Her story begins during Christmas break in 1945 with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10). Her story continues in 1953 when she left for Africa to serve as a medical missionary. And her story got better one night as she served in the maternity ward.
Helen had worked long and hard helping a mother in labor, but the mother died leaving a premature baby clinging to life and a two year old daughter helpless. Keeping the baby alive proved to be difficult since the hospital had no incubator. One assistant wrapped the baby in warm swaddling cloths while another searched for a rubber hot water bottle. As she filled it, due to the tropical climate, the rubber bottle burst. It was their last one.
At noon, Helen had her normal time of prayer with some of the orphanage children. As they talked about what they needed to pray about, Helen shared with the children about the struggling baby and the now lonely two year old girl. During the time of prayer, ten year old Ruth prayed that God would send a hot water bottle that afternoon (because tomorrow would be too late) and a dolly for the little girl so that she would know God loved her. Helen hesitated to say ‘Amen.’ She had been in Africa four years and had never received a package from home. And who would send a hot water bottle?
Later that afternoon, Helen was teaching in the nurses’ training school when a message came that a car was at the front door. When she reached the veranda, the car was gone…but a large package remained. Helen sent for the orphanage children. When they arrived, together with Helen they began opening the package. There were beautifully colored clothes, bandages for leprosy patients and even raisins! And then Helen, astonished, pulled out a brand new rubber hot water bottle! Tears came to her eyes but then ten year old Ruth said, “If God had sent the hot water bottle, there must be a dolly in there too.” Digging into the box, she pulled out a beautifully dressed doll. With wide shining eyes she begged to go and give the doll to the little girl so she would know Jesus loved her.
The package? It came from Helen’s former Sunday School class back home in England. It had been sent five months earlier, but was delayed in its arrival by God’s perfect timing. This was Helen’s story.
This Is Anna’s Story
Things happen which make us totter. But there are things, things that have been accomplished, which are to keep us from tottering over. This is why Luke wrote Luke’s gospel. And this is why Luke tells her story.
She was a prophetess like Miriam the sister of Moses who “took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21). Or like Deborah, a woman God raised up to save Israel out of the hand of those who plundered them (Judges 2:16; Judges 4).
She was a daughter, the daughter of a man named Phanuel. And who was Phanuel? We do not know. This is his only mention in the Bible. However, there is something fascinating about his name. It has its beginning and meaning in Genesis 32, the night that Jacob persistently wrestled with God until the breaking of day. And Jacob named the place “Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered’” (Genesis 32:30).
Her name was Anna, the only Anna in the New Testament. Her name sounds like Hannah, the only Hannah in the Old Testament. And Hannah of the Old Testament, her story, can be put in these words: she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly (1 Samuel 1:10). Hannah was a woman who prayed.
And this is Anna’s story. As Luke writes Luke’s gospel he first introduces us to those who were advanced in years. There was Zechariah. He was advanced in years. There was Elizabeth. She was advanced in years (Luke 1:7). There was Simeon. He was apparently advanced in years (Luke 2:25-32). And here was Anna. She was advanced in years. Why does Luke have us first meet so many old people? Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for what seemed to be a request for a child. It was because she was barren. And in praying and praying they soon both approached advanced in years, years beyond that of being able to conceive a child. And so, perhaps the praying for a child ceased. But God is not limited to hear, answer and grant only the most recent prayers. In his unlimited ability, God hears, answers and grants old prayers, too.
And Simeon, advanced in years, lived life knowing how you read the Bible matters. He read it gazing upon the glories of Christ and praying that God would fulfill his spoken word.
Anna married. After seven years of marriage, her husband died. Anna never remarried. She was a widow. Anna’s story continued and Anna’s story got better advanced in years.
Worship With Fasting and Prayer
Luke records a parable, a story Jesus told, called the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). And as with Anna’s story, Luke is the only gospel writer that records the parable of the persistent widow. Jesus told this parable for one reason: to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart (18:1). I think that this is the point of Anna’s story.
