A young man named Sal applied for a job as a signalman on the railroad. He was asked a question by the inspector: "What would you do if you realized two trains were heading for each other on the same track?"
Sal answered, "I would switch the points for one of the trains."
"What if the electronic lever was broken?" asked the inspector.
"Then I'd run down from the tower and use the manual lever by the switch."
"What if that had been struck by lightning?" asked the inspector.
"Then I'd run back into the tower and phone the next tower."
"What if the phone was busy?"
"Well, in that case I'd run up the right of way to the emergency phone at the crossing."
"What if that phone had been vandalized?"
"Oh, well, in that case I would run into the village and get my uncle."
This finally slowed the inspector down a little, and he asked, "Your uncle? Why your uncle?"
Sal answered, "Because my uncle has never seen a train wreck."
How many of you have never seen a train wreck but would like to? It is sad to say, but for Sal, prayer was not even a last resort. I wonder what the inspector would have said if Sal had answered, "I'd call my church and ask them to pray"?
Pray is not magic. At times, the function of prayer is a mystery, but when God moves in response to a person pleading for action, the results are more dynamic than surgery or high rise demolition.
This is Peter's second to last appearance in the book of Acts (15). At this point, James, the half brother of Jesus, takes over the leadership of the Jerusalem church. And Luke, author of the book of Acts, begins to follow the ministry of Paul's mission trips as the focus of the book moves away from the city of Jerusalem to Antioch.
This episode begins with the execution of James - one of the sons of Zebedee. This is the James who came with his brother John to Jesus in order to claim the top two spots in Jesus' new kingdom. He was one of the "inner three." Jesus explained at the time that they had no idea what they were asking - that the Father was in charge of selecting the people for those honors - but that they certainly would go through a similar "baptism by fire" that Jesus was about to experience.
As it turned out James was the first of the Twelve Apostles to be martyred for his faith. Ironically, John was the last of the Twelve to experience martyrdom.
The execution of James so dramatically raised Herod's popularity numbers that he arrested Peter. Unfortunately, the timing was such that he had to wait until the eight day holy period of Passover-Unleaven Bread was concluded. I suspect (hope) that the church prayed for James, but in Peter's case they had more time to organize the prayer meetings. Luke reports that their prayer fervency was especially high the night proceeding the day of execution.
In verse 5 the word for "earnestly" is the same word that describes the level of intensity of Jesus' prayer in the Garden. This word only appears three times in the New Testament. In Jesus' case, his original request to bypass the cross was changed to an uncontaminated willingness to be the sin bearer. The earnestness of His prayer was not a stubborn self will, but an intense desire to line up with the Father's will.
The prayer meeting crowd was praying earnestly for Peter. And Peter was sleeping -- pretty soundly it seems. Some folks suggest he should have been more like Paul and Silas -- singing hymns. However, that was their first night in the stockade. Peter had been in jail several nights. Paul and Silas had already received their punishment. The next day they were going to be escorted out of town. Peter was going to be executed, beheaded. The circumstances were quite different.
I'm impressed that he could sleep at all. Peter's convictions about the impotence of death to separate him from the love of God were real convictions! Peter was not under any illusion that the person who dies with the most toys wins anything. He was comfortable knowing that he was going to a reward -- not leaving anything of value behind that he would never see again!
If your whole life consists of things you've acquired here, and you have made no investments in eternity, then it is a pretty lonely journey through "the valley of the shadow of death." Those earthly assets offer no protection, Peter was sleeping because he had something to look forward to.
He was sleeping so well that when the angel woke him up, he thought he was still dreaming. Angels show up with some frequency in this chapter and the New Testament in general. Some of you may be disappointed to know that none of them looked like Roma Downey. Always they are described with a masculine pronoun although Jesus told us that sexual distinctions are not something angels have to deal with. This spoils nearly everything Hollywood has to say about angels.
The motion picture industry has produced several movies about angels and almost always the plot is some kind of idolizing of human desire. In The City of Angels, Nicolas Cage actually gave up immortality as an angel so that he could love Meg Ryan. In the movie, asked if the switch was worth it, he said, "I would rather have one breath of her hair, one kiss of her lips, one touch of her hand, than an eternity without it."
No disrespect to Meg Ryan, but Cage is an idiot - at least in the movie! Angels, the Bible tells us, have the experience of God's immediate and intimate presence. And he would give that up for a sniff of Meg Ryan's hair? That is the very definition of moral lunacy. Of course, what is really at work here is some producer's idea of how important human pleasure is. This movie turns the pleasures of being human into a rival with God. This is one reason "fasting" has always been a key discipline in heart transformation.
The Bible does not give much systematic teaching about angels. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that God did not share the essence of angels. Instead He took on flesh and blood; not to experience the wonders of humanity, but to rescue us from the horrors of being human. The incarnation never was focused on human pleasure though Jesus was filled with joy.
Angels . . . the Bible's attitude seems to be "oh, by the way angels are real, and on a rare occasion you might have to deal with that fact." The Bible tells us that the best of the angels are servants of God who love doing His will. The worst of them have been defeated by Jesus on the cross.
On the occasion when Peter tried to rescue Jesus from the cross, Jesus said if that was His goal He could've called ten legion of angels who were waiting with swords drawn to demolish Satan and all of creation. Jesus' mission was to overcome the powers of darkness as a man. Colossians tells us that Jesus "disarmed the (dark) powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them by the cross" (2:15). By defeating the rebellious dark powers - in a way humanly impossible to imagine - He was able to make salvation available to the whole world.
The presence of angels in this early history of the church reminds us that the invisible world is no less real than the visible. And at times the two worlds overlap. What we need to do is keep our spiritual bearings about us by reserving our praise for Jesus.
In Acts 12 an angel was sent to rescue Peter from jail. The account does not gloss over the angel's part but the praise goes to God. This is how, on this occasion, God chose to answer fervent prayer. One of the interesting parts of this story is the praying church's response. Clearly they were praying for the best -- and expecting the worst. I don't think this is the part we are supposed to apply, but I do identify with their astonishment. I would hope that they prayed for James. Although the circumstance may not have allowed much time to pray, time is not necessarily the critical problem in prayer. At any rate, they prayed for James but he died. They had seen James beheaded and they were watching Herod strut around bragging about what he was going to do to Peter. Most of the Christians were staying underground. It was not a good time.
But God is not boxed in by arrogant or hate filled enemies. And sometimes He surprises us.
Herb Miller wrote about when a night club opened in a small town on Main Street. The only church in town organized an all-night prayer meeting. The members asked God to burn down the club. Within a few minutes, lightning struck the club, and it burned to the ground. The owner heard about the prayer meeting and sued the church. They denied responsibility.
After hearing both sides, the judge said, "It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the nightclub owner believes in the power of prayer, while the church does not."
Are you currently praying any prayers that you really don't expect God to answer? Has God ever surprised you with an answer to a specific request? Perhaps this week you could confess your doubts about this old standing prayer and ask God to surprise you.
Now we know that some prayers God has already clued us in on. We know He won't answer a prayer that leads us into an area of disobedience. He has told us that holding on to bitterness and unconfessed sin messes up our prayers. So perhaps it is not a surprise that He has not answered your prayer yet. Pray God's will. Pray with clean hands.
If you do something about the sin in your life, Jesus will take care of the devil in your life. And maybe it is okay to be astonished when He does.