During Advent this year I have been working through a devotional resource called The Promised One published online by Christianity Today. The reading for Sunday, December 18 contained this line that has stayed with me, “Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story offers us perspective on our own seasons of waiting. We’re reminded that there’s no expiration date on our prayers.“
I have always found the inclusion of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s parents, in Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:5-24, 57-80) to be interesting. There are a couple of Old Testament prototypes that foreshadow their story. Abraham and Sarah, as well as Hannah come to mind. These too were folks who knew what it was to wait in prayer. The specific prayer they had on their hearts, like the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and many couples yet today; was the prayer for a baby. They longed to conceive and become parents, but were hindered in those efforts due to some cause of infertility. Scripture often pronounces it much more pointedly, stating but “Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” Have you ever noticed in these instances that it’s usually the woman who is blamed and named as barren? Just saying! Then, to add insult to injury, there’s that comment about their age! It reminds me of trips to the doctor in recent years when his response began “well, at your age”.
But let’s come back to the topic of prayer, and specifically prayer waiting. This line from the devotion, “there’s no expiration date on our prayers” is one that should offer every long suffering prayer warrior hope. Keep praying. Whatever it may be that you are praying about, keep praying.
What lies behind this admonition? Do we “keep praying” in the belief that our prayer will one day be answered as we hope? I’m not sure that’s the rationale. Yes, it worked out for Zechariah and Elizabeth in that their prayer for a baby was finally answered. But there are so many other couples who’ve struggled with infertility that have not had that prayer answered in the same way. So, the admonition to keep praying may not be because prayer will be answered in the way we’ve prescribed, but that prayer will be answered. Prayer will be answered in the way God determines. That may align with our hopes. God may be moved in that direction. But the prayer might also be answered in a different way, an unexpected way.
I suspect the admonition to “keep praying”, as a response to there being no expiration date on our prayers, is an acknowledgement that God’s time is so often not our time. This is where I lift up those Greek words for “time” that we’ve heard, or used, in a sermon: “chronos” and “kairos”. One word speaks to chronology, the sequential measurement of time, as with a calendar; the other speaks to the fullness of time, or God’s time and timing, as with perfect timing or the right time.
The answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer, after untold years of praying and maybe being on the verge of giving up, came in the fullness of time as the incarnation came about. Their unexpired prayer was in the ears and on the heart of God as other events aligned in a perfect timing kind of way. John would come as the forerunner of Christ, to prepare the way. The prayers of this faithful couple would come to fruition in ways they’d never imagined. Zechariahs’ temple discovery was that God hears prayers, and God has a long memory when it comes to those prayers.
This reminds me of an experience I had more than once in pastoral ministry alongside the prayers of a faithful spouse, most often a wife, who had spent a lifetime of marriage praying her husband would come to know the Lord. Day in and day out, Sunday in and Sunday out, those prayers were lifted up as she kept her daily practices of faith, and took the children to worship, seated alone without her mate. Perchance he would join her at Easter or Christmas, but there was no pretense of a new pattern, until for some reason there was. I can recall two such men, husbands both who had been prayed over faithfully by believing wives, and others they’d conscripted to pray, who finally gave their hearts to Christ and followed in a profession of faith through baptism. No one was more overjoyed than those faithful praying spouses! They had kept praying, believing that there is no expiration date on a prayer.
At Christmas I’ve often felt led to pray for our world, our nation, and other big items in a special way. I guess it harkens back to the angel’s announcement of “peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind”. This year’s Christmas prayer will include some oft repeated prayers of mine from the past year and years. I pray, for example, for peace in Europe, specifically for the people of Ukraine; but also for peace in Myanmar, and in Haiti and all other parts of the globe where war and violence reign. I pray for a more peaceful nation and homeland, where differences in opinion and outlook are not allowed to fester and divide, where statesmanship will again replace partisanship. I pray for migrant people, many on the move to flee violence, to find peace and know a better life. I pray for mercy from the lands where they go, the shores on which they arrive. I pray for health for all, and that we not weaponize or politicize efforts at healthcare, and that their be greater equity for all people to gain access to it. I pray for congregations to be united and at peace, working together in the cause of Christ’s kingdom. I pray for missionaries who take the good news next door, across the state, nation and globe. I pray for pastors who preach, counsel, guide and work among disciples of Jesus – may they be encouraged in their work, and renewed in their energy. And I pray for families who are apart, that they may be together in-person if possible, and through technology if not, or in spirit at the very least.
I pray these prayers, and invite you to add yours, in the conviction that all prayers are heard, and that no prayers have an expiration date. Merry Christmas. What are you waiting in prayer for this year?