Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
Ask people to define prayer and most of them will tell you that prayer is talking with God. Some would narrow that definition and say prayer is talking to God. That’s probably a more accurate description of what prayer is, or at least what we have made prayer to be. For much of my life that’s how I saw prayer – I talk and God listens.
Slowly, God has been expanding my understanding of prayer. A lot of what I’m learning about we communicate with God comes from what I’m learning about how we communicate with other people.
For example, I’m learning that the best communicators I know are not necessarily people who speak well but rather people who pay attention well. More than anything, isn’t communication about paying attention? And the best way to pay attention to others is to listen to others.
We all know what it’s like to be in a conversation with somebody who does not listen. You have something important to tell this person so you lay it out there for them. Then you stop to let them respond to what you’ve just said. But then their response has little or nothing to do with what you have just shared. It’s as if they were only waiting for you to stop talking so that they could tell you what was on their mind.
I’ve listened to many conversations like this. Two people are each talking about what’s on their minds and neither one is really listening to, much less responding to, what the other is saying. They’re like two trains on parallel tracks passing very close to one another but never really make contact. Just because somebody shuts their mouth long enough to let you talk for a while does not necessarily mean that they’re paying attention to what you’re saying.
Prayer, at its best, is paying attention. Writer Patricia Hampl calls prayer a “habit of attention.” Prayer begins, in fact, by simply paying attention to the reality that God is present. God is right here, right now. Prayer is humbly expecting God to be present, even to speak because God is present, and God is ready to speak. As Augustine once said, God is even “closer to me than I am to myself.” Once we realize this, once we become expectantly attentive to God’s presence, we become ready to pay attention to what God’s says. We are ready to listen.
Even in human conversations, it’s nearly always better to begin by listening. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have gotten myself in trouble because I spoke before I listened. I can’t think of a single time, however, that I got in trouble because I listened before I spoke. Things always go better when I listen first.
Could it be the same with prayer? I think it is. Always, we listen first in prayer. In our conversation with heaven, God is the one who speaks first.
So how does God does initiate the conversation? Assuming we are ready to listen, how does God speak? Well, while God can certainly speak to us in lots of ways, the church has long understood that God often speaks through scripture. The Bible is called God’s Word for a reason. Though written down by men, the words of scripture are inspired by God.
II Peter 1:20 proclaims, “No [scripture] had its origins in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Hebrews 4:12 goes even further by telling us that this “Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit.” In other words, God didn’t just speak through scripture once. God continues to speak through scripture, right up to today. These aren’t dead words on a page. They are alive, mysteriously infused by God’s Spirit, to cut into our minds and hearts.
All this is to say that I believe the best way to begin in prayer is to begin in scripture. The best way to talk with God is to begin by listening to God’s Word first. Then, after we have listened attentively to what God has to say, we can then respond and know that God will, in turn, listen attentively to what we have to say.
If this all sounds complicated, it’s not. Put simply, let your prayers begin in scripture. Then, after you’ve listened and paid attention it will be your turn to respond to what God has already said.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I begin my prayer by reading Psalm 23. I read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” As I read I remember that I’m not just reading ancient poetry, but listening attentively to the very words of a Living God who is present and speaking to me in that very moment. That means this is what I hear God say, “Jeff, I am your shepherd. Jeff, you shall not want. Jeff, I make you lie down in green pastures.”
I hear those words and I think carefully about what God is saying to me. I repeat his words in my head and in my heart. I make them personal. I trust they are true. I listen. I believe. I wait.
Because I have paid attention and listened first, when it is my turn to speak back to God I find words that I likely would not have found if I had not listened first. For example, maybe I pray words of thanksgiving. I thank God because even though he is the God of the whole universe he is also my shepherd. He looks after me! As I look back over my life I thank God specifically for all the ways He has guided me, protected me, nourished me.
Or, depending on the circumstances of that season of my life, perhaps instead I pray words back to God of sadness, or even anger. I hear God speak these words to me and I want them to be true. But if I’m honest, it doesn’t feel like God is my shepherd these days. For too long now heaven has seemed silent. My life is filled with want and dissatisfaction. I haven’t seen a green pasture in months. I cry out to God, maybe even in desperation, that he would come and collect this lost sheep in his arms and lead me home. I pray for even one green pasture in the middle of the barren desert in which I find myself.
You see, when I pray by letting God’s Word speak first, then my own words, when it’s my turn to speak, will be guided by God’s agenda rather than my own agenda. And that, I hope you will agree, is always a good thing. As Jesus himself once taught us in John 15:7, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” When God’s Word sets the agenda for our prayers we have confidence that we are praying according to God’s will. And when we pray according to God’s will, powerful things come to pass.
With all this in mind, let’s turn to God’s Word this morning with prayerful attentiveness. As we read, let’s be reminded that the Living God is in our midst and is ready to speak. If we are ready to listen, perhaps we will hear his Word. And if we hear God’s Word, perhaps we will find whatever it is we are searching for.
