The Prayer That Started Christmas

“And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah], standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” Luke 1:10-11 NIV

It is always a joy to revisit the Christmas Story. In reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and accompanying Old Testament Messianic prophecies, I never cease to be amazed at the treasure trove of spiritual insight and principles revealed therein. After forty years of ministry and multiple Christmas sermon series, I would estimate I have probably given over 100 messages focused on those Scriptures. One would think whatever could be said, has been said, but every year my heart is stirred afresh with some new perspective on God’s salvation gift to the world of His only begotten Son!

This year I have found myself viewing the nativity through the lens of prayer. (You may have noticed that is a common perspective from which I view many things these days.) What I have discovered underscores once again the imperative of prayer, both in our personal lives and in the unfolding of God’s purposes in the earth. John Wesley, great revivalist of the 18th century, once made a very provocative statement. I have yet to see anyone disprove it. “God does nothing but in answer to prayer!”

Not surprisingly, therefore, we need only look at the beginning of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, chapter one, to see that prayer was the catalyst that initiated God’s redemptive plan heralding the coming of Jesus.

It is remarkably significant that it was in the “prayer room” of the Temple, the Holy Place, during one of the twice daily times of offering incense and prayers that God chose to initiate His long awaited plan of salvation. It was there, as Zechariah was fulfilling his priestly duty to represent the nation of Israel in prayer that an angel of the Lord appeared to him announcing he would father a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

This practice of offering incense, both morning and evening, representing the prayers of Israel, had been instituted by God on Mount Sinai over 1400 years earlier (Exodus 25, 27). It always coincided with the burnt offering of a lamb on the brazen altar in the courtyard, from which coals were drawn to take into the Holy Place to burn the sacred incense. The incense was to be left burning continually throughout the day and night as a pleasing aroma to God and symbol of the prayers and intercession of God’s people. The Holy Place was the ante chamber to the Holy of Holies and separated from it by a veil. In the Holy Place was the golden altar of incense, the table of showbread, and golden lampstand which was to continually illuminate the room because it had no natural light.

It is critically important to understand the context of this ritual of prayer, in which Zechariah was a key participant, to fully appreciate the role of prayer in releasing God’s redemptive plans. It is as though the accumulation of centuries of prayers, for the coming of the long awaited Messiah, finally reached its tipping point. And in God’s fortuitous purposes it was on Zechariah’s watch that the overflow of Israel’s prayers offered as fragrant incense, at long last triggered God’s answer. The answer came in the promised conception of John the Baptist who would prepare the way of the Lord and God’s long awaited gift of salvation.

But, for a select few, the revelation of Jesus as God’s Messiah would not have to wait thirty years. Here again, prayer was the differentiator and it is Luke’s gospel which draws our attention to this fact. We see there that prayer not only releases God’s plans, but also reveals them. Luke concludes his Christmas account in chapter two with the story of two people who, because they were devoted to prayer, were given the great privilege of seeing and recognizing God’s Son, decades before He was revealed to the world. Their names are Simeon and Anna and their lifestyles of prayer are worth emulating. Both of these individuals loved being in the temple, God’s house of prayer. Both were focused on praying for the long awaited revealing of the one who would bring salvation. We are told Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” and “moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts” where he just happened to meet Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus (Luke 2:25 NIV). Anna’s prayer life is even more remarkable. She “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).

The underlying theme of the Christmas Story has always been that those who seek Him will find Him. It was true for the shepherds and true for the wise men. And it is decidedly true for all those, like Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna, who seek Him in prayer. Prayer’s greatest reward is being granted a personal revelation of Jesus Christ. This is true from Genesis to Revelation. It inspires me to seek Him with the earnestness of all those who have sought Him throughout history in the Word of God. I trust and hope it will do the same for you.

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