Sunday, January 29, 2023

Open Lips, Open Ears

They'd hurried a long way to find Jesus, walking in tears all the way from Perea to Galilee. What they had to say, they believed Jesus needed to hear, and from them. They'd visited him before, relaying questions from their imprisoned master. They were disciples of John, the prophet – more than a prophet – who'd rewritten history with his baptisms in the River Jordan. Several years before, John had been imprisoned by Antipas, son of the infamous Herod. Antipas had divorced his wife Phasaelis to steal his half-brother's wife Herodias – who was also a niece to both of them – and John had denounced the divorce as unlawful and impossible. Had Antipas not read the Book of Leviticus? “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness” (Leviticus 18:16). “It is not lawful for you to have her,” John had insisted in his fiery preaching, unencumbered by social niceties (Matthew 14:4). And while Antipas found John's preaching compelling, he found his love even more so. John had been imprisoned at Antipas' palace-fortress Machaerus during Jesus' desert duel with the devil, before Jesus launched his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-12).

But now, John's disciples told him, something had gone terribly wrong. These last couple years, Herodias herself had been stewing with hatred for John, and through her daughter Salome – named for Herodias' grandmother, a conniving woman who'd divorced multiple husbands and convinced her brother Herod to then execute each of them for treason – Herodias had at last found an opening for vengeance. Putting birthday-boy Antipas on the spot after lithe young Salome was offered a lavish prize from her lecherous uncle/great-uncle/stepfather for her dance, she'd insisted on the severed head of John as her reward. Terrified of public backlash but more terrified of losing face in front of his party guests, Antipas gave the order. To satisfy the vendetta of these incestuous Herodian fiends, the prince of prophets was killed. No sooner had his disciples entombed his headless body than grief propelled them to Galilee, to relay the dark news (Matthew 14:6-12).

In his humanity, where this news came to him really as news, the news hit Jesus hard. His forerunner, cousin, and friend was dead. Not only was he filled with a sense of loss and grief over someone so dear and important to him, not only did he grieve for his people at the loss of what John represented, but it wouldn't be long until the Passover, and that meant in just over a year's time, the wrath meted out to John would be unleashed on Jesus as well – and Jesus knew it. The countdown to Calvary had started ticking when John's head rolled from his shoulders. Feeling a foretaste of Gethsemane surge through his heart, Jesus felt the need to get away. Taking a boat, he rowed his way across the lake to find some peace and quiet in the vicinity of Bethsaida, where there were some wonderful open spaces really only used for grazing sheep (Matthew 14:13).

When he docked his boat, though, crowds were already waiting for him on the shoreline by the thousands. Hearing Jesus was on the move, they'd run around the sea to intercept him, desperate for his attention. And although Jesus' heart was so heavy, although he needed time alone, nevertheless as he looked into their eyes and saw their hurt, their sickness, their thirst to learn and grow, his compassion was mightier than his grief. Expending energy past human limits, he spent the day with them, healing their sick and teaching them about God's kingdom, a message all the more urgent now that the forces of death were in motion (Matthew 14:13-14).

By late afternoon, Jesus' own disciples were getting concerned. The crowds had come by foot, had stayed all day, and there were no food sources nearby. If they didn't leave now to go to the nearest villages, if they instead stayed with Jesus into the night, some of them would pass out before making it to a food vendor. The crowds, though, clearly wouldn't act even in their own best interest without Jesus' telling them to (Matthew 14:15). But Jesus had a different suggestion: the disciples should feed the crowd themselves (Matthew 14:16). With what? All they could find on hand was a single boy's lunch (Matthew 14:17)! But it was enough. Looking up to his Father in heaven, Jesus broke and blessed the barley bread, and as his disciples distributed it, it replenished itself hand to hand, in all its beautiful brokenness – much as Jesus' beautiful heart was broken. So five thousand men, and all the women and children there that afternoon, were fed an early supper (Matthew 14:18-21).

No sooner had they finished eating than he sent his disciples to his boat, telling them to sail across the sea while evening was coming on. The sun was already setting toward the horizon. He would deal with the crowds. And as his disciples rowed away, he gave them his final words and told them to go home. They obeyed. Thus, with the disciples on the lake and the crowds dispersing to the villages of northern Galilee, at last Jesus was alone – alone on the land as a quiet darkness filled the air. Walking to the top of a nearby hill overlooking the area, Jesus had his privacy. And so Jesus had his prayer. How long after sunset it took to start – how long the crowds took in their going away – it isn't clear. But his disciples were struggling with wind on the lake that blew them off course, and yet Jesus didn't walk out to them on the waters until after 3:00am. Jesus spent hours up on the mountain – just him and his Father, a practice run for Gethsemane. “He offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus prayed what he preached.

Knowing he'd be swarmed by the needy crowds yet again after sunrise when he and his exhausted disciples hit land – not a one of them having slept a wink – Jesus could have curled up and slept on the mountaintop, I guess, but instead he devoted himself to an all-night prayer vigil. More than a night's rest – if he could even sleep – he needed to talk things out with his Father, to commune with his Father. And that meant prayer, prayer in private, prayer in the absolute vulnerability possible in the intimacy of God the Father and his Son on earth. For maybe seven hours – perhaps even more – Jesus prayed. In that prayer, Jesus processed his thoughts, feelings, griefs, and fears. And in that night of prayer, Jesus set us an example.

