“Your Prayers Have Been Heard”
December 13, 2015
Do not fear, for your prayers have been heard.
I. People were Praying (Luke 1:5-12)
II. Your Prayers Have Been Heard (Luke 1:13-17)
Do you ever feel like your prayers aren’t even being heard? You pray for something, maybe over and over, but the circumstance just keeps getting worse and worse and there is no evidence of God at work in it and you begin to wonder, on some level, does he answer prayer? Does he even care? You know the truth, but the truth doesn’t seem to be showing up in real life.
As I thought about this, I brought to mind many stories of answered prayers and apparently unanswered prayers in our own congregation. A year ago Donna Reed shared how God was at work through 8 years of Chronic Inflammatory Demylinating Polyneuropathy. But the fact that she was sitting up, on her own, smiling and telling the story was itself a tribute to answered prayer, and God has continued to give her significant healing. That that was after eight years where most prayers seemed to drop into a bucket of silence.
On the internet I found a website called “If:Equip.” It’s an online daily devotional study, mostly for women. The day I found was called ‘The Fight for Faith,’ and the Scripture was Genesis 21, where God finally answers Abraham and Sarah’s long prayer for a son of their own. So the topic of the 150 comments that day was God’s long answers to prayer. There were probably twenty good stories on that one page, and I want to share a few as we go along today.
Jenny Revie, apparently a regular contributor, writes about waiting for answers. “My husband and I went through a very dark time personally and in ministry. It was a strain on our marriage, our relationships with our kids, our finances… it just blossomed out into every area of our lives. Hope was difficult to see. I sought God’s face in tears so many times I’m amazed I still have a normal looking face. One night, I left the home where we’d had to move in with family and ran to the lakeside, dropping to my knees in anguish. My husband and I had just argued, and I had burst out how tired I was of his lack of faith.
There on the ground, in the dark, my knees getting soaked in the wet grass, I poured out a hurt and angry heart at God. I yelled. I screamed. I ranted. And when I was done, He very quietly and lovingly rebuked me. I was humbled when He showed me what I looked like through eyes of grace. Then He gave me a vision of His promise. I was overwhelmed. I went home that night changed. I apologized to my husband and reaffirmed my love and my choice to keep believing in him even when he couldn’t believe in himself. That was 8 years ago. Today, we are living the manifestation of that vision. God is so good and He loves to keep His promises to us if we’ll trust Him to do it in His time.
That last line is really the theme of our time in Luke today: God is so good and he loves to keep his promises to us if we’ll trust him to do it in his time. We don’t have all the answers about apparently unanswered prayers, but Scripture does tell us some of the reasons our prayers might appear unanswered. And God wants to say to us what he says to Zechariah: do not fear for your prayers have been heard. Whether you have waited four, forty or four hundred years, every prayer you have prayed has been heard, and God is going to do something.
Luke 1:5-12 In the days of Herod king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
We’ve studied this passage during several Christmas seasons, so I’m not going to touch on every detail, but I want to focus on two things: one, prayer prayed over a long period of time with no apparent answer, and two, fear. So here we have Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah is a priest and therefore from the tribe of Levi, and more particularly a descendent of Aaron. Elizabeth is also a descendent of Aaron, probably on her father’s side. On her mother’s side, probably, she was of the house of Judah, and it was through her mother that she was related to Mary, possibly as a first cousin.
Both of these people, Zechariah and Elizabeth were deeply committed to God. Luke says they walked according to the commandments, which doesn’t mean they were sinless, but that they sought God, trusted God and probably recognized the principle that sacrifice would pay the price of their sins. They were probably also waiting for the Messiah. Biblical and extra-Biblical sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls show that there was a high level of expectation that the Messiah would come soon and free the nation from the tyranny of Rome.
Luke also tells us that this couple had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. They had probably prayed hard for children during the early and middle years of their marriage, but by the time of this episode it is likely that such prayers had long since worn themselves into a tired groove.
It’s likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah both had spent a lot of time processing the fact that “God has not answered our prayers,” and had come to some kind of peace or at least frustrated acceptance of that truth. But God had not forgotten to answer. His answer would be part of the larger work he was doing to redeem his people through the Messiah. His answers, especially delayed answers, are often part of a larger work he is doing, a larger tapestry he is weaving.