Listen to the last sentence of Luke 2:37. “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna was persistent in worship it seems since the day her husband died. And do not miss it, she worshiped. How did she worship? Well, she went to the temple regularly, every day, which means that she did not worship alone. There were other people in the temple, in an area called the court of women. Again, how did she worship? She was persistent in worship and persistent in worshiping with others, but how? She worshiped with fasting and prayer. And the big question is, what does that mean?
I know what prayer is and I know what fasting is, but I have never seen fasting in the light of worship. The object of worship is God, me responding to his worth. And prayer is me talking with God. But what in light of worship is fasting?
This is a good way to think about fasting: a temporary renunciation of something that is in itself good, like food, in order to intensify our expression of need for something greater – namely, God and his work in our lives. But are we, in 2019, to fast? There is no command in the New Testament to Christians or to churches to fast. There are commands to pray (cf. Romans 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). And there are passages in the New Testament that do mention believers and churches praying (cf. Luke 2:37; Luke 5:33; Acts 13:33; Acts 14:23).
In the Old Testament there are commands to fast and there are people fasting. There are people fasting when grieved and in repentance (cf. Nehemiah 1:4-11). There are people fasting because of sin – “we have sinned” (cf. 1 Samuel 7:6). There are people fasting on the behalf of others (cf. 2 Samuel 12:16). There is fasting that God does not appreciate, that from the wrong motive (cf. Isaiah 58:3).
Why would a person fast? What is at the heart of fasting? Listen to Ezra 8:21. “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods.” And listen to 2 Chronicles 20:3. “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” It seems that there are times to fast. And at the heart of a fast is to humble ourselves before God, seeking something needed, but most importantly to seek him in what is needed. I love 2 Chronicles 20 and have been meditating upon it recently. When was there a fast in 2 Chronicles 20? It was when the king was afraid. He later says in verse twelve, “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” So fasting can be for particular moments, moments when we are afraid, moments when we do not know what to do, but we fast with our eye set on him, seeking him.
And in reading Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus seems to think or expect that his followers will both pray and fast.
A fast is not a protest like a hunger strike. In the Bible it does exclude food. It is about taking a moment to exclude food because in this moment food will not and cannot meet the need. And I just so want to get to God with this need that I will not pull over and be delayed by Chick-fil-A. Food cannot help in this situation. Instead of just going without food, I am using this time, time needed to eat, to seek God’s face, his presence; to seek his help; to seek his favor that his will be done here and now as it is in heaven. I want to, this much, see God at work. This is worship with fasting.
Waiting for the Redemption of Jerusalem
Why was Anna worshiping with fasting and prayer? And why was she so persistent in it? Listen to verse thirty-eight. “And coming up at that very hour…” What very hour? It was the hour that Joseph and Mary brought the month old child named Jesus, he who is mighty to rescue, to the temple in obedience and faithfulness to God’s Word. It was the same hour that Simeon took this child into his advanced in years arms thanking God that he has now seen salvation! Anna heard it!
Why was she worshiping with fasting and prayer? She was seeking God to send the one who is mighty to rescue from sin. And so when she heard it, when she heard Simeon, she began to give thanks to God. The word thanks, it is so great, it is a word only used here in the New Testament. It means to reply or to acknowledge fully and confess in celebration. God did it. She saw God at work. And so she then began to speak of him to those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. What possibly could she have been saying? Redemption, the rescue is here! He is here! And I wonder, did she ever fast again?
The Bible speaks of Christians and churches as those waiting; waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ; waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13; Jude 1:7-23; 1 Thessalonians 1:10). Do I love Jesus so much that his coming would be the greatest thing I can imagine? Do I want the appearance of Jesus more than I want food, more than I want to finish my plans?
Is there anything, any need that no amount of food could satisfy? How about repentance? The repentance of a loved one? How about renewal of strength and vitality for the work at hand? How about the salvation of the lost? Is there anything for which I can say, “I do not know what to do! I am afraid!”?
Is there any reason that we should not be worshiping with fasting and prayer?
 Diana Lynn Severance, Her Story, page 393.