Summary: Can our prayers really change things? Is it possible to pray in a way that persuades God to act?
Please open your Bibles to Exodus 32.
We are in week three of a series on the power of prayer. We’ve adopted James 5:16 as our theme verse for the entire series— “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” So we’ve been talking each week about what makes prayer powerful. The first week we talked about how…
• We pray expectantly: Like we believe something is going to happen.
• We pray persistently: We keep praying until something happens.
And today we are going to add a third element to effective prayer.
• We pray persuasively : Like we believe what happens depends on our prayer.
And I will confess to you that this is the one that’s hardest for me to make sense of as a pastor/amateur theologian. If God is sovereign, how do our prayers change anything? If God has foreordained every detail of history, and if it all unfolds according to his plan and in accordance with his will, then what difference do our prayers make?
Not too many years ago there was a small southern town that voted in liquor by the drink. There was a lot of opposition. The townsfolk lined up on opposite sides of the issue. Those opposed waved signs that said “Say no to alcohol!” Those in favor waved signs that said “Say yes to restaurants!”
Well, not too long after the liquor by the drink bill passed, the first tavern opened up in this town. And the local church began to actively pray against it. “Lord, let this business fail!” “Lord, shut down this den of iniquity!” They kept at it for weeks. And one night, there was a terrible thunderstorm, and the tavern was struck by lightning, and it burned to the ground.
The church folk were shocked, but delighted. But the tavern owner was mad. And he sued. He contended that their prayers were responsible for the burning of the building. They denied the charge. They said, “Look at your insurance policy. It says, “act of God.” Our prayers had nothing to do with your bar burning down!”
So, at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the judge remarked, “Well, at this point I don’t know what my decision will be, but it seems obvious to me which side believes in the power of prayer and which side does not.”
Do things really happen as a result of our prayers? This is also one of those points of theology that can be so easily manipulated and abused. Can we, through our prayers, make God do something he wouldn’t otherwise do? Or stop God from doing something he was planning to do? Today’s Scripture passage seems to be saying that. But this morning I want to take a deep dive into this passage to help us understand what is really going on in this story. Let’s stand to honor the reading of God’s Word:
9 The Lord also said to Moses: “I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God: “Lord, why does your anger burn against your people you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out with an evil intent to kill them in the mountains and eliminate them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel—you swore to them by yourself and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.’” 14 So the Lord relented concerning the disaster he had said he would bring on his people.
One of the most confusing verses in the Bible, and the story around it:
And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
If you are using the New American Standard version, verse 14 probably gives you even more heartburn:
So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. (NASB)
This messes us up because we know Malachi 3:6 says, “I am the Lord, I do not change.” And Numbers 23:19 tells us “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” So what do we make of a verse that says, “The Lord changed His mind?”