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.”

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