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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

I Thessalonians 5:16-18
“When to Pray”
January 25, 2015 - Third Sunday after Epiphany

         When should you pray? Our text today tells us to “pray without ceasing.” Short answer, then, “Pray all the time.” Enough said. Amen. Sermon done. Right? Well, no. It’s a short command, just two words in Greek, but you and I can still wonder what it means to pray all the time, to be unceasing in prayer.

         It is, of course, physically impossible to pray without pausing, just because you and I have to sleep. It is also, pretty much mentally impossible, even if you had the time, to have your mind focused on prayer at every waking moment. So once we realize that we cannot and should not take Paul totally literally here, what does it mean for you and I to be people who pray without ceasing?

         It may not be literal, but let us take it seriously. Paul did. Turn back to the beginning of this letter, chapter 1 verse 2, and you find Paul saying that he did for the Thessalonians just what our text asks us to do, prayed for them unceasingly. It’s the same word even if the translation is “constantly” or some other English word. So Paul wanted the Thessalonians to see him as a model. He wanted them, and because this is Holy Scripture now, God wants us to pray like Paul did, all the time.

         When Paul said he prayed for the Thessalonians “unceasingly,” did he mean that he prayed for them throughout the day, every day? Did he mean that he remembered them in prayer once a day? Did he mean that they were always close to his heart and that he raised up a prayer for them whenever they came consciously to mind? Or did it mean that Paul had a prayer list of all the churches he planted and prayed for each one of them once a week, like we rotate through our conference churches and community churches, praying for two different congregations each week? We simply do not know.

         We do know that when Paul talked about praying constantly, he said, “We.” “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering [you] before our God and Father…” He and his fellow missionaries prayed together. There is the first answer to how you and I pray constantly. We do it together.

         Individual prayer is important. We see Jesus do it several times, not least in the Garden of Gethsemane. And Jesus talked about going into a private place and praying where no one else can see you. But what we, in our individualistic age, often overlook is that prayer in Scripture is also very much a corporate activity. So part of praying constantly is in the fact that when you are not praying, some other Christian is.

         As I think I mentioned on the Advent Sunday for joy in December, the same thing applies to verse 16 of our text, “Always rejoice.” That’s impossible if we’re talking about you or I always being joyful by ourselves. But together as Christians, as the whole body of Christ, some of us can be joyful when others cannot. We can carry the joy and the prayer, and the thanksgiving mentioned in verse 18, for each other.

         I said in my blog this past week that I’ve always liked the Jewish legend that there are thirty-six men who sustain the world by their righteousness before God. This story is based on a passage in the Talmud which says, “The world never has less than thirty-six righteous men who receive the Divine Presence every day.” They are called Lamed Vavniks, which just means “36ers,” or Tzadikim Nistarim “hidden righteous ones.” Each of these persons do not know the others and may not know that they themselves are one of the number. If one of them learns it about himself, he never tells or admits it to anyone.

         The thirty-six sustain the world by their righteousness, but the Talmud says they “receive the Divine Presence every day.” That sounds to me like they are praying. What an amazing thing it would be that God puts up with us and keeps our world going just because there is a small group of people who are always praying. That story about the thirty-six is just a myth, but maybe it’s not too far from the truth. Perhaps God asks us as Christians to keep prayer going constantly because it’s a crucial part of His plan.

         Down through the centuries, Christians have found ways to work together to fulfill this command to pray all the time. One of the earliest ways they did so was to follow the existing practice of Jewish synagogues, praying at four set times during the day, praying at the third, the sixth and ninth hours, and midnight, which is 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and midnight. You can see Christians keeping these hours of prayer in the book of Acts.

         The Jewish practice was probably based on passages in the psalms, like Psalm 5:3, “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice,” and Psalm 119:62, “At midnight I rise to praise you,” and Psalm 55:17, “Evening and morning and noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice.”

         Psalm 119:164 says, “Seven times a day I praise you.” By the fifth century Christians had a daily worship cycle with seven hours of prayer: midnight, 3 a.m., 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. These all had names. You may have heard of one or more that are still practiced in some churches, like Vespers or Compline. Christians that were able to got together at those times and read Scripture, prayed psalms together, and prayed other prayers. It was a way of praying round-the-clock, praying constantly like Paul told us to.

         Even then, of course, not every Christian could stop in the middle of the day or get up at midnight to pray. But that fact that someone somewhere was praying at those times kept the prayers of God’s people going every day, all the time.

         I think there is a wisdom in that ancient Jewish and Christian practice of the hours of prayer that is worth considering. Let’s not just brush it off as too old-fashioned or too Catholic. Those Christians in Acts and in the first few centuries did it long before we had any ideas of what was Catholic or Protestant. At the least, it seems to me, we as modern Christians would want to have set times of prayer in the morning and in the evening before we go to bed. Prayers at meal times are another way to add to the discipline of specific times to pray throughout the day.

         But there is another approach to unceasing prayer that is also important in Christian history. You can find a hint toward it in our psalm for today, Psalm 62 verse 8, “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” There is that same theme of something to be done all the time, combined with a call to “pour out your heart before” God, to address Him with our needs and concerns. What the psalm asks us to do at all times is to trust, which is more of a spirit or attitude than it is an action like speaking prayers out loud.

