'Tis the Season to Be Praying
Did you hear the story about the little boy who so badly wanted a watch for Christmas? He constantly reminds his parents how much he wants a watch. He cuts out sales ads from the newspaper for watches and puts them all around his home. Finally, his dad has enough. He tells him if he so much as mentions a watch again he won’t get one. That night dad comes to tuck his son in and junior asks him to read him a verse from the Bible. Junior already has the Bible open, and hands it to his father, who cannot help smiling as he reads Mark 13:37 "And what I say unto you, I say unto all--Watch."
Kids are pretty persistent in their petitions, especially at Christmas. Millions of kids all over America are doing all they can to make the nice list and stay off the naughty list, mailing their letter to Santa, and going the extra mile to the mall to speak to the big man himself. ‘Tis the season to be asking and receiving.
You and I could learn a lot about prayer from these kids. The Bible is full of examples of how to ask and receive not from Santa, but from God. Even Jesus stresses this in
Lk 18:1 Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart…
Jesus encourages us to be persistent in our petitions.
Jn 16:23-24 23 …Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. 24Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
A child may weary an adult with their asking, but you and I never weary God with our asking. Tonight I want to look in Luke 1:5-25 at a couple who asks and receives. They can give us some pointers on how to ask and receive from God not just at Christmas, but any season. Let’s begin with Luke 1:5-7.
The Gospel of Luke presents us with the most complete account of the birth of Jesus, but he doesn’t begin the story in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem. Before Jesus is born, there is another important birth that takes place. Luke introduces us to Zacharias and Elizabeth: models of the kind of people for whom God delights to answer prayer.
They live during the reign of Herod the Great—a cruel and ruthless tyrant who sits on Israel’s throne from 37 BC-4 AD. One of the few good things Herod ever did was to reconstruct the Temple, which makes it possible for the Jewish priests to again lead worship as the Law of Moses commanded them.
Zacharias is one of these priests, one of the estimated 20,000 descendants of Aaron who lead worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Zacharias’ wife Elizabeth is also a descendant of the family of priests.
But Luke focuses not just on their lineage, but on their character. He describes them as both righteous before God=righteous in God’s eyes. They serve God from their heart, not just in empty ritual or hypocritical religion. They are walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. They aren’t sinless, but they do make the effort to live obediently to God’s Word and God’s will.
Yet in spite of their deep devotion, there is one blessing missing in their lives: they have no children. Being the godly couple they are, I’m sure they pray often, asking the Lord to give them a child. But year after year no children come, until now they’re old enough to be grandparents. Still their prayers remain unanswered.
If you’ve ever known a couple that wants to have kids and can’t, you know how frustrating and painful it can be. In the ancient world, it was worse. A childless couple is considered more than just abnormal; they are considered cursed by God. The whole town whispers about what’s wrong with either Zacharias, or more likely, Elizabeth. Luke goes to great lengths to let us know these are righteous servants of God in spite of their empty crib. In fact, they are just the kind of people who can be sure God hears their prayers.
But doesn’t God hear everybody’s prayers?
A recent study done by Brandeis University suggests…90% of Americans pray daily, with half of us praying several times a day. Wendy Cadge, a sociologist who directed the research, observes
"Most prayer(s)…imagine a God who is accessible, listening, and a source of emotional and psychological support, who at least sometimes answers back.”
Is God this way with everybody: accessible, listening, supportive? I’m not so sure.
Ps 66:18 If I regard iniquity in my heart, The Lord will not hear.
Mic 3:4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, Because they have been evil in their deeds.
I was once asked if I believe the Lord hears the prayers of unsaved people. I’m not completely positive, but I do know this for sure: God hears the prayers of the righteous.
Ps 4:3 But know that the Lord has set apart for Himself him who is godly; The Lord will hear when I call to Him.
Pr 15:29 The Lord is far from the wicked, But He hears the prayer of the righteous.
I do know that if you want to be sure God hears your prayers, it’s a good idea to be like Zacharias and Elizabeth—to be a person who is righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. (v. 6)
You cannot earn answers to your prayers, nor can you bargain with God—“I’ll be good if You’ll do this for me.” Living right doesn’t guarantee quicker results—it didn’t for Zacharias and Elizabeth, and it won’t for you either.
