A sermon from last year I thought might help us as we “try praying” this week
Acts 12: 1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 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. 4 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.
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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.
11 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.”
12 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. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” 15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 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.
18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 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.
The people we meet in this story from the very first generation of the church find themselves in what seems to be an utterly hopeless situation. I suspect that just as it normally does, facing a hopeless situation was making them feel more than a little helpless. On the surface it looked as if there was nothing they could do for Peter. Herod had already had a track record of torture and murder. He had killed the Apostle James, so it must have seemed only a matter of time before Peter suffered the same fate.
I am interested in what this group of relatively new believers did when they were confronted by a situation that common sense told them was hopeless
I am interested in how they reacted when they felt utterly helpless.
What they did was to try praying and that led them to be more than a little surprised by the answer to pray they received.
The reason I am interested in the reaction of these first Christians is because you and I know that all too often in life we are confronted by situations that seem hopeless and so make us feel helpless,
A visit to the doctors can make us feel like that
A situation in work can provoke those feelings
Relationships that go wrong make us feel that way
A change in circumstances can leave us feeling helpless
If that’s you,
if you are feeling something in life is hopeless or feeling helpless because of what it happening to you or someone you love,
Can I make a suggestion?
Why not follow the example of these Christians in Jerusalem all those centuries ago?
why not try praying?
Why not instead of making prayer your last resort in this kind of situation, why not make it your first response?
If we are going to do that and follow their example, lets look at how they prayed in a way that seems to have paved the way for that surprising answer to their prayers. Let’s look to see if there are any hints in their actions for how we should pray when confronted by a situation that looks hopeless or feelings of helplessness?
Reading this story again and again this week I think there are some lessons we can learn about how we should pray. If we want to follow their example I think it means we should pray ….
Let’s focus in on verse 5 that describes the prayer meeting there in Jerusalem.
“5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the CHURCH was earnestly praying to God for him.”
I wonder if you noticed that Luke is very specific in telling us that it was the church that prayed the whole community got on its knees in a sense. Now its important that we pray personally but I would have to say that I have learned over the years that there also seems to be a special power when we pray together as the Church, as God’s People. I would go as far as to claim that the church at prayer is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The message of this story which is repeated in church history and which I am sure we all know from personal experience is that things change in surprising ways when the church of Jesus Christ prays.
But that shouldn’t really surprise us.
Remember what Jesus told us about prayer? ….
“I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” Matthew 18:19 The Message
So here’s the first lesson, the first principle in praying I think we can learn here. When you feel helpless, when it all looks hopeless, don’t keep it to yourself. Share the burden, tell the church, ask the church to pray for you.
Pray for the situation personally but ask your church to pray for it collectively.
KOREAN CHURCH… The story of the Korean Church is one of the most incredible stories in the history of Christianity. At the start of the 20th century there were relatively few Christians in Korea. Today at the start of the 21st century there are millions and the Korean church could soon become the biggest missionary sending nation in the world. The biggest Pentecostal, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in the world are all in Korea
In 2006 while I was a student in the States we went to Korea as the guests of the biggest Methodist Church in the World. They took us to stay somewhere special they called it prayer mountain. There was a big hill there but what I found fascinating was a large church like building and in that church building were what looked like 100s of small cupboards and you could here a sort of constant hum and noise. These were the Koreans called the “prayer closets” Members of the church would come and lock themselves in these little rooms for days sometimes weeks at time, often fasting as well. The near you got the louder the noise of all these people praying. Its no wonder that the church in Korea has grown because the Korean Christians put effort into pray. If I had to use one word to describe the way Korean Christians pray it would be, intensely, they pray with a real intensity.
Just listen to the way a couple of different translations phrase v 5
“the church was EARNESTLY praying to God for him.”
“the church prayed for him most strenuously.”
“prayer was made without ceasing
but prayer for him was being made fervently”
Do you get the picture?
Do you hear that intensity I was talking?
This was serious prayer. These believers really poured themselves into prayer for Peter. These people were serious about this prayer, they put effort into it, they spent time praying and they didn’t give up praying.
I wonder if Peter had told them the parable, of the persistent widow and reminded them that Jesus had told that story that so they would pray and not give up? I think one of the key aspects of Jesus teaching on prayer was that it shouldn’t be casual.
I suspect that often we don’t get surprising answers to prayer because we don’t put enough effort into our prayers and we give up praying too easily. That to be frank our prayers lack a certain intensity, we don’t pray like we mean it, we don’t pray like really want what we are praying for, we just don’t pray like it matters.
