by Roger McCay
3 November 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 12:1-19
Link to Audio Version
Consider these words of Tim Keller from his book called Prayer,
“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.”
Prayer is one of the main characteristics of a Christian. It involves three elements: the living and true God who hears, the person praying who speaks, and the communication itself.
It is a privilege that is too great for us—to enter into the throne room of Almighty God and speak to him as our Father. And yet, not only do we dare do so, the Scriptures repeatedly tell us that God not only wants us to pray, but he expects us to pray. 1 Thess. 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Assuredly, our prayers are not in vain: James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” And Jesus promises: John 15:7 “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” These are wonderful truths. They are truths we can utterly rely upon.
Nevertheless, we must admit that we are quite flawed in our prayers. Why are we? Well, the short answer is that we are sinners. We are finite in our wisdom, knowledge, strength, faith, and really in every area, which if you think about it are some of the major reasons we pray—finite, flawed beings communicating with an infinite, perfect, loving God.
Ironically, at times we pray fervently, but we don’t really believe God will answer our prayer. And even though our faith is weak, he is not weak, but loving, and he answers anyway. This can leave us at times discombobulated.
We see this take place in our passage today, a solemn passage filled with irony and humor. The passage starts off with a rather abrupt and startling fact. King Herod, the grandson of Herod the Great, had gotten violent with the Christians, and (v. 2) “He killed James the brother of John with the sword.” That’s the James of the “Peter, James, and John” trio. He was one of the disciples closest to the Lord. Yet, Herod, testing the waters to see if it won favor with the Jews, killed him.
You can imagine this was a blow: a blow to the apostles; a blow to the church. These were men who performed miracles and were of the Lord’s twelve. Now, this insecure King just killed an apostle like it was nothing. What were they going to do? Surely there was grief, even fear. Possibly doubt crept in. Definitely, though, they fell to their knees and prayed.
Yet, the situation continued to escalate with Peter, the chief apostle’s, arrest. Herod had seen that killing James got him favor with the Jews and figured that killing Peter would make him even more popular. Popularity through murdering Christians had become Herod’s new thing.
Now, perhaps he had heard how Peter had escaped from prison before in a miraculous way. So, just to be sure, while he waited for the Passover to be finished … and it must have been annoying for him to have to wait to murder Peter. See the irony? He waited for the Jews to finish celebrating their deliverance by the Lord from Egypt, so that he could please the Jews by killing a chief herald of the ultimate deliverance by the Lord in Jesus Christ. Well, while he waited, he went to extremes to ensure Peter didn’t just “poof” out of prison once again. Hence, the extreme lengths of constantly having four guards on him, and having him chained with two chains between two guards. No way he was escaping that.
Now, people speculate the conversations he had with the guards, perhaps sharing the Lord. If so, perhaps he said, “Look, this is not going to end well for you, you should repent and believe in Jesus now.” Who knows?
Anyway, Peter doesn’t seem too worried, as on the night before he would have been surely executed he was sound asleep. And this wasn’t just a light, fitful sleep, either. He was in deep REM sleep. I mean, the appearance of the angel and the light didn’t budge him. It took the angel striking him to get him to come half-awake. He was still discombobulated, as the chains fell off, and as he followed the angel’s instructions to put his clothes and sandals on. Peter thought the whole thing was a dream and not real. So, half out of it, he followed the angel, and the gate opened itself. Through all this, the guards somehow didn’t even notice Peter stumbling out of his cell, following a shining angel, and heading out of prison and out into the streets of Jerusalem. Then, “poof,” the angel was gone.
Peter finally came to himself standing on the street outside the prison and realized what had happened. Verse 11:
When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
I imagine he said this with a grin and a chuckle. I mean, it’s as the Psalmist says (Psalm. 2:1-4):
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Well, there was Peter, set free by the power of the Lord. What now? He knew the Christians in Jerusalem well, so he logically figured he’d head to the house of Mary, who was the mother of John Mark. Peter probably figured that the disciples would be gathered there in prayer, as her house was a regular place for worship. And he was right. Verses 13-14:
13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.
Okay, so the disciples are praying fervently, perhaps for Peter’s release, a miracle, comfort, help; maybe even questioning “Why?” after the loss of James; and now, with Peter soon to be killed, “What would happen to the church?” They were desperate. They were in an all-night long prayer vigil. And someone knocks on the door.
I expect that Rhoda (whose name means rose) was probably around 10 years old or so. And, as a servant, it was her job to answer the door. You don’t really read much about this young girl, and I’ve wondered why. The Lord saw fit that her name be memorialized forever in his Word. Sure, it’s easy to focus on her discombobulation—being so joyful she forgot to open the gate for him, which is humorous. But I admire this little one. She ran back in and interrupted the prayer vigil saying Peter was at the door. Verse 15:
They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!”
