Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fearful Prayers

There’s an interesting prayer in today’s Old Testamentlesson (Genesis 32:3-21). It’s the story of Jacob returning to his homeland across the Jordan. He had spent the last twenty years serving in the house of Laban, his kinsman, and now he was headed home. Knowing that his brother Esau had good reason to quarrel with him, Jacob sent messengers out to tell Esau he had come back with much property (hint, hint: I’ll share it with you if you welcome me peaceably), but the messengers returned saying that Esau was on his way and was bringing 400 men with him.

Uh oh. That sounds like a fight. So what does Jacob do? Well, several things—as we’ll see in tomorrow’s lesson. But the first thing he did was pray:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,' I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.'”

The prayer has a beautiful, human desperation to it. It follows an interesting back-and-forth of reminding God how he got in this mess and asking God to help him. “You told me to come here…so please don’t let him kill us…you gave me all this property…so please don’t let it go to waste…because you are the one who promised to take care of me”

If you go back and read the story of Jacob and Laban, you’ll see that they are stories of Jacob’s patient faithfulness and God’s supernatural vindication. Every time Laban tries to trick Jacob, God intervenes so that Jacob wins. The reader has sympathy for Jacob. Because of a wedding-chapel switcheroo, he’s been working for 20 years to get what he should have received far more quickly. And the reader has seen how God will provide for Jacob. And the only person who doesn’t seem to see it is Jacob.

Fear is a powerful thing. Jacob even names it in his prayer: “Deliver me, please…for I am afraid of him.” Fear. It robs you of what you really know. It makes you worry about things you have no reason to worry about. Whom is Jacob reassuring through his prayer: “O God…who said to me, ‘Return to your country…?’” God doesn’t need to be reminded of his promises the way we do. When my son says to me, “You promised to let me play with your cell phone,” he does so because I have forgotten. When I say to God, “Don’t forget your promise,” I do so because I am forgetting. Fear can wipe out faith. Prayer like this is a reminder that God is God. It helps nudge fear out so that faith can take hold again. It reminds us that we are on the path that God has given us. God is in control. God is faithful. I have nothing to fear. And prayer helps me see that.

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