“And an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 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 will give him the name John” (Luke 1:11-13).
They’ve been waiting. They’ve been remembering. They’ve been preparing. And now they are expecting.
But let’s be honest, this wasn’t expected (hence Lk. 1:18-20). Even though it was an answer to prayer (cf. Lk. 1:13), it wasn’t one of those prayers you really expect God to answer, like a ‘traveling mercies’ prayer, or that wildly daring one about food being miraculously transformed into “the nourishment of our bodies.” This was a specific prayer. That’s the kind of prayer that leads to trouble, because as soon as you start asking God for specific things to happen, especially things that don’t ordinarily happen, you then run the risk of God specifically saying no. Specific prayers are fighting prayers.
Keeping our prayers generic helps us preserve a professional distance. Nobody’s personal space is violated. Nobody has to expect much from anyone. Praying for God’s will to be done in Elizabeth’s life is one thing, but praying that God would put a baby into Elizabeth’s barren womb is quite another. The answer—yes or no—is empirically verifiable. Everyone’s personal space is violated, God’s, Elizabeth’s, and the one standing in the gap between them trying to build a bridge between heaven and earth. Prayer like that has no social boundaries. That’s why most of us don’t pray like that. We’d rather just agree to live parallel lives and avoid the discomfort that often comes at the intersection.
God answers prayer. God does not answer prayer. Both statements are true.
Word it however you want to try to soften it or stick up for God—“God answers every prayer, just in ways we don’t understand”—but that does no good. That’s just an excuse to never look God in the eye. Sometimes God’s response is precisely no response. Sometimes the Truth is revealed in the eyes of Silence. Just ask Pilate (cf. Jn. 18:38).
Nor is it true that if a prayer hasn’t been answered the problem is the faith of the praying person. The problem is that God didn’t answer the prayer. The only thing worse than people who smear every prayer into an enigmatic “yes” are those who lie about the unambiguous “nos.” I’ve heard people talk about prayer as something that only needs to be “claimed,” as though God had no say in the matter, as though God were not a living and active and real Person, as though God were not free. I’ve even heard people lie about God answering prayer. I’ve seen ministries based on that lie. Those ministries are not about God acting. They are about people acting like they are gods. They are about people reaching up into heaven’s treasury and grabbing whatever the hell they want—if only their faith is tall enough. But human faith gets little larger than a mustard tree. And sometimes God doesn’t answer prayer. People who say God answers every prayer are people who have never prayed.
But Zechariah prayed. And he prayed at the intersection. That’s where my mother prays too. Zechariah prayed for a son to be born who could not be born. Elizabeth was barren. My mother prayed for a son to be found who was irreversibly lost. No enigmatic yesses were possible. God would answer her prayer or God would not. And for at least twelve years, from the volatile ages of 10 to 22, he did not.
I was recently preparing on a sermon about the way people are led to faith through the faith of others (cf Mk. 2:1-11), so I texted my mother (because that’s what sons do when they need something from their mothers—they text them) and asked her what it was like “when your family was going to hell in a hand basket. Please email response.” Below is an excerpt from her response:
Subject line (all caps): “NEVER CONSIDERED FOR ONE SECOND ‘TO HELL IN A HAND BASKET’” (reprimanding tone noted).
…I knew God wanted you more than I did. So, while I was extremely concerned, sad, and experienced many sleepless nights, I never really landed on the thought you would be lost. My prayer life deepened so much during that time to the point of wordless groanings and moanings too deep to be uttered (Rom. 8). But I knew God was faithful…
The curious thing about my mother’s unanswered prayers is that they did not have a distancing effect but a deepening effect. With each unanswered prayer she dug down deeper into God’s heart, so as to say, “Fine. Then I’m moving in—and I’m bringing all my burdens and my baggage with me. And I’ve got A LIST of names!” Her prayer moved from trusting to entrusting. She stormed into the heart of God and drug my name with her day after day after day. I tried my hardest to go to hell, my mom just wouldn’t let me.
