Prayer in an age of distraction

The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go, and remember that I am sending you out as lambs among wolves. Don’t take any money with you, nor a traveler’s bag, nor an extra pair of sandals. And don’t stop to greet anyone on the road.

Luke 10:1-4 NLT

Being a missionary has come to mean, in many of our churches, crossing geographical, language and cultural barriers to share the message of Jesus. There is a lot of biblical justification for this understanding. However, the word mission means simply to be sent, and in Luke 9 and 10 we see the very first recorded commands by Jesus to his disciples to “Go!” and there is no indication here of crossing any barriers except those of location and human resistance to strangers. Jesus recognises straight away that the road ahead for disciples who choose to accept his mission is not going to be easy. There will be problems. This passage makes reference to a number of those. 

First, he says there will not be enough of them for the task. His response? Pray for more workers! Second, there will be opposition. “Remember,” he says, “I am sending you out as lambs among wolves.” There will be “wolves” who want to eat them up! “Don’t expect everyone to welcome you with open arms. Don’t be naive,” he seems to be saying, “Be aware.” Third, he recognises that they will need stuff for daily life: money, a bag, an extra pair of shoes. His advice with regards to these practical needs? Don’t worry about them! These things you can do without! 

It is this third area of advice that I struggle with. It sounds outright irresponsible. Does he seriously mean that we should set out on his mission with nothing except the clothes we are standing up in? Should we take everything Jesus says literally? What is Jesus saying? I think it is simply this: “Depend on me, and depend on the kindness of strangers.” In fact, in the next paragraph of the narrative (not quoted above, but its all there in the Bible), Jesus seems to be saying that we can expect the kindness of strangers – people who know nothing of us or our message yet who will extend their hospitality to us. This is a bit counterintuitive, but Jesus says, “Depend on it.”

So his instructions to us as we go out on his mission are as much about our attitudes and expectations, as about what to do. What do I mean by that?

  • Expect that there will be more work to do than you can manage.Ask God for helpers. He exhorts us to an attitude of dependence, not independence: dependence on God and on other Christians. 
  • Expect that there will be opposition. Ask God for protection. Do the work with an understanding that you are in a spiritual battle and there are forces in the world which would willingly destroy you and everything you are trying to do. You will be vulnerable. Ask for protection. 
  • Expect that no matter how well you prepare, you will come to the end of your resources, and then you will be forced to rely on God and strangers. Ask God for provision. It is when you have nothing that you will see God provide, and he will do it in the most unexpected way, from the most unexpected sources.

 Our attitude should be one of dependence, recognising our vulnerability in the face of danger and necessity. And our response to the challenges should be to pray. Ask for help, from God, from fellow Christians, from strangers. Ask for protection from the enemy, realising how real and how active he is. Prayer is really just an expression of dependence. It is a recognition that we cannot do it on our own, that we need God, that we need other believers, even that we need the kindness of strangers. So prayer is a task that expresses an attitude. And it is that attitude that is most important to the Father, because it recognises the true order of things, and becomes an expression of worship.

Finally, in this paragraph, Jesus impresses on his disciples the urgency of the mission. At least that is how I read it. “Don’t stop to greet anyone on the road.” You have work to do. Get on with it. Don’t get distracted. We live in the age of distraction, which has been called the Information Age, and which is the result of technology. Is technology wrong? Not at all. But we need to listen to Jesus’s command to his first disciples and apply it to our own age. Keep technology in its place – whether it be the computer, the smart phone, the TV, or even the car or the electric light. Our technology makes it possible for us to be busy every moment of every day, and in this age more than any before it we need the discipline to be able to say no to things that demand our constant attention, but which are unnecessary for the task. “Don’t be distracted, because if you are you will never get anywhere, and you will never have time to pray.” How relevant this is for me. 

Jesus’ advice may have been given in a particular historical and cultural context, but it is just as good advice for us modern disciples.

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