Day 2: The Power of Prayer
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
This [prayer] is a true, gracious, lasting disposition of the soul which is united and fastened into the will of our Lord by the sweet, secret work of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord Himself is the first receiver of our prayer, as I see it, and takes it most thankfully. Rejoicing greatly in it, He sends it up above and sets it in among His treasure, where it shall never perish. It is there, before God with all His holy ones, continually being received and continually assisting our needs. And when we shall enter into our bliss, it shall be given to us as a degree of joy, with his endless thanks so full of honor. Our Lord is most glad and delighted with our prayer. He looks for it, and He wills to have it, for with His grace He makes us like Himself in condition as we are in nature. This is His blessed will.
Julian of Norwich (d. 1416), Revelation of Divine Love
O God, heavenly Father, you are angry with those that sin against you, but you spare those who are penitent: we ask you to hear the prayers and petitions of your people that call upon you, that we, who most justly deserve the scourges of your anger, may, by your great mercy, be delivered from the same, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.[i]
Old Testament Lesson
This story about King Hezekiah, one of Judah’s most effective rulers, has usually been understood as a paradigmatic example of the power of prayer from a righteous person. In contrast to its parallel passage in 2 Kings 20, our author takes pains to emphasize Hezekiah’s strong character and piety as key factors in God’s favorable response to his petition. God’s positive response stands in distinction to Hezekiah’s father Ahaz, who was a mediocre king (Isa 7), and the violent death of the Assyrian king Sennacherib that immediately precedes this passage (Isa 37.38). Yet, in a surprise, not only does God extend mercy to Hezekiah because of his faithfulness, but he also promises to deliver the city (Jerusalem) despite its consistent unfaithfulness. Thus the mercy of God toward sinners is clearly on display in this passage.
1In those days, Hezekiah became sick unto death and the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, came and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Put your affairs in order since you are about to die and you will not recover.’” 2Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall and prayed to the LORD. 3And he said, “Please, LORD, remember when I went to and fro before you faithfully with an undivided heart and did good in your sight!” Then Hezekiah wept bitterly.
4Next the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, 5”Go, tell Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, God of your forefather David, I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold I will add fifteen years to your life and I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the King of Assyria and I will defend this city.’”
New Testament Lesson
A centurion was a relatively low-ranking officer in the Roman army with about a hundred men (more or less) under his care. On the surface, he should have received a cool reception from Jesus. He was a Gentile, while Jesus was a Jew. The centurion was a man of war, while Jesus was a man of peace. His refusal of Jesus’ offer to come to his house likely stems from the prohibition on Gentiles entering Jewish homes. Yet, Jesus extolls the centurion as a paragon of faith, going so far as to predict that the “sons of the kingdom” (his fellow Jews) would reject Him while the Gentiles (represented by the centurion) would accept Him and sit down with the great patriarchs in heaven. Thus the spiritual life is not about labels and appearances but the quality of our faith.
5Next, when Jesus entered into Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6and saying, “Sir, my servant is lying at the house paralyzed and in torment.” 7And Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” 8But the centurion answered and said, “Sir, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but just say a word and my servant will be healed. 9For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go’ and he goes and to another, ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10When Jesus heard it, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such faith among anyone in Israel. I say to you that many from east to west will come and will dine with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the sons of the kingdom will be cast into outer darkness. There, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go, let it be for you according to your faith.” And his servant was healed at that hour.
Questions for Reflection
- If the prophet Isaiah were to come to you in the next hour and tell you to put your affairs in order because you’re about die, how would you feel? Could you pass away with peace, knowing that you are in harmony with God, your family and your neighbors?
- If God added fifteen more years to your life unexpectedly and you could live them out with health and no financial worries, how would you use them? What prevents you from living that way now?
- If Jesus met you by the road today, would he be amazed at the quality of your faith? Why or why not? How could you improve this?
- What do you make of Jesus’ unqualified statement at the end of the passage on the reality of eternal punishment for those who refuse him? Hell did not appear to be a metaphor for Jesus in this passage. What is it for you?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Commenting on the centurion in a homily, St. Augustine said the following:
When the Lord promises to go to the centurion’s house to heal his servant, the centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word and my servant will be healed.’ By viewing himself as unworthy, he showed himself worthy for Christ to come not merely into his house but also into his heart. He would not have said this with such great faith and humility if he had not already welcomed in his heart the One who came into his house (Sermon 62.1).[ii]
Our passages today follow on from yesterday’s invitation to experience Lent with fasting, repentance, worship, almsgiving, confession and humility. Today, we begin our journey with weighty examples of the power of sanctified lives. Prayers get answered; leadership is effective; goodness comes into the world. In a sense, our passages show us the way our world ought to be.
But our texts are not naïve. This is hardly the way things usually are. Leaders disappoint us. Sicknesses bedevil us. Setbacks consume us. Financial worries distract us. This is the human condition.
In our texts today, we catch both Hezekiah and the centurion at their best moments. They express courage, fortitude and great faith. We see how God has penetrated deeply into their hearts. Unlike so many, both immediately recognize the power of God and respond appropriately to harness that power in their lives and in their communities.
The results are stunning. Even Jesus is amazed. Healing comes to an entire city in Hezekiah’s case. Healing comes to a servant in agony in the centurion’s house. This is the power of grace at work – God’s power freely working for the betterment of people’s lives in relationship with him.
But the reality is that no one – not even the paragons of righteousness we read about today – can stay on that mountaintop. We’re all still stuck in the dark valley below because sin pulls us off the mountain, out of a relationship with God.
This is why we so desperately need Lent. Lent is not about super-human acts of denial or fantastic demonstrations of piety. Lent is about telling the truth for once about ourselves and about the quality of our relationship with God. And the truth sometimes hurts. As we often say when we confess our sins, “we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”[iii] Once again, we find ourselves in need of repentance.
As Hezekiah shows, if we want to see God at work, we desperately need holiness. We desperately need to end our separation from God so that his power can work in and through us.
When William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was asked by Queen Victoria what the secret of his remarkable success in ministry was, he replied simply, “I guess the reason is because God has all there is of me.”[iv] Is this true for you as well?
God created you, loves you and thus wants all of you. Life is too short to settle for lukewarm Christian faith. God is offering you a relationship with him. Will you answer yes?
- Spiritual Discipline: Examen Prayer
This classic tool in Jesuit spirituality derives from the Latin word “Examen” which means “the apparatus or process of weighing, balance.”[v] At the end of the day, review your day hour by hour, asking God to show you both how you fell short and also how you joined with him throughout the day. Resolve to become more aware of God’s presence in every moment of your life.
Make a list of five things you’re grateful for. Repeat this every day during Lent. See if you don’t find yourself in a more positive state by Easter.
[i] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary (Long Island, NY: Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation, 1998), 429.
[ii] Augustine, Sermons, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 6, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers 1 (Peabody, MA: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009), 12.1, 298.
[iii] The Book of Common Prayer, 62–63.
[iv] Quoted in Fred M. Barlow, Profiles in Evangelism (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 2000), 32.
[v] P. G. W. Glare, ed., “Examen,” Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 693.