What I am going say about prayer may not surprise you, but you might discover that it describes you. I am going to give you the main point of the message right off this morning and then see if I can hold your attention. Here’s the main point: “Success is not a great host to prayer.”
You have to chew on that a little bit. What does that mean? Well, think about it from its opposite position first. You have often heard, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
In other words, trouble invites prayer. The least believing among us can suddenly become a God-person of prayer when his or her life is on the line or when trouble comes for a visit.
It’s like the worn out joke of the man that falls off a cliff and as he falls to his sure death he begins to pray, “Dear God, save me. I’ll go to church, I’ll begin to tithe, I’ll become a missionary to Africa. Then, right in the middle of his prayer, his fall is stopped as his clothing gets caught on a tree branch that’s growing out of the side of the mountain. With his fall stopped and his life saved, the man stops his prayer and says, “Never mind, Lord, I’ve been saved by this tree branch.”
How is it that we resemble this man? When we are in trouble we pray. When we are not, we don’t.
While success ought to make us people of deep gratitude, people of praise and thanksgiving, people who acknowledge where our success comes from, and people who ponder the great responsibilities we have for our success, success often makes us full of ourselves.
We think we can manage our lives without any help, advice, or direction. I mean, “Look at me,” we think. “I’m doing so good Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs ought to have me on speed dial for advice.”
We are often consumed by success to the point where we are unable to manage it. Temptations overtake us and we make a mess of an otherwise great situation.
How else do you explain the problems of so many of our great athletes, politicians, actors, business leaders, lottery winners, people who are given a little bit of inheritance money, and people of all types who rise to the top of their professions or are given a little bit of fame?
Give a teenager or young adult a little success on the ball field, track, or gym, and throw some popularity in there along with it, and you have created a time bomb of temptation. It’s coming. Show a young professional a little success in his or her career and I assure you, temptation is around the corner. It’s not “if” for most; it’s just a matter of when.
Success and popularity is a wonderful thing, especially when we begin to taste it for the first time. It can be addicting. It can become like a drug.
We can look for success in the weirdest places these days. We want to know that we are relevant, that someone out there thinks we are alive, that we matter, that we exist; so some people become addicted to checking their texts, or their status on social media to see how many likes they have gotten on a recent post, because the more likes, the more it means that people think you have it together.
Again, whatever you might be successful at, it’s not likely to be a great host to prayer. Who needs to pray when they are successful?
Apparently, Jesus did.
In chapter 11, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, they should have also been noticing when Jesus prayed. Thankfully for us, Luke did. We have his record of many of the different occasions Jesus prayed.
In Luke chapter 5, Luke includes a brief story of Jesus entering a city and encountering a man with leprosy. This disease had the same kind of stigma associated with it that AIDS had in the 1980’s or Ebola has today.
People were very afraid of it and believed sinful issues caused it. Lepers were excommunicated from the community. However, Jesus touched the man with leprosy and healed him and told him to go show himself to the priest, knowing the priest would pronounce him healed and restore him to the community.
After such a miracle, the word of Jesus’ work began to spread more than ever. Crowds began to gather. People with diseases came to be cured.
But look at verse 16. “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
Don’t you know this was frustrating for these people? Imagine if you are a disciple trying to explain where the holy teacher is when these people showed up with the crippled, the blind, and the infirmed?
“Now where is this holy teacher? Wasn’t he teaching here at the well yesterday? I’ve walked an entire day with my father who is going blind and you are telling me that you don’t know where the teacher is or if he will be here today or not?” And you thought that waiting for the doctor was just a problem we deal with in modern times.
Now we don’t get this from the English translation, but in the Greek it literally reads, “He withdrew and withdrew.”
In other words, this didn’t just happen once. This was Jesus’ pattern to withdraw. He left people unhealed and words unsaid in order to leave the people and spend time with God to pray.
Have you ever noticed, there’s always more work to be done the next day? Have you ever gotten to the end of the day and finished all your work? I mean finished it all, turned off the lights, and never again had to do any more of it? You know there will be more diapers to change tomorrow, more meals to cook, more things to build, more customers to please, more ideas to birth, more people to heal, more calls to make.
What’s my point? We don’t finish. We just come to a stopping place each day. It’s a lie to believe that we don’t have time to stop and meet God. If you don’t stop and meet God, you will run out of what you need to meet the needs of others and live a life of integrity.
It’s like driving a car down a road. There’s always more road in front of you. There’s something to see over the next hill. But if you don’t stop and refuel, you will not be able to continue.
But notice where Jesus went when he prayed. He went to deserted places.
