Set Free – August 5, 2007
Exodus 12:21-39, Acts 12:1-17
This Summer, we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts, from the day of Pentecost on through these early days of the Church. Well, here today we find that things are really heating up for the early Christians. And by the way, near the end of Chapter 11 we are told that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:26) And I really do hope you will go back and read these places we’ve skipped over. It will give a more complete flow to all of this. It would take too long to read all of this on a Sunday morning.
Here, at the beginning of chapter 12, Herod the king comes into the picture. Do you remember him? Now we’re not talking about “Herod the Great.” Herod the Great was the one who was around at the time of Jesus’ birth. He was the one who told the wise men to go and find the newborn king, and then to “bring word so that I too may come and worship him.” He was the one who, when those wise men “returned to their own country by another way,” became enraged, and sent his soldiers to kill all the children in the region.
This Herod we read about in Acts was his grandson, Herod Agrippa. This is the Herod Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to during his trial. This is the one who had heard how famous Jesus had become, and asked him to perform one of his miracles for him. Then, when Jesus did nothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And while this Herod did not have the ruthless reputation of his cruel grandfather, he apparently had at least some of his proclivity for cruel behavior.
In the first part of this chapter, we read, “Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.” Then it says, “He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he had Peter arrested, too.” That’s sad, isn’t it? This is James of “James and John.” Do you remember them? They were the sons of Zebedee. Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” These are the ones whose mother asked of Jesus for them to sit at his right and left hand in the kingdom. That James was the first of the original Apostles to die for his faith. He wanted to sit at Jesus’ right hand, and he got there before the rest of them!
So, what then of Peter? His is a very interesting story. This is the first of several times in Acts that God caused his people to be miraculously set free from jail. Herod had Peter arrested, then he put four squads of guards over him. He had him bound with two chains and he put a soldier on each side of him to guard him. It makes me wonder what he thought was going to happen? At any rate, we’re told that Herod “intended to bring him out before the people after the Passover.” And I think it’s pretty clear, especially after he had James killed, that he was going to have Peter publicly executed!
Well, God had other plans! Peter was asleep, and an angel of the Lord appeared. And I would remind you at this point that angels are rarely described in the scriptures the way artists have sometimes portrayed them. First of all, they were not people who had passed away and had been given wings and a harp and a robe. And as I’ve said before, they were not tall, thin, blonde women, either! Angels were a separate order of created beings in and of themselves. They were powerful, fearful beings. When they appeared to people, their first words were usually “be not afraid.” (In this case, the angel doesn’t say that, because Peter thought he was dreaming.)
So this “miracle jailbreak” happens. Peter is set free. His chains fall away without being touched, the doors to the jail open of their own accord. And the angel leads Peter out into the street, and then leaves him. Peter then comes to realize that all of this was indeed true, and that he wasn’t dreaming. So he makes his way to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark. By the way, does that name sound familiar? This is likely the same Mark who wrote the second book of the New Testament.
Peter knocks on the door, and this little scene takes place. Now, notice that this house is a place where Luke tells us that many were gathered to pray for Peter! And when he knocks at the gate, this maid named Rhoda comes and answers. She sees Peter standing there, but then in her joy and amazement, she leaves him standing there and runs and tells the others. She doesn’t even let him in! And then when she goes to tell the others, she has to interrupt their praying for Peter to tell them that Peter is at the door! That’s pretty wild, isn’t it? Even so, what do they say? They say, “Are you nuts?! It can’t be him!” “You’re seeing his guardian angel.”
Now, it is a bit hard to sort this out and to figure out what they meant here when they said it was his “angel.” I was kind of hoping the other translations would use the word, “spirit” or even “ghost.” But they all said “angel.” And that was an important word to them. In those days there was a belief that everybody had a guardian angel. That’s a concept that has gained in popularity over recent years. Whatever the meaning here, the implication is that their immediate thought was this cannot be Peter himself! It had to be something else, something like his spirit, or his ghost, as we might think, or it was his guardian angel, his protector.
