There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer both night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38).
Anna was Phanuel’s daughter. She had a family and a tribe called “Happy” (Asher). She was married. She belonged.
Her husband died. She was widowed young. Although I would never recommend it as an experiment, it is fascinating where a broken heart will lead a person.
Luke’s brief description of Anna is filled with human loss, disappointment and longing. These things could have led Anna to wallow in misery and victimhood. She could have blamed God and turned bitter. She could have settled for a life with a man who she didn’t love but who put food on the table and a roof over her head.
But Anna was a prophet. She was looking for something more.
The title of “prophet” was an honor. It meant that Anna was recognized for having an authentic vision. Anna saw that the only hope for the healing of her broken heart and the redemption of her people from oppression and slavery was for the Messiah to come.
Men and women who are serious about seeing Jesus Christ will worship and pray. Anna entered the temple and never left again. For more than 60 years, Anna worshiped there with fasting and prayer, both night and day.
Worship means “to ascribe worth.” Nothing will sort out the gold from the dross like the refiner’s fire fueled by heartbreak and suffering. I’ve been through that fire and feel a close kinship with Anna.
When I was about the age that Anna lost her husband, I suffered the sudden and cruel death of a woman I loved and with whom I intended to spend the rest of my life. All the strength of mind and body, I possessed as a twenty-year-old, the beliefs inculcated in me by Christian parents and church school and my academic and student leadership achievements could neither stop nor assuage the loss.
There was nothing I could do. Out of the devastation, I learned hard truths.
There are things for which there are no human solutions or even words. Therefore, either God is real and good or nothing else matters. There In this knowledge, I became a worshiper.
Unlike Anna, my focus wandered from time to time, but the lessons of suffering were reinforced when other gods proved false. Prayer is what happens when one is convicted that God is real.
As the reality of God took over more and more of my life, it stretched and deepened my prayer life. Over time I came to desire Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else.
That overwhelming desire brought me into the company of others who were looking for Jesus too, just as it did for Anna who shared the news of Jesus with “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
The waiting inherent in worship and prayer is a kind of judgment on believers. Some of them scorn worship and prayer and say “It’s time to get moving. Time is money. There’s such a thing as being so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. We have to use the tactics of the marketplace to reach the market place. After all, no margin, no mission. We need some consultants to help us become relevant.”
Soon the money-changers and livestock brokers take over and the priests are getting a cut of the profits. The Pharisees try to regulate their way to ethical behavior and social justice. The conservative Sadducees fight to maintain their power structure centered on the temple and insist on the rule of reason over matters of faith. Fanatical Zealots strike out against everyone who is not part of their group.
Anna was up against all of these distractions and adversaries in seeking Jesus in the temple and so are we. Maybe it’s because I am a lawyer representing Christian organizations and church institutions, but I encounter a lot of profane mixed in places one would expect to be reserved for the sacred.
Entrepreneurs with stylized fish on their business cards and avarice in their hearts exploit the naive faithful with “deals” in real estate, automobiles, nutritional supplements, financial planning, software, plastic food containers, and dating services. Health faddists, self-improvement devotees, multi-level marketeers, and prophecy hucksters troll the edges of congregations preying upon the fearful, the suggestible and the unhappy, offering obscure, unprovable but disquieting theories — “The keys to long life, happiness and salvation right here in my (self-published) books and tapes. Just $199.95 for the package and we accept cash or credit cards.”
The conflicts of interest of the purveyors of these products and services are cloaked in self-righteous piety and theological posturing that can render the congregation an unsafe combat zone.
“So what?” you ask. Didn’t the Apostle Paul say, “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Phil 1:18). Absolutely! But Paul was describing preaching that focused on Christ, rather than on financial opportunity, political advantage, or social networking. While Christ may call his followers to witness in the marketplace, he did not hesitate to say, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16).
The Lord calls us to faithfulness, not to success. Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple and the only alternative he offered was prayer (Mark 11:15-19).
Meeting Jesus in the temple was the answer to Anna’s prayer. Prayer was a constant theme with Jesus. “Ask, and it will be given to you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt 7:7).
Jesus’ teaching that prayer accessed the good help of our Father in heaven was unequivocal. It bemused him when his followers didn’t take him up on that.
During the week of his crucifixion, Jesus told a parable to let his followers know they should pray and not lose heart while they waited for his return. In his story, a widow, stripped of human relationship and protection, was further beset by injustice from someone vaguely referred to as the “”opponent.” Her only appeal was to a judge who had no respect for God, or anyone else’s opinion for that matter. The widow persisted and the judge gave in and ruled in her favor only because her pestering was wearing him out and he wanted to be rid of her.
In telling this story, Jesus wasn’t making out God to be like the grumpy, indifferent judge. He said, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-9).
Anna had that faith through all the dangers, toils and snares in the temple. Worship and prayer kept her focused and she found what she was looking for in Jesus Christ. Her story encourages me.
Now the question passes to us. Is our worship focused on Jesus Christ alone? Are we keeping faith with him in intercessory prayer for the healing of broken lives, the redemption of lost souls and his soon return? If not, what are we doing? The beginning of a new year is a good time to think about this.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
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