Sunday, July 24, 2011

Power of Prayer, Acts 12:1-19

In this story today, we find that we are not the only ones who are surprised when God answers prayer. We all know and believe that God answers prayer. Carvie is proof. We prayed that he would be declared cancer free with no follow up treatments, and he is. We prayed that God would provide for our roof, and we received a generous offer on the timely sale of our land that should more than cover the cost. We had 90 days of focused prayer this spring and saw God answer various needs in so many ways. And yet we are prone to grow weary in prayer. We don’t pray without ceasing like we should, and then when God does show up, we are surprised.
Most of us are prone to pray more fervently in times of crisis. Perhaps that was a motivation for this group of believers praying so earnestly. The apostle James had recently been beheaded. A famine was coming; persecution was increasing. It was Passover. 10 years earlier Stephen had been stoned, and 13 or so years earlier, during this particular festival, Jesus was crucified. Passover should have been a time celebrating freedom. But for Peter it was a time of bondage. Still, Passover provided a wonderful opportunity for the believers to gather together in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Many scholars believe this is the same home where Jesus did share His last supper with the apostles. Mary’s husband was still living back then because the gospel of Mark refers to a “good man of the house.” The believers would have been used to gathering here on a regular basis. Rhoda, the servant girl, is included in the prayer meeting.
The text doesn’t tell us exactly for what the believers were praying. I’m sure they were praying for Peter’s spiritual well-being, and perhaps deliverance. I’m sure they were praying for an end to the persecution and for Herod to stop being a people-pleaser. Certainly they were praying for God’s will to be done. What we know for sure is that they were continuing in prayer—it wasn’t something short and sweet or something they did once—and they were praying from the depths of their heart. And like Jesus prayed in the garden earnestly from His heart, they prayed for the will of God to be done.
Prayer is the power of the church. It can overthrow governments. Prayer moved God to thwart the plans of Herod. Prayer vigils at the Berlin wall resulted in its being torn down. Prayer moves angels to action. Prayer caused an angel to be sent to guide and protect Peter. Prayer moved the angel Gabriel to give a vision to Daniel. Prayer resulted in another angel being sent to Daniel to give him a vision and to let him know his prayer was heard and acted on immediately even though the angel was hindered at first from responding and called upon the archangel Michael to help. I don’t know if we each have our individual guardian angel or not, but we do know from Daniel and from Revelation that there are territorial angels who contend for us. They serve under the command of God—the Lord Sabbaoth—the Lord of the Armies. They are God’s messengers to us.
Prayer brings peace in the midst of trials and tribulations. Despite being chained between two soldiers, Peter was able to sleep so soundly that the light accompanying the angel didn’t wake him. I have gotten more and more light sensitive as I’ve gotten older. Light is more likely to wake me than sound. I have blackout curtains in my bedroom. But the light didn’t wake Peter. In fact the angel had to hit Peter pretty hard in the ribs to rouse him. The word “tapped” is too mild for the Greek word that is usually translated “smote”. Then Peter is so calm, thinking that he is dreaming, that he isn’t in a hurry to leave. The angel has to tell him to put on his belt, sandals, and cloak. The angel seems much more urgent in this passage than Peter who dutifully follows. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an angelic encounter. But I do know I have been in dangerous situations and have had perfect peace because I knew God would take care of me. I had prayed and I knew others were praying.
An old Puritan prayer says, “In prayer all my worldly cares, fears, and anxieties disappear and are of as little significance as a puff of wind. In prayer I can place all my concerns in Your hands to be entirely at Your disposal, having no will or interest of my own. In prayer, all things here below vanish, and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others. In prayer I am lifted above the frowns and flatteries of life and taste heavenly joys, entering into the eternal world.” In other words, what people think of me is no longer important, whether good or bad. The only thing about me that matters is my heart condition, my spiritual condition. Further, I don’t even see myself but only all that God is. How can you have fear, care, or anxiety when you see God? Prayer causes us to stop looking at ourselves and our circumstances and enables us to see God.