Jesus went to the desert to pray.
In the gospel of Luke, the desert is the place where Jesus dealt with temptation.
After the baptism of Jesus and then Luke’s genealogy, Luke 4 says that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
The desert represents the place where Jesus goes to deal with the temptations that he is already wrestling with before he gets there.
So, what we discover in chapter five, as he is withdrawing from the crowds, is that his success and his popularity are becoming a temptation for Jesus, which he needs to go to the desert and wrestle with. This is an issue that he must deal with over and over through his ministry.
Think of it like this. Jesus was the first Beatle. Jesus was the first Elvis. Jesus was the first superstar. His popularity was something that the world had never seen before. He attracted crowds like no other.
For example, in a day when the only kind of communication was word of mouth, Jesus crossed a lake with his disciples and by the time he got to the other side, over ten thousand people had gathered there waiting for his arrival.
Now if you have a message, this is wonderful news! This is great! This is what every pastor, every businessman or woman, every sports team owner, every politician dreams about – success. The ability to influence people. So what’s the problem?
Preaching Professor Fred Craddock said that more ministers leave the ministry over the top than out the bottom. In other words, these people were not able to handle the success of their labors.
I don’t think this is unique to ministry. The news is always giving us names of famous people, wealthy people, and that are crashing and burning because they couldn’t handle success, fame, and wealth.
You and I know simple people, just like you and me, who have become successful. They have no real problems and live a carefree life. They might not be rich in money, but they are rich in many other ways. They don’t lack for anything so they don’t really reach out to God for anything. Because of this, they leave their lives unprotected and when temptation comes, they are arrogant enough to believe they can handle it.
Jesus was wise enough to know that his popularity was a threat. It would have been easy for him to hear the praise and forget the words that his Heavenly Father had voiced at his baptism.
Remember the words at his baptism:
“You are my Son, whom I love, with you, I am well pleased,” a combination of Psalm 2:7 which were words recited at the coronation of the crowning of kings and
Isaiah 42:1, a reference to the suffering servant who suffers and dies on behalf of the people.
Jesus was popular. But would ego grab him and put a hold on him so tight that He could not escape? The temptation that Jesus faced was to abandon the cross.
This was a real test for Jesus because he realized if he turned his back on the crowds and lost favor with them, that would put him in jeopardy with the religious leaders who wanted to get rid of him. So the crowds served as some protection for Jesus.
In the desert, through prayer, the Holy Spirit spoke to him, empowered him, gave him the perspective he needed to define real success, and kept him focused on his mission and his goal.
Success is not a great host to prayer because when we succeed, we don’t often see the dangers that success brings. We don’t often think of the temptations that await us. We are basking in the wake of our success and enjoying the fruits of our labor and hard work. It is easy to become full of ourselves and to forget the role that God plays in our success.
However, when we succeed, we need to pull away from everyone and all our activities and find time to pray, to reassess all that is happening around us so that we do not make any missteps or real success will elude us.
Few teams are as successful in the last ten years as the New England Patriots. They are also a poster team example of how success leads teams and individuals into tempting scenarios to gain a competing advantage as they have been caught in multiple cheating scandals over the years.
It’s easy to point fingers at successful athletes and teams. The truth is that success and popularity does that to all of us. It’s intoxicating. We only have to experience it one time for temptation to knock on our door.
Jesus teaches that even if we have to disappoint some people in the short term because we’ve pulled away to spend time with God, that’s better than compromising our integrity and our principles.
Right now, some of you are experiencing some success in your life. It might be sports, with your grades, friends at school, in a relationship, with your marriage, or with your job. You might be making good money or you might have found favor with your employer. Wherever there is success in your life, remember, it is also there that you will find temptation, just as Jesus did. That is the reason you need to pray. While success is not usually a great host to prayer, now you know that it should be.
Any time you succeed, you need to pray because temptation looms. Give God praise for your success and be on guard that your success will not lead to poor choices.
Take a page from Jesus’ life. Don’t think so highly of yourself that you think you can navigate all the roads on your own.
Pull away. Not just once in a while. Do what Jesus did. Pull away on a regular basis, even if it is for brief amounts of time. Seek God’s leadership and guidance.
Seek the strength of God’s Holy Spirit who empowers us all to overcome the temptations that threaten to undermine our lives and the hope that we have for today and the days to come.
Ask God to be that steadying influence, the rudder that steadies you in the water, and a constant presence that keeps you strong and successful.
This will help keep you successful. It will help keep your witness strong. Through you, people will continue to be blessed.