Jesus has been called “the model and master of Christian prayer,” and rightly so.1 Over the past few weeks, you and I have talked about this great human journey we're all on, and how it's meant to reach its climax with us becoming somehow like God through seeing him as he is – a seeing we call the beatific vision. Of course, then we talked about how the journey can't be achieved under our own natural powers; we need supernatural powers to get there, we need supernatural faith and hope and love, all implemented in supernatural ways, in order to be able to see God as he is. God gives us these from the very start, when we're born again. But, as we heard last week, we have to actually act on these dispositions, use these powers and these gifts, practice this righteousness, build this relationship. I've been calling it “the great human journey,” but we could just as accurately call it “the great human courtship.” The goal is to see God unveiled, to know intimately as he is, to be united to him in divine love. And this heavenly union with God, which will be more intimate and powerful and delightful than anything in the world, is the perfect template of all marriage and all family in our experience. Where we're headed is to perfect union with God, and that means the journey there is like the journey of our most near and dear relationships. The growth we need is relational growth, relational investment, more deeply rooting God's presence in us by love. And prayer is simply the stuff of that relational investment on our end. So with the time we have this morning, let's follow Jesus up that lonely mountain, to learn what complete relational investment in God looks and sounds like. In your silence, eavesdrop on Jesus; in your words, join in with Jesus as he leads.

Since prayer is about relational investment, since prayer is talking to and with God, it can begin with cultivating a consciousness of God. And that calls for an attentiveness to and focus on God. “Prayer is focusing on God..., refocusing each time we relate actively within the relationship.”2 To begin a time of prayer, turn your attention to God. If possible, dispose your body in whatever ways help you mentally, emotionally, psychologically get into 'prayer mode,' whatever that looks like for you. (For me, it's usually pacing back and forth.) Take a deep breath or two. Then open the conversation with a greeting, imagine God greeting you back, and picture him in front of or above or beside you, and begin. “The more concretely we envision our relationship with God,” it's been said, “the better our prayer will be.”3

Attentiveness to God will mean attentiveness to him as God. Cultivating a consciousness of him will call for an attitude of humble appreciation, of recognizing God as God and ourselves as not.4 God doesn't need anything from you. You need everything from him. But he wants you more than you want him. God cannot have a bad day. He cannot get sick of you. He cannot be too busy for you, because he transcends all we know as time. So you can trust that the psalmist's words hold good for you, too: “Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:19). Humbling yourself before God, confessing him as the God you aren't, you can trust that he's listening, even when all around is earthly silence. You don't have to try to manipulate your emotions to gin up whatever feelings you associate with God. He's just there, listening, attentive to you.

And when we approach him in and with Jesus, God is no longer merely the King who relates to us by his power, or even the Redeemer who relates to us by his mercy. Once we're born again to be participants in the life of Jesus Christ, God is to you and me the Father who relates to us by a love that cherishes. God's love is a love that does not know how to be anything less than infinite.5 It just doesn't! And so Jesus invites us with him to approach the Father as a person who, by the grace of adoption, belongs in the Father's arms. He invites you to approach God with a confidence that God, as your Father, isn't looking for pretexts to berate you or denounce you; God is simply happy when we put up no obstacles to his welcoming embrace. In many ways, then, prayer entails adopting the position and outlook of small children, resting in a parent's arms. “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The innocence, dependency, trust, un-selfconsciousness – in things like that, little kids offer us a model to emulate.6

Now, one caveat here: It seems to me that in today's culture, we tend to identify familiarity with informality and irreverence, thinking that being like a little child is about being like a bratty child. In modern America, we tend to make the model of the child-parent relationship about a cheeky child full of audacity. In first-century Galilee or elsewhere in the Roman Empire, not so much! A Roman father, especially, had legal power of life and death over his children. And in Jewish culture as much as Roman, life-long respect for fathers was a central value, one into which children were disciplined from the earliest age. So when Jesus advises us to approach God as our Father, he's not counseling us to approach with an abandonment of reverence and respect. He's not calling us to a flippant or casual approach, barging in on God and pretending God is just our peer and buddy. God being our Father does not occlude or exclude God's kingship and holiness and all his other great majesties. We are invited to approach God familiarly and freely as our Father, but that's not the same thing as flippantly and irreverently. In fact, the author of Hebrews says that the reason why the Father heard Jesus' prayers with all those loud cries and tears was precisely “because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7).

