Summary: God delights in dependence which honors his superabundant sufficiency.
A little boy kneeled with his mother beside his bed to say his bedtime prayers: “Lord, bless mommy and daddy and baby Susie; and God, GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!” Amen.
Mom was surprised; Billy never prayed so loudly before. So she said, “You don’t need to yell, son; God’s not deaf.”
“Oh I know he’s not, mom. But Grandma’s in the next room and she’s definitely hard of hearing.”
As we enter the Christmas season, some of us may be yelling, either at God or grandma. So I thought we should spend one Sunday in our mini-series on prayer consider how to make sure God hears you. Proverbs 15.8 as our text. [Read Proverbs 15.8. Pray.]
In the 1930’s, Clarence Edward Noble Macartney, preaching at the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg, in a sermon entitled, “The Word That Conquers God,” said:
• What is the word that unites far separated souls around one common seat of mercy?
• What is the word that brings man’s storm-driven ship into the haven of safety and peace?
• What is the word that turns back the shadow of death on the face of life’s dial?
• What is the word that gives songs in the night and that lifts the load of guilt from the conscience-smitten heart?
• What is the word that puts a sword in our hand when we face temptation?
• What is the word that gives strength to bear our daily burdens?
• What is the word that lifts us up when we have fallen?
• What is the word that makes us co-workers in the Kingdom of God?
• What is the word which sets the captive free?
• What is the word that companions the soul in its hours of loneliness and that comforts it in the day of sorrow?
• What word sets a lamp of forgiveness and reconciliation in the window for the prodigal and the wanderer?
• What word makes the angels rejoice when they hear it on lips of a contrite sinner?
That mighty, all prevailing, God-conquering word is, ‘prayer.’ ‘The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.’” (Reprinted in Warren Wiersbe, Classic Sermons on Prayer, Kregel Publications, 1987).
Macartney quotes the Apostle James at the end of that moving testimony. James is eager to encourage prayer. Earlier, he tells us to pray when we are suffering and to pray when we are cheerful. And if we are sick, we should not only pray ourselves, we are to call the elders to prayer on our behalf. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (as a modern translation renders it). Or, in the old King James, “The effectual fervent prayer of righteous man availeth much.”
Then, after exhorting us to pray, and telling us that the prayer of a righteous person is effective, James’ next word is: “Elijah.” Those familiar with the Bible know that Elijah was a singular figure in the Old Testament. Elijah prayed and revived a dead boy. Elijah prayed fire down from heaven on the priests of Baal. Elijah survived forty days and nights on the strength of one meal. Elijah split the Jordan and crossed on dry ground. Elijah rode to heaven in a fiery chariot. And Elijah (with Moses) comforted Jesus at the transfiguration. He was an extraordinary man.
Now follow carefully the reasoning. First, we ought to pray (when ill or well, happy or sad). Second, the “prayer of a righteous person has great power.” Third, Elijah…. At this point, I expect James to say, “Elijah’s prayers were heard because he was so righteous, so holy, so different than I am.”
1) We ought to pray; 2) When holy men pray, God acts; 3) Elijah must have been extra-holy, for his prayers shook heaven and earth. Therefore, I conclude, my prayers fall flat because I am not upright enough. And that agrees with my “quick and dirty” interpretation of Proverbs 15.8. So I best get busy being better.
But James says something different. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth” (James 5.16b-17). Did you hear? Elijah had a nature like ours. In other words, each of us can pray as powerfully as Elijah. That is unexpected, but potentially very exciting.
Now the relationship between prayer and Elijah bears directly on our text: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him” (Proverbs 15.8).
I intuitively understand that Adolph Hitler could sacrifice a mountain of goats and give a million dollars to our building program, but to no avail. Hitler’s wickedness defiles even his acts of outward obedience so that they offend God — who (by the way) looks on the heart.