“The Silent Hours”
If you were with us last month here at Open Door either in person or through the Internet, you may recall that we began a series of messages about the silences of Christ. These are the remarkable key points in Jesus’ life when we could easily expect Him to say something grand and important, yet He chooses to keep quiet. These silences speak very loudly to us in their own way.
The time a person is alone may be the most difficult part of his/her life for someone else to understand. Yet if you can see even part of what happens there, you may have some key insights into that person’s true character and mind. The hours people spend alone is in some ways probably the one when they think and act in ways that show most clearly who they really are. Although this part of life may be the least clear to other people, for the individual it can often be the one which guides all the others. To understand Jesus deeply, we have to see what actually happened in His heart and mind in His silent hours. And the gospel writers give us some fascinating pieces of information, though usually only in very little bits.
One thing we can say about Jesus’ time alone is that it was not simply an escape from the harsh realities of life. For example, it was not a way He ran from His struggles and retreated into good memories, fantasies, or diversions—filling His mind with something pleasant or interesting in order to avoid looking directly at reality. We may do that, but Christ is not doing so in today’s Bible story, and we have to look beyond that in order to see the true Jesus clearly.
In today’s Bible reading, we see our Lord in the silent hours He spent in the desert, being tempted. Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe this event; John does not. Mark’s telling of the story, like his book in general, is very short and does not go into detail. Jesus is tempted to do three things: (a) turn stones into bread, (b) throw Himself off the Temple, expecting that angels will catch Him, and (c) become a powerful ruler over great territories by taking Satan as His master. Matthew follows the order I just described. Luke has the second and third in reversed order.
We may see these temptations at first as unique to Jesus. I don’t remember a time I felt tempted to miraculously change stones into food, jump off a building to show God’s saving power, or worship the devil in order to be a powerful political leader. Have you? We are tempted, but probably in other ways. Jesus’ unique power to do miracles and mission to be a great leader would probably make it more tempting to Him in some ways to do these good-sounding things but for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.
Yet when we look closer, we can see ourselves in Jesus’ temptations. We, too, are tempted to try to meet our own needs instead of trusting God to meet them. We, too, are tempted to gain and use power in selfish ways rather than to serve and build, as God teaches. We, too, are tempted to stop asking, “What is God telling me to do?” and ask instead, “What is quickest, flashiest, most impressive thing to do?”
Every temptation comes in quietness in some ways, even if happens when we are with many people. By its nature, temptation separates us from a healthy bond with people and with God. Mark tells us in verse 13 that there were wild animals in the area where Jesus was alone. There were also angels, who took care of him. Every person has a time when we are alone with the beasts and angels in our inner, spiritual lives. These times we face temptation tend strongly to be silent ones because we don’t want to show others the parts of ourselves that feel attracted to bad things. It may be that others cannot understand, we think, or would not approve, so we tend to avoid being in community, even though really that is one of the things we need the most in order to be strong enough to overcome temptation.
What does God want us to get and keep in our hearts and minds from these stories of Jesus’ temptation? For one thing, the fact that we are tempted to sin does not mean that we are bad people or immature Christians. Mark 1:12b tells us that, in fact, “. . . The Holy Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert.” Jesus was perfect, but even He was tempted. It is part of God’s good plans for His children that we face temptation, but He also intends for us to trust Him and find the power to overcome it. With His help, times of temptation can lead us to see how truly stupid and ugly and damaging sin is to our lives, as well as how beautiful and right and life-giving it is to follow His ways. Through this time of silence, Christ set for us the example of how to face temptation well. He also won the power to comfort and empower and protect people who are tempted.
Jesus no doubt spent a big part of those 40 days in prayer with God. But communicating with His Father was more than something He did only in this period of intense inner struggle and training. For Him, prayer was a way of life, a continual thing. What happened between God and Him as they talked in those quiet hours?
One aspect of Christ’s prayer was no doubt building and maintaining a deep, strong personal relationship with His Heavenly Father. The Bible sometimes says things like this (Mark 1:35): “It was very early in the morning and still dark. Jesus got up and left the house. He went to a place where he could be alone. There he prayed.” In Luke 5:16 we read: “But Jesus often went away to be by himself and pray.”
Looking at the kind of person Jesus became through His whole life, we receive some strong hints about the ways His prayer life formed Him. For example, keeping the habit of spending quiet hours with His Father, Jesus became a person who lived with no regrets, free from guilt and shame—because He did not sin. He did not have to look back with the sense that His past was pulling Him down or holding Him back. Likewise, he did not fear the future. There was nothing, including the cross waiting for Him, that stopped Him from living the life of internal freedom and peace that His Heavenly Father wanted for Him. He is a great model and inspiration for us in that way.
In other words, Jesus prayed as He lived: free from sin and free to praise and enjoy being with God. And He lived that way because of His praying. In this sense, Jesus’ quiet hours were different from ours. It is not possible for us to have them in the same way because we are sinful human beings. We need to go to God for forgiveness, renewed faith, and many other things that grow out of our weak and sinful human nature. But Christ’s do set directions and goals for us that can form and inform our lives of faith, especially our prayers. And when we do go to the Lord for help, we find mercy, so all is not lost. God can turn our failures into opportunities for His grace to fill our lives more and more. There is reason for great hope. We will receive the life- giving, empowering love of God in a different way from Christ, but the same warmth and nourishing kindness is there for us to receive, too, just as He did in His quiet hours of prayer.
Another thing we can note about Jesus’ prayer is that He used it to teach and train His disciples. Reading through the gospels, we sometimes find Jesus in the same general place with His followers, yet separating from them for some distance (maybe still within their sight) in order to pray with some privacy. For example, in Matthew 26:38b-40a He says to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His death:
“Stay here. Keep watch with me.” He went a little farther. Then he fell with his face to the ground. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. But let what you want be done, not what I want.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping.