And so when we pray, we should have some consciousness that prayer is a religious act of value, at least insofar as it really presents your inner self to God as a gift of self.7 Prayers are a religious act of self-giving, and that's another reason they should definitely not be flippant. And we make them good religious acts by filling them with plenty of adoration, plenty of thanksgiving, plenty of praise. As a religious act, a good prayer is potentially the equivalent of a sacrifice. One psalmist hoped so, at least, when he said to God: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2). Praise, especially for God's comfort, is compared in Isaiah to “the fruit of the lips” (Isaiah 57:19). So “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). This is one reason why we're encouraged to pray out loud, even though God hears us just as clearly when we pray silently on the inside. Praying out loud lets us serve God with everything we've got, inside and outside, by having our bodies make sounds that express our inner devotion.8

So our specific prayers are religious acts, and meant to be reverent like a sacrifice. But this reverence doesn't mean bombastic. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out that for at least some pagan Gentiles, they were so fixated on prayer as a religious act, but in the absence of a confidence that their religious act would be acceptable, they'd try all sorts of verbal tricks to ensure they were heard favorably (Matthew 6:7). Those pagan prayers would heap up lots of divine epithets and titles, and so could become very formalized and flowery. A flowery prayer need not be a bad thing, but it's bad when it becomes bombastic by being more focused on the words themselves than on the sentiments they convey or the character of the hearer. Jesus reminds us that God doesn't actually need the words to know your need; he was paying attention before you started (Matthew 6:8). So our words aren't a fishing expedition to butter God up; they're a blend of incense meant to smell good to both deity and offerer, meant to make it easier and not harder to communicate with God.9

And since it's about communicating with God, that calls for sincerity. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about “hypocrites” – play-actors, some Pharisees being guilty of this – who were fond of using prayer for what were fundamentally un-religious ends. They made sure that the call to prayer caught them in a place of maximal visibility, because they wanted to impress others with their piety so as to boost their social standing. So as to pervert their prayer to those ends, they turned it into a public performance (Matthew 6:5). Jesus' advice to seek privacy for prayer, even to the point of hiding in a closet, is primarily about reducing the risk of it becoming a performance aimed at enhancing your reputation. There remains, of course, a risk of it still being a performance aimed at enhancing your self-image! But to follow Jesus' counsel, at least, would make someone conspicuously absent during the set prayer hours, allowing others to assume from that whatever they wished. Of course, in today's culture, where religiosity in public is sometimes looked down on as unseemly, people's incentives might be different – not praying in public might be a more effective reputation enhancer! In which case, the relevant advice might be more along the don't-hide-it-under-a-bushel track (Matthew 5:15-16). But Jesus' point stands: arrange your prayer life so as to guard against temptations to manipulate it for social advantage.

To follow Jesus in prayer, then, cultivate a consciousness of God both as God and as Father, let prayer be a religious act but without bombast and without performance, but above and beyond being a religious act, let it be a truly honest gift of an honest self. And, as Jesus showed on the mountain, that means honest emotional and logistical processing with God in prayer. Just as you appreciate it when friends and family serve as a sounding board for what you're experiencing when you need to vent, why not “just tell God where you are and what's on your mind”?10 That's what Jesus did. In all those night hours, he was utterly honest and vulnerable with God.

Of course, there's a danger here, too. These days, when we say we're finally being “honest” with someone, we use the word 'honest' as a euphemism for being verbally abusive – letting fly all the harsh, unreasonable, and intemperate criticisms we've been storing up in our minds and which we've at last grown too passionately angry to suppress any longer. That's not at all what I'm recommending we do to be honest with God! You're supposed to be processing with God, not against God; growing more tender, not more defensive or more self-justifying. By all means, ask the hard questions, even lay out some challenges – Job can testify how surprisingly indulgent God can be with that. But in any relationship, there are lines of contempt not to cross under pretexts of 'honesty' – our honesty should stay reverent, as Jesus' did. But this reverent honesty can be very passionate, and should be, when that's what we're really feeling. By opening yourself to God in vulnerability, you create space for him to work and draw you closer. And if Jesus processed honestly all night on a mountain, so can we.11

Within that, we can bring God our specific personal needs: “In everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6). And we can bring God the needs of others and of the world: “We always pray for you” (2 Thessalonians 1:11), “making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:19). But in all this, remember that priority isn't given to any particular topic, and ultimately not even to prayer's value as a religious act. Prayer is first and foremost about cultivating that relationship, about developing conversational familiarity with God in which it becomes easier and more natural to talk with him. Prayer is a venue for opening yourself to the strengthening of those theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, to becoming holier through a real encounter with God's grace, and so to growing fitter for the beatific vision. It doesn't need to be a constant barrage of words, still less of new words or new thoughts. But even as you run out of new things to say, or even as you incorporate silent resting in God, “continue steadfastly in prayer” with open lips and open ears (Colossians 4:2). For prayer is our spiritual breath, the regular maintenance and pursuit of our relationship with a God whose unveiled union with us is the supernatural bliss we're made for. And much more could be said of it, but time grows short. Let us merely meditate on that mountain... and listen. Amen.

1  Brant Pitre, Introduction to the Spiritual Life: Walking the Path of Prayer with Jesus (Image, 2021), 10.

2  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road, 2019), 3.

3  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road, 2019), 9.

4  Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970), 31.

5  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road, 2019), 10.

6  Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (NavPress, 2009), 31, 38.

7  Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970), 49; Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (CUA Press, 2019), 282-283.

8  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.83, a.12.

9  Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970), 47.

10  Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (NavPress, 2009), 32.

11  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road, 2019), 34.

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