A Couple Good Reasons to Pray: The Early Church Did . . .

Acts 12:1-24

I recently heard someone say, “When all else fails, pray.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this phrase; maybe you’ve heard it as well. I have learned, though – and I have to be reminded again and again – that this statement is a very unwise way to operate in life. Prayer is not given to us to be just an alternative when all human efforts fail. It should a first step, not be a final option. It is a gift, a privilege given to us by our great God and is meant to be our go-to in all matters of life. Prayer is having a relationship with the Creator of the universe and connecting with Him. We were made and redeemed for communion with Him through prayer. It is an important part of the process of walking with God, growing in our relationship with God, and serving Him in this world.

Yet we sometimes struggle with prayer. Perhaps out of disappointment from past attempts, we set it aside. Maybe there’s a lack of discipline in our lives or just plain forgetfulness. Life is busy and we get distracted, making us all the poorer for it.

Our series theme is, “A Couple Great Reasons to Pray.” We are answering the question, Why bother to pray? Last week we learned a great reason to pray is because Nehemiah prayed, and God answered his prayer in a big way! Today’s message is because the early Church prayed. Today’s lesson is an exciting story set during a time of persecution and violence against the early Church in Jerusalem.

These were unhappy times. The country was suffering a famine. The Church was under attack not only by the Jewish population, but also by the government. Knowing of their dislike for Christians and wanting to improve his ratings among the Jewish people, King Herod had James, the brother of John, arrested and beheaded. This worked so well that Herod had another leader – Peter – arrested and scheduled for trial to be beheaded.

We find Peter sitting in prison, surrounded by sixteen soldiers. Things are in a bad way. The leadership of the Church is on the line. The future of the kingdom cause seemed to be in question. So what did the early Christians do? Did they panic and scatter? No. They gathered and prayed for Peter.

The night before Peter’s trial and execution, while the Church is praying for God’s help and an intervention, Peter is sound asleep. He was sleeping, but God wasn’t. Peter’s cell suddenly shown with a bright light. An angel poked Peter in the side, woke him up and said, Get up! Let’s go. Get dressed. Then three miracles occurred.
• The chains fell off Peter’s hands and feet. All sixteen guards, who were supposed to keep an eye on him, slept as Peter walked right by them. All the while, Peter thought he was just having a dream.
• The big iron gate opened all by itself and Peter and his rescuer headed down the street.
• When Peter turned to say something to his escape partner, the partner had disappeared. Peter, then, realized this wasn’t a dream. The Lord has rescued me.

Peter ran to the house church that had been praying for him and found the door locked. I imagine he can hear them praying inside. He knocked on the door and called out. A servant lady named Rhoda heard his voice as he calls out. She was so surprised and overjoyed, she ran to tell the others, leaving Peter standing outside the door. They say to her, You are out of your mind and out of touch with reality. You’re just seeing things. Maybe Peter is already dead and you are just hearing his angel.

Peter, in the meantime, kept knocking on Mary’s door. I imagine he was looking over his shoulder and sweating bullets by now. Surely a search party was out looking for him to arrest him again. Finally, the others listened to Rhoda; they went to the door and opened it to find Peter. Everyone was shocked to see him standing there, alive and well. Peter then told them how the Lord brought him out of the prison. Then he instructed them to tell James, the brother of Jesus, who was also a big leader in the church, and other believers as well so they might be encouraged and renewed by the thought that God really was with them and for them in all of this – even during dark times. Then Peter went on his way to do ministry elsewhere.

It is an amazing story! However, it is more than just a great adventure story saved for our entertainment, friends. It is saved for our edification as God’s people in Christ, part of His Church. It serves as a wonderful reminder of the greatness and faithfulness of the God to whom we pray. God does hear and answers our prayers. He is active in this world. He does not have a hands-off approach. As the hymn says, “This is my Father’s world.” He is in charge. His will be done. “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

This episode is part of a bigger story. Earlier, Jesus had told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the power (Holy Spirit) to come from on high, and then “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He is telling them God has plans for this Good News to be spread all over the world. When the Church comes under duress by a king who thinks he’s in charge and tries to shut it down by taking its leader, Peter, captive, God steps in. At the end of the story, Herod dies and is eaten by worms. But Peter is alive, and the Gospel continues to spread to the ends of the earth. More and more, people come to trust in Jesus Christ.

