SERMON: WHEN THE CHURCH PRAYS
READING: Acts 12:1-17
We hear lots in the Bible about the family of Herod. Most of what we hear is not good. Herod the Great wanted Jesus killed so badly he slew all the babies under 2 years old.- Matt. 2. In the reading you heard of Herod the King. This is Herod the Great's grandson, named Agrippa I. It is easy to read Acts 12 and draw a profile of this man. He was mean to Christians and part of the problem was that he was a "people pleaser." Completely politically motivated he did what they wanted done.
He arrested some who "belonged to the church."
He had James killed with the sword.
And then he seized Peter and put him in prison.
1. PETER'S PERIL. "...this pleased the Jews, (Herod) proceeded to seize Peter also. .. he put him in prison...to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each." vs, 3,4. Perhaps it seemed like a victory for the enemies of the cross, to have the ringleader behind bars. Recall how much it is announced when a high ranking Al-Quaeda leader is captured. To make sure he wasn't going to leave, Peter was assigned 16 soldiers to guard him around the clock. The plan was to bring him out for a trial after the holy days of Passover. A public trial could only mean one thing- death. It is not possible for Peter to escape on human strength, brilliance or ingenuity. He was constantly chained to two soldiers. Certain things are just not appropriate on holy days, including mock trial and execution. Peter is in deep trouble.
Only guessing, but probably no one here has been incarcerated in jail or prison. Psychologically, it must be traumatic. But many of us have been in a real bind and didn't know how to get out.
2. PRAYER'S PERSUASION. " Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him"5 The turning point in this story is found in verse 5- "so Peter was kept in prison but the church was earnestly praying to God for him." The contrast is obvious: Peter was bound but prayer was loosed! How many people were praying at any given time we don't know, but it appears that this was the focus of their prayer life at this moment. (cf v.12) They believed that if it was God's will his life would be spared. Even when we know that God's will is not always what we want, and He doesn't always promise life over death, we pray what we believe is best at that time. These Christians would have known of others, like Stephen and James, who lost their lives in God service. As they are praying right now, under the jurisdiction of this Herod, they are being quiet so as to stay alive. Peter's reputation of boldness for preaching the word without thought for his life would make him an easy target for those who care little for human life or what is right.
PETER'S PEACE."Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains"- 6 Is Peter worried about whether he lives or dies? Let's see. My Bible says he's sleeping. He is chained to two soldiers while two more guard the door, but he is sleeping so peacefully, he had to be thumped, in order to be awakened. How can the man who had been so wishy-washy and afraid of even being identified with Jesus, sleep like a baby, under this pressure? Recent events include his witnessing or knowing about the recent death of his close friend, former business partner and until recently, fellow apostle, James, die by the sword. It is now "the night before Herod was to bring him to trial,"-v.6, which meant almost certain death in the morning. This is Peter's third time to be arrested for the same offense- being God's man and perhaps the law of averages will catch up to him (three strikes out!). So how could Peter or anyone sleep under this pressure? Three reasons: Those "justified by faith, have peace with God." -Rom. 5:1. This "peace" is not the common garden variety we sometimes identify, but "the peace that surpasses all understanding." Jesus had told him that he wouldn't die a relatively young man possibly even the kind of death he would die. Jesus had said to Peter, "when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.h (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) Contextually, many, many people who held the same hope as Peter, through faith in the resurrected Jesus, were occupying themselves in prayer for him. Peter was their priority.
