Read Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17 here.
You’ve probably seen this photo before. You may even have a copy of it hanging somewhere in your house. It’s called “Grace.” I always thought it was a painting, but it’s a photo that Eric Enstrom took in his photography studio in Bovey, Minnesota in 1918. The world was a very different place back then.
- Woodrow Wilson was president.
- Moscow became the capital of Russia.
- In the Peanuts cartoon, the flying ace Snoopy chases the Red Baron. In 1918, the real Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, shot down a Canadian pilot over France.
- The armistice signed by the Allies and Germany comes into effect and World War I hostilities end at 11am, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
The man in this photo is Charles Wilden. He came into the photography studio that day selling shoe scrapers. He sold the rights to his image to Enstrom for $5. When this photo became famous Enstrom tried to find Wilden, but Enstrom and all the others who have tried since failed, and so very little is known about him.
It is a classic picture of prayer. Many of us were taught to pray with our hands in that same pose, clasped together. It’s a fitting posture for prayer because it conveys humility. It’s the posture of pleading, asking, bowing before majesty.
I often talk about how God is here with us. Isaiah 41:13 and Psalm 73:23 tell us God is holding our right hand. I sometimes remind myself of this by clenching my hand, but the posture in this photo is even better. In fact, my husband Rob tells me that his grandmother taught him to pray with his hands like this because it would remind him he was holding God’s hand.
Let’s try that. Clasp your hands. Close your eyes. Let’s pray.
Hi, God. Thank you for being here with us always. Thank you for listening to us. Thank you for all the ways you take care of us and speak to us. Thank you for the words in the Bible and for this beautiful world. Amen.
The idea that God is so up close and personal is amazing, especially since, as Isaiah reminds us here in chapter 43, it’s God who created us, and God who made the universe. I don’t know how that’s possible, but I know that it is.
On the one hand it’s so incredibly complicated that it’s unfathomable. And on the other hand, it’s really quite simple. It’s love. And that’s the most simple and straightforward answer to the question that is the title of today’s message.
Why pray? Because God loves us. Isaiah tells us that God says, “You are precious to me and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4)
When these words were written, horrible things were happening to the people of Israel. Armies had come from Babylon and wiped out Jerusalem and carried the people away as captives. Many had died. Those who remained were in a foreign land far from home, wondering if they would ever see home again. Isaiah had warned them that they needed to stop worshipping idols, stop treating one another badly, and turn back to God. Isaiah had warned them that there would be consequences for ignoring God, but they had also ignored Isaiah. But here in this part of Isaiah, the tone has changed. It reminds me of what happens after a child has been sent to their room as punishment for bad behavior. After a cooling off period, mom or dad will go in and remind the child that they still love them, and that punishment is only temporary.
Isaiah’s words in our reading are God’s reminder to Israel of their story.
- He says, “I created you and formed you,” using the same words we find in the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2.
- He says, “I called you by name,” using the same words we find in the story in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestles with God and God changes his name to Israel (Gen 32:28).
- He says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” as God was with them when they crossed the Red Sea in the Exodus story (Ex. 15) and when they crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land (Joshua 4).
- He says, “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned and the flames will not consume you.” We may think of that as figurative language, but in Daniel there is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three Israelites who were living in exile in Babylon, who got thrown into the fire as punishment for not worshipping the golden statue of the king.
24 But suddenly, Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in amazement and exclaimed to his advisers, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the furnace?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, we certainly did,” they replied.
25 “Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god!”
They were not burned or consumed, and there was Jesus with them in the fire (Daniel 3:16-28).
- Because through prayer we connect with the one who created the universe and created us, and who loves us and claims us, and has demonstrated his love by bringing us through water and bringing us through fire, and sending his son Jesus to redeem us.
- Because through prayer we connect with the power of God’s perfect love.
- Because through prayer we connect with the power to overcome our fear.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)
That’s why our memory verse for today is Isaiah 41:5, “Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
It’s an amazing promise. The Almighty Creator of the Universe right here with us holding our hands.