When all is said and done, God has won. He always has, always does, always will. His purposes will not be thwarted. The Gospel – the Good News of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – will not be silenced. It just keeps going on and on. God loves His Church, and it is one of the themes in this story as He involves Himself with His people. This story is a picture of a faithful God who is in charge.

This story also encourages us to pray more boldly, anticipate God’s answers and be on the lookout for them. The praying Christians in this story are surprised when Peter shows up the house church, suggesting they weren’t expecting an answer to their prayer. Perhaps they just thought it was too impossible a situation. So when they hear that Peter is at the door, they respond, “You are out of your mind!” But they were again taught that our God is Lord of the impossible. He specializes in great escapes. Just look at the empty tomb on Easter. Jesus was dead inside the tomb. The door was opened, and He walked out.

Let’s not be too hard on them. We perhaps sometimes pray with low expectations, too. We may think, Sure, I can pray, but it probably won’t make any difference.

I am reminded of a story about a tavern that opened up on the main street of a little town in a dry county. The only church in the town organized an all-night prayer meeting in which the members asked God to burn down the tavern. Within a few minutes, lightning struck the tavern and it burned to the ground.

The owner sued the church, which denied responsibility. After hearing both sides, the judge said, “It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the nightclub owner believes in prayer, while the church doesn’t.” Are we guilty of the same thing? Your prayers do make a difference.

John DeVries in his book, Why Pray? wrote about missions and the Church and the importance of prayer. He said, “Every praying Christian must understand that his or her prayers are not simply ‘support’ for various missions; they are the real work of mission. When done properly, they make it possible for the missionaries to perform the mop up operations. God has already done His work as He responds to prayer. He answers prayer in His own time and in His own ways. We need to simply keep praying and keep looking for those answers.”

The big thought for today then is, the same God who heard the early church prayers, rescued Peter, and saw to the spreading of the Good News of Jesus to the far reaches of the ancient world, is still able to do the unimaginable and the impossible. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

People of God, pray confidently, pray boldly, pray constantly. Do you know someone who is far from God and needs Jesus Christ in their life? Then pray. PRAY FIRST for an opportunity to witness, or an open door to have a relationship, or for someone else to be able to witness.

Do you know of a dark situation where evil seems to be winning? PRAY FIRST for the light of the gospel to shine in that situation, for God’s power to go to work against evil.

Do you know of a church that is struggling to keep its doors open? PRAY FIRST that God might revive that church with His Holy Spirit and bring it to life. Fan the flames with the gospel.

Do you have a pastor or a chaplain or another ministry that you want to see thrive for the cause of the kingdom of God? PRAY FIRST for God to use that individual mightily to His glory and His honor.

Do you want God to use you to build His kingdom in some way? PRAY FIRST for opportunities and insights on how God might want to use you.

Recently I came across an amazing story about the power of prayer in Christianity Today magazine. It was written by a lady named Brenda McNeil. She writes,

“I once met a brother from Ghana, West Africa who was completing his PhD in the school of world missions at Fuller Seminary. During one of his trips home, he attempted to share the Gospel with several people who lived in the community. Although they listened respectfully, no one turned to Jesus Christ. He later learned that they were intimidated by a witch doctor who lived nearby. The witch doctor kept a symbol of his authority hanging outside his home – a lattice basket filled with water that never leaked. My friend decided to pray that God would empty the basket. He stayed outside the home of the witch doctor and prayed all night that God would demonstrate His power. At some point, he fell asleep. The next morning he was awakened by a commotion – the basket was empty and the town saw a mass revival as people learned about the God who caused the water to come out of the basket.”

There had been a power encounter and God had won, just like our story today.

People of God, let us commit ourselves to be people of prayer as individuals, as churches. I believe the church can have so much more power to accomplish great things for God if we just were praying more. We need always to be remembering those assuring words of another early Christian named the Apostle Paul. Listen to these words he wrote:

“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us every thing else?” (Rom. 8:31).

Good question.

People of God, may we be known as a praying people, trusting in our great and loving God who answers prayer. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer