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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Statute of Limitations

In many countries certain crimes have limitation periods, after which their perpetrators can be assured they will not be prosecuted for their misconduct. The practice goes all the way back to classical Greece prior to 400 B.C. For Athenians, every illegal act except homicide set a five-year clock ticking, at which point the guilty man or woman could heave a sigh of relief and move on to mulling over the potential legal fallout from more recent sins.

Likewise, for obvious reasons my insurance company does not want to be inundated with claims for covered losses that occurred Way Back When. So if you rear-end me at a traffic light on my way to work later today, I have precisely 365 days to initiate a claim, after which I will have a pretty tough time collecting anything to which I might otherwise have been entitled under the terms of my insurance agreement.

Prayer is not like that. It has no statute of limitations.

What Prayer?

Consider the case of Zechariah, senior citizen and soon-to-be dad to John the Baptist. An angel appears to him while the old priest is engaged in temple service and informs him, “Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”

Zechariah’s gut reaction: “What prayer?”

Okay, he probably knew what prayer, but my guess is that Zechariah had stopped praying it decades back. He was old. His wife was, as her husband slightly more delicately phrased it, “advanced in years”. The angel who announced the birth of Christ to Mary is a little more candid, telling her that her cousin has conceived “in her old age”. My personal favorite is the King James rendering “well stricken in years”. It’s a translation of the same Greek word Luke uses to describe Anna the prophetess, who was at least eighty-four.

That’s old. Probably Elizabeth was not quite THAT old, but it’s abundantly clear she was well past any expectation of the ability to conceive.

Faith Runs Out of Gas

So you can imagine exactly how it had gone with Zechariah. You know how it is: we people of little faith eventually run out of gas. As a devout Jew living in a day when being childless was considered more than a little embarrassing, it was probably a daily exercise throughout his twenties and thirties to get before the Lord on his knees and implore heaven for a son and heir (particularly since his wife would have been acutely concerned about the problem, and most husbands know how life at home tends to be when your wife is unhappy). Let’s just say young Zechariah was probably both zealous and persistent in prayer.

But well into his forties? Probably not so much. Maybe once a week or once a month, and probably without the urgency of youth. By then both he and Elizabeth had likely accepted their lot as a childless couple. And in his fifties? Come on: if he prayed for a child once in his fifties I’d be surprised.

But prayer does not have a statute of limitations.

Limited and Unlimited

Limitation periods exist because human beings have our own practical limitations. My insurance company has limitations: it doesn’t want to try to keep track of possible liabilities about which it has no knowledge. And the law considers its position reasonable: that hypothetical number is just too big.

Lawyers and judges and juries and witnesses have limitations. Memories fade. Physical evidence gets lost or damaged. Crime scenes go undocumented. The chances of justice being done when decades have passed are vastly diminished.

God is not limited like that. All things are possible with God. His memory doesn’t fade. The things you asked him twenty or thirty years ago are no less important to him than the things you ask him today. He does not forget the prayers of his saints; in fact, he compares them to golden bowls of incense. Your prayers matter, even if you are not currently seeing the response you’d like to see.

The Right Time

Zechariah got an answer to his prayer, and he was rebuked by the angel “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

Not Zechariah’s time. Not Elizabeth’s time. Not the ordinary, logical, sensible, expected time.

Their time. God’s time. The right time.

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