One the lecturers who accompanied us on that visit to Korea had been a missionary for most of his life and in a book he wrote David Rambo says this about prayer he has seen really change situations “Urgency, intensity, helplessness to the point of desperation. When these characterise our prayer we will open the door for God for God to bless our efforts beyond anything we can imagine”
So I think the second lesson here for us is in praying
Don’t give up, keep going, keep praying
Keep praying seriously
Keep praying persistently.
I was at meeting a few months ago about a new initiative in prayer and mission right here in Edinburgh. During that meeting David Hill, the man behind the project, told this amazing story
We were raising money for an advertising budget for There Is Hope back in the early nineties and worked out a package costing £4348 to buy space on a good number of bus sides etc.
We had a prayer meeting for around 150 people that evening which we were to pray about it – only I left the detail of the budget at the office. So at the meeting I ‘winged’ it and guessed it to be £4200. That was the figure put up on the overhead projector (do you remember those things?) and the amount everybody prayed about.
A retiring offering was taken and counted by Denise and her son who offered to make it up to the full pound from his pocket money. When they totalled it up there was £4199.37 to which Chris added his 67p to make it up to exactly £4200!
However the next day there was the incriminating piece of paper showing me that I had put up the wrong amount. We were still £148 short.
But in the space of just 3 minutes the following happened: there was a message on the answer machine, which we listened to, pledging £100. A cheque had been given to Aileen the night before for £15 which had not been counted in; leaving us £33 short of the total. However Aileen said that someone had given some cash which she had put on Denise’s desk. Denise picked it up and counted it: £10..£20..£30..£31…£32…£33.
God gave us what we asked for the night before and what we forgot to ask for the next day!
There was a final chapter to this which I did not know until about a year later. The roll of cash on Denise’s desk had come from Aileen. That morning on her way to the office, and without her knowing anything of the totals of the night before, she was praying and said that she had not given anything to the advertising costs. “What should I give she asked?” God said, “£33.” So she went to the bank got £33 out and put it on Denise’s desk before we arrived.
That story reminded me that it seems to me that specific prayer leads to surprising specific answers to prayer.
Do you remember that strange incident in Matthew 20, Jesus comes across two blind men and this is what happens
32 “Jesus stopped and called them. What do you want me to do for you? he asked. 33 Lord, they answered, we want our sight. 34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.”
I say this is a strange incident because it must have seemed pretty obvious to everyone what these two blind men wanted from Jesus. Yet Jesus encouraged them to tell him specifically what it was that they he wanted them to do for them. Jesus didn’t want them to say generally “oh just bless us Lord” He wanted them to stretch their faith; he wanted to hear specifically what they wanted him to do.
I wonder if we often don’t get surprising answers to prayer, answers which like the servant girl at the door we almost can’t believe because we simply don’t ask for them?
I say that partly because of what James says in James chapter 4 ” You do not have, because you do not ask.” James 4:2
I believe the church here in Jerusalem prayed specifically, they prayed
Maybe some of us face hopeless situations, year after year, because we don’t specifically ask God to do what needs to be done to change those situations no matter how impossible that might seem to us?
Maybe we keep feeling helpless because we are not specifically asking God for the help we need?
I wonder how many of us live with that feeling and hopelessness and helplessness because our prayers bland and general instead of specific?
As I said I believe that the church in Jerusalem must have prayed specifically that God would set Peter free. They didn’t pray generalities they prayed specifically. I want to encourage you to do the same, pray specifically, spell it out for the Lord what you need him to do for you.
So pray specifically that’s the third principle in prayer I see here in the way these first Christians prayed that might help us in our praying
I remember being really struck by something that American pastor Bill Hybels said in a book about prayer. He commented that … “prayerless people cut themselves off from God’s prevailing power and the frequent result is that familiar feeling of being overwhelmed, over run, beaten down and pushed around. Prayer is the key to unlocking God’s power in your life.” Bill Hybels
I wonder if there is anyone here who is feeling “overwhelmed, over run, beaten down and pushed around.”
Then why not follow the example of these early disciples
Why not turn your back on prayerlessness and instead try praying?
Just like the Christians in Jerusalem you might well end up being surprised by the way God answers your prayer.
Its not tough to pray, you don’t any special qualifications, just
TRY PRAYING …
• JOINTLY … Ask others to pray with you, ask the church to pray
• INTENSELY … Don’t mention it once for 5 mins and then forget it. Pray seriously, put time and effort into prayer. Pray like it matters.
• SPECIFICALLY … Have the faith to tell God what you need Him to do