Unceasing Prayer is the Way

Advent 1C

Luke 21: 25 28 and 34 36

Introduction

The third year in the International Lectionary, the year of Luke, seems to begin at the end! That has got to start anyone thinking. Except among a relatively small band of preachers, this text is not a popular choice! It makes us feel uncomfortable, and we don't really want to have to front up to this kind of material. We would rather just think of Christmas.

That is what Advent as a season, the first in the Church's year, helps us to face and understand. Yes, there is an element of fear and apprehension but that is exactly what our Lord, in this intensive instruction, helps us to leave behind forever.

Remember, this is the Lord's final teaching before he is betrayed by his close friend, Judas; only a short time before, seemingly, the world would come to an end for Jesus and crush him to death.

What he teaches here, he is about to put into practice himself. Let's now walk slowly through this daunting passage, and hear what he is saying to those who are prepared to listen.

Notes on our Text

Verses 25 and 26 

This is the apocalyptic imagery of the Old Testament.

Notice only two or three sentences are given to describing the extent of the turbulence. Clearly the whole of creation is part of his vision. Not one of his listeners will not be surrounded by the turbulence, and there will be nowhere to go in the hope of escaping. There will be dreadful anguish and perplexity, but Our Lord does not yet indicate who will experience these: only that some will.

Verse 27

Then in one short sentence he contrasts the horror of the apocalypse with an event that will far surpass all else beyond any human knowledge: the Son of Man will come in a cloud "with power and great glory". This emphasis is critical in understanding the meaning of our Lord's teaching.

Read Daniel 7: 13 and note how Jesus identifies himself as the subject of Daniel's prophecy. The words "in a cloud" are an intended reference to this vision.

Despite the extent of the cosmic upheaval, the advent of the Son of Man suppresses all disorder and disharmony before him.

Verse 28

When these things begin to take place — stand by!

Before the Lord explains how we are to escape the furies, somewhat surprisingly he says: Stand up and lift up your head. His followers are not to be distraught but are to be confident and are to demonstrate it. They are not to cower in the corner but to hold up their heads and behold the coming of Lord! For the promised delivery and glory is at hand.

Verses 34 and 35

You may wish to read 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 — 3; 7, 8 — 10, and v. 18.

"Be careful!" Be warned! As Jesus explains, You are just as prone to get side-tracked into seeking instant pleasure and self-gratification as anyone else. If you follow that path you can expect to get trapped. Don't be surprised;  just wake up to the fact. This is the Lord's sobering warning about:

  • dissipation: treating the gift of life frivolously
  • drunkenness: living for excessive pleasure
  • anxieties: over pre-occupation with even very important and necessary things in life.

Take Care, he says

Verse 36

Only now does he "declare his hand". What is the way through all of this what is the "escape clause"? The answer lies in a commandment for those who consider themselves disciples of Jesus: as he said it literally —

"Be always on the watch
and
be always praying
that
you will have spent your time and energy developing
what it takes to stand
before me and beside me.
Only then will you escape the
confusion, the contamination
the conflict that surrounds you"

Our Lord is pointing out to his faithful disciples down through the ages that the anxiety and tragedy he is warning about need only afflict those who choose to live a way of life based on worldly, unspiritual values. He is saying, "Never give up keeping watch and praying, and you will be able to stand before the Son of Man".

This is not scare tactics.
This is a message of hope.
Unceasing prayer is the way.

Note on "Unceasing"

All scholarship on the references in the New Testament to unceasing prayer or being always at prayer must be understood in the Hebrew sense of being earnest and fervent. The Greek word used to translate this idea (adialeiptos) speaks not of unbroken continuity but without omission of any occasion; or, not of what is not interrupted, but of that which is constantly recurring. (W E Vine, Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words.)

This understanding had a profound effect on the first Christians who took it very seriously and set in place a variety of patterns of keeping watch, and frequent prayer. Examples of this are given in the fuller explanation "Unceasing Prayer". In this paper we also see how the early Church quickly came to believe its prayer formed a part of Christ's own unending prayer to his Father.

Conclusion

Yet again we hear the Lord declare with uncompromising clarity, what at first hearing, we do not wish to be concerned about. Only as we ponder what he said do we realise his stark warning contains within it a beautiful message of hope, a promise of loving care and attention from him.