They told her she was crazy. They flat out didn’t believe her. “Silly girl. That is not funny.” “But she kept insisting that it was so.”
This is what I admire about Rhoda. Despite her understandable discombobulation, she stood her ground. She boldly proclaimed the truth to these Christians, even though they refused to believe her. Eventually, they rationalized that it was Peter’s angel at the gate. But, no, it was Peter, and Rhoda insisted on it. Sometimes even adults fear to speak the truth of things to other Christians, because they fear they will not be believed, ridiculed, or rejected. Rhoda was fearless.
As it was, they didn’t believe Rhoda, continuing their denial even when Rhoda was insistent. Such makes it plain that they didn’t really believe that the Lord would answer their prayers. Further evidence of their unbelief is that as Peter kept on knocking and calling out, and when they finally answered the door, they were amazed, discombobulated, opening the door to see Peter standing there. Why amazed? Simple. It’s because they just didn’t believe the Lord would really answer them. It was beyond what they could bring themselves to truly expect. Yet, despite their lack of faith, the Lord answered their prayers anyway.
So, Peter told them what happened; told them to relay it all to James, the brother of Jesus, and then he took off to go into hiding.
The fallout was as you’d expect from a weak tyrant like Herod. He was furious. He had the guards killed for losing their prisoner. And he left town, seemingly in a hissy fit.
You know, as we look around we see lots of reason to pray. Our world is a mess. Wars continue with no end in sight. We have a scary number of buffoons in political office, who seem to want to destroy our country. Masses of people cheer them on as they lead us off a cliff. Our government has shirked its duties to defend the defenseless, as it has deemed it perfectly okay for people to sacrifice their unborn children to the idol of self. The blood of millions and millions of children is on our government’s hands due to this ongoing genocide. Persecution continues to increase against Christians, as we become more and more marginalized. Immoral policies push people (who believe in the biblical doctrine of marriage and sexuality) out on the fringe, to be spit upon and treated like stupid ignorant people. The family as an institution is broken in our nation. Even the future of our local community is in question, as the younger generations often do not come back here to live after going off to college or wherever, so that they might live the “American Dream.” I could go on and on.
With the chaos all around us, the disappointments, the struggles, and the hopelessness, what can we do? First, we need to admit that we are powerless to do anything about it. And second, we need to turn it all over to the Lord. He has the power to do it all.
So, we need to pray about it. What we see in the first-century church in Jerusalem, when the King decided to start murdering Christians, is a good model for us. It’s a consistent one throughout the Scriptures. We need to pray to God, pray together, pray fervently, and pray specifically for the Lord to act.
The lesson we learn from the church in our passage today is that we should believe that the Lord will really answer our prayers. Thank the Lord that his answer is not dependent upon our belief, however. He answers prayer because he is the sovereign Lord who uses prayer as a means to exercise his sovereign power. He is not going to fail just because our faith is weak.
And we need to understand that he answers prayer in different ways. Why didn’t he rescue James? Why did God let James die by the sword, when he could have rescued him like he did Peter? We don’t know. But it was according to God’s will. Every prayer we pray needs to be raised up along the lines of “Thy will be done.” We must pray with the hope that our desires and petitions are consistent with his will. We want him to answer yes or no according to his will, because he knows what is ultimately the best answer.
It’s like C.S. Lewis once said, “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?”
God answers our prayer. He promises us he does. He answers them according to his ultimate wisdom and his sovereign plan for the world. Sometimes he saves you. Sometimes he lets you die. But regardless, on our knees in prayer, we give thanks to God.
My friends, let us be diligent in our prayers. Pray fervently. Be persistent. Be earnest. Spill your heart out before God. Let us be diligent praying together with the body of Christ.
If you don’t know where to do that, come out to the evening service. We go around and everyone who wants to pray, prays. Don’t say you have no opportunity to pray with other believers. You do. It’s on you to do or not to do.
Also, pray specifically. Not that it’s wrong to pray generally. But, in our private prayers, and when we pray together as a group, be specific in your petitions to the Lord. The Lord knows what you mean, yet, he wants you to communicate that to him.
And pray often. As the Scriptures tell us, “Pray continuously.” We are a people of prayer by definition. Let us be the prayer warriors we are called to be. Pray. Pray again. And pray anyway.
The Lord hears you. He answers you. He hears us, and he answers us. Besides, why would we not want to spend as much time in his throne room of grace in communion with him as much as possible? Is there any place better to be?
Nothing is too great for the Lord. Don’t be shy. Be bold in your prayers. And even though you know the Lord answers prayer, you will be amazed, and sometimes even discombobulated by the wonders he accomplishes. Praise be to God! Because the Lord answers prayer, we must pray with confidence.
 Tim Keller, Prayer (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 18.
 C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964), 28.