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Prayers at Christmas

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As I meditated again on the familiar Christmas story this year, I found myself drawn to two of the “other” people in the account furnished to us in the Gospel of Luke. Their names are Simeon and Anna, and they appear when the holy family arrives at the temple after the time of Mary’s purification. Mary and Joseph are there to present their firstborn son, with a dove as a sacrifice, to the Lord.

These two people do not seem to be related to Mary and Joseph or to one another. They appear separately and sequentially in Luke’s record and may not have even known the other existed. Both, however, recognize the child for who He is— the long awaited Messiah. And both, moved by the Holy Spirit, are led to utter words of prophecy and praise.

What intrigues me about these two mysterious individuals, who appear so fleetingly and then disappear, is that they underscore the hidden role that praying people always play in the great drama of salvation. The second of the seven core values of The Alliance states: “Prayer is the primary work of the people of God.”

Luke, more than any of the other gospel writers, notices people like this, and the theme of prayer and people who pray is consistently highlighted in both of his New Testament books. As you follow his narratives, he links the activity of prayer to nearly every significant event in the life of Jesus and the Early Church.

Simeon was clearly a man of prayer. He lived in the presence of the Holy Spirit (an interesting precursor of the “normal” Christian life after the day of Pentecost), and he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” the coming of the Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he arrived at the temple at exactly the right moment to encounter the newborn Savior.

Anna, the prophetess, “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying . . .” (Luke 2:37). She too arrives, through the leading of the Spirit, at just the right time to see the baby.

I do not pretend to understand the deep things of God. The mystery of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility intersect and interact without nullifying each other eludes me completely. I simply know (because the Bible says so) that both are true. God moves and no man can stay His hand. He ordains the times and the seasons, and He and He alone determined before the foundation of the world the “fullness of time” when Christ would come.

On the other hand, it is equally true that God ordains the human “means” by which His will is worked out in the affairs of men. It is also clear from Scripture that He uses the prayers of men and women of faith to “trigger” His divinely planned interventions in our world. Simeon and Anna remind us that there was a cadre of faithful saints fervently praying for the redemption of Israel. Their prayers were one of the things that God used to bring His Kingdom to the earth, and He rewarded their faithfulness by allowing them to see His Savior.

Christmas is nothing at all if it is not a reminder to us that ultimately we can do nothing to bring God’s Kingdom to the earth. That is the whole point of the Incarnation. Jesus had to come because we could not, with all of the best efforts of righteous men and women, do anything at all to effect our own salvation. And when we finally realize that we can do nothing for ourselves, the only thing left for us is to pray that God will do what we cannot!

No one in Jerusalem would have thought that Simeon and Anna were important people. But they were praying people. And from heaven’s perspective, that made them very important indeed—important enough to get mentioned in the Bible! Important enough to meet the Messiah!

I am very sure this Christmas that some of the most influential Christians on earth are almost totally unknown to the rest of us. It is because their work is the “hidden work” of prayer. No one sees what they are doing. In fact, from our vantage point, they do not seem to be doing anything at all! If anyone ever notices them, it is just for one fleeting moment; then, like Simeon and Anna, they are gone and forgotten—but not to God.

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