At any rate, without going into all that too much, I want you to see what’s happening here. This story is telling us a lot about prayer. These people were gathered together praying for Peter. And lo and behold, the very thing they prayed for happened. And how did they react? They didn’t believe it! He was set free, and their thought was that it couldn’t have happened! What’s going on with them? Were they surprised? Were they caught off guard? Or were they really not expecting what they were praying for actually to happen? Did they even think it possible? And if so, how does that look, especially in these early days of the Church, when so many miraculous things were happening?
Then, let me ask you, does that ever happen to us? I want you to think about that for today. How many things do we pray for, that we hope God has the power to do, that we wish God would do, but in the back of our minds we’re pretty much sure will never really happen? I suspect that thought creeps into all of our minds! It’s too easy to think that. And then, when what we’re praying for doesn’t happen, instead of thinking, “Well, God has decided not to grant this request, for whatever reason.” We’re really thinking in the back of our minds somewhere, “It wasn’t really possible, anyway!” At least we’re tempted to think that, aren’t we?
This story reminds us that we need to “pray expecting.” I think that’s a very important thing. We need to pray expecting what we’re praying for to be possible, and maybe even envisioning it happening. How do we do that? Well, I want you to see that I’m not talking about the “name it and claim it” kind of thing. Sometimes I worry that people latch on to that, thinking that somehow they’re the ones in control, when it’s really God who’s in control. Sometimes that seems like, “If I want it, I pray for it and I get it. Hey, ‘cause that’s what the Bible says.” I don’t want to “shoot down” that idea. But sometimes I feel that people who think that way are somehow holding the God’s words against him. “You said it, God, so we’re holding you to it!” It’s really God who is in control of things, not us!
Anyway, I wanted to make that distinction. When I say that we need to “pray expecting,” what I mean is that we need to learn to pray knowing that God “has the power to do whatever we ask or think,” as Paul told us through his letter to the Ephesians. We need to learn to think in that mindset in our prayers. Again, we’re not the ones in control of God. We still also say, “Lord if it be your will…” However, we pray believing that God can do whatever it is we’re asking. Then, it becomes a matter of thinking in terms of the “will of God.” “Is it God’s will to do what I’m asking?” That’s what’s in our minds. It’s no longer a matter of questioning the ability of God to do what we’ve asked. Do you see the difference? This is pushing aside those thoughts that doubted God’s power and ability to do what we’ve asked.
I think that’s the way God wants us to think in our prayers. We are to have faith in prayer. And our faith in prayer is not based only on results we can see, or on circumstances we can explain. But it’s based also on what we know about God. Faith is based on his promises and his power. We need to pray with faith. We need to pray expecting.
I know that’s difficult for us humans. But when we are part of God’s kingdom, that’s the way we should be learning to think in prayer. And this is not the same as “hopeful thinking.” It’s not, “I hope God will do such and such a thing.” That loses the interaction with God. This is a direct approach. There is a relationship with God in this. I think you’re agree that that’s what God wants with us. He wants us to ask him directly. So “expecting prayer” is saying, “God please do such and such a thing. I know you can. So if it be your will, please do it. And I praise you for it.”
That’s what it means to pray expecting. I know we sometimes forget all that. Sometimes we get hung up on the answers to prayer. We somehow make our relationship with God “results oriented.” It’s the relationship with him that’s important. When you were children, you asked your parents for something and you knew they could do it. But sometimes they said “no.” When that happened, you didn’t doubt their ability or power. But in all that there was interaction. That’s what God wants. Remember that Jesus himself even used the child parent relationship in giving analogies for prayer.
So, how were the disciples – the Christians, as they were now called – praying for Peter in prison? I wonder. Were they praying for him to be set free? If so, did they expect it to happen? Did they believe in a God who had that power to do it? What about us? How do we pray? What’s in the back of our minds? It is my prayer that we can grow in the ability to pray expecting. I expect that to happen!
Lord, we know you are able to do far and above whatever we can ask or think. Help us to believe in your power to work in our lives. Help us when we pray to feel you talking with us. Help us to grow in the Joy of your kingdom. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.