Last week we started a series we are calling “Align.” To align means to bring something into the correct position. As our lives have a lot of moving parts, it is easy for something to get out of alignment. If alignment is not addressed, it can lead to disaster. To help, each of the seven weeks of this series, we are offering a diagnostic question to help you evaluate your alignment, and the alignment of our church as well, to ensure your life is operating to its intended potential.
Last week, our question was: “Who or what is the object of your affections?” We were digging to see what you love, because what you love becomes your first priority. Your life will be oriented by your longings and directed by your desires. At the end of the day, you will resemble what you revere. What do you resemble? What is your top priority? What are you orienting your life around? Or—“Who or what is the object of your affections?”
We offered Jesus as a worthy object of our affections based on what we discovered in Matthew 16:13-20—“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Now, let’s turn to our 2nd diagnostic question. It pertains to prayer. I’ll give you the question and then vent a bit about my struggle with prayer. “Are you confident that God will answer?” If you’re not confident, why bother? If you are confident, why would you stop?
As a church this year, we have been through the:
40 Day Prayer Challenge
21 Day Prayer Experience
Both of those seasons of focused prayer have changed my perspective on prayer in regards to its purpose and power. It’s not that I didn’t pray or wouldn’t pray before the 40 or 21 Days of prayer…it was just how it felt to me. It was more “duty” than “delight.” You’re the “holy man” it’s your responsibility to pray. When we point at you—pray!
I believe that God is mighty to save from sin. Supremely confident…that He is sovereign, faithful, and in control. But on other matters, matters of personal prayer, I was less confident…I had questions and doubts. How much or how big or how often before it became annoying to God? For example, I prayed…
That some post-stroke symptoms would go away—they haven’t.
That a friend would be healed—he wasn’t.
While it didn’t totally shake my confidence in God, it shook my confidence in prayer. But that’s just my prayers, and me I’m actually more confident in your prayers! Today I want to look at a story that captures a bit of how I felt about prayer. Here is are going to find out what persistent prayer looks like.
The Persistent Prayer Prays Through The Silence (21-24)
Matthew 15:21—And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
We pick up the story with Jesus withdrawing from Galilee toward Tyre and Sidon less than 50 miles to the north. These were major Hellenistic cities. It is there He has three encounters with a Canaanite woman with some problems. The Canaanites were a cultured race that went back to 3000 B. C. They are credited with the first known alphabet, along with the Egyptians. Tyre and Sidon were trading centers from which they would travel far and wide.
Matthew 15:22—And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”
This is a startling development in that women or Gentiles (non Jewish) would normally not approach Jesus. And yet, here she was… crying out or shouting at Jesus. She was loud, agitated, and speaking in an excitable way. The tense used implies that she kept shouting. She was persistent. Have mercy on me—take pity on me!
It is startling again how she addressed Jesus. Lord—she acknowledged His greatness. Did she understand Him to be Lord of all creation? Son of David—Did she understand who He was? Did she understand His connection from the line of David? She seems to have some sense of whom she is addressing. But her request is not about her. She makes a request on behalf of her daughter. We are not given her age, only that she is in trouble.
My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon—dire situation, she is “terribly ill,” or suffering in illness. She is demon possessed or wicked possessed. The mother is clear; the daughter is in a bad way. Demon possession makes it awkward. It seems that the demon is using whatever the illness to further torture the child. So, the daughter is not well and the mother is desperate—so she cries out to Jesus. And…
Matthew 15:23a—But he did not answer her a word.
Nothing. Silence! Have you ever cried out to God in desperation and felt that your prayers barely reached the ceiling? That God wasn’t listening? That God didn’t care? This is a serious situation and Jesus does not respond. He doesn’t offer to help out at all! In fact, He seems to be ignoring her altogether! In that culture, perhaps this was understandable to some extent. After all, she did represent everything that was reprehensible about the Gentiles to the Jews.
But you have to wonder, understanding how Jesus typically responds to anyone asking for help, if something else is going on here. Perhaps instead of rejecting her, He is testing her…stretching her faith. How do you respond to the seemingly silence from God? When the pain and timing are not working out as you imagine? For the mother, it looks like she doubles down. She keeps on asking and keeps on pressing. So much so that it makes Jesus’ disciples uncomfortable.
Matthew 15:23b—And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.
Here is appears that the disciples have no compassion for those hurting. This lady is a nuisance and a bother. Jesus just needs to send her packing…and soon, this is getting embarrassing! She is hounding us to death! Then, Jesus finally speaks.
Matthew 15:24—He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
At first it seems like Jesus is complying with the disciples’ request. He seems disinclined to acquiesce to her request. He seems to be saying, “You’re not my mission.” “You’re not my project.” “You’re not my problem.” So, sorry, not sorry. Wow! Makes you question the whole “Jesus love the little children” song. Because this doesn’t feel like “love.” What is happening here?
What do you do when you hit a wall in your prayer life? Just stop or keep on going? Some of us, most of us, certainly would say we need to pray more. But what about something you have been praying for, for a while and you haven’t experienced the changed or results or answers you hoped for? Look at the mother. If she double-downed before, she is about to triple-down now.
The Persistent Prayer Prays Through the Angst (25-26)
Matthew 15:25—But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
In her angst, she persists and come to Jesus in humility—bowing and begging. She is interceding for her daughter. Her posture is one of worship. Again, she is displaying desperation. She is at the end of herself and her resources.
