Welcome to our worship today! And welcome to those joining us by way of the radio. This week we continue our series on the book of Acts. Last week Pastor John told us about the church at Antioch in Acts 11. It was inspiring it to see how the Christians there were so passionate, how generous they were. It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.
And then we get to Acts chapter 12. It starts off with James the brother of John being executed by King Herod. Then Peter is unjustly arrested and Herod is planning to kill him. Then there’s some good stuff that we’ll talk about in a minute. And at the end of the chapter, Herod ends up dying a hideous death.
Never a dull moment in the 1st century Church!
This King Herod in Acts 12 is Herod Agrippa. He is the grandson of Herod the Great, the king who was living when Jesus was born and felt so threatened by Jesus’ birth. Agrippa was the half-brother of Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist beheaded--among other atrocities. The name Herod has some violent baggage with it!
Herod Agrippa saw the Christians as a rebellious threat. So he starts off his attack on the Church by having James executed. It gets the political response he hopes for and so he arrests Peter next. Peter is put in prison under high security-----------4 squads of 4 soldiers each.
How does the church respond? Look at verse 5 —
Acts 12:5 “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
What does Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, mean by “earnestly”? Very intently -- praying very seriously -- continuously -- with sincerity and intense feeling. In other words they weren’t just going through the motions. After what had happened to James, they were deeply concerned about Peter.
After all, he was the one that Jesus commissioned in our Gospel reading. “Feed my lambs” he told Peter. “Take care of my flock.” The early Christians depended on Peter. And he was in great danger.
Can you remember the last time when you prayed earnestly for something? Maybe before a surgery for yourself or someone you love. For good results from a job interview. For rain or protection from fire.
Can you remember the last time you prayed UN-earnestly about something? Unfortunately, I can think of more than a few UN-earnest prayers I’ve said. Maybe you can too. You know the kind--where when you finish you hardly remember what you prayed about. We can do that with written prayers, memorized prayers or spontaneous prayers---whenever we’re not really focused on what we’re praying about.
You may have heard the story of Martin Luther’s dog. The dog was by the table and wanted a piece of meat from his master. He sat there and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes. Luther said, “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. He has no other thought, wish, or hope.”
“If I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat!” Lord --- teach us to pray earnestly!
Thankfully the Lord can work through even our UN-earnest prayers to bring about his will and blessings. But if a central purpose of prayer is connecting us with God and changing how we see life, then we’re really the ones who are harmed by UN-earnest, frivolous prayers.
We can learn from those Christians in Jerusalem who were very earnest in praying for Peter. We’ll see shortly that their problem was a different one!
But for Peter, time was running out.
Acts 12:6 “The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.”
It was the night before his trial and likely execution and what was Peter's reaction to all of this? Get a good night’s sleep.
You may remember what Peter wrote a little later on in his life ---
1 Peter 5:7 "Cast all your anxiety on God because He cares for you"
It seems that Peter truly believed and practiced that. Peter was sleeping. Not tossing and turning, but sleeping!
Those of us who toss and turn thinking about upcoming appointments, impending decisions and procedures…....any of you out there? We would all do well to follow Peter's example. The night before his execution, Peter had obviously cast his cares upon the Lord because when the angel arrived sent from God, Peter was sleeping.
Acts 12:7 “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.”
The angel even had to remind a groggy Peter to get dressed and led him out of the prison past the guards and onto the street. Peter thought he was dreaming, but what he soon learned was that he was, in fact, a part of a miracle sent by God.
In the meantime, Jesus’ followers, Peter’s friends, have been earnestly praying to God for him. Which is why what happens next is so strange.
Acts 12:12-15 “Peter went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!" "You're out of your mind," they told her.”
This is Rhoda’s one and only appearance in the Bible and the people who have been praying so earnestly for Peter’s release won’t believe her that Peter is at the door! Not now God — we’re praying!
Why do the Christians gathered there at Mary’s house have trouble believing that their prayers have been answered?
Have you ever prayed earnestly for something and then had trouble believing that God was answering your prayer? Why is it sometimes hard for us to believe that God has answered our prayers --- Peter standing right in front of us?
Maybe we get so used to not having our prayers answered immediately, or we get so used to not having our prayers answered in the way we want, that we don’t really expect God to do anything when we pray. We end up praying simply because we know we should. We end up praying with only a glimmer of hope that God will answer. And so when Peter ends up at our door, we don’t recognize the answer to our prayers!
