate on the task. The mountains that you move with your prayers may not be visible, but they are vital to winning the spiritual battle in our midst. Keep alert and keep praying. Amen.