“Teach us to pray.” The disciples must have seen something in Jesus their spiritual master, some quality which they wished they had. The request is recorded in Luke’s gospel (11:11-13).
I want to think about one aspect of Jesus life of praying and believing that might help us to press on in the good work of prayer.
Probably nothing stops praying like Job’s wife. You know what Job’s supportive spouse said. Job had lost everything in disaster after disaster, his children, his livelihood, his investments. On top of that he was afflicted with constant pain – malignant ulcers from the top of his head to the sole of his feet.
However, he still had his wife. She said, ‘Why persist in this integrity of yours? Curse God and die.’ More or less she says: Job, it is over. God is not going to reverse this situation. God is not going to do anything.” Her unbelief is a dramatic foil or backdrop to Job’s faithful determination.
However, the truth is this: What looks like God’s unfairness can really kick a praying person in the shins. It might seem like proof that God is really absent altogether.
Now Job is usually dated after the exile. No surprise that Israel’s faith went through the fire in the exile. I m not just talking about Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego who went through the fire that was hotter than hot. I’m talking about the Israel national project. Israel went through hades to get the Land of Promise. Yahweh said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country which I shall show you; 2 and I shall make you a great nation, I shall bless you and make your name famous; you are to be a blessing! They were redeemed from Egypt. After 40 years they entered the land which God had promised them. Whew. God was going to bless the world out of Zion, Jerusalem, joy of the whole earth where God had taken up residence.
But now, with the exile, Israel had failed. They lost the land. The gentiles razed the temple. Where were God’s promises now? Would God ever use Israel again? Had God moved on?
Books like Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, Job, and many psalms are dealing with this disappointment of the national hope. They are working out a way to understand how God can still be faithful, still keep his cast iron promises when the obvious basis of those promises is all over — it seems. How do you keep on praying when there seems like there is no hope. Job’s challenge is to keep the faith while those around him are unsupportive. Indeed, the whole book is Job figuring out in dialogue back and forth why God is letting this all happen to him. Job is figuring out how he can keep on praying and believing.
In our own time in North America, for many of us, the trend lines are heading down. Our churches are in trouble, many of them. Attendance trouble. Financial trouble. Change in the culture has been huge and sudden. Major denominations are not baptizing many of the new generation, the millennials. It is easy to believe that the trends are going to kill Christian churches as we know them. You could call it determinism. Nothing is going to stop this movie from playing forward – and one might say, “I don’t like what I see.”
In the long gap of 400 years between the last prophet and John the Baptist, in the time of silence, when the God of Israel said nothing, at the very end there are a couple of models of faithful pray-ers. Simeon is one. Here is Luke 2:25: Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to the restoration of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord, on YHWH’s Messiah anointed King of Israel that is. He was praying! Simeon is a man who trusted the God of Israel and the world to come through. After 400 years of nothing doing, silence, he is praying. Anna: She was eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. Simeon said, my eyes have seen the salvation 31 which you have made ready in the sight of the nations; 32 a light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel. Anna began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. Prayer has to allow God to do things his way.
When I attended a missions prayer conference in the late 1980s, a real life China Inland Missions missionary also attended. She was someone who had cause to think the work had been wasted. In 1953, if not before, the Communists expelled all missionaries. Less than 1% of the population of China were Christians – 750 000 Protestants and 3 million Catholics in 1949. Then followed more than thirty years of silence to the early 1980s. No one knew what if anything had changed. In 2014 as many as 130 million Chinese may be believers in Christ, according to The Economist magazine – as much as 10% of the population. Prayer has to allow God to do things his way.
For allowing God to do it his way, no model is better than Jesus himself. Scripture records this at Luke 22: He …left to make his way as usual to the Mount of Olives, with the disciples following. 40 When he reached the place he said to them, ‘Pray not to be put to the test.’ 41 Then he withdrew from them, about a stone’s throw away, and knelt down and prayed. 42 ‘Father,’ he said, ‘if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.’ 43 Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. 45 When he rose from prayer he went to the disciples and found them sleeping for sheer grief.
What would it take to believe that God will raise you from death? What would it take to trust God to accomplish the work of saving a people for himself through total defeat, total weakness? What would it take to put your mission and your life in God’s hands totally? No one ever faced such a challenge.
Yet God raised our Lord Jesus from the grave. On the other side of faith in an impossibility came resurrection!
In this time, when God appears to be doing nothing – in North America anyway – Jesus is our model for prayer. “What will the Lord be up to?” What is God doing in the least evangelized part of the world? What new China, what new Korea, what new Iran is God working on? Believers have every reason to pray. Like Job we might have to work it out and see it through. Like Jesus. Like Jesus’ praying people in every era. May God get the praise for his faithfulness working in us.
Teach us to pray.