Sometimes God’s answer to prayer is us.
My brothers and I grew up in the 1970s. Saturday mornings were for cartoons of fantastical places and magical powers (and the occasional monster-puppet.) Typically, some distraught character would cry out for help and in the blink of an eye, a superhero of some sort would appear and rescue the person, often saving the world at the same time. Usually the superhero had a sidekick of lesser powers as support or foil. Now and then, however, a team made up of complementary powers was required. Such was the story of the Wonder Twins.
Zan and Jayna were alien twins who, individually were smart and observant humanoids, but when they bumped fists they could morph into other forms: Zan into any form of water and Jayna into any animal. All they had to do was call out, “Wonder Twins Power: Activate!” Looking back, most of the time the forms they chose were ridiculous (an octopus and an ice-unicycle?), but suspension of reality was part of the superhero game.
What do alien twins have to do with prayer? Honestly, nothing, but the catchphrase echoed in my mind after a sentence from my pastor in a recent sermon: “When we pray, God activates people” (Cook, 07/24/2022). Activate = when the power of God works in and through ordinary-looking people.
Under both the old and new covenants, God promised to hear those who call on His name. Over and over in the Old Testament, God said he will hear the prayers of His people and respond to their pleas with His presence. Sometimes God provided words of prophecy as an answer to prayer: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known” (Jeremiah 33:3). Other times God responded to prayer with a physical sign, like when Elijah faced off against the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18. The priests of Baal prayed to their god, and there was no answer, but when Elijah called on the Lord Most High, “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones as the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”
It’s not that God wouldn’t or couldn’t work out his will unless people prayed, but God desires communion with us. He doesn’t need us the way the Wonder Twins need each other, but he wants us to experience his powerful and amazing grace by his working through us to minister to others. God moved many times in miracles throughout the history of the Hebrews. He created dry ground in the middle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), confused the armies of Midian (Judges 7), and even made the sun stand still (Joshua 7). Most of the time, however, God raised up ordinary and flawed people to act as answers to prayer.
Moses, for example. Moses should have perished with all the other baby boys born to Hebrew women under Egyptian slavery, but instead he was raised in the palace, nursed by his own mother (who was paid for the service), and given a place of honor. He forfeited that role and found himself working as a shepherd in Midian. Forty years passed as Moses learned the value of humility and the skills of managing large flocks of stubborn animals.
When the Pharoah died, the people cried out to God for rescue from slavery and “God heard their groaning” (Exodus 2). From God’s call through a burning bush through 40 years in the wilderness, God used Moses to lead His flock of stubborn people. The miraculous was part of the journey: manna to eat, quail for meat, water from rocks, and guidance by the presence of God in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. These were indeed miraculous events, but as time progressed, it was Moses to whom the mantle of leadership fell so heavily that his father-in-law intervened with some God-given, yet unsolicited advice.
Jethro was a priest of Midian who was delighted to see how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had used Moses to lead the people out of slavery. He submitted to the authority of Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) and then watched as Moses tried to solve all the problems brought to him. Jethro understood that God does not want his people to work alone, but rather as part of a community and a system wherein each person plays a part. Jethro told Moses to delegate the work of judging disputes to “men who fear God, trustworthy men” (Exodus 18:21), saying that these wise judges would share the load and bring peace among the people.
The people prayed and God used Moses (flawed human) to bring the people out of Egypt; he used Jethro (both flawed human and non-Hebrew) to explain the importance of sharing the burden of leadership, and he used capable (yet still flawed humans) for administration and judgement over the massive community. Moses may have been imperfect, but he is considered the most important prophet across every modern Abrahamic religion.
So consider Nehemiah. Not as famous as Moses, but someone perhaps like many of us: trying to maintain a spiritual life in a decidedly secular culture. Somewhere around 600 B.C. the last of Judah’s kings fell to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. The great promised land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had fallen to enemies over about 150 years. The kings rejected the God of their fathers and the people took to worshipping idols. The kingdom split after King Solomon’s reign into North (Israel) and South (Judah). Israel was fully conquered first by the Assyrians in about 722 B.C. Judah survived longer because there were a few righteous kings, the last of which was Josiah (2 Kings 17-25). About a decade after Josiah’s death the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the people were taken into exile as slaves (2 Chronicles 36:15-21). For the next 70 years, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the walls became desolate wastelands.
During that time, the some of the captured Israelites became valuable members of the royal family. Nehemiah was one of these, trusted enough to be the king’s cupbearer. For years, the righteous people among the exiles prayed for restoration of the Temple and Jerusalem. Persian king, Cyrus was the first to answer the prayers. Ezra 1 notes, “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrun king of Persia” (Ezra 1). God didn’t magically restore the people to their land. Instead, he used a pagan king to open the path to return. Not only did he allow people to return, but he paid them to go and reestablish the city. Not everyone went, however. The people of the tribes Judah and Benjamin, along with the Levites, were stirred up by God to go rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
When the priests saw the ruins, they were despondent; they remembered the glory of the Temple. It took 25 years to rebuild a form of the Temple, but the city remained in ruins. About 50 years later, Nehemiah‘s part of the answered prayers began. Nehemiah got word that Jerusalem lay in ruins, and his heart broke. He wept and mourned and prayed that God would forgive the sins of the people and restore them to the holy land of their fathers. As the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, he was a familiar presence in the palace. The king noticed Nehemiah’s sadness and asked him about it. Nehemiah, afraid of what the king might do to him, managed to tell him about the ruins of Jerusalem. The king himself proved to be the answer to the prayer, for he asked Nehemiah what the wanted and sent him to examine the walls of the city for himself, pledging to pay for its restoration. Long story short (or 100 years of history in a few words), the people rebuilt the walls under Nehemiah’s instruction and the king’s provision.
Nehemiah was an ordinary man who prayed. A lot. He listened to God, envisioned a plan, created a strategy, used his position to benefit others, adapted when challenged, and persevered through opposition. God knew before Nehemiah rose to a position of prominence in a pagan culture exactly how Nehemiah’s skills would meet the needs of the community and when Nehemiah prayed, God activated him, moving the heart of the king to provide the resources. The same God also moved in the spirits of pagan kings Darius and Cyrus to release enslaved people and send them to rebuild conquered Jerusalem. The work was hard and often slow, but God spoke through his prophets and ensured the people with the necessary skills had hearts moved to participate.
In the New Testament, Paul often reminded the church that each person has a gift to be used to promote the gospel, saying, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12). He wrote that he would send teachers and helpers in response to the needs and prayers of the scattered churches (2 Corinthians 9). He specifically wrote to Titus, telling him, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remains into order” (Titus 1). He interceded for runaway slave Onesimus, saying, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and me” (Philemon). The book of Hebrews includes a list of people, ordinary, flawed human beings, whom God called to do His work (Hebrews 11).
Time and time again, God stirred up the spirits of ordinary, flawed people in answer to fervent prayers. He still does. As Pastor Jason preached, “When we pray, God activates people.” People like us: flawed and insecure, but willing to do whatever God calls us to. We must step out in faith that God has indeed activated us in response to the fervent effectual prayers of those who need what we are equipped to provide. It’s better than a holy fist bump because the Lord of Creation is the source of the power to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Grace puts needs and skills together in a way so that only the Lord, the Elohim, is glorified.
Holy Spirit power: ACTIVATE