Learning to Pray. Mark 9.2-9

Mark 9.2-9

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate the season of Lent, today we look at a pretty dramatic encounter with God.


Peter, James and John – three of the first followers of Jesus – go on a mountain with Jesus, and they got far more than they have bargained for.

And while I would be surprised if any of us have a similar encounter, at least this side of death, I am going to draw out three things from this incident.

1. There is great value in separating ourselves from our everyday world in order to spend time with Jesus

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” Mark 9:2

Peter, James and John have been led by Jesus up a mountain. In some icons of the transfiguration you can see them going up the mountain, and coming down the mountain. 



There is nobody else with them. It is just them and Jesus.

It is good to have time when it is just you and Jesus or just us and Jesus.

I know that we can pray at any time, but the danger is that when we say that we can pray at any time, in reality we pray at no time. And if our relationship with God depends completely on praying as we feel led during the day, then there is a danger that all we will have are snatched conversations with God.

We need to put aside solid time to be with God – as Jesus said in Matthew 6, ‘to go into your room and to shut the door’ - just as we need to put aside good time to be with a friend if we are to grow in our relationship with them.

So, it is extremely helpful to have a daily time of prayer – at a time that works for you.

Many Christians have put aside time in the morning or the evening to be with Jesus, even if it is just 10 minutes to begin with. Whether it is morning or evening will depend on whether you are a lark or an owl, a morning or night person, because we need to give God a time when we are awake!

I cannot overemphasize the importance of having time daily when it is just you with Jesus. My Christian life was transformed when I read a little book called, ‘The hour that changes the world’, and as a result I began to put aside an hour each day for prayer.

Now I was a student, studying sociology – about which people were very rude in those days – and so I had plenty of time. You almost certainly will not have that sort of time, but I would encourage you to try and put aside 10 or 15 minutes a day to pray.

And for those few minutes, try and be apart. Maybe you will be on the metro and you put your headphones on. Maybe you can find a quiet place in the flat – if necessary, get up a bit earlier: there is something very special about praying early in the morning. Maybe you could go into a church in the middle of the day. But just find that time.

Put your phone on silent, and if you use it to read the bible or to guide your prayers, set it so that you will not be interrupted.

This is your mountain top, time when you are to be alone with Jesus

And there may be times when you need to get completely away, like Peter, James and John. Go for a walk or a ski in a local park.

If it is at all possible, go on what is often called a retreat. Liz Bearman used to go on an annual retreat to a centre in Norway, and for this year she is working at that retreat centre. For those of you from an Orthodox tradition, you might think about spending a day or two at a monastery.

And perhaps as a church here we should try and organise a retreat, or at least a prayer day.

One of the great values of Lent is that it gives us an excuse to give something up – but so that we can take something up.

It is just a suggestion, but why not try to give something up that will enable you to have a few minutes in order to pray. Give up social media or TV for one evening a week. In Advent Alison gave up playing ‘Words with Friends’ just before she went to bed – and instead she read the Bible. She is now back on ‘Words with Friends’, but is also going through the Bible in a Year, with a YouVersion audio bible reading plan. Or perhaps you might fast from one meal a week, but don’t use the saved time as I often do – to do some more work. Use that time to pray.

We can give ourselves space so that we are alone with Jesus.


2. Authentic prayer should lead us to focus on Jesus

Peter, James and John would have been forgiven for focussing on Moses and Elijah.

It was amazing. These were people who had lived centuries earlier. It was as if St Paul and Sergius of Radonezh walked into church now.

And here were Moses and Elijah: Moses - the person who gave Israel the law; Elijah - the greatest of the prophets. They were epic. It would be hard to think of two bigger people in the history of your people

But even though Moses and Elijah were there – the focus of this whole scene is Jesus. He is the one who is transfigured. He is the one whose clothes are dazzling white. In icons of the scene he is the one who is radiant, and Moses and Elijah only reflect that radiance.

We focus on Jesus because he is the eternal Son of God made flesh. He is the beloved Son of God.

We listen to Jesus because he is the one who the Father tells us to listen to. “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”

We look at Jesus because he is the one who loves us, who died on the cross for us – so that we can receive forgiveness and come as people who have been cleaned into the presence of our holy God

We come to Jesus because he is the one who rose from the dead, who gives us hope and new life. 
In morning prayer we’ve just been reading through Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is quite depressing. It is the sum of human wisdom if this life is all that there is. It tells us to live lives of hedonism, but then shows us the vanity, the pointlessness of hedonism. It urges us to fear God, but tells us that we are going to die anyway. But along with Ecclesiastes we have been reading in John about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Because the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

We come to Jesus because he is the one who is now, in heaven, as the exalted man who prays for us
We worship Jesus because he is the one who will, one day, return and establish the Kingdom of God.
We pray to Jesus because he is our access point to a relationship with the Father, and because he cannot be separated from the Father.