I can’t count the number of times I have prayed for my family to travel safely home and then when I hear that they’ve arrived safely, I think — “That’s good” and forget that once more God has answered my prayer.
Not now God — we’re praying!
We know it’s true and yet it still surprises us when God answers our prayers in his perfect will and the miracles happen. Of course there are still the unanswered questions. Like---why was Peter saved and not James? God only knows. We don’t. God sees the big picture—we don’t. Whether God calms the storms of life or perhaps more often, calms us while the storms still rage, we can trust that God’s love for us goes beyond any measure and that he does hear our prayers.
You have to give Rhoda credit. She wouldn’t give up ---
Acts 12:15-17 “When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison.”
They were astonished. How can this happen?
I don’t get it! How often do we say that? Maybe in reaction to evil in the world or hurricanes, or prayers that seem to go unanswered. Things that happen that we can’t explain. I just don’t understand!
There’s nothing wrong at all with having those thoughts. Very natural, human, even healthy to voice things we wonder about. But what’s not healthy is thinking --- “If I can’t understand it, it can’t be true. If something doesn’t agree with how I see life, it can’t be right. If I don’t understand everything about God, he can’t be real.”
That kind of thinking usually comes because we have absorbed one of the dominant views of our culture which goes like this --- “I have to understand these things because after all, I am the final authority in life.”
And if I can’t understand them, what happens too often is that I look for some fiction or partial truth that makes sense to me and I accept that as true.
It really boils down to the question --- do you or I believe there is a God? If so, then isn’t it a reasonable, logical step to accept that there will be lots of things we don’t understand?
Imagine that you could go back in time and meet Albert Einstein or someone else that you would accept as being far smarter than you are. Would you expect that you could understand everything Einstein could tell you about his theory of relativity (E=mc2), and theoretical physics? Or would you accept that you couldn’t understand it all but that it could be true? If you trusted Einstein, that would make it easier to accept what he told you, even though you didn’t get it.
Einstein was plenty smart, but if we believe in God, Einstein still was far, far off, infinitely far, from God in intelligence. In fact at several times in his life, Einstein said things that showed that while he probably wasn’t strictly Christian in his views, he did have a strong sense of the existence of God.
Einstein wrote --- “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
In response to a young girl who had asked him whether he believed in God, he wrote: “everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a Spirit vastly superior to that of man.”
If we believe that there is a “Spirit vastly superior to that of man”, then we can accept that there are and will be things that we can’t understand and that’s OK. Because we can trust that God does understand, even when it conflicts with how we see things. It’s not blind acceptance. We should strive to understand all we can. But then be at peace with what we can’t.
We don’t always understand. But we can still believe. Luke lets us see these Christians in Jerusalem as they really were — imperfect like us. Earnest in their prayers — but not recognizing the answer that God sent them. Faith one minute — they don’t get it, the next!
Which is evidence once more of the Bible’s truth. Skeptics will dismiss Peter’s miraculous release from prison — just a legend they say. But nobody creating a legend would make up a story like this. Rhoda so excited she forgets to open the door. The praying people who think Rhoda is crazy when she tells them their prayers are answered. It rings true because it doesn’t skip over the flaws of the people involved. It shows them as ordinary flawed people like you and me. People who didn’t understand it all, but still believed.
It’s a lesson in Basic Christianity.
We believe there is a God who has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And since there is a God --- not some little god in charge of one part of life like the Greeks and Romans believed in --- but a God who created and sustains the whole universe --- then isn’t it natural to want to know his desire for how the world and you and me should operate --- to know his instructions for life?
And since we believe there is such a God, then it would be incredibly arrogant to think that we would know life better than he does!
We need to know God. He wants us to know him. He has revealed himself to us. So if you want to know God, look at God’s word, the Bible. And not just a verse or two out of context, but over time, get the whole picture. And start with the Gospels --- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which record Jesus’s life. Because if you want to know God, you need to know Jesus. And as you read the Bible, the Holy Spirit will help you to know our God who was personally present in Jesus.
That may go against our culture which says---“All you really need to know is yourself.” But if you want to really know yourself, don’t you need to know the ONE who created you? Don’t you need to know about how God came into human life in Jesus and what he did for us in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? And don’t you need to know his purpose for you?
This chapter Acts 12 is filled with some pretty tough stuff, prison and death. But it was also filled with a great lesson for us in Basic Christianity.
Pray Earnestly --- Wait Expectantly --- Act Wisely, Always Guided by the Lord