Bible reading: Luke 1:5-17
Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
Was he right? How much is achieved through prayer?
The reality is that most Christians struggle with prayer. There are some who have a spiritual gift of intercession and they are drawn to prayer and prayer is refreshing and exciting for them. There are some who just love to pray. There are others for whom it is a discipline but it is a discipline they are committed to. But for most of us it is a struggle.
It is often said that the least well attended meetings in a church are the prayer meetings. Some prayer meetings start with a flourish but slowly dwindle away.
And individually, many of us struggle with minds that wander. Or we don’t really see prayer as a priority and we get busy with all sorts of other things so that prayer gets squeezed out of our day.
There might also be a lack of confidence in prayer. Is it worth praying? Does God really answer prayer?
Or we might have been disappointed in prayer. God hasn’t answered some request that we have fervently brought before Him. The family member whose salvation we have been seeking for many years remains far from God. We have been embarrassed when we have prayed with someone and there was no result, or when we told friends and family that we were praying and then God failed to answer that prayer.
I don’t know if you can identify with any of those things. Maybe prayer is easy for you but for many of us it is not. And yet…
And yet, are we missing out on something? Many people can tell wonderful stories of prayers answered; stories of God’s goodness and power. To pick a random example…
A young couple had very little income – so little that one day the mother found she had no detergent to wash her baby’s nappies and yet she clearly needed to provide clean nappies. Suddenly her situation got on top of her. She prayed desperately that her parents would send some money – soon. They sometimes sent a small cheque. Just then there was a noise at the door. Maybe God had answered that quickly but, looking out, she saw no postman. She assumed it must have been the wind.
She kept on with her housework, still crying out to the Lord. What was she to do about those nappies?
Then she felt prompted to go to the door. Maybe she had missed the mail man. Maybe there would be a cheque there. Hanging on the handle she found a plastic bag containing a sample box of detergent!
In writing about that experience, she quotes Isaiah 65:24: …before they call I will answer, and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”
Do we have stories to tell? Do we have regular experiences of answered prayer or is it only occasional at best? And could it be different? Could we regularly have some story to tell of God’s goodness?
The Bible is replete with stories of answered prayers. What examples can we think of?
- The first answered prayer in the Bible might have been the creation of Eve (although Genesis doesn’t explicitly say that Adam prayed for a companion.)
- Hannah desperately prayed for a child. God enabled her to conceive Samuel the great prophet.
- Elijah prayed on Mt Carmel when he was in that contest with the prophets of Baal, and God answered by sending down fire to consume his offering.
- David prayed for forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba. God forgave.
- Jonah prayed to be rescued from the fish’s belly.
- Nehemiah prayed about the state of Jerusalem including confession on behalf of his people.
- When people came to Jesus with requests they were essentially praying and many of them were healed, delivered, raised from the dead, forgiven.
- When Ananias prayed for Paul his sight was restored.
- The very early Christians prayed for boldness to proclaim the gospel. The place was shaken and the Holy Spirit filled them and they continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
- Paul lived a life of prayer and saw many miracles, and powerfully spread the gospel as a result.
We could think of numerous examples. What is more, there are many promises in the Bible about prayer. Are we experiencing all that God promises?
As we start the year, I want to spend some time exploring prayer because it is so foundational. Before we worry about anything else, let’s make sure we are praying. There are many things that happen only as a result of prayer. There are many things that we cannot do; there are other things that only God can do. I am sure that there are things in your life over which you have no power– things that only God can do. Some of those things might be hugely important to you – the salvation of a loved one, maybe a family member who has gone off the rails, maybe a health concern or a relationship that has broken down. Do you need to see God act? Do you need to see a miracle?
What are your dreams for the future of this church? There are certain things that we can do ourselves but the truly important things require God. Do you want to see people come to faith in Jesus? Do you want to see people healed by the power of God? Do you want it to be a church where members use their spiritual gifts and broken people are restored and lives are changed? A church can be an organisation like any other in the community or it can be a place where God is present in power. The difference between the two is prayer. If we want this church to be revitalised and growing, we all need to pray.
