Monday, August 11, 2008

This week's sermon: Peter's at the door!

Acts 12.
So far in Acts, we have seen the church suffer persecution at the hands of the religious community. We haven’t really seen persecution yet from the government. Here in chapter 12, that changes. Herod the king decides that the way to gain favor with the Jewish leadership is to help stamp out this new sect. I want to clarify real quickly, this is not Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born, this is not Herod Antipas who was king when Jesus was crucified, and there are even a couple of other Herods thrown in there as well. This Herod is: Herod Agrippa the first, grandson of Herod the Great and ruler of Judea and Samaria for just a brief period of time. This Herod was very concerned with observing the Law. He wanted to be seen as someone different from others in his family line who were Jews by the slimmest of margin. So Herod Agrippa decides the best way to prove his dedication to God and the Law and the Jewish people was to join them in putting an end to these followers of Jesus.

He started by rounding up a few of the usual suspects and puts to death at least one: James the brother of John, son of Zebedee. This was a great win for his popularity, the Jewish leaders who wanted the disciples rounded up and done away with were happily encouraging the new Herod to continue weeding out the leaders of the believers. Herod had Peter arrested, and because the religious festival was underway, Herod decided to wait until it was finished to make a public spectacle of putting Peter to death. In the meantime, Peter is put into prison and guarded by four squads of four men; four at each watch, two with Peter, two guarding the door. Herod wanted to make sure there was no way that his ticket to acceptance was going to escape.

Peter is in prison and the church is praying. They prayed for the days he was in jail, they prayed earnestly, and without ceasing. They kept praying even when they knew Peter was going to be tried and executed the next day. They didn’t give up. They didn’t decide that Herod was bigger than God. They didn’t throw up there hands and say, “well, we’ve prayed for days and he’s still in prison, I guess there is nothing more we can do.” No! They put their faith in God. They put their trust in God. They put their hope in God. Right up until the deadline. And God answered their prayers.

He didn’t come early, and he wasn’t late, he came when it was time. And I think he had a purpose in his timing. When we pray for God to deliver, and something happens in the natural world to bring an answer, it is so easy to attribute the answer to the world. Here’s an example. If the early church had prayed and Peter was released on a legal technicality, it would have been easy for them to say, “Boy I’m glad there was a loophole, yippee for loopholes!” Likewise, when we pray for someone’s healing, and they receive medical treatment and are cured. It is too easy to attribute it to the doctors, or the procedure, or the medicine. The truth is that God does work through these things to answer our prayers, but the answer comes from God, not the vessel he sends it in.

God wanted those in the early church to see that he was supernaturally rescuing Peter from the jaws of death. They prayed, and the legal system failed them. They prayed and Herod didn’t pardon him. They prayed, and God sent an angel to smack Peter on the side, shine a light in his face and set him on the road to John Mark’s Mom’s house. God wanted all the credit, and the church needed to learn that God is sovereign.

God set Peter free in answer to the prayers of the church, in answer to their faith. But it did not come in the package they were expecting. They were praying for Peter’s release, but they did not expect him to be miraculously released in the middle of the night and show up at the door. So when he knocked, Rhoda wasn’t expecting Peter at the door. When he called out and she recognized his voice she was so overwhelmed that she forgot to let him in. She ran and told the others, “Peter is at the door” and they told her she was crazy! They probably thought, "Too many late night prayer meetings for Rhoda, we’ll have to put her to bed!" When she argued with them, they conceded that maybe it was his angel, whatever that means. But no one thought to open the door. Rhoda is arguing that he is there, but she hasn’t opened the door to let him in. The others who want her to leave them alone so they can get back to praying don’t bother to do the one thing that would cause Rhoda to put herself to bed: open the door to prove it isn’t him. The only one who thinks of opening the door is Peter, he is still standing in the street banging on the door.

Finally, when they opened the door, there stood Peter, and Luke tells us that they were astonished. They must have all been talking at once, because Peter puts up his hand to get them to be quiet. He tells them the story, and instructs them to pass it on to James and the brothers. Then he left. It doesn’t say where he went, just that he left for another place. That seems the wise thing to do when there are people who will soon wake up to find you missing on the day of your trial and impending execution.

