A 2018 survey showed just over half of UK adults pray - way more people than would call themselves religious or go to church. Half of those prayer-ers, that’s a quarter of UK adults, believe that God hears them. Perhaps the other half must be banking on the power of our thoughts, or just not really clear why they do what they do. What about you? Whether you’re a follower of Jesus, or just exploring things with us, do you pray? Do you believe that God hears you? I expect many of us do.
But let’s be honest: prayer is really pretty mysterious. I mean, why pray if God already knows everything that’s going on and everything you are thinking? Why pray if God is perfectly good and wise? Surely he’ll do what’s right anyway - whether you pray or not. Why pray if often I don’t get what I ask for? Does it really make any difference? How do I pray for things sincerely when I don’t know whether they’re ever actually going to happen? Is there any point in praying if I have little to no faith what I’m praying for is really going to happen?
Prayer is one of those subjects that seems really simple. It is easy to get started - really easy! If you’ve never prayed, when I pray, I’m just thinking things inside my head and believing that God hears. But the more you think about prayer, the more questions you have.
We’re working our way through the story of the earliest churches, from two thousand years ago. It’s got lots to teach us - and today one of the big things it invites us to think about is prayer. We’re going to see prayer opens doors. We’ll see prayers answered with miracles - but we’re also going to see disappointments and doubts.
One thing before we read: king Herod is a key character in today’s passage but the Herods in the bible get a bit confusing so here’s a really quick primer for you: The grandfather of the dynasty was the self-styled Herod the Great – who, as well as murdering many of his family, murdered babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to murder baby Jesus. It was one of his sons – Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist, and who got the silent treatment from Jesus when Pontius Pilate sent him over during his trial. And it’s one of the grandsons of Herod the Great whom we now meet - King Herod Agrippa. He had grown up in Rome, getting into a fair bit of trouble while doing that, but had friends in high places and so ended up ruling a bunch of the map. His patch included the province where Jerusalem and this very first church were.
Over to Liz...
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 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. 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. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.” When this had dawned on him, he 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 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. 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. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place. In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
Thank you Liz - that’s a great story isn’t it? Proper drama, lots of action, and a bit of humour too - I particularly like Rhoda being so excited she leaves Peter stuck outside the door, still knocking! But let’s start at the beginning.
Powerless people persevere in prayer - you’ll have to forgive me - I was having fun with my p’s this week.
These early believers we’re reading about, this nascent church, they are utterly powerless in earthly terms as this new wave of persecution crashes down on them. They can’t send an elite squad of marines on a night time rescue mission, off to quietly bust Peter out of the jail. They’re can’t fill the streets and squares with protesters and placards, calling for justice and Peter’s release. They don’t have bags of riches to bribe Peter’s way out. They have zero political capital, zero friends in high places, so there’s no chance they can sway Herod’s hand or shift his plans when the Jewish people are busy applauding him. They are truly powerless - and Peter’s on death row.
So what do they do? They pray. They pray “earnestly” - which literally translates “outstretched”. This is how Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is described. Maybe it’s stretched out on the floor on their faces, seeing their powerlessness, or with hands outstretched to heaven, reaching out to God for help. People often raise their hands to God in praise today but in the bible, hands are often raised in prayer too. They pray persistently - Peter’s been in jail for quite a few days and they’re still going even though it’s the middle of the night as the clock ticks down towards zero.
Now how often do you feel powerless? If you’re anything like me, it’s pretty often, right? There are loads of reasons to feel powerless in our modern world: huge companies with fingers in almost every pie who seem free to do whatever they please; a political class where many appear to have little regard for the people they supposedly serve; systems controlling so much of our lives which just grind on relentlessly and mechanically; we’re just one voice among millions or billions. Closer to home, we’re often powerless in the face of health problems, people in authority, faceless systems. Perhaps it’s pretty reasonable to feel powerless. Perhaps we’re kidding ourselves when we feel power full.
But I wonder how often when confronted by your powerlessness you respond by praying - praying passionately: earnestly, stretched out, at full stretch?
Me, not too often.
I wonder how often when we’re feeling powerless, we respond not just by praying passionately, but by praying persistently?