Besides anything else, we are about to advertise for the other half of a minister. It is absolutely vital that we get the right person. Our understanding is very limited. We could make a proper mess of it. We need God to oversee this whole process. We need God to speak to that person and call him/her to this role. We need God to reveal to us who is the right person. Please don’t leave this to the Ministry Settlement Board. Please back them up with your prayers. We need the whole church praying.
Let’s consider the passage that we read. It is related to Christmas but I chose it because of v.13.
Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were very elderly. V7 says that they were both advanced in years. In v.18 Zechariah said, “I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Clearly, in his mind, a conception was not possible.
One day Zechariah was the priest chosen to enter the temple and burn incense. Alone, in the temple, he was suddenly confronted by the angel Gabriel standing at the right hand side of the incense altar. Zechariah was filled with fear but Gabriel reassured him. God was not going to judge him. On the contrary. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son and you shall call his name John.” This, of course, turned out to be John the Baptist and Gabriel said that the child would be a huge blessing to his parents. They would have joy and gladness and rejoice at his birth.
“Your prayer has been heard.” When had Zechariah prayed for a child? There are two possibilities. Either he had prayed recently or he had prayed long ago.
Had Zechariah and Elizabeth continued praying for a child even in their old age? Let’s imagine they had.
What does it say about them? It says that they are godly, faithful, prayerful people. V.6 tells us that they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. They were godly people and, in some ways it would be no surprise that they were still praying for a child.
But it says even more about God. Why would they keep praying? Only because they believed that God was the sort of God who might still answer. They would only keep going if they believed that God was good; that He heard the prayers of His people; that He was a God of power, able to answer. Prayer says something about our belief in God. Not praying says something about our belief in God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were dead right. God is powerful. God is good. God is merciful and loving. God is faithful. God answered their prayer and gave them a son even in their old age.
It also says something about the need to keep on praying and not give up. Jesus specifically taught perseverance in prayer. We are too ready to lose faith and give up; too ready to believe that God is not able or not willing to answer. But there are examples in scripture of people seeing an answer only because they did not give up. This may be one of them.
The other possibility is that Zechariah and Elizabeth had not prayed for a child recently but God was answering a prayer of long ago. I suspect that may have been the case given Zechariah’s doubts when the angel said they would conceive. It seems as if he has given up hope. That might not be the case. It might have been that they had continued to pray but, when it happened, Zechariah struggled to really believe it.
But let’s imagine that God was answering a prayer of long ago. I don’t think we should therefore conclude that it is sufficient to pray a few times then give up. God will remember it. Jesus taught the opposite. Perseverance is the rule but maybe the exception is that God sometimes answers even when we have given up. If that is the case, what does it say about God?
It talks of the great faithfulness of God. God does not forget. Even decades later, God might say, “This is the time to answer that prayer.” Great is thy faithfulness, O God, my Father.
I imagine we will look at this again sometime but the main reason for praying is that God is who He is. If God were not good and loving and merciful or if He were not powerful, we would be wasting our time. Prayer would be useless. It is precisely because God is who He is that we pray.
Actually, that is not quite correct. It is because of who we believe God to be that we pray. God is generous and loving and powerful but that doesn’t mean everyone prays. It is those who believe Him to be like that who pray.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had faith in God, so they prayed for a child. Elizabeth was barren but they still prayed. Childlessness was a source of shame and so we can imagine they prayed with tears, out of their pain.
And God answered. He heard their cry. He understood their pain. And He reached out and blessed them.
What about you? Is prayer a problem or does it fold out promise? Is there an area of pain in your life too? Is there something you long for? Do you still believe that God is able and that He is willing? Or has your faith in God been dented to the point where you have stopped praying?
Might we be inspired by people like Zechariah and Elizabeth? God is faithful. Might it be that God is calling you to trust Him again and deepen your praying? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, over the next little while, we had more and more stories to tell about prayers answered by our faithful God?
As we think about prayer, I want to take it very slowly – just one step at a time. Obviously, I hope that we will not just talk about prayer but that we will pray. For those who want to grow I want to suggest an exercise each week. As I say, we will take it very slowly but slowly build. This week’s exercise is very simple and doesn’t even involve any prayer. I have put some pieces of paper in the foyer. Over morning tea would you please write on them, completing this sentence: When it comes to prayer, I… It is anonymous and you can write anything you like – whatever is true for you.