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Does prayer work? Three weeks that changed history in 2013

November 30, 2014

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Advent 1                                30 November 2014  

[ Isaiah 63: 16-17, 64:1,3-8       Ps 79               1 Corinthians 1:3-9      Mark 13:33-37 ]

This weekend Archbishop Bernard of Birmingham has echoed the message of Pope Francis in calling for special prayers to be made in all our parishes for peace in Iraq and Syria. And for those who can, a plea for fasting and abstinence for peace in Iraq and Syria. We are joining a tremendous, world-wide cry of anguish to God, a plea for help that begs for divine intervention.

Praying for peace is a real test of our faith. Do we believe prayer will make any difference? Does God really intervene in the events of this world? Where is God now? Has He abandoned us?

Today’s psalmist felt like this, crying out to God,

O shepherd of Israel, hear us,

shine forth from your cherubim throne.

O Lord, rouse up your might,

O Lord, come to our help.

So let’s just remind ourselves of the reality. God directly, astonishingly, miraculously intervened in changing world history when He sent His Son into the world. In turn, Jesus sent His Holy Spirit to infuse, to be with, to inspire and guide His Church – that means every single one of us who claims to be a Christian. And He promised to be with us, until the end of time.[1]

‘All well and good’, you may say, ‘but that was 2,000 years ago. What about us today?

What difference can prayer and fasting make to the carnage and destruction we see taking place across Iraq and Syria today?

In the first reading we heard Isaiah saying how people in despair had given up praying to God for help, had forgotten God’s power, leaving evil to triumph:

No one invoked your name

or roused himself to catch hold of you.

For you hid your face from us

and gave us up to the power of our sins.

Saint Paul could be writing to us rather than the Corinthians today, reminding us that God is always with us, with the Holy Spirit keeping us steadfast in faith; reminding us that we do not lack the spiritual gift, the tools we need to change the world for the better. At the centre of those gifts is the power of prayer.

But part of the problem with prayer is that we fail to spot the evidence of the effects of spiritual action on world events today. We need to analyse what’s going to spot the positive feedback, or we might miss it.

In world affairs, what are the signs that our prayers are being answered? They are these:

  • Human plans will suddenly and unexpectedly change;
  • Completely bizarre things will happen out of the blue, that just don’t make sense to the clever people who think they run the world;
  • World leaders will be confounded and left bewildered by what happens;
  • Politicians and experts will try and predict what is going to happen and get it completely wrong;
  • Evil intentions will be suddenly frustrated.

Let’s test it out. What happened the last time the Pope asked the Church to pray like this, for peace? Do remember when that was? Do you remember what happened?

It was sixteen months ago. On August 21st 2013 rockets were fired into the Ghouta district of Damascus. We still don’t know for sure which side did it, but the wicked civil war had reached the point of the chemical weapon sarin being used to kill hundreds of innocent people in the capital of Syria.

In the United States, France, our country and many other countries, the reaction was immediate. They started preparing to join in the civil war, to start bombing Syria.

Quietly, unseen, unnoticed, millions of faithful people across the world started begging God to intervene and prevent the war escalating out of control, praying for peace.

But the US President was clear. He said he was going to use his Presidential authority to make independent decisions on military actions. There would be no need for a vote in Congress; Here in Britain our parliament was still on holiday, but it looked like our Government was going to follow the US lead and take part in the planned attacks, sanctioned through the usual Royal Prerogative.

Then came the first unexpected turn of events: in order to give a semblance of authority to the military action, Parliament would to be recalled to approve the plans. Our leaders were confident they would get approval and the preparations for war continued.

And the world-wide praying and fasting continued.

Then, on the 29th of August, the day of the vote at Westminster, the American Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a passionate case for military action against the Syrian Government; but contrary to all the predictions, MPs voted 285 votes to 272 against the war plans. It was completely unprecedented. It stunned the political establishment and sent shock waves around the world.

The praying and fasting continued.

The next day, 30th August, President Barak Obama said he still wanted to attack Syria, but the spin doctors, journalists and politicos received yet another surprise – in a dramatic turnaround by the White House the President said he is going to wait ten days for the American Congress to return from their holidays, and then he would ask them to support him on the issue. An American President had never done that before.

At this critical moment, the Pope spoke out, galvanizing the Church, calling for worldwide fasting and prayer for peace.

The feverish plans to make war on Syria continued for the next ten days. Then, on 9th September a reported asked John Kerry in London if there was anything the Syrian government could do to stop a military strike. He made an off the cuff, unscripted, dismissive reply, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

BUT THEN….. to everyone’s astonishment, this throwaway remark was taken up by the Russians. Russia, out of the blue, called on Syria to hand over its chemical weapons. No one could believe that Russia had done such a thing. No-one thought there was any chance of the Syrian Government admitting it had such weapons, let alone saying they would give them up. But again, in an extraordinary and completely unexpected turn of events, Syria suddenly welcomed the Russian proposal! They said they would hand over their chemical weapons – yes, the chemical weapons they had, for years, been strongly denying even existed.

Events were moving so fast no-one really knew what was going on. In the muddle, and confusion the expected vote by Congress to support US military action never took place.

Three days later, on 12th September in Geneva the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that there would not be any air strikes on Syria.

And on 13th September the Syrian Government began the process of handing over its chemical weapons.

In all the fancy political analysis, there was not one mention of any intervention by God. The world leaders quickly blurred over the fact that nothing had gone to plan, that they were bewildered by the turn of events and that their proposals for more killing and destruction were confounded.

But we know different. Those three weeks in September last year were a real and present sign of the power of prayer. People of faith came together, calling on God to intervene. And the course of history unexpected changed.

It’s a continuing struggle. Evil persists. Jesus warned us about this when he said,

“…. when you hear of wars and revolutions do not be frightened, for this is something that must happen but the end is not so soon. Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…..” [2]

Today Jesus then tells us today to remain alert, to ‘be on our guard, staying awake.’ We do indeed need to be ready at all times to welcome Jesus back to our world. And that includes holding true to the faith and remembering to pray at all times. [3] So, as we quietly and unseen, add our prayers for peace in Iraq and Syria around the world, we can do this with complete confidence.

So keep an eye on the news to see what happens next in Syria and Iraq. Together, as a spiritual force, the Church can change world events in very surprising ways.

[1] Matthew 28:20

[2] Luke 21:8-10

[3] c.f. 1 Thessalonians 5:17

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