Reading from Act 12:6-18 RSV for Sunday, July 29, 2018
6 The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; 7 and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, "Get up quickly." And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, "Dress yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he said to him, "Wrap your mantle around you and follow me." 9 And he went out and followed him; he did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him. 11 And Peter came to himself, and 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." 12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and told that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, "You are mad." But she insisted that it was so. They said, "It is his angel!" 16 But Peter continued knocking; and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, "Tell this to James and to the brethren." Then he departed and went to another place. 18 Now when day came, there was no small stir among the soldiers over what had become of Peter.
Message for Sunday, July 29, 2018
Grace and Peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
This last week I spent at Shores of Saint Andrew, one of the campuses of Green Lake Ministries. Bible camps have always been part of my faith journey in part because my father loved them. Before I was old enough to go on my own, my father would take me and carry me on his shoulders around Luther Crest Bible Camp. I grew up playing games and singing Bible songs, and especially praying around the camp fire.
This year for the variety show at Shores of Saint Andrew we wanted to sing “Cats in the Cradle” a song about a father and son relationship, which by the way my father sang to me all the time on long trips. It turned out that was too much memory for us, my father having passed away in 2016, and instead I juggled toilet paper in a less than stunning display of physical prowess. I have to admit camp was a little tough this year because we had plans to have my father come to family camp with us as soon as he retired, which would have been this year, and thinking about him at camp while knowing he could have been there with us was a little rough.
That night I had a dream that I was with my extended family on the Wheatley side. We were gathered together because my uncle was apparently sick and all of us had come together at a picnic pavilion near the hospital to hope and pray. When I had prayed in my dream I looked up and there I say Ed, my father. He was beaming at me as he always did at camp and I exclaimed, “Dad”. He gave me a silly grin. I was filled with great joy at seeing him and went to hug him but then I stopped. I told him that he couldn’t be there because he was in heaven. His smile grew bigger and into the face he would get when he was at his happiest and he nodded. Then suddenly the dream ended.
As with many miracles, could I swear beyond a shadow of a doubt that this wasn’t just the Lasagna we had for dinner and my memories talking? No, I couldn’t. But it reached me and helped me in a way that I think was an assurance of God in the middle of a rough week. We all have had those coincidences that just line up so well that we know it is God speaking to us. When I get those I like to say to God, I know I am slow but I am not that slow. Yet if a skeptic walked through the door they could easily say that is not really a miracle. You were just thinking of your dad and dreamed about him; and I couldn’t prove that it wasn’t.
That is not the case with all miracles, as we hear in our scripture text today about the miraculous release of Peter from prison. It is indeed a miracle that could not be denied. There Peter was in jail, expecting to be tried and killed for preaching about Jesus, and then suddenly an angel is there and is releasing him; opening doors and unlocking chains. What is so interesting to me in this story is that Peter and the other disciples cannot believe it is happening. Peter gets as far as the city gate before he says to himself, “Wait, what if this is really happening?” and then he runs as fast as he can to see the other disciples. Rhoda, who heard Peter knocking at the gate, tells the rest of the disciples that Peter has arrived. They assume it is a vision of him after Herod has killed him. After all, that is the only logical conclusion if all of a sudden Peter shows up after he is imprisoned by Herod! Soon enough they are confronted with a miracle that no one could deny. In fact, the next morning, all of Herod’s soldiers try to find some sort of explanation. But there is no explanation beside God’s intervention in the world. It is that type of miracle that is just supernatural. There is no other way to talk about it than to say that God reordered the universe so that Peter could be freed.
When Peter showed up, the disciples were actually praying for him but they didn’t believe it was him when he knocked at the gate. That makes a person wonder what they were praying for! Biblically we don’t know because the text doesn’t say. But I can only imagine that many of those believers were praying that Peter would get out of jail. Yet when he obviously IS out of jail they are in denial and totally surprised by getting exactly what they asked for! If you think about it for a moment, it means that the disciples were praying for something that they didn’t believe would happen. They were praying for Peter to get out of jail, while fully expecting that he was going to die in that jail.
During the summer our scripture lessons for Sunday worship have been from the book of Acts. In these readings we have often seen triumphs of faith and faithfulness. This is a time when the right actions are being taken and people are energized with the Spirit. So then we wonder, how can Jesus’ disciples both pray for Peter’s release and be surprised when he is released from prison? How do we hold those two true at the same time? And what does it teach us about how to pray ourselves.
I would say that the first take away from this experience is that we need to have a relationship with God while praying. Everyone can pray, and I would argue even everyone should pray, but there is a difference in a prayer from someone who prays and worships regularly and someone who prays when there is an emergency. The old saying is that there are no atheists in fox holes, and I have prayed with atheists when things in their life are out of control. As one atheist said, “It can’t hurt anything.” Don’t think that God doesn’t hear both prayers, because God does. In fact the difference is probably not on God’s side at all, but on our side.
How different it is for people who pray and praise regularly to lift eyes and hearts up to God in a time of trouble. They probably don’t wait until there is no hope left, until they are in deepest pain and grief. They probably reach out for help at the first sign of trouble. At least I hope they do. They also don’t just reach out in trouble but also in times of happiness and thankfulness. They also hear and think about God on Sundays and before meals and regularly talk with God about all things. So when it comes time to ask for help, they don’t need to start their prayer by saying for example, “Dear God, it is me, Tim Wheatley. I live over in Cokato but you probably already know that.” Or some sort of other introduction. They already know – and they know that God knows them! In fact he loves them more than their family and friends and He has reached down to save them.
The second thing to learn is, “Thy will be done” which of course is the hardest, but an important line, in the Lord’s Prayer. After all we want God’s kingdom and love to reach all people and at some times that means good Christians will and must suffer. For example look at God’s own Son Jesus! If our leader went through hardships and even death on the cross, then we too at times will be called on to suffer for his name’s sake. How hard it is to accept that sometimes God’s will is not for perfect peace and harmony for us. Other times sin means we must suffer too, and God can use that for Himself. Not all suffering is God’s will, but God’s will is not necessarily to provide a clear path through all hardship either.
Once we have that relationship started by Christ’s love, and we are on track with “thy will be done” then we need to actually pray more boldly. We need to lift up our needs whether they were like mine, needing just some sort of reassurance during a tough week or like Peter’s needing freedom of prison. We need to put our needs out there and then leave it in God’s hands. Maybe we will get the supernatural miracle like Peter, or maybe the reassurance like I did, or maybe we will hear nothing that we can understand right now. Many people in the scriptures pray for a long time before they hear from God. So we are called to keep praying and giving our needs to the Lord as if all things are possible, because in Christ they are! Often the answer to our prayers will occur in unexpected ways and sometimes we will only years later be able to look back and say, “Wow, I am so glad God worked in that way.”
Some day when we can talk to God face to face, we will have all the answers and each response will be clear and immediate because we will live with God in paradise. Until that day we are called to be filled with the love of God, in relationship with God, and then pray boldly for his kingdom to grow in and through us. Amen.