What Belongs to Prayer?
Scripture: Genesis 32:9-12
Text: Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A #117
Sermon by Rev. James Reaves
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Kelowna, British Columbia, 1999
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 17, No. 4
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Jacob had a burden of concern within his heart. He was afraid. He was on his way home to Canaan after spending 20 long years away in Padan Aram. He fully expected that he would very shortly meet up with his brother Esau once again. The last time Jacob had been anywhere near Esau’s presence, Esau had declared,
“I will kill my brother Jacob.” Esau had been angry at how Jacob had cheated him out of his father’s blessing. Esau had developed a real hatred in his heart toward Jacob, hence his resolve to kill Jacob and hence Jacob’s decision to leave the country.
Now after all these years Jacob was getting close to home. Would Esau still be angry? Did he still want Jacob killed? Jacob didn’t know and he was fearful. In such a situation, Jacob knew there was one important thing for him to do, pray, and his prayer is recorded in Genesis 32:9-12.
In as much as we also have our times of uncertainty and fear and we also have a need to pray, there is much that we can learn from Jacob’s prayer. It can help us answer the catechism’s question, “What belongs to... prayer?” As we examine this prayer we can see that it includes three things. They are:
and III. Assurance.
Listen as I seek to set these things before you today.
The first thing we observe in Jacob’s prayer is his appeal to God. “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and your kindred, and I will deal well with you.’” Jacob looks heavenward and cries out to the God who has made Himself known to Jacob. He does not appeal to an unknown God or to a God with whom he is not familiar. He appeals to a God he knows and with whom he has had dealings before.
In fact this God was known to his grandfather Abraham and to his father Isaac. It is well to come from a family which has had dealings with God before. It is not absolutely essential. If you have been outside the family of God, God must become known to you at sometime and there is no time like the present. But it is well to be able to identify Him as the God of one’s father and grandfather. Jacob can hope and pray that God will be as faithful to Jacob as He was to Jacob’s fathers.
More than that, this God was known to have made a covenant with Abraham and the generations after him. He had made certain promises to Abraham and his descendants and can be appealed to, to honor those promises. Jacob has a solid commitment from God on which to base his prayer.
Then Jacob takes his appeal one step further as he appeals to God as the LORD, Yahweh, who has come to Jacob and told him to return to his country and kindred, with the promise that He will look after him. Jacob is basing his appeal on this thought. He is doing what the LORD told him to do and so he claims the promise that the LORD gave with His instruction. Jacob has a solid foundation on which to base his appeal, so he cries out from his heart to the God who has proved His goodness to Jacob in days gone by.
You would almost think that Jacob had read the Heidelberg Catechism where it says that the first part of prayer is where we “from the heart..., call upon the one true God only, who has revealed Himself in His Word, for all He has commanded us to ask of Him.” Actually it was the writers of the catechism who had read Jacob’s prayer. Either way, it is clear that they are both in agreement on this point. We will go a long way before we will come to someone with a better idea on how to base the appeal of our prayers.
Call out from your heart to the only true God who has revealed Himself in His word. He is the same God to whom Jacob addressed his appeal. This same God, known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has revealed Himself to us through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and has made many similar promises to us.
If you don’t know this God, get to know Him now by turning away from your sins and embracing by faith His Son Jesus Christ as your Savior. This is how we enter into all His covenant privilege. That is where we always must begin. If we have already known Him and our fathers knew Him too, so much the better.
Appeal to this God and remind Him of His promises, such promises as we find in I Peter 5:7, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” Get to know the promises of the Bible. Get to know the God of the promises and from your heart address your appeal to Him. “O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, hear the appeal I raise to You and answer me in Your mercy and grace.”
Following his appeal to God, Jacob turns to self-abasement. In verse ten of our text Jacob says, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.” Jacob is confessing that before the infinite God, he is too small, too insignificant to deserve receiving the least thing from Him.
He thinks back to the way he was twenty years before, when he crossed the Jordan on his way to Padan Aram. All he had to his name that day was the staff that he carried in his hand. He was nothing but a poor solitary traveller.
And look where he is now. He has two companies of family, servants, oxen, donkeys and sheep. God has blessed him with what he calls, “all these mercies.” He has abundance and affluence in spite of Laban’s efforts to the contrary.
More than that, he has “all the truth” which God had shown to him, truth that contained many promises of blessing. Jacob has become a very rich man and he recognizes it all as a mercy from God. He doesn’t even deserve the least of these mercies. He is unworthy of any of it. He is small, insignificant and on top of that he is a sinner totally beyond deserving the least consideration from God.
