LESSONS IN PRAYER
St Michael’s 25th August 2013
It’s been a long, hard day at work. You are hungry and tired, but you don’t fancy cooking tonight. No problem – you have a selection of ready meals in the freezer. You choose one and put it in the microwave for a few minutes. While you are waiting for it to cook you turn on the TV. Thanks to the new on-demand technology you can soon have that program you missed last night up on the screen. As you wait for the program to load you flick through the sport news. You see that yet another manager has been sacked after just a few months because the team hasn’t performed.
We live in an age which wants and indeed expects instant results. But life isn’t always like that. Take, for example, the subject of prayer. As we have seen in our sermon series so far, Jesus has performed any number of miracles. People have brought their sick to Jesus and He has healed them just with a touch or maybe a word. And it would be very easy after reading such passages to preach the message that if you come to Jesus, all your prayers will be answered and your life transformed.
Now don’t get wrong – I believe Jesus does answer prayer and I believe Jesus changes lives. After all, you are the evidence right here this morning! Yet we also need to be open and honest. Sometimes it seems that our prayers do go unanswered, that no matter how much or how hard we pray, the situation doesn’t seem to change. It may be we are struggling with the illness of a loved one, or a situation at work, or the whole issue of guidance and the right choice to make. But no matter what the specific issue, we have to be realistic and say there’s no doubt unanswered prayer can represent the greatest challenge to our faith.
Because, as I have said many times before, faith is in essence a relationship. And when all we seem to hear from God is a deafening silence it’s not surprising that we get hurt or confused. I guess many of us can think of times when we have prayed hard, and diligently read our Bible, and we seem to receive no answer to the longing of our hearts. At times like this it’s only natural for us to wonder where God is, and what He is doing. Yes, we may believe in His goodness and we may accept He has some greater plan, but when that plan remains hidden, out of sight, it’s only natural we get frustrated. At least I do, and I suspect I am not alone.
And if you’re surrounded by people who do not share your faith, then the challenge is all the greater. They may well be asking why you keep on praying to a God who isn’t there, and may make fun of your continued desire to seek His will. To them God’s silence is only proof of what they have thought along – that prayer doesn’t really work, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves any more.
Mind you, the situation isn’t necessarily that much easier when you come along to church. Because at times like this – and again I am speaking from experience – you suddenly seem to find that everyone else is receiving fantastic answers to prayer and they are just dying to share with you their latest testimony. It can be all too easy to conclude that this prayer business is all very well for other people, but it’s not really for you. No matter how much you believe, God isn’t that interested. He wants to bless others but you? Not really.
So the very important question I want to ask this morning is what, then, do we do when our prayers seem to go unanswered.
I think one of most things to realise is that despite how it may feel we are not alone. If you spend time talking to other church folk, you begin to see there are many people who are wrestling in prayer with a particular issue. It is a rare person indeed who sees all their prayers answered all the time! That’s why I would encourage you once again to come along to a small group, like Bible Explored on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, or a GIFT group on a Thursday afternoon, because these are safe spaces where we can particularly share our questions and experiences of the Christian life. Belonging to a small group where we can grow in faith together, pray together and bear each other’s burdens is central to the life of a church like St Michael’s, and if you are struggling in prayer at the moment, it really is the place to be.
It’s also good to recognise that the experience you are going through is one that Christians across the centuries have also endured. Over the past twenty, thirty years, we seem to have lost the art of reading good Christian autobiographies, but if you read the account of any great Christian leader, or missionary, or evangelist, you will see there were times when they too saw prayers go unanswered. Indeed the whole Protestant reformation that swept across Europe in the 16th century arose from many years’ struggle in prayer as a young monk called Martin Luther wrestled with the question, “How can I be right with God?”.
And be encouraged that even within the pages of Scripture itself you find men and women who are pouring out their hearts, pleading for the Lord to hear their cry. There’s the book of Job which is all about an afflicted man longing for God to hear him. There are the psalms of lament such as the one I chose for this morning, full of questions such as: When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:2)
And there’s today’s extraordinary, not to say difficult passage, from Matthew’s gospel. Here is a Gentile woman who seeks Jesus out. Her daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession. We don’t know exactly what is the nature of her affliction. But there is something in her behaviour which is deeply destructive and deeply damaging. Life is unbearable both for the mother and the daughter. So what does Jesus do? Does he speak words of peace to the woman, maybe, or go with her to drive out this demon?
After all we’ve seen so far, that’s what you might expect. We have become very familiar with Jesus performing both great miraculous deeds in nature, and personal works of individual healing. But no, we are told in verse 23, Jesus did not answer a word. Not only that, but His disciples keep urging Him to send her away. As far as they are concerned she is wasting her time. She is a Gentile and a woman, and not the sort of person a Jewish teacher should be dealing with. And what’s more Jesus seems to confirm their opinion, as He says to them: I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
Yet to her credit this unknown woman does not stop. She gets down on her knees and begs Jesus: Lord, help me! And I guess we all know what that’s like, at our wits end, unable to see any way forward, when this is the only prayer we can utter. But even then Jesus seems, to put it mildly, less than interested or helpful. It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs. (I should point out here that “dogs” was the common, abusive term Jewish people used of Gentiles. It certainly would not be a term approved of by the Commission for Racial Equality).