I once heard my father in-law say, “Even when you don’t see the hand of God, you can always trust the heart of God.” The only people who say things like that are people who actually pray, because they know the hand of God has a mind of its own. But ordinarily a person’s heart can only be seen through their hands, for hands are expressions of the heart. But this or that answer to prayer can never communicate the depths of God’s heart. And it may threaten to bring us only to look for God’s hand.
That’s what happened to the Exodus generation. They starting out “groaning” into God’s heart (Exod. 2:23-25) and quickly ended up “grumbling” at God’s hand (Exod. 16). They cried out for freedom and God “brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Dt. 26:8). But rather than being drawn closer to God’s heart they got addicted to his hand. After he gave them freedom from Egypt they began to turn on him because he wouldn’t give them food from Egypt. They had apparently forgotten the cost of “the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing” (Num. 11:5)–it was the cost of freedom. Pharaoh wanted to keep meat on those temple-building bones.
So God reserves only one place his hands can forever be called the perfect expression of his heart (Jn. 1:18). It’s the one place he commands everyone to look to see his heart right through the center of his red-stained hands (Rom. 5:8). It’s at the intersection, where the Jesus Christ built the only lasting bridge between heaven and earth. That’s where God prays (Lk. 23:34).
Daily prayer, then, is intended to draw us closer to the cross. The cross is like a tuning fork for our prayers. A tuning fork is tuned to only one key. It will vibrate if it gets close enough to something else vibrating in the same key. This is called resonance. St. Augustine once said, “You have made me for yourself, O Lord, and my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” He was talking about resonance.
Whether it knows it or not, the human heart is trembling in its longing for a gracious God. That trembling feels like fear, and it should, if in fact God is God and we have sinned against him. And, in fact, he is and we have. That revelation can change the way to think about your next breath. For it is indeed “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:35).
But we have fallen into his hands. And we tremble, in Jonathan Edwards words, as “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” We don’t expect to find any resonance with his angry hands—until we discover that all that anger was poured out on the crime and not the criminal, that God executed his judgment on sin by himself being executed at the hands of sinners. And in so doing, he condemned the sin, not the sinner, so he could continue hating our sin and loving us (cf. Rom. 8:1-4). This is called grace. You might just call it Amazing Grace. It’s how God restores harmony with the godless. So the restless heart finds rest when it finds resonance, not when it ceases to tremble. A heart that does not tremble before the living God has not discovered amazing grace but cheap grace, which is not the grace of a Crucified God.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
God has one Word to so say to this world, and he wrapped It in swaddling flesh to say it (Jn. 1:14-17). In so doing, that enfleshed Word became receptive to God on our behalf. In Christ, we are tuned to the key of God. But this is not a new note. It was just hard to hear the heart of God before Jesus came. But David heard it. David’s salvation didn’t come by asking God “into his heart.” It came by storming his way into God’s heart. David took up residence there. Where else could he go? The Law condemned him. But God didn’t. That’s why you can hear the Gospel resounding before it even sounded in Psalm 51. Resonance.
God uses prayer to bring us close enough to himself that our hearts get in tune with his, because that’s how he changes our hearts. A gracious God wants above all to form a gracious people. How else is a world of sinners going to find hope? So he shakes the grace into us. In time, it is the life of prayer itself that proves God is gracious and can thus be trusted with everything, even and especially with our sin, with sinners. He’s a God who found a place for sinners right at the center of his heart, held in the holes of his hands. We come to know God’s heart when we resolve to bury ourselves inside it, baggage and names in tow. Over time, prayer, even unanswered prayer, becomes our sanctuary from the dread of circumstance, even the circumstance we are asking God to change. Even when the answer is no, even if I am being marched to the sepulcher, even when the sun forebears to shine—Even so…Amen.
But then, one day, God answers—because God does answer prayer—and the circumstances are changed. Zechariah’s world is changed. Elizabeth is expecting. And frankly, he’d stopped expecting it. Zechariah will have to reframe. But that’s tomorrow’s word.
For now, amen.