The answer began to come on a momentous day when Zechariah’s division of priests was serving at the temple. There were 24 divisions, so you only served this way twice a year, plus probably one of the feast weeks. So that was pretty rare, but much more unusual was the fact that Zechariah had been chosen by lot to enter the temple and offer incense. Zechariah had never done this before. There were so many priests that any given priest would only get this opportunity once in a lifetime. And this was the moment when God chose to set his plan in motion, to reveal that Zechariah’s prayers had been answered.
So Zechariah is in the Holy Place, standing in front of the Altar of Incense, burning the incense he had brought before the Lord. And, verse 10, “the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” This was not a special gathering of people to pray for Elizabeth and Zechariah to have a baby. This was the common practice of the Jewish people at the temple.
There was a cycle of prayers based on the Psalms, including one key Psalm for each day of the week. So if it was Sabbath they might have been praying Psalm 24 “Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 10Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!” On the day after Sabbath, Psalm 48: “We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. 10As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness.” Or how about this one, Psalm 92, on the day before Sabbath “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. 13They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. 14They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.” Maybe that’s what they were praying, not knowing that it was about to be fulfilled for righteous Zechariah.
But there was also, in Temple worship, a category called ‘spontaneous prayers.’ The people would come to the Temple to pray for their own needs. We see this very clearly in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” And in that age of Messianic expectation, it is more than likely that some in that crowd were crying earnestly for God to finally answer their prayers and send the Messiah.
It seems clear, later in Luke 2, that this is what Simeon and Anna did every day in the temple. Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ,” the Messiah. Anna “prayed day and night.” They were part of a faithful remnant who prayed. And this prayer had been prayed for years, for centuries, and had not yet been answered.
Last week we looked at Isaiah 9, the promise of the child who would be born, the Son who would be given: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This child would fulfill the promises of a King of David’s line who would sit on David’s throne forever. These verses are clearly part of Israel’s expectation of a Messiah. But the prophecy had been made 750 years earlier. That’s a long wait. In the same way, the last book in the Bible, Malachi, points to John the Baptist, the one who would come as the forerunner to the Messiah. The Old Testament ends with these words: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” That’s the last word of the Old Testament. 400 years have passed by Zechariah’s day and still the prayers are not answered.
But now, in the Temple, in the Holy Place, the Angel Gabriel appears. Verse 11 says “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Zechariah had never even been in the Holy Place, let alone in the presence of what I always call a bright scary angel. I don’t know exactly what angels look like. Genesis implies they can look exactly like men. But almost every time an angel appears people react with tremendous fear. The ESV, in fact, minimizes the impact of the Greek. “Troubled,” translates a Greek word, tarasso that is used to describe the turmoil of a stormy sea. Some commentators recommend the word “terrified.” “Fear fell upon him” could be translated “He was seized with fear.” This was the fear you might feel coming on a grizzly in the dark or recognizing you had just been shot at.
In these Christmas accounts angels are the direct cause of fear: an angel appears to Mary and she is terrified. An angel appears to the shepherds and they are terrified. An angel speaks to Joseph in a dream. But in each case the angel has a message that addresses a larger circumstance and a larger fear. Mary fears her own inadequacy; the shepherds fear that a Savior will never come. Joseph fears the public disgrace of marrying a pregnant woman. And here the larger fear, I believe, is that the prayers of all these silent centuries will never be answered, that Messiah and his forerunner will never rescue God’s people
We have these fears too, often felt as doubt. We’ve been praying these prayers for our family members, our circumstances, our healings for weeks or month or years and no answer seems apparent. But God has a plan and a purpose. The “If:Equip” website allows users to post video as well as text. One older couple who had waited a long time for God to provide a child, posted this incredible video, which shows how God can miraculously answer long prayed prayers:
“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. “At twenty weeks pregnant I had to go get an ultrasound because of my advanced maternal age, or ‘elderly’ as they stamp on your chart. And she sat us down in a chair in a room across the table and started the conversation with ‘your child’s anatomy is bizarre.” She said “It’s so bizarre there’s no cure, there’s no way to fix the problem, and even if the baby does survive pregnancy, the baby won’t live beyond birth. [slow fade to Harper playing on the floor] “Harper was born on September 15th 2013.” “Specifically on that day they had the NICU crash team there, ready to go, and as soon as Harper was born, we transitioned her over to them, and they had her for a few minutes, looked her over and said ‘Hey, she looks great.’”
“When she was six weeks old we took her to a hospital here in Texas and had a minor repair on her bladder. It wasn’t an hour long process and the doctor brought in 17 interns to see this miracle baby. I’d asked God to increase my faith, to be able to share him with other people. So it didn’t exactly look like what maybe I had thought at the time I had asked for that, but being able to share Harper’s story with other people was very humbling and an honor to be able to be a part of his work.” “Just knowing that he gave us that opportunity, that platform to share Harper’s story and others to hear it and others to reach out and we still. And when I go to work people still ask how she’s doing, everything along those lines, and you hear words like answered prayers and miracle and that’s something I had never heard before at work.”
That sweet testimony is similar to what God did for Zechariah and Elizabeth, while at the same time beginning to answer the larger, long delayed prayer. Verse 13 to 18: But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Zechariah’s surface fear is of this intimidating angel. But the angel’s response addresses a-whole-nother level of fear, specifically the fear that Zechariah’s prayers and the prayers of the people outside and the prayers of centuries of faithful Jews were not ever going to be answered. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” Your prayer has been heard! What prayer? The prayer for a child? Maybe, but after a certain number of years you pray that less often, and I’d bet that Zechariah and Elizabeth had mostly stopped. That doesn’t mean God can’t go back and answer it. But I’ll bet they, like Simeon, like Anna, were praying for the consolation of Israel, for God to finally keep his promises. And that prayer is also being answered.
First, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” That old worn out prayer of theirs will be answered in the sight of many. God will give them great joy and happiness in this late-life child, and just like the miracle of Harper Faith Rose brought joy to many, so would John’s birth.
But of course, there is much more going on here. God is not giving this miracle in a vacuum, but as part of breaking the silence of centuries, answering the prayers of centuries, fulfilling the promises made centuries before. “He will be great before the Lord,” the angel says, and Jesus will later say that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” He will not drink wine or strong drink, but will instead be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the same thing Paul will later command of believers. It indicates a total dependence on God and no dependence on human means. John the Baptist displayed those qualities in his ministry. “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” We see that later in the chapter when John leaps in his mother’s womb as Mary comes to visit Elizabeth.
Finally, “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” Gabriel is now explicitly tying the promise of this child to the prophecies of the Messiah. In Malachi 3:1 the Lord says “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; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” Then in Malachi 4 we read “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6and he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Gabriel says of John “and he will go before him – and I think that him is the Messiah - in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
In other words, this is it. This is the it. Fifteen centuries of prophecy, four centuries of silence, the sovereign ordering of countless lives comes together now. Now, in this prayed-for baby, John, who will prepare the way. Now, in this prayed-for baby, Jesus, the Messiah who will redeem by sacrifice and fulfill God’s promises. Long delay in the answering of prayers does not indicate that God isn’t at work. Indeed, at times it seems God’s greatest works are preceded by long seasons of frustration and toil, disappointment and even despair. Indeed, at times our prayers are not answered in our lifetimes. Indeed, not all of our prayers are ever answered in ways that we can grasp or celebrate. But as one If:Equip commentator said “As Christians, our hope is not in an outcome but in the person of Christ Jesus.” He’s really the answer to our prayers. Nonetheless, we can have confidence that this God who keeps his promises will answer our prayers for our good and for his glory, even by means of long delay and repeated crying out.
On the “If:Equip” website one of the commentators said “I think the thing that stands out most to me is a prayer that I prayed for many years … a silent prayer in a lot of ways … a prayer before I even believed … a prayer that I now believe the Holy Spirit took my feeble desires and transformed them into holy words. It was the prayer that my father would be “healed” of his alcoholism. I prayed for this but with only the faith of a mustard seed, if that. I don’t think I ever believed it would happen. Today, my father is a different person and has given up his old ways … He is now a believer and he reads the bible and although we don’t talk about the past , I know he knows what he has been healed and delivered from … it’s a quiet and humbleness about him that outwardly shows his gratitude. I am so grateful to God for this. It was something I didn’t think would ever happen. It is one of the things I remind myself of when I am facing doubt. It took many years, many aches and pains and lots of broken moments … but God was faithful and my weak prayers were answered in his time.
So God says to us, ‘do not fear, for your prayers have been heard.’ The answer may come today, it may start today, or it may continue to be delayed, but your prayers have been heard. In this room at this moment, there are people who have prayed desperately for days, for weeks, for months and for years. For salvation for loved ones, for a child, for relationships, for rescue from grinding financial burdens, for deliverance from evil, for work, for release from sins and addictions and the impact of a cold fallen world. And those prayers have been heard. Today God is at work to miraculously intervene in one situation, to give provision in another, to give victory that to now has seemed impossible in a third. And today God has is at work to strengthen many for another week or month or year of trial and turmoil and trouble. But he has heard your prayer. Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. And God is at work.