Matthew 26:36–46 (Midweek Lent 1—Return the Lord Series)
“Return to Prayer”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
February 24, 2021
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Our text today is the Gospel you just heard from Matthew, in which Jesus and His disciples go to Gethsemane, where He prays and they nap. Our theme is prayer, specifically God’s invitation and command to be constant in prayer. Keeping with our overall Lenten theme of returning to God, the sermon is titled “Return to Prayer.”
I realize that prayer can be a touchy subject. Because if we’re completely honest, few of us are very good at prayer. There is always a little twinge of conscience that comes with any discussion of prayer. We have great intentions, obviously, but a Scripture passage such as Paul’s encouragement in 1 Thessalonians to “rejoice always” and “pray without ceasing” (5:16–17) can make us flinch; we tend to worry more than we should, and we certainly don’t do a very good job of praying without ceasing.
It is a good bet that your prayer life does not measure up to the ideal that God’s Word sets up, and it probably falls short of whatever standard you set for yourself. So if you are a little uncomfortable with this topic, that is understandable. I hope by the time we are done here you will know that when God calls you to pray, He provides the means to do so and even fulfills what you are unable to do. In much the same way that Jesus is the primary actor in your salvation, the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in your prayer life.
In the Old Testament Reading, Jacob is returning to Canaan, having been through the wringer with his father-in-law, Laban. He is nervous about fleeing with all of the people and livestock that are rightly his. He’s worried about encountering his twin brother, Esau, whom he imagines is angry about that whole stealing-the-blessing thing. Jacob’s world is kind of up in the air.
So he has split his whole traveling company into two camps in hopes that if Esau and the four hundred men traveling with him encounter one, at least the other camp will be spared. He sends Leah and Rachel and his children and servants ahead and is left by himself for the night.
What happens next is astonishing. A man wrestles with Jacob all night long. Apparently, it was quite a match, because neither came out on top through the whole ordeal. As things unfold, we slowly begin to realize that this was no ordinary wrestling match. Jacob wasn’t wrestling just anyone, he was wrestling God Himself! More specifically, he was wrestling with God’s Son, who would later become incarnate. He was wrestling with Jesus.
This is no allegory; the wrestling match certainly happened. And one lesson we can learn from it is that the trials and temptations that God allows us to bear are ultimately intended not to destroy us but to build us up and to bless us. Just look at the cross of Christ to see how God can use suffering to bring about good.
You can also use this event as a metaphor for your prayer life. In a sense, you wrestle with God in your prayers. You ask for the things that you believe you need. You struggle with the prayers that are not answered as you hoped. You long for God’s clear guiding and directing, and you groan under the weight of the trials that you must endure. But in the end, through your prayers and your wrestling, God changes you. Forms you. Molds you into something more like Jesus.
Selfishly (and sinfully), we may perceive our prayers as a time of our wrestling with God, but what if it is actually a time when God is wrestling with us? A time that He uses to reorient our perspectives and our perceptions. Surprisingly, it seems that the primary actor in your prayer life is not you but God.
One of the things Jacob says to his foe is “I will not let You go unless You bless me” (Genesis 32:26). This is terrific! In the context of prayer, this would be something like “I won’t stop praying until You answer me,” and it calls to mind the parable of the persistent widow. You know—the one where the widow comes before the unrighteous judge again and again demanding justice, and he finally gives in? The one Jesus used to emphasize how much greater the blessing is from a God who actually loves you and cares about you?
The problem is that most of us don’t come to prayer prepared to go toe-to-toe with God all night long. We don’t train to be prayer warriors, most of us, and we’re not equipped for that kind of battle. In fact, not only do we generally do a pretty poor job of being constant in prayer, we often aren’t even entirely sure how to pray.
We wonder: What do I say? How can I come before God and speak with any kind of eloquence? Words fail me. My emotions overwhelm me. I’m keenly aware of my shortcomings, and I don’t feel like I have any kind of credibility to ask God for anything.
We’re a lot more like Peter and James and John than we are like Jacob and Jesus: falling asleep when we should be praying, dozing off when we should be alert. We don’t know what to pray for, and we’re not even sure how to pray. And so we don’t, or at least not as often as we probably should.
When you listened to that Gospel, I bet you could identify with Peter and the other disciples. You probably felt a little sheepish that you stumble in your prayer life in much the same way that they did. At least you don’t have Jesus in your face calling you out for your failures! But if you took that reading to heart, you may have felt like our Lord was chastising you.
Paul offers the answer, and we need to hear this: Paul says that we don’t know what to pray for. We don’t really know how to do this prayer thing, but that’s okay. Because “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). And what the Spirit does, you can be sure He does perfectly.
Your prayers may falter, but the Holy Spirit makes up for it. What you cannot do, God does for you. What you are unable to do, God does with ease. Where you fail, God is perfect.
Your prayer life reflects your faith and your salvation. Because while you falter in your daily life, Jesus has stepped in and made up for it. What you could not do, Jesus did for you. What you were unable to do, Jesus fulfilled. Where you failed, Jesus was perfect.
Make the cross the focus of your prayer life. Let it comfort and soothe you as you speak your petitions to a loving God who sent His only Son to save you. Know that your failures do not define you before God; rather, Jesus’ perfection covers all of your sins—you are forgiven—and you wear His righteousness.
God commands you to pray, but He doesn’t leave you alone with it. The command simply brings you to the foot of the cross, where you can look up and see the Gospel reality that covers your shortcomings. Know that your prayers are a means by which God is forming and molding you, and that He will intercede where you fall short. When God calls you to pray, He provides the means to do so, and He even fulfills what you are unable to do. May that be a comfort and an encouragement as you joyfully respond to Jesus’ call to “Return to Prayer.”