“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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, King Ahaz didn’t want to talk to God. He wraps his response in words that sound pious—“I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test”—but the reality is, he doesn’t want to talk to God. He doesn’t want to pray. He has no desire to bring his requests before God, or hear His answer. But there is only one problem: God has commanded him to pray. “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.’” It seems amazing that Ahaz could refuse to pray after God had given him a direct command to do so, but then again, you and I do the same thing all the time. We have been commanded to pray, to call upon the Name of the Lord our God in each and every situation, but so often we are like King Ahaz, we don’t talk to God. We pray when we or someone we love is sick or dying, but so often we fail to daily bring our struggles and triumphs, our challenges and joys, our requests and thanksgivings to God as He has asked us to.
The story of Advent is the story of prayer; prayers offered by God’s faithful people and prayers answered by an even more faithful God. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, it was the prayer for a child, that Elizabeth’s barren womb would be opened. They cried out to God in their distress, they implored Him for relief from their affliction. And God answered. “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.” But this was no isolated incident; when God opens the wombs of barren women in the Scriptures, He is answering the prayers of a suffering couple in order to answer the prayers of all people. The answer to this prayer had eternal significance. “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and 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.”
The answer to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayer is the gift of a child, but with the opening of this old woman’s womb the prayers of all will be answered. The story of Advent is the story of answered prayers; with the conception of John, the era of salvation has come, the hour that God’s people have earnestly prayed for since the day humanity fell into sin. Isaiah gave words to this cry, the groaning of all creation for redemption: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” John’s coming in answer to prayer was the sure and certain sign that God was ready to answer Isaiah’s plea. The Lord rent the heavens and came down to Mary’s womb, to Bethlehem’s stable, there to enact salvation, to do battle with our enemies and defeat them. He came in answer to prayer, the earnest pleas of a humanity groaning under the yoke of sin’s slavery. Isaiah asked, “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” The answer is yes—God will rend the heavens and come down, to save us from our sins. Jesus Christ, true God in the flesh, will walk the way of the cross and give up His life as a ransom for sin. His death was God’s answer to humanity’s cries for help; His resurrection God’s answer to death’s reign over His people. Jesus came, He rent the heavens and came down, in answer to prayer, in answer to our desperate need for salvation.
Christ’s coming in answer to prayer doesn’t mean the end of prayer; far from it! It means that prayer is transformed. Christians don’t only pray because we have been commanded to, we pray because Christ has attached great promises to it. We pray because prayer is Christ’s gift to His people through His death and resurrection. He has reconciled us with our God, removing the dividing wall of hostility by His own shed blood, and now we have access to our Creator, intimate access to our Father’s throne. Because we have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters through Christ’s work, we can pray with great confidence. The first words of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Our Father who art in heaven…” are the statement of a new relationship between us and our God, as Luther says in the Small Catechism: “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.”
The congregation that understands this new relationship, that lives its life fully aware of what it means that we can call God “Our Father,” will be immersed in prayer. We will open and close every meeting, every bible class, every time we gather together, by calling on the God who tenderly invites us to bring every request before His throne. We will be a people at prayer, not neglecting to gather together, but coming together on Sunday morning and throughout the week to bring our petitions and requests before the Lord. Our life together will be a life of prayer. We will not just pray for ourselves, but we will intercede for the entire Christian Church on earth, holding up our brothers and sisters in Christ in every place. And we will pray for our world; for our rulers, and for all people. We will pray for a free and just society, where our fellow citizens are protected and provided for. The Church will hold up the entire world before God’s throne.
The pastor of such a congregation at prayer will be a guide and example, he will be a man at prayer. He will intercede for the flock entrusted to his care, holding them up before the Father individually by name when they have any need. Their concerns will constantly be in his mind and on his lips. He will not neglect to bring prayer into every situation of fear and anxiety or joy and thanksgiving; he will not let a visit pass without offering prayer, without calling upon the God who promises to hear. He will not forget that when he visits the hospital room, the deathbed, or your kitchen table he is there to pray, that all else, save the absolution or the Lord’s Supper, is secondary to that great task.
The Christian who understands both God’s command to pray and the promises He has attached to prayer through Christ will live in constant communication with the One he or she rejoices to call “Our Father.” You will have a regular, orderly life of prayer, opening and closing each day, and celebrating each meal, by offering your petitions to God, using a set format from the hymnal, a devotional book or the structure for daily prayer given in the bulletin. You will pray the psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and the historic prayers of the Church, using those ancient words to shape and form your own prayer life. Your spontaneous prayers will flow from these structured prayers, as you pray whenever a need or cause of thanksgiving arises. Your prayers will develop a deeper relationship with those you pray for and with, and they will be a witness of Christ’s love to those around you.
Prayer expresses the ebb and flow of a Christian’s life; it accompanies us through every situation we find ourselves in, both joys and sorrows. It is His gift of an open ear, the promise that our Lord is listening to our every request, and it is a joy for Him to hear us. He promises that He will answer, although not always in the way or with the timing we think that we want. Sometimes He answers ‘No’ or ‘Not yet.’ But even those answers carry the great promise that He answers thus for our good, and ultimately for our salvation. Prayer is God’s Christmas gift; His Christmas gift of communication between Him and us, communication facilitated by the shed blood of Jesus, who died that we could pray with joy and confidence, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” In the Name of Jesus, the answer to humanity’s prayers who gave His people the gift of prayer, Amen.