“Ask and You Will Receive”
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which evangelist D.L. Moody’s church was destroyed, he decided to take a trip to England as a sort of educational sabbatical while the new sanctuary was being built. He wanted to learn from some of his British counterparts in ministry.
Although he wasn’t looking for preaching opportunities, a fellow minister asked if he’d speak one Sunday at a church in London and Moody accepted the invitation. That Sunday morning, however, was a very discouraging experience for him. The entire service felt ice cold and it was obvious to him that the congregation was spiritually dead. They were stone-faced and visibly bored with the message--and in turn, Moody was utterly disheartened. Unfortunately, however, he was already committed to returning to speak at the evening service, too.
Yet, to his great amazement, the spiritual atmosphere of the evening service was completely different. The Spirit was stirring the hearts of the congregation as Moody spoke, and this time they were listening intently to every word. Moody knew he hadn’t done anything different to account for the change, and he was at a loss to understand what had happened.
When he finished preaching what had been an anointed sermon, he asked all who would like to become Christians to rise so he could pray for them. Hundreds of people stood all throughout the sanctuary. Moody looked at them in astonishment and asked them to be seated again, thinking they’d misunderstood what he was asking of them. He then explained about the cost of becoming a disciple.
After that explanation, he once again asked those who wanted to follow Christ to stand. Again, several hundred people stood. Still dumbfounded, Moody asked those who were serious about their decision to meet with the pastor the next evening. But the host minister was no more equipped to deal with the response than Moody. “What will I do with these people?” he asked. “I don’t know what to do with them.”
Meanwhile, Moody followed through on his plans to travel to Dublin that Monday. But Tuesday morning he received a telegram urging his return to London as soon as possible. “Come at once,” it read. “Church packed.” There had been even more inquiries on Monday than Sunday evening. Moody immediately returned and subsequently held meetings there over the next ten days, during which time 400 people were taken into the membership of that church. (This was just the beginning of a dramatic series of revival services Moody held throughout England during that trip.)
Only later was the source of this sudden and unexpected revival discovered. There were two sisters living together who belonged to that congregation. One was healthy and active, but the other suffered from a debilitating disease and had been confined to her bed for several years. One day, as she was bemoaning her condition, she realized that she could still pray. So she began praying night and day for God to revive her dead congregation. For a long time, nothing changed: the church remained lifeless, just as Moody had found it.
During this time, however, she also read a copy of an evangelistic sermon Moody had preached in America, and on that basis she began praying earnestly for God to send him to her church, even as unlikely as that seemed.
It so happened that when her sister returned from the morning service that Sunday when Moody first preached, she asked, “Who do you think spoke this morning?” When her sister was unable to guess after several tries, she was told, “Mister Moody, from America.”
Upon hearing that news, she turned pale and said, “I know what that means! I’ve been praying he would come, and God has heard my prayer. I would have fasted if I had known. Please leave me alone to pray. I don’t want any visitors, or any supper. I must pray.”
Her nearly two year of prayers were the reason Moody had come, and the source of the power behind his preaching in her church that night. Moody himself had known there was a hidden spiritual power at work that evening, and when he learned about this he sought her out on her sickbed to meet her personally.
Prayer is our special connection to God and his power. In Tennyson’s famous words, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” I’ve long believed that praying grandmothers are one of the most important forces for good in the world, and I shudder to think what life would be like without them. (I also think that would be a great name for a Christian band: “The Praying Grandmothers.”)
The Gideons receive thousands of testimonies every day from their distribution of the Bible around the world, with accounts of lives being saved and changed by the powerful truth of the Word of God. We only see their outward ministry, but most people don’t know that they meet for prayer every Saturday morning, faithfully calling on the power and blessing of God to anoint their work--and he does.