Herod had planned an execution, and someone needed to pay for things not going according to plan. Because they had allowed a prisoner to escape, the only punishment available to these soldiers was death. And really, who is going to believe the story they had to tell? The prisoner was there, and then he wasn’t. No break-in, no break-out, he was just gone. The guards were executed, and Herod moves on to business as usual.

To wrap up this chapter, and to show us all once again who sits on the throne higher than all other thrones, Luke tells us what happens next with this Herod. Peter had gotten away, but Herod was still king. He still had other matters to deal with. He was in a dispute with some people who given the geographical boundaries of his kingdom should have been under his authority. He was in a position to do whatever he wanted in blocking their food supply, but because they had gotten favor with a friend of the king, he heard their case. His response was so powerful that they began to give him the status of a god. The crowd shouted that his voice, his words, his declaration were not those of a mere man, but a god. Herod, who has been looking for approval and popularity is finally getting what he wants, respect and reverence of the highest kind. He doesn’t stop them from comparing him to a god in spite of the fact that he knows the Law, and is an observer of the Law. He knows the commandments, he knows there is one God. Because he let them call him a god, Herod is immediately dealt with in a horrible fashion. Luke tells us that he was struck down and eaten by worms.

Josephus, a Jewish historian gives a remarkably similar account. Josephus says there was a festival where many great people and dignitaries were gathered. On the second day of this festival, he put on a tunic made of silver and made a grand entrance in the morning sun. The people were so impressed by the sight of him, according to Josephus that they said that he was a god. Herod not stopping their cries, sees an owl, a bad omen and “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner.” According to Josephus, Herod gives a nice speech about how they had called him immortal, but he was being summoned to his death. He collapses, and has to be carried to the palace where he lays in agony for five days before succumbing to death.

Luke just gave us the short and sweet version, where Josephus’s is a little more colorful. Both accounts, though, point to the truth that God is sovereign and because Herod knew this and accepted the declaration that he was a god, he reaped the consequences.

There are two things we can take from these events and apply them in our lives. The first is that God is sovereign. He is in charge. He had the power to release Peter from the middle of four highly trained, highly specialized military operatives and set him free. He had the power to stop Herod from claiming that he was a god. He took care of his own reputation. And he still has the same power today. He can still protect his reputation, and you had better believe he does. Those who claim to speak for him, but blaspheme his name need to watch out. Those who pretend to be equal with him, or greater than him, beware, God is still capable of showing who is boss. He doesn’t need our help to defend himself.

God is still sovereign. He can still deliver us, no matter what the bondage. And he doesn’t always need someone to do his work for him, sometimes he does it all on his own, so that he can receive the glory. He didn’t need the believers to break Peter out of jail. God had his own plan, and his own purpose, and he carried them out.

The second thing we can take from this today is that we have access to God in all his sovereignty through prayer. Because Jesus is our intermediary, we can boldly approach the throne of God. We can ask him for his intervention in our lives. We can ask him for deliverance. We can ask him for healing. We can talk to him about our worries and cares and give them over to him. Prayer gives us access to God.

Now to what that does not mean: That does not mean that we get to tell God what to do! When we invite him into our situation, we can present our requests to him--in fact we are told to do so, but if we really want his deliverance, we have to be willing to set aside our plans and let him carry out his plan. When we invite him into our lives, we don’t get to set parameters, he wants total access. We have to be willing to let him change what needs to be changed. We have to be willing to let him do what needs to be done. We can’t sit in our little prisons and argue with God’s method of deliverance because we think our plan is better, and still expect deliverance! When he shows up, do what he says. When the angel came, and poked Peter on the side, Peter didn’t shush him and say, “You can’t do this, there are guards here! This is not how you perform a rescue!” No, when God sent his deliverance, Peter obeyed everything he was told to do.

Prayer gives us access to the sovereign, almighty God. And when we pray, we need to step back and let Him work out his plan for our benefit, and for his Glory.

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