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36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:36-40, NRSV)
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When a preacher stands up to deliver a sermon, you might say that he or she is simply helping the congregation initiate the process of paying attention to what God is saying. You’ve see, I’ve spent many hours this past week listening to God speak through the words we just read. This morning I’m going to share with you some of what I heard, some of what I think God is saying to this particular church at this particular time through this particular text. I’m going to ask questions and point out things that hopefully will encourage you to listen for yourself because I recognize that what God has to say to you here may be quite different from what he has to say to me.
Here’s one thing I hear God saying to us through his Word here in Luke. I hear God giving us this woman, Anna, as a model for us in the way we pay attention. God is saying that this old woman has a great deal to teach us.
Now, Anna was old. Our translation seems to say that she was 84 years old. Many scholars, however, believe that what Luke is really saying here is that Anna lived another 84 years after her husband died. Considering most Jewish women in those days married at age 14, and that she was married 7 years before her husband died, that means we meet Anna here as a 105-year-old woman. That would be impressive enough in our day. It was unheard of 2000 years ago!
Add to that the fact that living as a widow in those days was extraordinarily difficult. Not only did Anna have to suffer the heartbreaking loss of her husband at such a young age, she had to face the next 84 years with no inheritance rights and likely in constant want of life’s necessities. Many widows back then were looked at in disgrace and were exposed to harsh treatment or exploitation. And with no Social Security, and no life insurance policy, Anna likely would have had to rely on public charity simply to survive.
This is the sort of hardship in life that sometimes makes people callous towards God. I’m sure we’ve all known people who have allowed the difficulties of life to harden them. Just this week a friend of mine was describing his elderly mother to me by saying that her heart had grown so cold that even Christmas had come to mean nothing to her. All her joy was gone. In his view it was almost as if she was just waiting around to die.
Writer William Barclay described people like my friend’s mother saying, “The years can take away the life of our hearts until the hopes that we once cherished die and we become dully contented and grimly resigned to things as they are.”
I’ve heard it said before that hardships in life will either make you bitter or they will make you better. If you think about it, I bet you know plenty of people in both categories. Anna was clearly in the latter category. In spite of all she had faced, she had not grown bitter. She’d grown better, full of grace, and praise, and joy, and hope. It makes me wonder how life will leave me in the end. I hope it makes you wonder the same about yourself.
Anna had become better with age. Though 105 years old she was still full of joyful purpose. This was not a woman looking backwards, reminiscing about the life that had passed her by. This was a woman looking forwards, anticipating the life that was to come. Luke tells us that every day she spent time in the temple worshipping, fasting and praying from morning to night. Far from checking out of the game, here is a woman who is waiting for the next move. Here is a woman waiting for God’s next move.
Tragically, in our culture we have associated old age with inactivity and uselessness. We even have a name for it, retirement. What a terrible name for the final season of life. Webster’s dictionary says that to retire is to “withdraw from action or danger, to go to bed, to remove oneself from usefulness.” Is that really what the final years of our lives on earth are about? Uselessness? This could only be the conclusion of a culture that imagines that the only things of value in this world are the things that we ourselves can do, or build, or create, or generate, or dream up. And if we can’t do it ourselves, then it isn’t worth doing. We might as well retire. We might as well go to bed.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people tell me how much it stinks to get old. And in a physical sense, I get it. I’m only 46 and I’m already frustrated by what my body will no longer do. And some of you are thinking to yourselves right now, “Just you wait young whippersnapper! Just you wait.” I get it. At least I’m starting to get it.
And yet, there’s a part of me that eagerly anticipates some other things besides aches and pains that old age might possibly bring. For instance, I possess wisdom now at 46 I didn’t have at 26. It makes me wonder what wisdom God might grant me at 66, or 86, or 106!
I know older people who, in spite of the fact that their bodies are breaking down, possess a depth of spirit and heart that I do not know is possible in youth. I see in some of the older members of our own church a growing conviction that life is better when it is patiently received rather than aggressively taken, that stillness is often better than movement, that waiting is healthier than rushing, that praying often is better than doing. I know many people who say they believe these things, but the few people I know who actually live by them are almost all quite a bit older than I am.
Charles Stanley is a well-known pastor fromAtlanta. In a recent sermon on the radio, I heard him say something I know will stick with me for some time. He said that if you want to accomplish anything of lasting value in life you will need to accomplish it on your knees.
Charles Stanley said those words as an 80-year-old man who has been through his share of both joy and hardship in life. And though I can’t say for certain, it’s hard for me to imagine that he would have made that same statement, and really believed it, 40 years ago. Most all of us learn this lesson the hard way. Sometimes it’s only as a last resort that we finally learn that the greatest things in life are accomplished on our knees. Perhaps the most important thing we do is pay attention to what God is doing.
In his book The Grand Essentials, Ben Patterson tells the story of a time he was moved and deeply impressed by the sign and photo he saw on a cardboard box in the foyer of a Baptist church inMinneapolis. The sign read, simply, “Tim Lindbloom’s Prayer Ministry.” The photograph was of a young man in a wheelchair; wearing a helmet. Clearly he was a man living with cerebral palsy. There was a slot in the top of the box for people to insert prayer requests. There was also a note which read, “I only ask that you let me know what happens.”