And yet God’s answers often surprise us. Peter is shocked once he realizes that he is really free. It wasn’t a vision or a dream, but he is really on the street. Then he moves more urgently into action, going to Mary’s house. Rhoda is so shocked upon hearing Peter’s voice through the gate that she forgets to open the door. The congregation is so shocked that Peter would actually be free that they doubt Rhoda’s claims until they go with her to the door and open it. They are so shocked that they can’t stop talking, and Peter has to “shush” them with his hand. I’m sure he doesn’t want to draw too much attention their way until they are safe inside. And even then, Peter doesn’t stick around town very long. He probably left within days of this event. The guards are shocked when they can’t find Peter at the change of the watch. Herod is shocked when the town is searched and Peter is nowhere to be found. He has the guards killed.
We too are surprised when God answers our prayers in ways we don’t expect. That is okay. God is glorified in our amazement. We can be surprised by God’s answers, but we ought not be surprised that God does respond to prayer. The Scriptures tell us that prayer is effective. Jesus told us that if we ask in His name the Father will hear and answer. God tells us He will hear and answer when our hearts are right before God. There is promise after promise about our God who answers the prayers of His people. We ought to always pray boldly in faith knowing that God will answer our prayers, regardless of what that answer might look like.
If we want our church to grow, we have to pray for it—not just once or twice or half-heartedly, but full of faith trusting that God will answer even though the answer might surprise us. But God answers! Who knows how the church prayed when James was arrested? He was killed, but Peter was delivered. Why did God work so differently? We don’t know why God moves the way God does, but we know God was glorified in the martyrdom of James just as much as God was glorified in the deliverance of Peter. Praying that God will be glorified in and through our lives and the lives of others and the life of our church is a prayer that is guaranteed to be answered because God is incapable of doing anything else but bringing glory to Himself. Let us pray as those who are willing to be surprised by God’s answers, but not surprised that God will answer.
That same Puritan prayer I quoted earlier also says, “In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, Your kingdom to come with greatest freedom, ardent hopes, as son to his father, as a lover to the beloved. Help me to be all prayer and to never cease praying.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World, Rev. 2:18-29

“Living Christ’s Kingdom Now” is our church’s motto. If you didn’t know that or forgot it, you will see it on the front of your bulletin. That motto, “Living Christ’s Kingdom Now,” is a good way of summarizing the last Great End of the Church--# 6 of our 6-fold mission statement, which is the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World. When we do all of the other 5 great ends—proclaim the gospel, shelter and fellowship with one another, preserve truth, maintain worship, and promote social righteousness, then we do exhibit God’s Kingdom. God’s kingdom is coming in perfection when Christ returns, repeated over and over in the book of Revelation is Jesus saying, “Behold, I am coming soon.” But Christ commanded us to live out that kingdom even now. Darrell L. Gruder in his book Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World, which I commend to you and will leave on the back table, says, “The exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world must be characterized by faithfulness to both the message and methods of Jesus.” We see in these 7 letters to the churches, Christ admonishing the churches for their failure to live out His kingdom and warning them of the consequences while also giving them hope if they return to faithfulness.
Even as a small church, we are called to exhibit Christ’s Kingdom to the world. The letters in Revelation apply to us too. The suggested reading for this particular great end of the church was the letter to the church at Laodicea. Many scholars find parallels between our culture and that one—it is the last of the 7 letters to the churches. Laodicea is the lukewarm church caught up in consumerism. And why I think that describes some American churches, I chose to read the letter to the church at Thyatira, because I think it speaks more accurately to the state of our denomination.
The church at Thyatira is commended for its works of love, faith, service, and patient endurance. The PC(USA) is great at some of these things as well. We are quick to respond to disasters, we advocate for those who have no voice, we are generous, we work for justice, have fabulous missionaries, etc. But like Thyatira, we have not only tolerated but succumbed to false teaching which draws us away from Christ and Christ’s transforming power. Warren Wiersbe says, “No amount of works can compensate for the tolerance of evil.”