But still the Gentile woman persists: “Yes, Lord…but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And then, only then, does Jesus seem to relent and actually intervene. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
So we might quite rightly ask, at this point, what’s going on and what can we learn from his passage?
Well, let’s be clear. Right from the very beginning Jesus loved this Gentile woman. Just as indeed He loves each and every person who comes to Him in prayer. I don’t know how your prayer life is at the moment. You may be having a season of great blessing. You may like the Psalmist be in a spiritual desert. But wherever you are, don’t doubt that Jesus loves you. Unlike the Gentile woman, we have solid, hard evidence of His love right in front of us, day by day. We have the cross and we have the empty tomb. And whatever else these things mean, they certainly show that Jesus loves you and cares for you.
And right from the beginning Jesus knew this Gentile woman. Just as indeed Jesus knows all there is to know about you, and you, and me. He is the living Word, after all, through whom all things were made, and, as we pray week by week, no secrets are hidden. And as Jesus encountered this Gentile woman, He saw a person who would be able to stand the test of faith. She was ready for her faith to be stretched and challenged, so that, even though at first her experience may have seemed baffling and confusing, in the end she would have a deeper and stronger knowledge of Jesus and His power to save and to heal.
When you understand how much Jesus loves and knows you, then the passage begins to make far more sense. And I believe there are three important points we can take away from today’s reading.
First of all, with God there is no prejudice. You see, the problem with the disciples was that they had only a limited view of Jesus, and what He had come to do. Now to a certain extent Jesus’ earthly ministry was restricted to the people and places of Israel – after all, the Jewish people were the people chosen by God, under the law, awaiting the Messiah. That’s why Jesus’ ministry focused on the lost sheep of Israel. But the thing about God’s grace is that it knows no boundaries. Even in Jesus’ time non-Jewish people – that is, Gentiles – sought Him out, just like the woman in this passage.
And ultimately Jesus could not refuse them. Because as His earthly ministry drew to a close on the cross Jesus paid the price of all our sin, not just the sin of one particular race or class or gender. With what result? That the way into God’s presence is open to all who believe and trust in Jesus’ name. That means every single person here in this church this morning. No matter who you are. No matter what you have done. Yet, truth be told, do we really believe this? Do you maybe still believe God is not interested in you? Or do you maybe – perhaps even unthinkingly – still carry some element carry some element of prejudice in your heart, that God couldn’t really be interested in Fred over there, or Ethel over here? No, the path of prayer is open to all, and God will hear all who call out to Him in Jesus’ name. In His timing. According to His good purposes.
Which leads on to the second point about perseverance. What did the Gentile woman learn from the nature of her encounter with Jesus? Clearly she already knew something about Jesus and His power to save. The first words she utters to Him are: Lord, Son of David. And Jesus could easily at that point have uttered a word or performed a healing. But as far as we know, this was the first time the Gentile woman had met Jesus. She had not yet learnt what a relationship with Jesus really entailed, and what it meant to have faith.
Faith, you see, isn’t just about believing and trusting in Jesus when the going’s good. It’s about clinging on to Jesus when the going’s tough, when all the evidence is telling you it’s time to let go, it’s about refusing to yield until finally Jesus blesses you and answers your prayer, as He sees fit.
It’s fascinating – though probably irrelevant – that there is mention in this story of the name Israel. The name Israel was originally given by God to one single person in the Old Testament who went on to have the twelve sons who founded the twelve tribes. We know that person better by the name Jacob. And when was Jacob given this new name of Israel? According to Genesis 32 after he had spent all night wrestling with God. It’s one of those dramatic, mysterious stories in the Old Testament we would love to know more about. But the point is, it ends with Jacob saying to his mysterious opponent who turns out to be the Lord, I will not let you go unless you bless me.
That, to me, is faith. Not letting go of Jesus, even when there appears to be silence. Even when other people are telling you you are wasting your time. Even when it seems God is not interested in you. Because it is when we wrestle with God like Jacob, or keep pleading in Jesus’ name like this Gentile woman, that we develop a deeper and stronger understanding of who Jesus is, and what He can do for us.
Which leads on to my third and final point about prayer. By now, I hope it is clear that real, genuine prayer does not fit into our culture of quick, instant results. Yes, we have a loving Heavenly Father, but he is not a sugar-daddy. After all, there is nothing worse than a spoilt child who just has to open his mouth to be showered with presents. A parent will give to his child what is right at a time which is right. And how much more is this true for our loving Heavenly Father! So we need to make time in our life to patiently watch and wait, to draw aside from the many things that entertain and distract us, to pray, even when we don’t feel like it, or think there are better things to do.
Because – and here’s a positive note to finish on – when people pray in this way, then ultimately we begin to see as Paul says in Eph 3:20 we have a God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. After all, let’s not forget that the end result of today’s passage is a dramatic healing. When we learn to pray faithfully, consistently, patiently, things do happen. It may be a healing. It may be a conversion. It may be a revival. But whatever it is, let’s be clear: we have a wonderful God who does great things. In His timing. According to His purposes.
And as you look and see what the Lord is doing, my hope and prayer is that all of us will be able to say with the Psalmist:
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.