But there is a connection between righteous living and God’s answer to your prayers. You cannot expect God to give you what you ask for if you are living in rebellion against His authority. You cannot expect your Heavenly Father to grant your requests when you ignore Him all the time, except when you need something. We wouldn’t tolerate that behavior in our kids, and God won’t tolerate that behavior in us, either. Perhaps it might be a good idea before we ask for anything in prayer to confess our sins, and to pray Lord, help me live my life righteously, so that I can be confident you hear me.
About a week before Christmas little Tommy’s grandmother came for a visit. As she sat downstairs talking with Tommy’s mom, he went upstairs to say his prayers before bed. In a loud voice he yells out all the things he wants. His mother comes up to see what’s wrong. "Sweetheart, you don’t have to pray so loudly! The Lord isn't hard of hearing! "I know the Lord’s not hard of hearing" admits Tommy, "but grandma is!"[i]
God isn’t hard of hearing; His ears are open to the prayers of the righteous. But Luke also goes on teach us something else about prayer in vs. 8-22.
One of the duties of a priest in the Temple is to burn incense. Luke describes the normal procedure Zacharias goes through, solemnly walking into the temple while the crowd waits outside praying. Prayer is one of Luke’s favorite themes in his Gospel, and the first century readers would have seen the significance of the prayer of the crowd and remember the burning of incense was a symbol of prayer rising up to heaven.
Everything goes as normal until Zacharias lights the incense at the altar and WHOA! Whose that standing there! There’s not supposed to be anybody else here! How’d that guy slip in? …he was troubled and fear fell upon him… (v. 12).
The stranger speaks to him, calls him by name. Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard….(v. 13).
What prayer? The context seems to favor Zacharias’ prayer for a son, but another prayer the priest always prays during his duties in the Temple: a prayer that the Messiah will come soon and rescue His people. Perhaps Zacharias prays for both a son and the Messiah. In any event, the angel connects these two prayers together.
He tells Zacharias his wife Elizabeth will have a son whose name will be John= God is gracious. He will be a joy to you! Apparently John wasn’t born preaching hellfire and brimstone!
The boy will grow up to be a man on a mission for God. He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He’ll be separated to God, never drinking alcohol, filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. He will call many to repent, and lead them back to God.
But His most important assignment will be to go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
This surprise son, this answer to prayer will fulfill the words of the prophet:
Mal 3:1 “Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple….Behold, He is coming,” Says the Lord of hosts.
Zacharias’ mind is racing: God heard my prayer? Elizabeth will have a son? My son will be the herald for God’s Messiah? Maybe He starts to get excited, but then he gets starts to get a grip. Wait a minute! Elizabeth and I are too old to have kids! Without thinking he blurts out How can I know this is will happen?
Gabriel’s voice booms a little louder: I am Gabriel! I’ve been sent from God Himself to deliver this good news to you! I will prove my words by giving you a sign: you will be unable to speak until this son is born!
Cut back to outside the Temple, where the praying crowd gets restless. How long does it take to light a little incense? Come out and give the benediction so we can go home! Their boredom becomes shock when Zacharias staggers out, pale as a ghost, unable to utter a word. A whisper creeps through the crowd: What happened in there?
It’ll be many months until Zacharias is able to tell them. Right now his mind is a mixture of shock and joy. God heard my prayer! My wife and I are going to have a son! My son is going to welcome the Messiah!
It will take 9+ months for Zacharias to connect the dots but I want to make a crucial connection: God’s answer to his prayer is connected to Jesus Christ. Their son’s destiny is intertwined with the arrival and ministry of God’s Son. This is one reason Luke begins his account of Jesus’ birth with an account of John’s birth.
Which brings me to a second principle: God’s answers to prayer are always connected to Jesus Christ. Many years later the Lord Jesus makes this connection:
Jn 14:13-14 13And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.
Many people misunderstand Jesus’ words here. They think asking in Jesus’ Name is something you do with words, kind of like a magical phrase that guarantees God will do whatever you ask, as long as you tag that phrase “in Jesus’ Name.”
But in ancient times, a person’s name was synonymous with their character. To ask in a person’s name was to ask in line with who they were, to ask for something they would ask for. When Jesus spoke of asking in His Name, He’s inviting you and I to ask for what He would ask for, to ask in line with His purpose and plan- to connect our requests with Himself.