Billy Graham would famously attribute the success of his Crusades to three things: “Prayer, Prayer and Prayer.” His team would organize ministers and their churches to support those evangelistic events with very intentional prayer campaigns for over a year in advance of his coming--and he knew that was the secret power behind the phenomenal success of his ministry. I’ve also read and heard that anyone who ever prayed with Billy Graham would afterward speak of the very evident spiritual depth of his intimacy with God.
Hear these words from Jesus concerning prayer: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
“Ask and it will be given to you” is one of the most important promises in all of Scripture. The specific tense in the Greek means “Ask, and keep asking; seek, and keep seeking; knock, and keep knocking.” In other words, be faithful and persistent. The answers won’t necessarily come quickly or easily, like the young woman’s prayers in our story, or in the Parable of the Persistent Widow.
But we also need to believe in our prayers, to trust that they’re being heard, and that God honors them. “For everyone who keeps asking, receives; and those who keep seeking, find; and to the one who keeps knocking, the door will be opened.” That’s a very clear promise for us to trust in, while remembering that God’s thoughts are different from ours, and his ways higher than ours, as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:8,9). So we can’t dictate when or how God will answer our prayers; we can only trust that he will, in his own good will and time, as we pray with anticipation of his faithfulness. Our prayers matter greatly, and God honors them.
I’m sure many of you will remember the sniper shootings around Washington, DC back in 2002. You may not know the whole story, however, of how prayer played a vital part in bringing that horror to an end.
One day during the three-week long reign of terror, about fifty Christian truckers met for prayer and prayed fervently that somehow the sniper would be caught before he struck again. One of the truckers was an older man named Ron Lantz, who was planning to retire just a few days later. As they prayed, Ron felt sure that God would answer their prayers. And in fact, he felt that conviction so strongly that he told the others praying with him that he believed God was going to use him to catch the sniper.
A few days later, while driving along an interstate in the DC area listening to the radio, Ron felt compelled to pull into a rest area. As he did, he was shocked to see a car fitting the description of one that was identified on the radio in connection with the shootings. They were even reading off the license plate number as he was looking at it: God’s perfect timing.
A chill came over him as the plate numbers matched. He immediately called 911 and remained there for the longest 15 minutes of his life until the police arrived. During that time, however, he also pulled his 18-wheeler across the rest area exit to bar any escape. And, as you might remember, the two snipers were caught while sleeping and arrested without any further violence. Again, God hears and honors our prayers--not always so dramatically, but faithfully.
Jesus also puts prayer in the context of our relationship with God, saying that if even we as sinful human beings give our children what they ask for, how much more will God, our Father in heaven, bless his children with good gifts?
The gift of prayer should be personal for us. This isn’t just an abstract concept, but it’s the expression of a very relational, heart-to-heart connection. God wants to bless us as we come to him in prayer, especially because he’s our loving Father.
A seminary professor named Herbert Jacson tells of how, when he began life as a new missionary, he was assigned a car that wouldn’t start without a push. Consequently, he always asked for the help of some school children near his home--or, as he made his rounds, he tried to park on a hill or would sometimes simply have to leave his car running. He used this technique for two years, and he was secretly proud of himself for figuring out how to make it work.
When health issues eventually forced him to leave that assignment, a new missionary was assigned to relieve him. As Jackson began explaining about how he’d need to park on hills or have help being pushed to start the engine, the missionary casually looked under the hood and saw a loose cable. After tightening it, he got in and turned the ignition. The engine immediately came to life.
Two years of unnecessary trouble had become routine for Jackson, but the power was there all the time. Only a loose connection had kept him from putting it to work. That became a lifelong spiritual lesson for him, and a favorite story he later passed on to his students to illustrate the difference prayer makes. The power of God is always available to us, but we can make it all so much harder when we try to make things work without it.
Prayer--persevering, believing, heartfelt prayer, is a game-changer. Simply put, “prayer changes things.” It changes us, our lives and the world through the power of God’s faithful love.
So let’s take God at his word and pray faithfully, believing that our heavenly Father cares and that he honors our heart’s desires.