Matthew 15:26—And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus seems to respond in a gruff, even rude manner. Perhaps even antagonistic. Jesus is talking about the redemptive-historical priority of the nation of Israel in His mission—The Jews come first. He is saying, “I can’t take away or deprive what is rightfully theirs.” It would be an injustice to deny the children food. Children are the helpless members of the family and it is the responsibility of the older members to ensure that they are feed.
Dogs—Did Jesus call her a dog? Here He is referring to house pets. How do you typically respond to being insulted? Would that end the relationship or would you persist and fight for the relationship? Watch what this lady does.
The Persistent Prayer Prays Through The Doubts (27-28)
Matthew 15:27—She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
The woman doggedly persists. She even, in humility, accepts the lower status to the Jews. She adapts Jesus’ metaphor and is willing to take the “crumbs.” She asks for Jesus’ mercy and begs as a dog might beg for table scraps. Are you willing to persist through seemingly rebuffs from Jesus in your prayer?
Matthew 15:28—Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Great is your faith! What a complement. The lady clearly has an understanding of who Jesus is—His power and identity. She persisted. She was relentless, maybe even annoying in her persistence. But it paid off; her request is granted. Note the importance of her faith and the immediacy of the healing of her daughter. It would be easy to say: “Worry and nag God until you get what you want.” It would be easy to say: “Muscle up enough faith to get what you want.” Both of those statements miss the mark. “It not the amount of your faith, but the object of your faith that makes the difference.” To whom are you praying—asking, seeking, and knocking—in your search for mercy and help? Only if God is the target, through Jesus, will this become a true statement.
“Persistent Prayer Makes The Impossible, Possible.”
Helen Roseveare was a medical missionary who served as a doctor for 20 years in the Congo. She tells this story. She worked one night to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of her and her team’s efforts she died leaving a tiny premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter. They faced a challenge to keep the new born alive as they had no incubator, much less electricity to run the incubator. Though they were located on the equator, the nights could get chilly and drafty. One midwife went to collect the box and cotton wool they had for such babies and another went to stoke up the fire and fill the hot water bottle. The latter returned to report that their last water bottle had burst. With no stores to run to they had to make do. One of the midwives put the baby between her and the fire with the charge to keep the baby warm.
The next day Dr. Roseveare went to have prayer with some of the orphanage children. There she explained the situation regarding the newborn baby. Then during their prayer time, one ten-year-old girl prayed a rather blunt prayer. “Please, God send us a water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon.” While Helen gasped at the audacity of the prayer…the girl added, “And while You are about it, would You please send a doll for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?”
Helen was thinking what we often think when it comes to prayer…our prayers. I know God can, I’m just not sure that He will. There are limits to what He will do…right? Helen had been in Africa for almost 4 years and had never received a package. If somebody did send her a package, why would they include a hot water bottle? She is living on the Equator!
Halfway through the afternoon, while teaching in the nurses’ training school, Helen received word that there was a car at her front door. By the time she got there the car was gone, but on her verandah was a large package. She sent for the orphanage children to help her open the package. All eyes were on her as you pulled out various items. Excitement was building. She put her had in again and felt…could it be? She pulled out a brand-new, rubber hot-water bottle! She cried…she hadn’t asked for it…she didn’t even think He could or would. While she was having her moment, the little girl who offered the prayer rushed forward and said, “If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the doll, too!” Helen put her hand back in the box and rummaged around a bit and pulled out a little doll!
If prayer can make the impossible, possible—what can persistent prayer do? There is more to the story. Listen to this.
In order for that package to arrive on that day, it had to have been sent months prior, five months prior! Helen’s former Sunday School Class heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a water bottle, even to the Equator![i]
Get your mind around that. Before the prayer was prayed, God was working to answer it! Do you believe God will answer your prayer? Do you truly believe in the power of prayer, that it will make a difference?
Often, we are:
Confused about the purpose of prayer
We tend to think that prayer is the path to getting something or accomplishing a greater work. Oswald Chambers writes, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater works; prayer is the greater work.”[ii] Will you put in the work? Prayer connects us to our Creator, even when He doesn’t answer the way we envisioned.
Tim Keller writes that He will answer us: “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything He knew.”[iii] Prayer is not about getting stuff from God, though we will. It’s about getting God Himself!
Confused about the power of prayer
I heard this story told that is supposedly true. The Anglo-Saxons were invading and attacking the Welsh. The Anglo-Saxon were pagan and the Welsh were Christian. The Anglo-Saxon King came to a high ridge to look over the Welsh army. He noticed one group of men off to the side that did not have any weapons. That was odd to him so he called over a captain. He asked the captain about the weaponless group off to the side. He was told that they were the Welsh Monks that would come and pray to God for the army’s success. The King said, “Oh, in the morning attack them first.” He wasn’t stupid, He knew more about the power of prayer that you or I.[iv]
This is what I’m learning about prayer. In fact, John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, sums it up in another old hymn that he wrote.
“You are coming to a king—
Large petitions with you bring,
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.”[v]
Pray big and bold. Pray consistently and persistently. “Prayer makes the impossible possible.” Imagine if you got serious about prayer. Imagine if you became a relentless, persistent prayer.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV) Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
What are you asking for that only God can answer? What are you asking for that will fail big time without the help of God? Let’s be persistent prayers!
This sermon was originally preached at Connect Church on May 10, 2018.
[i] Dave Earley, The 21 Most Effective Prayers of the Bible (Uhrichsville, OH, Barbour Books, 2005), 75-78. [ii] Ibid., 135. [iii] Tim Keller, Prayer (New York: Dutton, 2014), 228. [iv] Tim Keller from a Catalyst video accessed May 2018. [v] John Newton hymn, Come My Soul, with Every Care.