In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The young man, a recent graduate of a noted theological college, was introduced to an Orthodox bishop as a theologian. “A theologian?” the bishop asked. He continued, “In the entire history of the Church only three men have been honored as theologians: John the Apostle and elder who received the Revelation of Jesus Christ; Gregory of Nazianzus; and Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022). How blessed I am to meet the fourth in my lifetime!”
I feel for that young man. Of course, he was a theologian in the common way we in the West use the term: someone who has completed an academic program in theology and who makes a living thinking and writing and teaching about God — an academic theologian. But the Orthodox Church views matters differently, as the bishop in the story made pointedly clear. A theologian is one who has seen God — who has experienced the beatific vision — and has been enlightened by being in the presence of God. Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century monk, ascetic, and teacher whose life intersected those of such Christian luminaries as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Macarius of Egypt, and John Cassian said it this way: A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian. Prayer, in this sense, meant true, unmediated communion with God.
I am no theologian in either meaning of word. I have neither completed a thorough, academic theological program of study, nor have I seen a vision of God, save in the face of Jesus Christ. That means I cannot speak to the matter at hand this morning as a theologian. But I must speak to it as a priest and pastor. Even more importantly, I must speak to it as one who prays, as one who lives and breathes the great mystery of prayer with all others who pray as well.
Mother Teresa said this — among many other things — about prayer:
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
C. S. Lewis wrote:
“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
I want to be fair to these, my betters, my forebears in the faith. Prayer certainly does change us; it does form the one praying. In this they were correct. But, is it true to say that this is all prayer does? Is it true to say prayer doesn’t change things, doesn’t change God, but only changes me?
Ask these questions to academic theologians and you’ll get a lot of big words thrown in your direction, immutability among them. In its strongest form, divine immutability insists that God does not, and indeed, cannot, change. This is from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
God doesn’t change by coming to be or ceasing to be; by gaining or losing qualities; by any quantitative growth or diminishment; by learning or forgetting anything; by starting or stopping willing what he wills; or in any other way that requires going from being one way to being another (https://iep.utm.edu/div-immu/, accessed 10/27/2020).
It is certainly true that God’s nature, God’s character is immutable; God does not change in his essence, in his very being. God says, through the prophet Malachi:
“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal 3:6).
And James writes:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
So, with the theologians and the Fathers of the Church, let me affirm God’s immutability: the changelessness of his being and character. And yet. And yet, within this immutability lies the mystery of prayer, of human intercession, of the human-Divine dialogue. God does not change in his being. But what about his immediate plans? What about his interaction with his creation, with his people? What does the whole counsel of Scripture say about this?
When God made clear to Abraham his intent to destroy Sodom and the cities of the plain and then Abraham interceded, bargaining on the basis of God’s character — his justice and mercy — to spare the cities if fifty, no forty-five, no forty, no thirty, no twenty, no ten righteous people were there, was this a real, efficacious intercession or not? Had God planned all along to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous souls? Was God just playing along with Abraham, giving him a false sense of influence? Or, did God in his immutability and his sovereignty, actually respond to Abraham and change the threshold for judgment and destruction?
When the people of Israel sinned a great sin with the golden calf at Sinai, the LORD said to Moses:
Exodus 32:9–10 (ESV): “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
Is this for show, just God being dramatic? Did God intend to destroy the people or not?
Well, here’s the answer that Scripture supplies:
Exodus 32:11–14 (ESV): 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
The Lord relented — changed his planned course of action — based on the intercession — the prayer, if you will — of Moses.
Then there is the haunting text in Ezekiel, God speaking plaintively. After reciting a litany of Israel’s sins, God says:
Ezekiel 22:30–31 (ESV): 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God.”
For the lack of a righteous intercessor — a man that God sought after — Israel was consumed by the fire of God’s wrath. The image here is striking: God longing to change his mind, seeking to change his plan, in response to the prayer of a righteous man, but finding no such man.
Examples abound, but these few should suffice.
“I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things” (Mother Teresa).
It [prayer] doesn’t change God. It changes me” (C. S. Lewis).
With apologies to Mother Teresa and C. S. Lewis, that is not the witness of Scripture. I’ve read their lives and their words, and I don’t think either Mother Teresa or Lewis really believed that prayer only changes the one praying either. Scripture is clear: within his divine immutability, as an expression of his divine sovereignty there lies this great mystery of prayer — that God allows his plans to be influenced, his mind to be changed, by human prayer and action. There are subtleties and complexities to prayer that I will never understand — I’m no theologian, remember? — but that our prayers and our actions can and do change things and even alter the stated plans of God, I have no doubt because Scripture is clear on the matter.
Why am I even talking about this? Because the Daily Office reading from 2 Kings 20 talks about it. Through the prophet Isaiah, the LORD announces the impending death of King Hezekiah:
2 Kings 20:1 (ESV): In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’ ”
There is no wiggle room in this declaration, no conditions given for recovery, no “unless you do this you will die.” It is a straightforward declaration from the LORD — “you shall die; you shall not recover” — a declaration we do best to take on face value.
But. But Hezekiah prayed and the LORD changed his mind:
2 Kings 20:1–6 (ESV): 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, 3 “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: 5 “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, 6 and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.”
