Some years ago a man in one of my previous parishes decided that he was going to read the Bible all the way through. Like many Anglicans he’d never really read the Bible for himself; he’d heard the readings in church on Sundays, but he only had a very vague idea about how it all fit together. He had a copy of the Good News Bible, which is a pretty easy translation to read, and he decided that last thing at night he’d read a few chapters and see how far he got.
I’m glad to report that he read through the whole thing over a period of about six months. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. When he was about half way through the Old Testament he and I were having coffee one day and I asked him how it was going. He said, “It’s not what I expected at all! I thought the Bible was going to be an inspiring and uplifting book, but it’s not! It’s full of people who fight and kill and commit adultery; it’s full of animals being slaughtered as sacrifices and so on. Am I supposed to see those people as a good example to follow? Because I really can’t!”
I know what he meant; the Bible is very honest about the sins and weaknesses of its heroes and heroines. If you think of the life of King David, there are stories of obedience to God and faithfulness and courage and all that, but there are also stories of disobedience and murder and adultery and abuse of power. Abraham is held up in the New Testament as the father of faith, but when we actually read his story in the book of Genesis we find his faith was often weak.
How could it be otherwise? The Bible is the story of God’s work through ordinary human beings, and human beings are a mixture of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God but also infected by sin; we do our best to create a good and just and beautiful world, but it seems inevitably to fall short of our dreams for it. I’m reminded of Francis Spufford’s definition of ‘sin’ as our ‘Human Propensity to F____ Things Up’! This is the material God has to work with, folks; yes, he rejoices in our gifts and strengths, but he often has to make allowances for our weakness and sinfulness as well.
In today’s Old Testament reading we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, who are the grandchildren of Abraham. Some of you will remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait until their old age to have a child. God first spoke to Abraham when he was seventy-five years old, promising this childless couple that they would be the ancestors of a great nation. But it was twenty-five years before the promise was fulfilled, and Sarah gave birth to the miracle child, Isaac. This miracle motif comes up again and again in the Genesis story. In today’s story, we read that ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). The same thing happens in the next generation: Isaac’s son Jacob has several wives, but his favourite is Rachel. However, for many years she seems unable to have children, until finally the Lord hears her prayer and gives her the gift of a son, Joseph, who turns out to be the saviour of the whole family when the great famine comes upon the land.
Why is there this constant theme of barrenness followed by what seems like miraculous conception? What are the authors of Genesis trying to get across to us? I believe they’re trying to tell us that the creation of this family – which will become God’s people Israel – isn’t merely a story of human expertise and strength; it’s the story of God’s miraculous intervention into the history of the world. The world is going nowhere; like the womb of Rebekah, it’s barren. God created a world full of wonder, but human history has been poisoned by sin, and if we read the first few chapters of Genesis we can see sin in all its darkness and horror. If the world is going to be saved, it needs something more than human expertise and wisdom; it needs a miraculous act of God to begin to put things right again.
So what does God do? He doesn’t perform an act of judgement like the flood, or send a great military victory. What he does is to create a new community, a people who will learn his ways so they can be a light for the nations. In later years they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, but that never meant that God was only concerned for them and not the nations around them. No – God’s original promise to Abraham said, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).
You and I stand in continuity with that promise today. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come from the family of Abraham, and his gospel message has gone out to the whole world; the blessing promised to Abraham has spread through all the earth, just as God promised. And God has called the Church to carry on the work of spreading the light and love of God everywhere we go. As we love others in the name of Jesus and as we spread the gospel and invite others to follow Jesus, we’re taking our place in that great plan of God that started nearly four thousand years ago when wrinkled old Sarah had a baby and called him Isaac.
But sometimes that work seems to hit a roadblock. Sometimes churches seem to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. Sometimes we get focussed inward on our own survival or our own life, and don’t look outward in love to the world that God wants to bless through us. Sometimes we forget that the church is always only one generation from extinction; we forget the call to go out and make new disciples and we come up with all sorts of sophisticated reasons why evangelism is not such a good idea after all. Sometimes we get absorbed in the creation of beautiful buildings and splendid liturgies and forget that Jesus told us to serve him in the poor and needy. And sometimes churches are consumed by conflict – conflict in denominations, or at the local level between flawed and imperfect human beings who bring their insecurities and power struggles into the church with them.
What do we do when we hit a roadblock like this? Well, the leaders lead, the managers manage, the visionaries share their visions, the facilitators facilitate, and so it goes on. Dioceses send in consultants, and consultants help churches come up with plans, and committees set goals and objectives, and off we go. And let me hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with any of this.
Unfortunately, though, we sometimes forget what Isaac did when he and his wife Rebekah ran into the roadblock of childlessness. Genesis tells us simply, ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren’ (25:21a). This story is told in a very simple and straightforward way. It doesn’t say that Isaac went through a complicated liturgy, offering a thousand rams and a thousand lambs in sacrifice to God, like some of the later Israelite kings did. It sounds more like a child coming to her mom and saying, “Mom, can I have a piece of cake?” And Mom replies, “Of course you can! I’ll get one for you right now”.
Not that this prayer was answered quickly. This little detail in the text often gets overlooked, but Isaac prayed this prayer for quite a while. Verse 20 tells us that he was forty when he married Rebekah (we’re not told how old she was), and verse 26 says that he was sixty when Esau and Jacob where born. Given the probability of a couple of years of trying before he started praying the prayer, that’s still eighteen years of praying and not giving up. I’m reminded of the time in Luke’s gospel when Jesus told his disciples the story of the widow and the unjust judge; Luke says this parable was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). And this is what Isaac did, for around eighteen years.