Jesus points us to the Father. He says, ‘When you pray, say ‘Our Father in Heaven’.
But here, our Father in heaven points us to his beloved Son, Jesus.

I know that some of you come from a tradition where you pray to Mary and to the saints. But if your prayers to Mary and to the saints do not lead you ultimately to Jesus, something has gone wrong.

Some of you come from a tradition when you pray to the Spirit: ‘Come Holy Spirit’. But if you focus on the gifts of the Spirit or the power of the Spirit or the experience of the Spirit, and are not ultimately led to Jesus, something has gone wrong.

Quite often I find in my own times of prayer that I start praying about a particular problem. I think about it, I worry about it, I try to imagine how I can sort it out. And at the end of the time of prayer I realise I have spent all the time thinking about my problem. I have not come to Jesus. And something has gone wrong.

Or I find that I reflect on myself, on how bad I have been. I beat myself up. I confess my sin. I really confess my sin. I earnestly confess my sin. I say that I am going to never do that again. And I walk away from my prayer dissatisfied – because in all that I have done, I have been so obsessed with myself that I have not come to Jesus. I have not listened to him. And so not heard him say, ‘I know your sin. But I loved you so much that I died for you. And if you are prepared to look at me and believe me, your sins are forgiven’. And something has gone wrong.

Prayer, at times, may be boring or confusing
It may leave us terrified – as happened here
It may overwhelm us with a radiant joy
It may fill us with deep peace.

But that is only coincidental. It is not the reason why we pray or why we don’t pray.

The key thing about prayer is that, if we give God the space, he brings us face to face with Jesus, and Jesus brings us to His Father and to our Father in heaven.


3. There are times in authentic prayer when we struggle with words

Peter sees Jesus, Moses and Elijah. And he says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mark 9:5
And Mark writes, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified”.

We put aside time to be with Jesus. We focus on Jesus. But then we do not know what to say.

I start praising God and I either run out of words, or it feels false.
I starting praying for something and my mind wanders.

In fact it is only if we are completely overwhelmed by God or completely in despair that our prayer is authentic.

When we are overwhelmed, it doesn’t really matter what we say.
Metropolitan Anthony speaks of the person who repeats the prayer: ‘My joy, my joy, my joy’.
I remember visiting another Anthony who was in hospital and dying. He had been gifted an encounter with the living God, and all he could say was, ‘Wow, wow, wow’.
They discovered in Pascal’s pocket a prayer that finished with the words, ‘Fire, fire, fire’.

And our prayer is authentic when we cry out in despair: ‘Have mercy on me, have mercy on me’.

But at other times we do not really know what to say.
We may begin to praise God and we dry up after a few words. It can help then to sing a hymn or song.
Some of us may speak in tongues. That is helpful, but after a while we start to feel that we would like to know what it is that we are saying.
Or we do not really know what it is that we should confess, or what it is that we should ask for – what it is that deep down we desire, and whether that is right

Some of you may know Pushkin’s fairy story of the fisherman who caught a magic fish. It was able to grant wishes. His wife told him to ask the fish for one thing, and then when she had that, she decided on something more, and then something more. She thought she knew what she wanted – that it lay in wealth and beauty and fame – but she was never satisfied. Like most of us, she didn’t really know what she wanted.

If you find that that is the case, then can I suggest that it can be helpful to use the prayers of the church as a basis for your prayer. You might like, over Lent, to join us for morning prayer – either at the time or later on in the day. Or you might like to join us for compline on Thursday evenings on zoom at 9:30

Or there are two simple prayers that you can pray.
And I hope that you will find that these are prayers that you can pray with your whole heart and mind, in complete integrity.

The first is a prayer that many prayed as they came to Jesus in the gospels. It is the very simple prayer that has come to us as ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.
It is a believer’s prayer, because we are calling Jesus Lord.
It is not a prayer that God will somehow forgive me, for he has forgiven us. But it is a prayer that Jesus will change and transform us, that he will heal us – or those we love - physically and spiritually, that he will teach us what we need to pray, that he will show us spiritual truths.

It is a foundational prayer: we pray it slowly, thinking over the words. We realise that it is not a formula, but a cry to Jesus for mercy. We repeat it, until it becomes part of us, and on top of that prayer we build our other prayers.

And the other prayer: it is quite different, and starts from a different place.

If you are not sure about the Jesus prayer, then there is no doubt about this prayer, because this is the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, that we will say in a few minutes: Our Father in Heaven. Again, we pray it slowly and thoughtfully, thinking about the words.

But there are times, and I suspect that this incident with Peter, James and John was one of them, when there really is nothing to say. There are no words to express the reality of what we have seen, or the person Whose presence we find ourselves in. And that is the time when we are simply to stand in His presence in awe.

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