In “preaching” class recently, a fellow student gave a message that was deeply moving and poignant. The text was Luke 1, the story of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist. She talked about how Zachariah had been chosen to burn incense on the altar in the Temple and pray. Then, an angel appeared and said “your prayers are answered.”
Then she asked “which prayers were being answered?” At the time, Zachariah was praying as part of a public ritual, he was not praying solely for himself. He must have done a double-take, thinking “Oh, THAT prayer!” when the Angel said “Elizabeth will have a son” instead of saying something like “the Messiah is coming and Israel will be restored.”
Zachariah was old, as was his wife. Would they have bothered talking about wanting a child to anyone, any more? Was that long-unanswered prayer one that they only thought-about in the dark hours of the night, when sleep could not find them, when (as my classmate said) they stared at the empty spot in the corner where they had once hoped a cradle, someday, would be?
These are the types of prayers that we hide and bury down deep because we can no longer bear saying them out loud. Was God answering a prayer that Zachariah had given up-on himself?
His response to Gabriel seems to indicate this was the case: “How will I know this for certain?” At this point in the sermon, a whole train of thought hit me: All those unanswered prayers of my own broke upon me, and I completely lost track of the rest of her message.
All of us can identify with Zachariah’s “hidden prayers” all too well. We have all spent many lonely nights, remembering those earnest prayers that never seem to have been answered. And yet here, those hopes were answered in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time: Zachariah was completely unprepared for it. What can his story teach us?
First, God’s timing is not ours. Zachariah had given up on his hidden prayers being fulfilled. There was no longer any reasonable expectation that they could be: Zachariah certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I when my own such prayers were answered.
Second, that God’s means of fulfilling those hidden and buried prayers is not ours. If someone, on July 9, 2005, had told me that my life would be anything like where I am today, I’d have (bitterly) laughed in their face: at the time I felt that all of my life’s prayers were beyond reach, any hope of attaining them gone forever. Yet, a day later, my feet were firmly on the path to the life I have now. Like Zachariah, the change was sudden, startling, and irrevocable. For me, the path forward was not clear, nor was there any certainity to it, but I knew that the path forward could only be far better than where I had been.
Third, that attaining the fulfillment of those hidden prayers is not easy – even once the door opens. There was a high cost, at least for me and Zachariah. Yet, I don’t think either of us would think about paying it all over again if we had to. For us, every step of that journey has been worth it. In Zachariah’s case, it was the birth of a son. For me, it has been a whole multitude of things, not the least of which is my wife, my new (and restored) family, and the opportunity to pursue the career that itself had been a hidden prayer for many years.
Finally, the journey is not done. The need for God’s grace and presence didn’t end with Zachariah’s naming his son “John”. Although we are not told the rest the story, I am certain that John’s walk towards becoming a Prophet was marked by unnumbered examples of God’s grace and guidance, and that his parents were on their knees frequently: thanking God and praying for their son. In my own case, a similar journey is one of several that are just beginning for me.
Other “hidden prayers” remain in my own life, as in all of our lives. For me, one unanswered prayer that I think about every day, if not several times a day, is seeing the relationship with my daughter healed and restored: a hidden hurt that has become all the more poignant for me, now that her brother’s birth is imminent. I pray that the gulf between us is somehow bridged, so that I can at least know that my constant prayers for her safety and happiness are being answered.
But, maybe those prayers aren’t as hidden and forgotten as we think: from Zachariah’s example, we know that those prayers are not hidden from God, and so that hope of their fulfillment never needs to die. But, we can also be sure that God will fulfill them in a way and time of His own choosing, not ours. So, I will also remember what Romans 8:6 teaches us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” If we focus on worldly means of achieving our prayers, as Zachariah and I did, those hopes will die. But, by staying focused on the inner witness of God’s Love for us, we will have peace even when all worldly hope is gone.
Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).