And by the way, Isaac wasn’t exactly a spiritual superstar. He comes across in the book of Genesis as a quiet man who is easily manipulated by his clever wife; later on in the next chapter she devises a plan to make sure that the younger son Jacob, who is her favourite, gets the paternal blessing from Isaac rather than his favourite, Esau, the older son. I get the sense that she knew her husband well, and she knew how to mould him to do what she wanted. And also in the next chapter we find Isaac doing exactly what his father Abraham had done; going to live in a foreign country for a while in a time of famine, being afraid that the locals would kill him and steal his wife, and so asking her to pretend she was his sister so this wouldn’t happen. So this isn’t a spiritual superstar we’re talking about here; this is just Isaac, who prefers a quiet life and enjoys taking his older boy out trout fishing on Saturday afternoons!
This is the sort of thing my friend came up against when he was reading the Bible through for the first time; this was what scandalised him so much. To be quite frank, in the Bible God doesn’t seem to be picky about whose prayers he hears!
Let me remind you of some of the people whose prayers got answered in the Bible: Moses, who killed an Egyptian and buried his body in the sand to try to hide the crime. David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and then had the soldier killed so that he could take Bathsheba for himself. Solomon, a king who apparently had seven hundred wives. Nehemiah, who when he got mad at people didn’t just yell at them, but beat them and pulled out their hair. Paul, who before his conversion worked hard to stamp out the church by having Christians arrested and executed, and who even after his conversion doesn’t always seem to have been a particularly pleasant guy to be around.
So don’t think you have to be some sort of spiritual hero in order to pray and have your prayers answered. The prayers of the Bible aren’t the prayers of spiritual heroes; they’re the prayers of ordinary human beings like us, and some of them are definitely not nice people – if you doubt that, read some of the psalms! If God only heard the prayers of spiritual heroes, no one’s prayers would ever be heard.
So here’s the people of God in microcosm – the little family of Isaac and Rebekah. They believe God has called them to be part of the family line of his chosen people, but at the moment their future isn’t going anywhere, and so they do the best possible thing they could in the circumstance: they pray. Now let me ask you – do we do that?
What is the place of prayer in our life as a congregation? When we read the stories of the early church, it seems as if prayer was at the centre of everything they did. And I’m not just talking about formal, liturgical prayer – the sort of thing we do on Sunday mornings. I’m thinking about the day of Pentecost, when they had been meeting for long periods of prayer together over a ten-day period, and then the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the explosive growth of the early church began. I’m thinking about the times in the early chapters of Acts when they were being hauled before the ruling council and reprimanded for preaching the message of Jesus – and sometimes whipped as well. Their first response when they got home afterwards? Prayer together. I’m thinking about Acts 13, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the early church, when Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch to spread the gospel in what is now Turkey. How did it begin? When they were meeting together for a long period of prayer and fasting, and somehow the Holy Spirit spoke to them: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
Prayer isn’t just about getting what we want from God. Of course, in Isaac and Rebekah’s case, that’s exactly what it was about: having the children they longed for. But prayer isn’t a slot machine and it’s not magic; it’s more about aligning ourselves with God’s will than it is bending God’s will to our own. The main benefit of prayer is that it draws us closer to the God who made us and who longs for us to know him better. And when we pray together – honest prayer, that is – it draws us closer to each other as well.
When I was the minister of the Church of the Resurrection in Holman in the high Arctic, we planned an evangelistic mission for our parish. We invited Terry Buckle, who twenty years before had been the minister in Holman, to come back and lead the mission. We planned evangelistic services every night of the week, and meetings in people’s homes during the day. We really wanted people in the community to hear the gospel message through Terry and give their lives to Christ.
But Terry said we should pray, so we did. We decided to have a prayer meeting on Friday mornings at 7.30 a.m. When I first announced this in church, one of the men said to me afterwards, ‘You meant 7.30 p.m., right?’ ‘Nope – early in the morning!’ So for six months we met every Friday morning to pray, usually about five or six of us. Officially, we were praying about the mission, but when people get together to pray you can’t keep them on topic, and before long all sorts of other stuff was being prayed about. When the week of the mission finally arrived we decided to pray every morning, but we moved it to ten o’clock which was coffee break time in Holman; people walked over to the church for half an hour, and each day about twenty people gathered there to pray.
The mission was great and people’s lives were touched, but the really great thing was that after it was over the people said, “We can’t stop this praying!” And so they decided to keep meeting at 10.00 on Friday mornings, and when I left Holman that prayer meeting was still going on. It was one of the most fruitful things we did in all the time I was in that community.
Prayer is really important for a Christian church, and as we think about our growth as a parish and our ministry plan, I hope we will look for more opportunities to grow in prayer and to pray together. I think this should be our first priority.
But prayer is also important for us as individuals. Sometimes as individuals we hit barren times in our lives, when all the joy seems to have drained away and nothing seems to be working out the way we want it to. At times like that, it can make a huge difference to turn to God and pray.
Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual superstar to do this. Very few people in the Bible were spiritual superstars; they were just ordinary flawed human beings like you and me. And you don’t have to pray particularly long prayers, either. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, which is a very short prayer! Sometimes the best thing to do is just to get alone with God and spend time in silence, paying attention to his presence and his still, small voice in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be very very simple. And if it seems hard at first, remember that we all had to start somewhere, and the universal testimony of Christians is that practice helps! And also remember what we said earlier on: Isaac prayed this prayer for a long time. Perseverance – patience – faithfulness for the long haul – what Eugene Peterson calls ‘A long obedience in the same direction’ – this is incredibly important. As Luke says in his gospel, we need ‘to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).
‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21).
Are we ready to learn from Isaac’s example?