Patterson asks, “What work could this young man possible do with his limitations?” Then he answers his own question, “He could patiently endure, and he could pray. Especially, he could pray.”
What work could 105-year-old Anna possibly do? She could fast. She could pray. She could wait. She could watch. She could listen and she could pay attention to what God was doing in the world. And because she did these things, when God did show up, when God did act, she didn’t miss it.
Specifically, Luke tells us that one day a young peasant woman and her husband came to theTemplewith their newborn son. To most people who passed by that day there was nothing about this seemingly ordinary family that would make you stop and take notice. But an old priest named Simeon did stop and notice. He, like Anna, had been waiting for this day, watching and paying attention. When he saw the child he knew that God was near. This was the Messiah, he declared. The fate of all ofIsrael, even the whole world, rested with this child.
Apparently, Anna was paying attention nearby when God spoke through Simeon. After years of attentiveness, her heart was in tune with the Lord’s heart so that when He finally passed by she also recognized him. She knew that the Redeemer was in her presence and that knowledge filled her with joy. Her heart was full of praise, so full that it overflowed and she began to tell the good news to anybody else who would listen. And all this was possible because this old woman had spent so much time on her knees. All this was possible because she had been paying attention.
I once heard of a church full of people who realized that in all their work for God they had forgotten how to pay attention to God. They were so busy doing things for God that they never paid any attention to what God, himself, was doing. Convicted, this church decided to set aside an entire season to stop doing and start paying attention. For six months they cancelled all committee meetings, programs, activities, events. Instead, they met simply to worship and to pray, to listen and to watch.
I never heard what happened to that church. But a story like that makes me wonder. I wonder, is it possible that we might accomplish more in this world if we stopped running around all the time doing things for God and spent more time being still and seeking God in prayer, listening to him speak in scripture, responding from our hearts according to his will? No doubt God wants his church to act – to do, to serve, to go, to build, to create, to change. But if we do not first wait and listen, I fear we run the danger of rushing out ahead of God, or worse, in the opposite direction of God.
This Christmas we celebrate that Jesus has come into our world. But Christmas isn’t over. Jesus has come, but Jesus is also coming. He is in our midst. He is close. He is at work. He is speaking. He is making all things new. And we would be wise if we, like Anna before us, would spend our days and night paying attention. No matter what our age or station in life, we would be wise to commit ourselves to paying attention, and not just here in this place but wherever we go.
Nobody here has suggested that we cancel all our church programs and meetings for the coming year. Instead, we are inviting one another to take this next year to pay attention to God in prayer, to listen first as God speaks to us through scripture and then to respond with what God places on our hearts.
As we do this together I believe we can expect great things to happen. They already have begun to happen. Great changes are in store. Not that God will be changed. No, it will be we who are changed. God is already speaking to us. He has been for some time now. If only we, like Anna, would learn to pay attention.
I love the way an Episcopal priest named Robert Farrar Capon puts it. I’ll close with these words. He writes, “Prayer is not ‘going to God’ (he’s already in you), or ‘seeking God’ (he’s already found you), or ‘opening yourself to God’ (you couldn’t keep him out if you tried), or ‘becoming spiritual’ (he’s already sent you the Spirit — who would rather show you Jesus than help you display your spiritual prowess). And prayer is certainly not buttering God up with abject apologies for your existence – because in his Beloved Son, he already thinks you’re dandy. Prayer is just talking with Someone who’s already talking to you.”
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The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
- Read Luke 2:36-40. Listen. What do you notice?
- Who is somebody you know who has reached an advanced age but has done so with grace and vibrancy? What’s their “secret”?
- When hard things have happened to you in your life, have you allowed those hard things to make you bitter or better?
- Anna never left the temple and worshipped there constantly, fasting and praying all day long? In your opinion, was this a good use of her time?
- Charles Stanley once said, “If you want to accomplish anything of lasting value in life you will need to accomplish it on your knees.” To what extent do you agree or disagree?
- The Bible tells us that Jesus is alive and active in our world. How will we be able to recognize Jesus when we come across him (or when he comes across us)?
- It’s been said that we have three things to spend in life – time, money, and attention – and that the greatest of these is attention. What do you think is meant by this? Do you agree?
- The passage ends telling us that “the favor of God was upon Jesus.” Do you believe that the favor of God is upon you?
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Psalm 90 ~ Numbers 6:22-27
Tuesday: Psalm 8 ~ Ecclesiastes 3:9-14
Wednesday: Psalm 1 ~ Galatians 4:4-7
Thursday: Psalm 2 ~ Titus 2:11-14
Friday: Psalm 3 ~ Titus 3:4-7
Saturday: Psalm 4 ~ Hebrews 2:14-18
Sunday: Psalm 72 ~ Matthew 2:1-12
 Cited by Richard Foster, Prayer, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 25.
 Bible Dictionary, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, (San Francisco: Harpers, 1985), p. 1212.
 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Luke, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), p. 22.
 Ben Patterson, The Grand Essentials, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), p. 76.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), p. 68.