Then verses 42 and 44 tell us that Jesus “went away” a second and third time to pray, yet He could come back to them and speak with them. For example, He used this time to teach them by example, then in words, to pray when trouble comes. He said (26:41a), “Watch and pray. Then you won't fall into sin when you are tempted.” They didn’t learn the lesson very well that night. They kept falling asleep instead of praying. But we trust that the seed of understanding was sown, and the Book of Acts shows how these men later grew into much stronger human beings through the power of prayer.
Another example of Jesus’ teaching through prayer is in Luke 11:1. “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples spoke to him. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” And as a response to this request in this conversation one day after demonstrating the practice of praying, Jesus taught them the famous prayer we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” (“Our Father which art in Heaven, . . .” in the King James Version).
And Jesus did not just teach His disciples how to pray. Many of His quiet hours were focused on helping His followers by actually praying for them.
A large part of Jesus’ prayer was related to His disciples. He prayed before choosing them each. Luke 6:12-13 tells us:
On one of those days, Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray. He spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called for his disciples to come to him. He chose 12 of them and made them apostles.
Jesus prayed before He demonstrated His power to His disciples by walking on the water (Matthew 14:23). He prayed before asking the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” (Luke 9:18). He prayed before being transfigured on the mountaintop and showing the mission He would lead the disciples on (Luke 9:28). Each of these times links directly with something key to the disciples’ lives of faith: the power they will trust to make following Him possible, who they understand Jesus to be, their understanding of His mission, and their call to follow Him in it.
Seeing how much Jesus invested Himself in the lives of His people through prayer, we have to ask ourselves: How much time do I spend praying for others and enriching their lives through the silent hours I spend with God? And at some times, the better question is: How much quiet time do I spend with God in prayer at all? Lord, help us to make and keep the habit of spending quiet time with you each day, especially in prayer. Enable us to be more like Christ in praying for the people around us each day.
Besides praying as a way to keep a strong personal faith generally and to teach, Jesus often spent His quiet hours of prayer for very specific purposes in particular situations. When He needed to make an important decision or felt very stressed about a problem, for example, He would make a special time to be alone with God in prayer.
For instance, He prayed in a time of His own grief after King Herod had John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, killed (Mark 6:14-29). He modeled here how, with His help, we can handle the times of deep pain and loss that come into our lives. At this point, Jesus took His disciples away to a quiet place to rest (Mark 6:31). But when people came to them, He made time for them. He delayed the quiet time He and His followers needed. Yet when the people left, He did not just move on and try to lead the group of disciples to continue with their spiritual needs unmet. He went back to prayer, this time alone on a mountain (Mark 6:45-46).
We have already seen how He prayed before choosing who would be in His group of 12 disciples. As another example of Jesus’ very practical prayers, John 6:15 shows that Jesus withdrew from people to be alone when it seemed people were going to try to make Him king of Israel. I just got back from an English Overseas Studies trip with some Hokusei Gakuen students. One part of our trip was an outing to Hollywood. There we saw many places people honor the stars—those who stand out the most, speak or sing in the most remarkable voice or hold the most power in the movie-making business, for instance. But Jesus chose to be just the opposite kind of person at various times, such as this. This was not a reaction to His disciples so much as the public in general, but here again, His quiet hours related to the specific actions and needs of others.
So in all the examples we have seen, it becomes clear how Jesus depended on God and lived by faith. He models this kind of living for us so that, although our situations are different, we can learn to do the same types of things in our lives. We can spend time alone with God before we make important decisions. In our quiet hours with God, we can give over to Him the worries, fears, and other burdens we carry. For instance, when my English class students were ready to go to the airport in Los Angeles to return to Japan, one of them could not find his ticket. He looked and looked but could not locate it, and it was time to leave for the airport. Without it, both he and I would have had to stay in the U.S. until he got a ticket. In times like that, it makes a great difference in my life whether I have already had a quiet time that day with God in prayer. If I haven’t, I am much more likely to fall into sins such as worry or judgment. I am less likely to thank God when good things happen, such as when that student at long last found his ticket. If we will form and keep the habit of putting our troubles in God’s hands, it can help us avoid many of the mistakes we make and sins we commit. When we don’t spend regular time with God putting our specific needs and decisions in His hands, we often end up having to go back to Him anyway for help in dealing with the bad decisions we have made and the stress, fatigue, guilt, and so on that we carry from going our own way without consulting Him first. As the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” says, “Oh, what peace we often forfeit! Oh, what needless pain we bear! All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” You can save a lot of suffering and grief for yourself and others by following Jesus in making quiet hours with God a key part of your life.
Jesus chose to build into His life a remarkable amount of quiet time. As His followers, we can benefit greatly by learning to do this, too. So let’s go to God in prayer now and ask Him to help us do that.
God who comes to us in the silent hours of our lives, help us not to fill up too quickly the unscheduled, unplanned parts of our days but to seek them as your Son Jesus did. Help us to seek you there and find you in deeper, more meaningful ways, day after day. Through the quiet times of our lives, lead us to be people of greater faith in you, more willing to put our decisions and cares in your hands, and better able to support and uplift those who need our help. In these ways may we give the glory to your name that you deserve to have. We pray this in the name of your Son. Amen.
Ainsworth, P. C. (1912). The Silences of Jesus and St. Paul’s Hymn to Love. London: C. H. Kelly. Hathitrust Digital Library. Retrieved February 9, 2019 from https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009972910