Not only does prayer begin with God, prayer also ends with God
Last week, we saw that three visitors came to Abraham there at his tent in the hot, arid land. It turns out that one of these three visitors was the Lord God himself, while the other two were angels.
God had reassured Abraham of the covenant God had made with him and reaffirmed that Abraham and Sarah would indeed have a son of their own—a son that would bring about a great nation from Abraham. To seal this covenant, God had changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah.
After the visit, the three “men” leave, going eastward toward the Jordon River valley, and Abraham goes on a ways with them. They soon come to a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea area. The two angels go on down toward the Jordan River and the city of Sodom. However, the Lord God remains with Abraham. Here, Abraham learns that Sodom & Gomorrah are to be destroyed.
Now, Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family were living in Sodom, and Abraham is understandably concerned. So, Abraham bargains with God for Sodom to be saved. He does this in the typical bargaining manner of the Middle East.
Abraham asks God, “What if you go to Sodom and find that there are fifty good men there. Will you destroy them along with those who are wicked?”
God responds, “No, if I find fifty good people, I will spare the city for the sake of those fifty.
“Well, what if they are only five good people short? Will you still destroy the city for the lack of five good people?”
“No,” God answered, “I will not destroy the city if I find forty-five good people.”
“Now, I know that I am only dust and ashes, and I do not deserve to ask,” Abraham pleads, “but will you destroy the city if you find only forty good people.”
“I will not destroy the city if I find forty good people there,” God replies.
The bargaining goes on like this from forty to thirty to twenty, and finally to ten, and God promises the not to destroy the city if he finds ten good people in Sodom.
Now, from this encounter, we can learn some important lessons about prayer. First, we notice that God initiates the conversation with Abraham. You see, prayer never begins with the human being. God is always the one who initiates. Prayer begins when God enlists the partnership of humans in carrying out God’s plans.
That is why Jesus said, “If you ask anything according to my will …” Unless we base our prayers on a promise, a warning, or conviction of God’s will, our prayers have no basis. The prayer of faith is acting on previous knowledge of what God wants.
Second, we need to understand that prayer continues out of human passions. Abraham could have let the angels go. However, there was something on his heart that he is compelled to bring to God.
Because Abraham has a close relationship with God, he recognizes because of God’s mercy, of God will not destroy the righteous. Now, Abraham is aware of his own status before God and asks in humility. However, Abraham prays for the protection of the “righteous in Sodom.” Because of his passion for those righteous people, particularly his own nephew, Abraham intercedes on their behalf.
The third thing we learn is that, not only does prayer begin with God, prayer also ends with God. The Bible tells us, “And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place” (Gen 18:33 RSV). It does not say, "And the Lord went his way when Abraham had finished speaking to him."
In other words, Abraham was not asking God to do something for him. Rather, it was God who prayed in Abraham and set the limits of the conversation. This agrees fully with what we read in the New Testament about prayer. In Romans Paul says, "For we do not know how to pray as we ought …but the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings which we cannot express, but which are nevertheless there in the heart," (cf, Rom 8: 26-27).
Now, admittedly, in talking about prayer, we are walking in mystery, but, through the fog, certain things are made clear from this account. We cannot reason this out, we cannot explain it, no circumstance will permit us to understand it, but the peace that rests at the heart of God, "will possess your hearts and minds," (cf, Phil 4:7b RSV). We can have assurance in that truth.
(The Rev. Al Henager is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Heber Springs, Arkansas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)