praying handsI’ve finished a hospital visit with a person who is about to undergo one more medical test in a series, and I say, “Joe, would you like me to pray for you?” I’m on the phone with a person whose family is facing difficult times. When I ask, “Is there anything else we can do?” I hear the reply, “Just say a prayer for us.” After a weeknight meeting during which we’ve discussed important and even critical issues, the last person out the door says, “John, I want you to know that I pray for you every day.”

The kind of prayer to which each of these conversations refers is described in theological language as a prayer of “intercession.” The New Testament word translated as intercession is enteuxis, which carries a strong connotation of both meeting and speaking, a face-to-face conversation. When used as a description of prayer, intercession means a meeting with God to speak about an important issue, often on behalf of someone who is in a weak or vulnerable position.

The Bible contains many examples of intercessory prayer.

  • The 18th chapter of Genesis records Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Sodom. Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
  • In the 32nd chapter of Exodus, Moses prays: Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.
  • The 9th chapter of Daniel, from which Joy read a few moments ago, reflects a lengthy and passionate prayer of intercession by Daniel for his people.
  • The letters of Paul often record a prayer of intercession.
    • In Romans, Paul says, For God … is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.
    • To the Philippians, he writes, And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
    • Jesus, in his ministry, prays for children, for the sick, and for his enemies. The 17th chapter of John is an extended prayer in which Jesus prays not only for his contemporary disciples, but also for us, saying, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

When these ancient figures prayed to God, there is no doubt that they believed such prayers made a difference.

  • To Abraham’s prayer about Sodom, God responded, For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.
  • As a result of Moses’ prayer, scripture records, And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
  • According to the New Testament, when Jesus and Peter and Paul offered prayers of intercession, the results often were often dramatically miraculous.

We contemporary Christians face some challenges to the practice of intercessory prayer.

The first challenge is one we share with Christians through the ages: How do we explain prayers of intercession that seem to go unanswered?  In another sermon, you might remember, I described the answers to prayer in four rhyming categories: no, slow, grow, and go. If God is really Lord of the universe, and not our projection of a cosmic personal servant, then we have to accept that some answers to prayer will be negative, or require more time than we’d like, or require growth on our part, as well as be answered immediately in the affirmative. But I think we all understand the sadness and disappointment of prayers that are not answered as we would like, and the way such sadness and disappointment leads some to believe that intercessory prayer is ineffective.

Contemporary Christians also face challenges to the practice of intercessory prayer that are related to our growing philosophical sophistication and scientific training.  We ask questions like, “Why does a good God who is omniscient, knowing all the needs of people, and omnipotent, possessing all power to help them, need us to pray for them?” “If intercessory prayer works, then how does it work?” These are difficult questions to answer, and there are Christian writers who have written books addressing them better than I can as your resident grassroots theologian.

One way that I might begin to answer those questions is by reminding you that God has chosen to make us social creatures. Often, we are able to accomplish far more as a community than we could alone. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When, in intercessory prayer, we are reminded of God’s intentions for the wholeness of creation and the healing of its many pieces, there is a kind of alignment taking place between God’s purposes and our purposes.  God’s will becomes a group’s will. As we pray for God to help someone, we can’t help but become more open to being God’s agent in the helping process. And, in ways that defy rational explanation, intercessory prayer often displays power to open a channel for a person or community to receive graceful gifts that God intended all along.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  You are remembering an instance in your life when you desperately wanted God to respond to a prayer that seemed to go unanswered.  Perhaps it was for the healing of someone you loved deeply, or for a peaceful resolution to trouble in your family or a group to which you belonged.  Your thoughts are my thoughts: I’ve prayed for people to be healed who have died, for peace in families and groups that remained troubled.

When I wonder about the effectiveness of those intercessory prayers, I remember the story of a pastor, who confided, “I’m not sure that prayer makes any difference.”[1] Her church held prayer vigils during a time of international crisis, yet war was waged anyway. She was called to pray repeatedly for a woman with cancer, yet the woman died anyway.

The pastor was asked, “What did praying for the international crisis do for you and your church? Did anything result from your praying for the person with cancer?”  She reflected that praying for the international crisis had at least helped some people find Iraq on the map, and become sensitive to problems in that part of the world.  And praying for the woman with cancer had promoted a good deal of caring toward the family, which was still going on.

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays.”  The pastor slowly came to realize the truth of Kierkegaard’s statement. No matter that certain things do not change “out there,” prayer changes something “in here.” Prayer changes the one praying.

Those of us who have followed God’s call into full-time Christian ministry like to hear other people pray.  We like to hear elders pray because we know prayer is an important part of their role in the church.  We like to hear members pray because, frankly, we get tired of hearing ourselves pray, and it can be very encouraging to hear someone else in a conversation with God.  But we also like to hear you pray because we know how important it is for your personal growth in faith and Christian discipleship.

Your pastor will pray for you many times.  Yet, Jesus invites you to pray too, for there are ways in which you will never change, never improve, and never grow, until you pray for yourself.  Jesus invites you to practice the discipline of prayer, because prayer changes the one praying.

[1] Kent I. Groff, Active Spirituality: a Guide for Seekers and Ministers, Washington, D.C., Alban Institute Books, 1993, p. 91.


~ by JohnH1962 on September 8, 2013.

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