When we know the situation is hopeless for someone we say, “They don’t have a prayer.” When someone jumps out of an airplane and the parachute doesn’t open; when the brakes go out on a big truck going down a steep mountain road; when the doctor comes in with the test results and says that the chemotherapy isn’t working anymore; when an earthquake hits an old city and thousands of people are trapped inside poorly built concrete buildings; it is at those kinds of times that we say, “They don’t have a prayer.”
Last Thursday afternoon I was with Jeanette just a few hours before she died. I have been with many people at that stage of life, and I knew that the end was probably near. Someone looking at Jeanette at that time could have said, “She doesn’t have a prayer.”
But I did have a prayer with and for Jeanette. I do not know if at that time she could hear or understand anything anymore, but even if not, the prayer was for her because I believe that even in that situation, we do have a prayer. And the prayer I had for Jeanette was right out of the pages of the Bible, from Luke chapter two. It was the prayer of an old man, Simeon who, like Jeanette, was near the end of his life. And old Simeon, with the baby Jesus in his arms, prayed, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your promise; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.” That old man, his life nearly over, with nothing to look forward to but the grave, still had a prayer, a prayer that has been repeated millions of times over the years by others who, from all outward appearances, didn’t have a prayer. “Let me depart in peace, Lord,” he prayed, “for I have seen your salvation.” By that Simeon meant that in the baby in his arms was the fulfillment of all God’s promises, and Simon was blessed to be able to see him. And so Simeon prayed, “You can take me now Lord. I have seen Jesus and I am ready to die.” And so by Jeanette’s deathbed, I prayed that Scripture, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your promise.” It might have looked like Jeanette didn’t have a prayer, but with faith in our Lord Jesus, we always have a prayer.
Christians actually have quite a few prayers for those times when it looks like we ‘don’t have a prayer.’ There are, for example, those familiar words of the 23rd Psalm; “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil– for you are with me, Lord, and you comfort me.” And think back to one of the first prayers you ever learned: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” ‘If I die?’– isn’t that a much too scary thought to plant in a little child’s mind just before going to sleep? Some children’s prayer books have now changed the wording, leaving out that part about the possibility of dying overnight, and that may seem to make some sense. But thinking back to my childhood, I do not remember anything scary about that prayer. I do recall, even as a child, thinking about death as I said those words. But I don’t remember being disturbed by that thought coming in the context of that prayer. Rather, I remember it as something that gave me a bit of comfort. Kids know that even kids can die, but even ‘if I die before I wake,’ I will be all right. Someone will be there to receive me, and to take care of me, even then. As Jesus said to his disciples in John 14, “I will come back, and I will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.” And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Awake or asleep, living or dying, we always have a prayer.
Think about the Lord’s Prayer itself. Even though the prayer does not specifically mention death, Martin Luther said that the seventh petition has to do most of all with death. “Deliver us from evil,” we pray, and even though we would like to be delivered from the all the troubles that we face right now, life is still, as Mark Twain said, ‘just one darn thing after another.’ Have you ever, at any time, been ‘delivered’ from all the trouble, all the evil, in your life? Of course not. So Luther said that our prayer for God to ‘deliver us from evil,’ will be finally, and fully answered only when we die. Luther’s catechism says that it is “at our last hour that God mercifully takes us from the troubles of this world unto himself in heaven.” Without faith in God we look at someone near death and say, “she doesn’t have a prayer.” But God looks at the believer near death and says, “Child, I am about to answer all your prayers.”
If ever it could be said that someone didn’t have a prayer, it could be said about a man hanging on a cross. In all my reading about crucifixions in the ancient world, I never once heard of anyone being taken down off a cross and allowed to live and go free. After being scourged and then beaten and then nailed to the cross, it appeared to all onlookers that Jesus was finished and without a prayer. But Jesus did, right at the end, still have a prayer. He said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” What a prayer! What a perfect prayer for when it looks like you no longer have a prayer. May we have the faith to live like Jesus lived, and then die like Jesus died, with a prayer like that on our lips.
If you believe in Jesus, you are never without a prayer. This life will often seem to leave you helpless and hopeless. But in Jesus we have someone who will be our helper in time of need and give us hope in life and in death.
Luke 2:29-32 — Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Matthew 6:13a — And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…
Luke 23:46 — And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.
O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen. —Book of Common Prayer