Listening to Jesus About Prayer and Testing

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 14:37-38

And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Mark 14:37,38 rsv

Jesus has a great word for us about prayer and testing. Listen: “Watch and pray,” He said to the disciples, “that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

HIS TESTING

Jesus knew that the supreme test of His own life was just ahead. His hour, as He had described it, had finally arrived. He was about to be delivered into the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes to be falsely tried, condemned and then crucified. He was about to drink the bitter cup of our condemnation, to feel forsakenness for our sake. In the Garden of Gethsemane on that last night, facing that horror, He began to be greatly distressed and troubled. He said to His followers, “My soul is very sorrowful even to death.”

How would He deal with the frightful darkness descending upon Him? How would He cope with this final test? Just as He had with every other. He drew apart to pray. He invoked God as Father with a word of affection and childlike confidence, “Abba.” He confessed His faith, “All things are possible to thee.” He made known His feelings and desires, “Remove this cup from me.” But deeper than all was His commitment to the Father’s purpose. “Yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” He was wide awake, praying with such intensity, that sweat ran down from His brow in what seemed as great drops of blood. That’s how He prepared for the final test.

OUR TRIAL

He had warned His disciples that testing was ahead for them also. Listen: “You will all fall away; for it is written, `I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’” They would be under pressure to forsake Him in their hour of need, to give in to fear and run away.

But Peter rejected the warning, at least for himself. “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” The Lord replied, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Now it was explicit, direct, personal. But Peter protested again. “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the other disciples said the same thing. Later, in Gethsemane, each man fell asleep. None of them remembered to pray. That’s when Jesus gave them this remarkable charge. He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not stay awake one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Their danger was that they would “enter into temptation.” That word means, sometimes, simply “testing.” That will surely come, for their Master and for themselves. The circumstances of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion will try them sorely, and there’s no escape from that. They will be weighed in the balances. Their faith and loyalty will be severely called in question.

The peril is that in the midst of all that, they will come under temptation’s power. The pressures to deny their Lord and abandon His cause will become fearfully strong. And they may capitulate. They may fall shamefully. They may prove untrue to Jesus.

Now, that’s a gloomy, unsettling prospect, isn’t it? It must have been hard to take. How would you have felt if you had been one of those disciples? After all, you had left everything to follow Jesus. You had thrown in your lot with Him, heard His teaching, beheld His mighty works. You were in the inner circle of His friends. How could you, a devoted disciple of Jesus, come under the power of temptation and end up denying Him? It didn’t seem possible. The disciples couldn’t imagine themselves doing that. To a man they protested that it would never happen.

I don’t know whether you are a believer in Jesus Christ or not. But for the moment, imagine, at least, that you are. Let’s say you are Simon Peter. You have confessed your faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God. He has given you a new name, the Rock. He promised to build His church on you and your bold confession. You have committed yourself to Him for life. Imagine being told now that you along with the rest will abandon Jesus and run for your life.

You object, “Oh, no, Jesus, that cannot be. Maybe that could be true for some of these others but You know me, Lord. I won’t let You down.” And then imagine Jesus saying, speaking to you personally, “Listen, before the cock crows twice tonight, you will three times deny that you ever knew Me.” Now you become even more vehement, “If I must die with You, Lord, I will not deny You.” You can’t conceive of that possibility. You are determined that it will never happen to you. But according to Jesus, it is always a possibility that you will come under temptation’s power.

WHY WE ARE SO VULNERABLE

Now He explains why that is the case. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The Lord isn’t saying here that we are inwardly divided, that part of us is strong and part of us is weak, that one aspect of our nature is willing and another is wayward. Spirit stands for God and His work in our lives. Flesh stands for us.

There came a time in the life of God’s people Israel when they were trusting in Egypt for help rather than in the living God. The prophet chides them for that: “Woe to those who go down for Egypt for help and rely on horses who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord” (Isa. 31:1). Now here is God’s verdict on that situation: “The Egyptians are men and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit” (v. 3). Men and flesh are on one plane of reality, spirit and God on the other. Flesh, no matter how impressive and powerful it seems, is weak. Only the Holy One is strong.

Remember David’s great prayer of repentance in Psalm 51? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (vv. 10-12). That willing spirit is always God’s gift, for which a penitent people look to Him and call upon Him. The Spirit who makes us willing, nerves our wills and strengthens our hearts is God’s own Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of power, of love and of a disciplined mind.

But the flesh, on the other hand, is weak. By “flesh” is meant not only our physical bodies. Not only are we physically frail, vulnerable to disease and finally to death. The flesh stands for our total humanness. Here is a verdict pronounced over the whole of our life: weak.