I really like this posture of clasped hands as a way to remember God is holding our hands. I also like it because it reminds us that although God does promise to help us, we still need to ask, and we need to ask humbly. If we don’t, we’re just assuming that God will do what we want, and you know what they say about assuming…
Has anyone ever taken something from you without asking? It’s basically stealing. Years ago I lost one of my favorite shirts. I went through the laundry and all my drawers, but I never found it. Then one day I saw my friend wearing my shirt. She’d helped herself to it. If she’d asked to borrow it or even to have it, I probably would have given it to her, but she never asked.
Why pray? Because we need to ask. We can’t just assume that God’s going to automatically do what we want. Sometimes he surprises us and does do that, but we still need to ask, and ask humbly. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. We can just say, “Hey God, help me.” “Hey God, I need you.” “Hey God, I need your Spirit.”
That’s what we see happening in the story we read from Acts 8. The good news about Jesus was beginning to spread, and the apostles heard that the people in Samaria had accepted Jesus, so they sent Peter and John to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Just the fact that they’re going to Samaria to pray for them is notable. Jews and Samarians didn’t get along too well, and they avoided each other. Jesus had demonstrated that it was time to be done with that when he told the story of the Good Samaritan helping the man laying on the side of the road. Now not only is it time to learn to be friends, it’s also time to pray for one another, and to go lay hands on them and pray for them to have the power of the Holy Spirit.
Do we have to ask for the Holy Spirit in order to have the Holy Spirit? It happens both here in Acts 8 in Samaria, and in Acts 19 in Ephesus. Scholars still debate this, but you may have noticed that whenever we take communion, we ask God to send the Holy Spirit into the bread and cup, and into us. Whenever we baptize someone, we ask God to pour out his Spirit upon us and upon the water, and we ask that the Holy Spirit would increase daily in the person we are baptizing.
James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.”
Jesus says in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and keep on asking.”
We started out our worship today asking God to pour his Holy Spirit upon us, and the benediction at the end of the service is a prayer that the Holy Spirit would fill us as we go with hope, joy and peace.
Why pray? Because we can have the power of the Holy Spirit of God, the almighty creator of the universe, working in us, and working through us. We simply have to ask.
Not sure what to ask?
Theologian Karl Barth said we should do theology with our Bibles in one hand and our newspapers in the other. We do that through prayer. Between the Bible and the news, there are plenty of things to ask God about.
In this picture of the man praying, I always thought the book on the table was a Bible. It turns out it’s actually a dictionary. That might seem funny, but I think it’s fitting. James 1:5 tells us to pray for wisdom.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)
When we’re trying to understand the Bible, ask God for wisdom.
When we’re trying to understand what we can do about what’s happening in the news, ask God for wisdom.
That’s exactly what God had encouraged Israel to do. In 1 Chronicles 4:17, God says, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land.”
Sometimes praying is really hard to do. Some days we aren’t feeling humble because we’re angry or disappointed or sad. We don’t know what to say to God because all we have are angry words or tears.
In the early years of our marriage, Rob and I argued quite a bit. Relationships go through seasons and that was our fighting season. Before we got married, we had gone to a weekend retreat for engaged couples. It was like Marriage Encounter, but it was Engaged Encounter. I don’t know if anyone still does those, but if they do I would recommend it because we learned a lot about each other. One thing they told us to do when we were fighting was to sit facing each other with our knees touching, and if we could manage it to hold hands. Have you ever tried this? It changes the tone of the argument. It’s really hard to be hurtful when you’re touching each other. It helps you remember that you love one another.
Maybe that’s another reason we have encouraged kids to pray with clasped hands, and why it helps to pray with other people while holding hands. It reminds us that this God to whom we’re praying loves us more than we can fully comprehend.
Because God loves us so much that he sent Jesus so that nothing could get in the way of being able to pray 24/7.
Because we never know how much our prayers might impact the world.
100 years ago a man walked into a photography studio selling shoe scrapers and became an example of prayer for generations.
Thanks be to God!
 Knox Preaching Guides: Isaiah, pg. 130
 Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Donald Bloesch in his book The Holy Spirit (pg. 310) says, “The outward rite or rites may have played a role in the mediation of the Spirit’s power, but it is the inward commitment that is most important.”
 Book of Common Worship, pgs 72, 411, et al
 See also Luke 18:1-8