At first he seems to ask the impossible. But on reflection he offers a way through. The Christians of the first two centuries took his words very much to heart: "Be always praying". They (and their fellow disciples down through the ages) devised a number of ways to always be at prayer, yet to live responsibly as productive members of society. The following is a little commentary on "Unceasing Prayer":

Unceasing Prayer:
What is it?

Introduction

All scholarship on the references in the New Testament to unceasing prayer or being always at prayer must be understood in the Hebrew sense of being earnest and fervent. The Greek word used to translate this idea (adialeiptos) speaks not of unbroken continuity but without omission of any occasion; or, not of what is not interrupted, but of that which is constantly recurring. (W E Vine, Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words.)

This understanding had a profound effect on the first Christians who took it very seriously and set in place a variety of patterns of keeping watch, and frequent prayer.

We offer a number of "jottings" on the Christian practice of unceasing prayer.

Approaches to Prayer

The Unceasing Prayer of Jesus.

The Christian practice of prayer has been shaped very significantly by the teaching of St Paul. For him, there was really only one prayer, and this was the unceasing prayer of the risen Lord — ascended into Heaven yet dwelling within us — whose prayer to his Father was made present in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. With this in mind there grew the indisputable belief that any movement of our spirit towards prayer became an organic part of this uniquely blessed prayer of the Saviour enthroned not only in Heaven but also in the heart of each disciple. While it held this belief, the Church moved forward, finally absorbing even its greatest opponents.

The Body of Christ

Flowing from this sense of union with Christ's loving prayer to his Father it is appropriate at this point to recall that Christians believe they are baptised into Christ. They become members of his Body, the Church of which he is the Head. Arising out of this comes the further understanding that members form different parts of Christ's Body. Therefore they "watch and pray" according to their place and function. Not all pray the same way, in the same places, or at the same times. There is thus a recognition of mutual support of one part by another. In other words, we need to let our prayer be assimilated into the whole prayer of the whole Body to the Glory of God.

Therefore we do not try to "cover the whole field" of prayer, but rejoice in the prayer of other members and ask the Lord to receive our humble offering with theirs.

Regular Pattern

As a practical consideration the early Christians, including the Desert Fathers (as the first monks were called in the first three centuries) considered regularity of prayer as important as frequency. In other words, all could not expect to pray with the same frequency, but all could establish a regular pattern which was appropriate for them and their life style. This should help us to be realistic and still confident we are following the Lord's call to his disciples to "be always on the watch, and always praying...".

King David's Example

Many a time the Lord's anointed could not sleep at night. He often rose and spent time during the night praising God. In fact some of his finest and most inspired Psalms were composed on these occasions. It is not surprising the Book of Psalms was our Lord's favourite prayer book!

(Have you thought of making it yours?)

The Desert Fathers took David literally and rose nightly for "vigil" — to keep watch for at least one hour. When we find ourselves unsettled at night, a few moments committed to thanksgiving and prayer for the Church can be a most consoling experience.

We offer this as an example of simply accepting the opportunities for prayer when they are presented to us.

Being Present to God

One or the great pioneers among the Desert Fathers, St Anthony, said "Always have God before your eyes". Another, Abba Macarius said the disciple should "be constantly before God". The practice developed very early in the history of the Church of Christ's followers simply conversing with God frequently throughout the day. This was not a forced religious exercise but the natural outcome of the realisation that we are in God's presence.

We offer these reminders from our ancient heritage as an antidote to a common trend today to constantly retreat within one's own being. The first Christians were well aware of Christ's presence within, but kept a very healthy balance by recalling that it was they who were in God's presence, not the reverse!

Reciting Scripture

One of the most enduring practices of Christ's followers throughout the millennia has been to recite frequently chosen Biblical words or sentences.

This has the effect of keeping the memory actively engaged at a spiritual level. This is discussed more fully in our section on "Affirmation Prayer". For now, we, recommend that you have a small collection of quotations either committed to memory or noted on a card to carry with you, and recite when circumstances permit.

Prayer And Action

Brother Lawrence (17th Century) wrote:

  • "We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer".
  • "We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed".

These demonstrate another thread of understanding how we can expand our efforts at unceasing prayer.

Conclusion

We have gone to these lengths about Our Lord's call for unceasing prayer (echoed later by the Apostle Paul) because of its central place in our faith. We simply have to understand it correctly; it is so important. These are only a few ideas gathered to help you. No doubt you will be able to add many more. We wish you well in this all important endeavour.

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