Me, not too often.
Now we don’t face the same emergency those first believers did - but there’s plenty in this world we would like to see change, plenty of urgent needs in our own lives. Persistence in prayer? Not too often.
Why is that? Why, when we recognise we’re powerless, do we so rarely devote ourselves to seeking the ear of someone who is quite the opposite: our God, full of power, the ultimate power? ...
I’m going to leave that question hanging for now. I think the story is going to give us some clues - but let’s look at what happens when people do persist in passionate prayer first:
For a while we went to Time Square Church which, rather unsurprisingly was on Time Square in New York. It was the sort of church where people joined in with the preacher, a church where when he started bible verses or key phrases, the congregation was in a competition to see who could finishing them for him the loudest. It was a cool church. One of their phrases which has really stuck with me is this: “he’s never too early, he’s never too late, he’s an on-time God” That’s what they would say. “he’s never too early, he’s never too late, he’s an on-time God” The guy at the front would start, and then everyone would join in. Go on - let’s give it a try: “he’s never too early, he’s never too late, he’s an on-time God”
See, it’s the last minute when the angel shows up. But God isn’t late - he shows up exactly when he means to. He’s an on-time God. And so we get to watch Peter’s peaceful prison parting
There are loads of interesting and amusing details in this. Notice the angel has to get him up in a hurry - “quick, get up!” the angel says. Perhaps that’s because God had left it to the absolutely last minute, the morning of Peter’s execution just moments away? Seems like Peter is struggling to get his eyes properly open here - like a teenager waking at mid day. It’s like the story wants us to picture him with sandals on the wrong feet, tunic back to front, hair uncombed, staggering out of prison dazed and bewildered behind the angel. He doesn’t really believe it’s happening - probably doesn’t really know what’s happening - until the angel leaves him.
To put it mildly, Peter’s a little surprised he’s been delivered - even though he’s been delivered from prison before. And he’s not the only one.
Pray-ers perplexed at portal presence
When Peter finally makes it to the house of Mary, to the believers gathered in prayer, he ends up stuck at the door. These believers, even though they are praying passionately and persistently, really aren’t expecting Peter to show up. When the report comes to them that he’s ready and waiting, they say it like they see it: “you’re out of your mind.” It can’t be Peter - silly Rhoda - he’s in prison. And when she insists, they’re like, no no, calm down calm down, it’s not Peter.
Maybe it’s his angel - this is one of the places people point to for the idea of guardian angels, by the way. It’s not obvious though - maybe these disciples’ theology is mixed up - it certainly is mixed up sometimes about some things. Maybe only big guns get angels like that. Or maybe the right way to translate the word angelos in this case would be “messenger” as in a human messenger - because that’s the same word - maybe they wondered if there was a messenger, sent from Peter in prison. So I don’t think we should build too much theology on their suggestions here - it’s certainly not the main thing going on in this passage. And in any event, they’re wrong: it’s not his angel!
Peter’s really there, in the flesh. He’s really out. Their prayers have really been answered - because I think we can safely presume this is what they were praying for - you can see they are praying specifically for Peter in v5 - “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” - and while some commentators suggest they might be praying he would die well, I think given he’s already been miraculously released from prison once, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t be praying for him to be released again.
On the one hand it looks like these believers are full of faith because here they are, in the middle of the night, persevering in prayer for Peter. But on the other hand it looks like they’re not so full of faith because they really don’t seem to be expecting him to show up - and he doesn’t seem to be expecting to walk free either. This is a great piece of evidence for the authenticity of the story we’re reading: who’d invent a legend which highlights the unbelief of believers?! But despite their unbelief, there he is at the door.
So what? What does this have to say to you and me? One thing it says is that prayers of limited faith can still be answered in the most amazing ways. I’m not saying those disciples praying had no faith, no hope that they would see Peter again - but I do think it’s fair to suggest they had at least a little less than bulletproof rock-solid gold standard faith they’d see Peter again. But still God answered with power.