The point here is that God and humankind, spirit and flesh, are being spoken of as rival objects of trust. We set our hopes on the Spirit or on the flesh. We trust in God or in ourselves. And when we trust in the flesh, Jesus is saying we will be sadly disappointed. We will be leaning on a broken reed that cannot support our weight. We’ll be going for refreshment to a broken cistern that can hold no water.

Do you see what Simon Peter was doing in the situation? He was trusting in his own resources. He refused to believe that he was in danger of falling because he thought himself a bigger, better man than that. What was Emerson’s line? “Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Something in Peter heartily agreed with that. Others might give way under pressure but not the man they called the Rock. He would take care of himself, thank you. Whatever anyone else did, he, Simon Peter, would surely play the man.

When we have this kind of confidence, we forget God’s Word, even oppose ourselves to it. Whatever Jesus had said, Peter felt he knew better. He would stand. The writer to the Proverbs speaks about leaning to one’s own understanding, that is, depending on our own wit and wisdom. It’s the very opposite, he says, of trusting in the Lord with all our hearts. The Christians in Laodicea did not see themselves as weak, did they? They said, “I am rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing.” There was complacency, presumption, the very opposite of trust in God. We can set our hopes, says Paul, in uncertain riches, in contrast to hoping in the living God. We think we can withstand what defeats others. We are more spiritual than they, more loyal, more courageous. Confident in our ability to stand, we sometimes carelessly put ourselves in temptation’s way, perhaps by the books and magazines we read or by the movies we watch, by the places we frequent, by the people we let ourselves be alone with, by the dares we accept or the forbidden things we sample from time to time. And that’s the kind of pride that goes before destruction, the haughty spirit that precedes a fall. We haven’t listened to the Lord’s verdict about us, about our whole human makeup. Vulnerable, weak.

OUR GREAT NEED

The great need of these disciples and of ourselves is that we watch and pray. To watch means simply to stay awake, to remain alert, to keep vigilant. That’s what we do when we recognize our vulnerability, when we acknowledge our weakness. That’s how we walk when we know we are in enemy-occupied territory, when we know we can come under the power of temptation, when we know it’s possible for us to have a moral and spiritual collapse, even to make shipwreck of our faith. Those who are prone to fall asleep are those who have convinced themselves there’s no danger, who believe that like Samson they can always rouse themselves and defeat their foes. Those who stay awake, on the other hand, are those who put no confidence in the flesh, no trust in their own, unaided abilities. They know they have to be on guard. They know that when the testing comes they could fall away miserably and deny their Lord.

But here’s the most important part of all. Jesus calls His followers not only to keep awake but to keep on praying. When the apostle Paul describes the whole armor of God needed to stand against the wiles of the evil one, the crowning part of the equipment is the weapon “all-prayer.” In fact, that’s the means by which we put all the other pieces of armor on.

Saint John of the Ladder imagines the voice of one of the deadly sins saying this, “They who summon me are many. Sometimes it is dullness and senselessness of soul that bids me come. Sometimes it is forgetfulness of things above. Aye, and there are times when it is excessive toil. My adversaries [that is, the adversaries of this deadly sin] are the singing of psalms and the labor of the hands. The thought of death is my enemy, but that which kills me outright is prayer.”

Prayer is our refuge, our great defense, our mighty weapon against the foe, because prayer brings us into living contact with the Lord and brings the power of His Spirit to our aid.

Was this warning just for those first disciples because they would be there at the time of Jesus’ arrest? No, it was included by Mark in this gospel for those Christians in Rome to whom he was writing and for us today. We all face the same peril, all labor under the same weakness, all have the same great need.

Is it only in the major crises of life that we need to heed this word? Hardly. We never know when those are coming, anyway, do we? Walking with God in the little things of life prepares us for the large ones. I love this prayer of the psalmist, “Who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression” (Ps. 19:12-13). He’s praying that God will cleanse him from those secret faults of which he isn’t even aware and will keep him back from brazen, conscious willfulness. Then, living moment by moment in God’s forgiveness and appealing to Him for strength and refuge, he’ll be innocent of the great transgression. He won’t go down in any kind of final apostasy.

This word of Jesus, friends, is a word for every day: remaining alert, conscious of our weakness and vulnerability and appealing to God in prayer that we may be filled and empowered by His Spirit. Then the promise is radiant and reliable for us: we won’t come under temptation’s power. We can be more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

Prayer: O Lord, teach each of us that – to watch and pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.