Jacob is acknowledging, “I am nothing, LORD. Anything You do for me will be entirely a matter of Your free grace. I don’t deserve it. I am nothing.” Now that is what I call self-abasement. The catechism speaks of it like this. “We right thoroughly know our need and misery, in order to humble ourselves before the face of His majesty.” It is what the catechism and Jacob both see as the second part of prayer. And we must see it too.
When we pray, we are not to come bouncing into God’s presence, impressed with our own self-importance. We are not to try to convince God that we deserve what we are asking. We are to come conscious of our utter smallness in God’s sight. We are nothing, nothing at all to Him. We are not worthy of even the least of His mercies.
Why should He even notice us, to say nothing of noticing our requests. We are too small. On top of that, we have offended Him with our sins. Maybe it would be a good thing if He didn’t notice us because we are subject to His displeasure if He should notice us before Him.
We need to learn with Jacob and the catechism the importance of self-abasement before God. We must be humbled before the Majesty on high and recognize that anything we will ever receive from Him, will be totally a matter of His free grace, a matter of sovereign mercy.
Getting our minds and hearts to recognize our un-importance, is an important part of prayer. We humans don’t learn this lesson readily. We are such a proud and self-righteous lot. We are inclined to think God owes us something. We would rather pray like the Pharisee and say, “Lord, I am thankful that I am not like other men,” when we should all be like the publican beating upon our breasts and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jacob had it right, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies..., which you have shown Your servant.”
We come now to the third part of Jacob’s prayer where we find his petition and the assurance that he has of God’s answer. The petition we find expressed in verse eleven. “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children.”
Jacob wants to be delivered. He wants to be spared from his brother’s wrath. If Esau comes and attacks him, Jacob can see himself losing everything. He could lose his own life. He could lose “the mother with the children.” This last expression doesn’t quite seem to fit Jacob’s situation. He has two mothers with children along with him and that is not counting the maids and their children.
It turns out that “the mother with the children” is a proverbial Jewish saying that means the whole of everything. Jacob is fearful, as we might say, of losing the whole nine yards, lock, stock and barrel. If he loses it all, all of God’s good gifts come to nothing. Such is Jacob’s petition.
Then in the following verse he goes on to express his assurance that God will hear his prayer. Verse twelve reads, “For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
Jacob’s assurance in his prayer is based upon the promise which God has given in His word. Jacob will not be treated well if he loses “the mother with the children.” Jacob will not have descendants as the sand of the sea if he loses “the mother with the children.” For God to be faithful to His word, Jacob’s petition must be granted. Jacob is convinced of God’s faithfulness and that his prayer will be granted.
We can have, indeed we must have, similar assurance when we pray. The catechism tells us that it belongs to prayer “that we be firmly assured that notwithstanding we are unworthy of it, He will for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.” Jacob was assured of an answer simply by the promise of God’s Word.
We have the same promises and we have something more to build up our assurance. We have a Lord who has been raised from the dead, proof that God hears prayer, proof that we have One who intercedes with God for us. If the Lord Jesus passes along our prayers to the Father, how can the Father deny Him or them? We have even more reason to be assured than did Jacob. We have a risen Lord Jesus Christ.
“What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.”
God has provided so richly for our prayers and yet when it comes to prayer, we seem to live very poorly. May the Lord teach us to pray, teach us to pray with assurance, and teach us to bring everything to Him in prayer.
Search out the promises of the Bible. Get to know all the things He has promised to do for you. Start asking God to do what He has promised to do. Jesus will convey our prayers right into the Father’s presence. The Father will not be able to deny them any more than He was able to deny Jacob. We don’t need to suffer along with a prayerless life. We don’t need to see our prayers and petitions going unanswered. We can pray with assurance by trusting in the promises of God and remembering that God has raised our Savior Jesus from the dead. Let us come boldly to the throne of grace and find grace to help in time of need.
What belongs to such prayer as God is pleased with and will hear? “First, that from the heart we call upon the one true God only, who has revealed Himself in His word, for all He has commanded us to ask of Him; second, that we right thoroughly know our need and misery, in order to humble ourselves before the face of His majesty; third, that we be firmly assured that, notwithstanding we are unworthy of it, He will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.”
Jacob seems to have learned his catechism well. Jacob prayed accordingly. May we learn to pray in the same way with appeal to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with self-abasement and with assurance. Amen.