         In the 17th century a monk known as Brother Lawrence wrote a little book entitled, The Practice of the Presence of God. As he worked in his monastery kitchen, cooking, cleaning, doing whatever he was told, he came to the understanding that he could take that drudgery and bathe it in a sense of God’s love and presence. As he went about what he called “common business,” he found himself so much blessed by God that, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”

         Practicing the presence of God sounds a lot like those Jewish 36ers who daily “receive the presence of God.” It’s a constant habit of mind and heart more than a routine of set times for prayer. Trudy Kutz shared with me this quotation from a book by Timothy Keller:

Paul said we should "pray without ceasing" (I Thes 5:17) meaning that we should, if possible, do everything all day with conscious reference to God (I Cor 10:31). There should be background music of thankfulness and joy behind every incident in our day, audible only to us (Col 3:16-17). This kind of spontaneous and constant prayer during the day should be a habit of the heart.[1]

That “habit of the heart” which goes about our daily work in a constant openness to God and His presence is a great thing. You can find more about practicing the presence of God and more about all sorts of ways to pray well, in our own Terry Glaspey’s little book, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer.

         I do want to raise a caution here about prayer as practicing the presence of God or as a habit of the heart. It is not simple or easy to transform your heart and mind to focus on God throughout the day. Brother Lawrence himself explained that it took years to discipline his heart and mind to yield to God’s presence and he said, “As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties.”

         When Karl Barth wrote about our text and the command to pray without ceasing, he said that we should never understand that text in a way which actually causes us to stop praying.[2] In other words, the fact that we practice the presence of God throughout the ordinary business of life should never be a replacement for the regular times when we set aside daily work and actually speak words of prayer. In fact, Timothy Keller adds this right after he describes that habit of the heart. “We will never develop it, however, unless we take up the discipline of regular, daily prayer.”

         It’s not either-or, some regular daily routine of spoken prayer or a heart habit of a prayerful attitude throughout the day, so that if you are doing one you don’t really need the other. Praying without ceasing is both. It takes both a heart oriented to God and actual times of prayer to be obedient to this brief but powerful direction about our spiritual lives.

         One way to combine both those, a constant focus on God and actual words of prayer, would be to consider the famous “Jesus Prayer.” At the Northwest Christian University church fair last fall I heard Father Daniel from St. John’s on Blair Street talk to college students about saying those words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” as a constant prayer, even as you breathe in and out.

         We all have an inner mental dialogue, things we constantly say to ourselves, like “Take it easy, now,” or “I wish I hadn’t done that,” or “I’m so tired,” or “I can do that.” Why not work on making some of that mental conversation over into conversation with God, into a constant speaking of prayer like the Jesus Prayer or some other prayer or psalm?

         There are other times to pray as well. If you back up just a couple verses from our Gospel lesson in Mark, you will see that Jesus didn’t just go out and arbitrarily choose those disciples to follow Him. His preparation for selecting His followers was forty days of prayer in the wilderness. He sought His Father’s guidance before making decisions which would affect the whole course of His ministry. You and I can learn from our Lord’s example. If He needed prayer before making big decisions, how much more do you and I need it?

         And of course, we need to pray when we are in trouble. That’s the sense you get from our psalm today, verse 5, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” He is praying without words, but he has stopped to pray, to wait for God to help in a difficult time.

         Beth and I have started watching “Foyle’s War,” a British series of TV movies about a police officer serving in a small English town during World War II. In one of the first of the series, the officer and his driver make a point to go to church on the National Day of Prayer called by King George as the war began. We’re so used to national days of prayer in our country every year around the first of May that I was surprised to learn that British days of prayer for the whole country were very special events. There were only fifteen of them in the twentieth century, all but the last during World War I and World War II. The plight of the British people and their leaders was so bad that they were driven prayer.

         People often sneer at those prayers we raise when we are in dire straights. Somehow they seem less sincere, more selfish, more pragmatic. But that does not make them any less necessary, and many of the prayers we find in the psalms are exactly like that, prayers crying out to God when times are bad.

         Our text is very short, and the verse on which we’ve focused is even shorter, only two words, as I said, in the original language. And I’ve spent all our time on just verse 17. There’s at least a sermon each to be preached on “Always rejoice” in verse 16 and “Give thanks in everything” in verse 18. But look at how Paul wraps up those three simple directions at the end of verse 18: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Praying constantly is part of what life in Jesus is about, part of what God wants for us.

         When you and I trust Jesus Christ as our Savior, when we can truly and sincerely pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” then our whole lives become constant and continual acts of trust in God. We’ve decided not to trust in ourselves, but to trust in a Lord who loved us enough to give His life to save us. We pray all the time because it is a way to say we trust all the time.

         The British actor Alec Guinness, you know, Obi Wan Kanobi, told how he was once playing the part of a priest in a movie being filmed on location in Burgundy, France. One evening he was still in costume as a priest as he walked back from the film set to the village where he was staying. A little village boy also walking alone saw the priest’s collar and trustingly came up and took his hand to walk the rest of the way home together in the dark.

         The trust of that little boy made a deep impression on the actor and when his own son was ill with polio at age eleven, Guinness started going to a church to pray. In 1956 he became a Catholic Christian. It’s said that every morning he got up and recited Psalm 143:8, “Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning.” Guinness learned to trust God and as part of that he learned to pray that little prayer all the time, every day.

         When should we pray? All the time. There are many different ways to do that, both together as a church and as individual followers of Jesus. But in it all the goal is the same, to express that deep and constant trust upon which our faith is grounded. Through the grace of Jesus Christ the Son of God, we trust God for all that we need, forgiveness for our sins, healing of illnesses, daily food and everything else that is part of true and good life.

         May God bless us with a will to do His will and be constantly in prayer, every day and, in some way, every hour. May the grace by which He gave us Jesus be the grace by which He hears all those prayers. May He answer in love to sustain both us and our world.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, p. 240.

[2] Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, 4 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), p. 89.

Last updated January 25, 2015