The church at Thyatira was chastised by God for tolerating “Jezebel”. Whatever the false teacher or teachers in the church at Thyatira were doing and teaching, they were compared to Jezebel. You may remember Jezebel from our study of Kings. Jezebel was King Ahab’s wife, and she was a wicked woman. You may remember that she tried to kill Elijah or have him killed on more than one occasion. She wasn’t just a worshipper of Baal, she was a high priestess of Baal. She was responsible for leading and teaching worship. She claimed to speak on Baal’s behalf and deliver his words to the people. Whatever was being taught in Thyatira was similarly heinous in God’s sight. It included idolatry and fornication—people going elsewhere other than to God to have their needs and desires met, and practicing worship in a way contrary to what God has appointed. The teaching and practice was also referred to as “the deep things of Satan”.
There are challenges within our denomination to Jesus alone as the way of salvation, to the authority of Scripture, and to Christ’s call to holiness. You won’t find these challenges in the Book of Order, the words there remain orthodox, but you will hear them in interpretations and debates and see them in practice. Like Thyatira we have had time to repent and have not, and we are looking at an implosion of the church if we do not change.
I think some of the most hopeful words about the power of our risen and living Lord are found in I Corinthians 6. Paul writes: READ I Cor. 6:9-11. Paul says, “And such were some of you.” We were those who could not inherit the kingdom, but in Jesus, we are washed, made holy, and declared righteous. We have the full inheritance of the kingdom. Jesus always takes us as we are, but the good news is that He doesn’t let us stay there. He works to transform our lives. I am not who I was yesterday, and I am not who I will be tomorrow. There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do. If we submit to the Spirit, the Spirit will make us more and more like Jesus. Romans 8 says that all 3 members of the Trinity work to that end in our lives—to make us like Jesus. The transforming power of the Trinity must never be minimized. It’s not that we can’t change, it’s that we won’t change. If we are willing to be changed, then God will accomplish the changes that He desires in us. We have the power to resist change, but is that really what we want do? Sometimes it is because we like sin too much. But the message of the Kingdom is the transformation and redemption of everything and every part of us. Don’t resist the Spirit and the rule of Christ in your life.
Presbyterians love to say that we are “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—the churched reformed always reforming.” The whole Latin phrase is this: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei—the church reformed always being reformed in accordance with the Word of God. That last part is crucial. We are not to be about change for change’s sake or just any kind of change, but change in accordance with God’s word. Gruder explains…READ pg. 60, top paragraph.
Also like Thyatira, there are those who have held steadfast to the faith. Not everyone has succumbed to false teaching, and Jesus knows those who are faithful. He doesn’t ask us to do anything else but remain faithful, and keep doing what He has already told us to do. We are to continue in His works. Our prayer for the church can be that of Paul in Philippians 1: READ Phil. 1:9-11. We are to be the Body of Christ in the world until He comes. We are to live in such a way that shows what we can be and what God desires us to be—a redeemed creation, God-honoring, and obedient. We are, as Rev. David Gushee says, “a witness people,” testifying to the goodness and power of Christ and using words when necessary. Darrell L. Gruder says this: READ from pg. v
And finally, we are to be that community of love that John writes about in his letters. Jesus told us that it is by our love that people will recognize that we are His disciples. Love is our central obligation—our love not only for God and for one another, but for every person, including those who we think of as our enemies. Including those who actions and teachings we must renounce. Again Gruder writes: READ pg. 31. Once again we see the amazing goodness of Christ and His ability to transform and redeem the worst of the worst. Further, READ pg.
Jesse Eubanks spoke of this last week. We are to sow the seed everywhere. It is up to God to grow the seeds. We are to sow without compromise—without compromise to our own prejudices or to the demands of the culture around us. We must sow the seed of uncompromised gospel, never compromising the love of Christ.
We can be certain that God will complete what God has begun. God will bring in the great harvest, and God’s Spirit remains in, on, and with the church to enable us to obey in spite of and in tension with her sinfulness. We are called to faithfully exhibit a kingdom that is sure to come and already is come.