PRAYER'S POWER "Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell." 7 . God's angel was just waiting for this nudge so he could go and do some good. We have a similar expression in Daniel 9:2--23. Gabriel was on his mark and moved when the message got there. This is an amazing event. Peter was not praying, he was sleeping. Perhaps he did before he went to sleep, but it seems like the whole Jerusalem church was in prayer around the clock. If they are praying for God will to be Peter's deliverance, then that is called supplication or petition. They are requesting, even begging God to make it happen. Let me point us to a passage of Scripture that mentions several kinds of communication with God- I Timothy 2:1-4. Let's read this. The "First of all" points to the important place of prayer in our lives. What is important to us we spend time on or with. As we use it improvement is observed. Does this describe you? The first kind of prayer here is called "requests." Then there are three others angles mentioned. The praying in Acts 12 would be thanksgiving and requests. Note in I Timothy that we are to pray for everyone, and that we stand to benefit from God's answer- " that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." These Christians in Jerusalem really wanted Peter out of there so they talked to God about it. We can pray for the good of others and ourselves and wait for God to answer. Peter is directed by the angel of the Lord to get dressed and to follow orders. The chains fell off, they moved past the other guards, the iron gate opened on its own, and Peter is alone. Since he wanted to report the good news that God had answered their prayers, so he headed for the house of Mary, mother of John Mark. When you remember that (a) many people were praying, (b) they were praying earnestly, (c) they prayed night and day for perhaps as long as a week, and (d) their prayers were centered specifically on Peterfs deliverance, then the scene that is described here is almost comical. The answer to their prayers is standing at the door, but they donft have faith enough to open the door and let him in! God could get Peter out of a prison, but Peter canft get himself into a prayer meeting! God alone can do the extraordinary, but His people must do the ordinary. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but the men had to roll the stone from the tomb. The same angel that removed the chains from Peterfs hands could have put the shoes on Peterfs feet, but he told Peter to do it. God never wastes miracles.
3. WHEN THIS CHURCH PRAYS FERVENTLY. I know I pray and I know you pray. But what could we expect from a church dedicated to prayer?
1. Earnest Prayer To God Can Bring Light Out Of Darkness "a light shone in the cell" Light is often used in the Bible as knowledge of God or spiritual things, of salvation in Christ, of Jesus himself,good, and of revelation of truth. Which one of you has not been living in darkness or had a dark time? Perhaps it was a sin, or maybe sickness, or sadness, or separation in a relationship. If the whole church knew, the whole church could pray. There is a difference in 10 church people praying alone and 10 church praying as a church. Reading Acts 2 and 12 would remind us of the fervency and constancy of prayer. Hebrews 10:24,25 indicates that there is a strength found in numbers together. For this to work confession would have to be part of our church life. Not just admitting sin, but disclosure of a dark spot.
2. Fervent Prayer Can Set Us Free From Bondage, Fears and Cares "the chains fell off." We can and usually do speak to God about our chains in private. Would there not be an added element of fellowship and warmth if we could bring ourselves to "say and pray?" When we start this it will mean "letting go and letting God" or "casting all our cares on him." The casual prayer together would not fulfill this concept. "Earnest" comes from "stretched out," so we would need to be "stretched to the max." This describes the action of Jesus as he begged his Father "take this cup from me," and returned to his disciples to find them asleep. The scripture here says, "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly and his sweat was like drops of blood..." This morning we are only discussing the church praying earnestly.
3. Stretched Out Prayer Bring Joy. "When [Rhoda] recognized Peter's voice she was overjoyed..." This comical scene at Mary's house has many lessons. Ronda was at first overjoyed then overwhelmed. She forgot to open the gate! Great joy can do this to us. A mistake like this would be welcomed in light of answered prayer.
4. Earnest Prayer Can Bring Results In The Presence Of Doubt. The comedy scene continues. The people in earnest prayer told Rhonda she was out of her mind and suggested she had seen Peter's angel. The answer to their prayers is standing at the door, but they donft have faith enough to open the door and let him in! God could get Peter out of a prison, but Peter canft get himself into a prayer meeting! Remember that they had probably prayed for James and he lost his life, so doubt as to exact answer might be understandable. But God still came through. We need people of faith to be praying with us, but God can work anyway.
CONCLUSION: Do not take this as criticism, not even constructive criticism. Just let me say that we are not at present known as "people of prayer." We also are quite careful to not ask God anything that is very far outside of our understanding. I.e. we might pray for travel safety, but not that God would send an angel to guard a sister in Christ. The idea of the miraculous still be around makes me and other uncomfortable. But I do know that, when given the opportunity, some here can tell some amazing stories of God's doings that are outside the natural. Here is one from Dr. Helen Roseveare She was missionary to Zaire, told the following story. "A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. 'Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won't feel so lonely.'
That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, 'If God sent that, I'm sure He also sent a doll!' And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child's sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies' group to include both of those specific articles."