1 Jn 5:14-15 14Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.
Asking in His Name= asking according to His will. God connects Jesus Christ with the answer to your prayers.
What this means is Jesus doesn’t promise you can get anything you want when you pray. Whatever you ask for has to be connected with Christ and His will for you and for the world in order to receive it. Just as Zacharias and Elizabeth’s request was connected to Christ and His will, so also your request must be connected to Christ for you to receive what you ask for.
How do you connect Jesus with your requests? It’s not always easy. I’m sure Zacharias and Elizabeth weren’t sure their prayers for a son were in line with God’s will for them. They waited a long time on their baby boy. You may have to wait a long time, too.
My advice is to seek the Lord in His Word about what you’re asking Him for, and then trust Him to give you what’s best, what lines up with Who He is. It’s not just a matter of what words you say, or even what you ask for, as much as it is a matter of where your heart is. Are you really seeking God’s glory, or only your own selfish desires?
Someone once offered this advice on prayer: Instead of trying to twist God’s arm, put yourself in His hands.
You’ll be surprised at how God answers your prayers when you connect them with Christ and His will for your life. Your kingdom come, Your will be done.
But the other side of that coin is demonstrated in vs. 23-25.
God’s answers to prayer are connected with your deepest desires.
Imagine Elizabeth’s surprise when Zacharias gets back home and he cannot speak. I wonder if he writes out what happened to him? I wonder what she thinks as she reads to the story of this incredible encounter with the angel, the startling news that God is going to give them a son, the wonderful promise this son will be great in God’s sight. Does she have any doubt or questions? Luke only says soon after Zacharias returns, Elizabeth realizes she is pregnant.
It’s finally happened—what she’s been praying for all these years finally becomes reality. She goes into seclusion for 5 months. Maybe she doesn’t want to be the village spectacle—an old lady pregnant with her first child. Luke quotes Elizabeth’s words in vs. 25. She praises God for giving grace when other people considered her disgraced. She received from God the deepest desire of her heart—a baby boy. Every time she watched him eat, or sleep, or play, she would remind herself: He saw me, He cared about me, He helped me.
There is a subtle truth Elizabeth teaches us: God’s answers to our prayers come to us because He sees us, He cares about us, and He helps us. His answers are always connected with our deepest desires. Elizabeth is living proof of the promise of
Ps 37:4 Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
Prayer is not just a matter of what God desires, but of what you desire. It is true He gives us what is best, what lines up with His will for our lives, what is connected with Christ. But He is also a Father Who invites us to ask Him for the things our hearts long for. He likes to give us what our heart desire deeply.
Evangelist John R. Rice once wrote, “I once imagined I was in Heaven. Walking along with the Angel Gabriel I said, ‘Gabe, what is that big building there?’
“‘You really don’t want to know’ he answered. ‘I don’t think you want to see it.’ But I insisted, and he showed me floor after floor of beautiful gifts, all wrapped and ready to be sent.
“ ‘Gabriel, what are all these?’
“He said, I thought rather sadly, ‘We wrapped these things, and they were ready to be given, but nobody ever asked for them.’ ”*
What is it you long for the most? Don’t be afraid to ask the Lord. He sees you. He cares about you; He will help you. He will give you the desires of your heart.
Jas 4:2 …you do not have because you do not ask.
Mt 7:7-8 7“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
The old Puritan pastor Thomas Watson wrote: Prayer delights God’s ear, it melts His heart, it opens His hand: God cannot deny a praying soul.—Thomas Watson*[ii]
‘Tis the season to be praying. Tonight I invite you to come and pray.
Pray and ask God to help you become righteous, to be a person who walks in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
Pray and ask God to help you connect your prayers with Christ and His will for you.
Pray and bring your deepest desires to the Lord, and know that He hears, He cares, and He helps.
Come and see what happens when you ask the Lord.
[i] Pulpit Helps, March, 1992, p. 6.
* John R. Rice, “Go Ahead and Ask!” Moody Magazine, January 1977, 61.
* Thomas Watson, Gleanings From Thomas Watson (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 99.
[ii]Morgan, R. J. (2000). Nelson's complete book of stories, illustrations, and quotes (electronic ed.) (622).