God changed his mind: I don’t know of any other reasonable way to read this. God announced Hezekiah’s certain death. Hezekiah prayed. The LORD heard the king’s prayer and saw his tears, and the LORD changed the course of Hezekiah’s life: not death, but healing and fifteen additional years.
I know this notion is controversial in many quarters; some are uncomfortable with a God who can change — not change his nature which is immutable, not change his character which is immutable, but change his plans, his direction. And yet, what meaning has intercession, what value has petition if such human influence on the divine will is not possible? What an exalted view of God springs from this! Our immutable God who is humble and loving and sovereign enough to draw mere creatures into the divine life and make them his fellow workers. Our God who asks, “What do you think?” and listens and takes account of what we say. And what an exalted view of prayer springs from this! Prayer is never Plan B, used only after we have exhausted our own resources. Prayer is always Plan A because it draws on the unlimited resources of God, because it changes things, because it redeems otherwise lost causes and lost people, because God is searching for people who will stand in the breach and dare to change his plans.
It is no wonder that Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow (cf Lk 18) to the effect that [his disciples] ought always to pray and not lose heart. It is no wonder that Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to pray without ceasing. It is no wonder that James rehearsed the example of Elijah:
James 5:16–18 (ESV): 16b The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
Yes, prayer changes the one praying. But prayer also changes the world. And — Dare I say, because Scripture does? — prayer sometimes changes the mind and plan of our immutable God. Great is this mystery of prayer. Amen.
Following are words of some Church Fathers on the power of prayer to change the plans of God.
2 Kings 20:1–6 (ACCS 1 Ki-Es): In His Infinite Mercy, God Remains Free to Revise His Judgments. John Cassian: Now let us rise to still higher instances. When king Hezekiah was lying on his bed and afflicted with grievous sickness, the prophet Isaiah addressed him in the person of God, and said: “Thus says the Lord: set your house in order for will die and not live. And Hezekiah,” it says, “turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord and said: I beseech you, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in truth and with a perfect heart, and how I have done what was right in your sight. And Hezekiah wept much.” After which it was again said to Isaiah: “Go, return, and speak to Hezekiah king of Judah, saying: Thus says the Lord God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add to your life fifteen years, and I will deliver you out of the hand of the king of the Assyrians, and I will defend this city for your sake and for my servant David’s sake.” What can be clearer than this proof that out of consideration for mercy and goodness the Lord would rather break his word and instead of the appointed sentence of death extend the life of him who prayed for fifteen years, rather than be found inexorable because of an unchangeable decree? Conference 17.25.
2 Kings 20:1–6 (ACCS 1 Ki-Es): Hezekiah Is Saved by the Power of His Repentance. Cyril of Jerusalem: Would you know the power of repentance? Would you understand this strong weapon of salvation and the might of confession? By confession Hezekiah routed 185,000 of the enemy. That was important, but it was little compared with what shall be told. The same king’s repentance won the repeal of the sentence God had passed on him. For when he was sick, Isaiah said to him, “Give charge concerning your house, for you shall die and not live.” What expectation was left? What hope of recovery was there, when the prophet said, “For you shall die”? But Hezekiah did not cease from penitence, for he remembered what was written: “In the hour that you turn and lament, you shall be saved.” He turned his face to the wall, and from his bed of pain his mind soared up to heaven—for no wall is so thick as to stifle reverent prayer—“Lord,” he said, “remember me. You are not subject to circumstance, but are yourself the legislator of life. For not on birth and conjunction of stars, as some vainly say, does our life depend. No, you are the arbiter, according to your will, of life and the duration of life.” He whom the prophet’s sentence had forbidden to hope was granted fifteen further years of life, the sun turning back its course in witness thereof. Now while the sun retraced its course for Hezekiah, for Christ it was eclipsed, the distinction marking the difference between the two, I mean Hezekiah and Jesus. Now if even Hezekiah could revoke God’s decree, shall not Jesus grant the remission of sins? Turn and lament, shut your door, and beg for pardon, that God may remove from the scorching flames. For confession has the power to quench even fire; it can tame even lions. Catechetical Lectures 2.15.
Exodus 32:10 (ACCS Ex-De): God Invites Us to Prayer. Jerome: On another occasion God said to Moses, “Let me alone … that I may consume this people,” showing by the words “let me alone” that he can be withheld from doing what he threatens. The prayers of his servant hindered his power. Who, think you, is there now under heaven able to stay God’s wrath, to face the flame of his judgment and to say with the apostle, “I could wish that I myself were accursed for my brethren”? Letter 128.4.
Persistence in Prayer. Jerome: Moses resisted God and prevented him from destroying his people when God said to him: “Let me alone, that I may strike this people.” Just see the power of Moses! What does God say to him? Let me alone; you are compelling me, your prayers, as it were, restrain me; your prayers hold back my hand. I shoot an arrow; I hurl a javelin; and your prayers are the shield of the people. Let me alone that I might strike down this people. Along with this, consider the compassionate kindness of God. When he says, “Let me alone,” he shows that if Moses will continue to importune him, he will not strike. If you, too, will not let me alone, I shall not strike; let me alone, and I shall strike. In other words, what does he say? Do not cease your persistent entreaty, and I shall not strike. Homilies on the Psalms 26.