Reflecting on this, I remembered Jesus speaking about the significance of faith and the problem of doubt - when I looked closely at what he says, it wasn’t quite what I had assumed, though. There’s one instance where his disciples are marvelling at the power of his words on a fig tree, causing it to immediately wither, and he tells them:
Matthew 21:21–22 (NIV)
“Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
There it sounds like doubt is toxic, like any doubt at all would torpedo things. But that’s not actually what Jesus says. He says believing prayers are answered - and I know there’s a whole host of issues around that, but that’s another topic - not for today. What he doesn’t say is doubt closes the door. We might imagine it’s implied but Jesus doesn’t say it. “if you doubt, if you doubt at all, nothing for you. You’re wasting your time. Talk to the hand.” Actually, Jesus also tells us:
Matthew 17:20 (NIV)
if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
just a little bit of faith, a mustard seed sized bit - that’s an idiom for a really small thing - can see amazing things happen. To be fair, when Jesus said this, his point was that his disciples didn’t even have a mustard seed sized bit of faith! But I think this story gives us ground for praying even if we only have a mustard seed sized lump of faith - maybe even just the tiniest speck of faith. I think we’ve got grounds here for praying when we can hardly believe God would answer - because it sure seems like these disciples didn’t have much faith that God would answer. But he did.
Prayers of limited faith are still heard and can still be answered in the most amazing ways. Perhaps we could say just like the angel opens the door for Peter, prayer -even prayer with limited faith- opens the door for an answer?
There’s something we’re overlooking, though - the elephant in the room: James is dead.
One of Jesus’ inner ring of 3 is dead: Peter, James and John had a bunch of special experiences with Jesus. They seem to have been picked out by him to have a special role among the 12 disciples or apostles. They’ve taken a leading role in the early church. Executed by beheading, a method reserved for murderers and apostates. No angel for James, no chains falling off, no automatically opening gates. Instead, James is dead. Peter’s whole story of deliverance follows hot on the heels of James’ death.
Do you think the disciples weren’t praying for James in the same way they prayed for Peter? Of course they were praying for James - I bet Peter was too. Do you think they prayed with less faith? If anything, they’d be praying with more confidence and faith before James’ death compared to after it. But still James is dead.
Why? We simply don’t know. God has his reasons and perhaps one day he’ll share them. What’s brutally clear here is the disciples don’t always get what they pray for - and I’m sure you know that personally, too: we don’t always get what we pray for. God is not a cosmic slot machine. Pull the prayer handle in the right way and things go your way, just need to master the technique. That’s not God, that’s not prayer.
The thing I really want us to see today is how the disciples respond. Praying urgently and intensely for James, and seeing their prayer go unanswered in a terrible and final way, must have been a body blow to their faith. Ooof. And perhaps we see the impact of that blow in how surprised they seem to be by Peter’s deliverance. … But still they pray.
Here’s my question: what does unanswered prayer do to you - to me. When we pray for something big, something important, and nothing happens - or things turn out even worse than we’d feared. It can rock our faith, or just slowly eat away at it like rust. But worse than that, I think it can stop us praying - at least about big, important things. It’s like a two-pronged attack: disappointment from the left: is God going to answer if I pray? I don’t know. He doesn’t always. So it’s harder to pray. Then doubt from the right: do my doubts torpedo my prayers, sink them before they ever get to God? So it’s harder again to pray.
But see it here: Prayer can open doors. Even prayer which is surprised by its answer.
Here’s what I think we learn: we can open God-sized doors through praying God-sized prayers. Even though we don’t always get an answer. Even though we have doubts. Prayer can open doors - and I want to challenge you -and me- to pray bigger, to prayer more. To acknowledge our doubts and disappointments, but to pray anyway. To see when we’re in danger of backing off and giving up and to say “no” and pray anyway.
Where we’re powerless, let’s pray to the powerful one. Keep on praying. Because prayer can open doors.
And because we love to get practical here at Hope City, I want to invite you to start right now. I’m going to give us a minute here and I challenge you - through your disappointments and doubts - to pray some big prayers; perhaps prayers you’ve given up on. Perhaps prayers you’ve never dared to pray yet. Let’s pray some big prayers - and see what doors God opens.