Sermon for 10-17-10: “Keeping the Promise, Part 1: Prayers”

October 19, 2010

Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-17

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The following is the original manuscript.

Stewardship season is upon us. “Stewardship” is a classic churchy type word that usually means giving money to support church—and come November 13, the church will be asking you and me to commit to give money for this next year. Stewardship is all about giving, but it’s much more than giving money. In fact, if you’re a member of this or any other United Methodist church, you made a promise to when you joined the church. And this promise gets to the heart of what stewardship really means: We promised to “faithfully participate” in the church’s ministries through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.”

Prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness. My daughter joked last week that she’s going to like this sermon series because she likes getting “presents” and gifts. Ha ha. Prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness… Has a nice ring to it, but how do you suppose the United Methodist Church selected the order of these five parts? Do you think they said, “Here are the five most important things that we must do as church members. Let’s write each word on a slip of paper, drop it in a hat, and randomly select the order in which the words appear”? No, of course not!

While each part is important and necessary, we can safely assume that the church has placed them in what they believe is an order of priority. In other words, the most important thing that we can do as church members—according to our membership vow—is to pray. We pray for the universal Church; we pray for the United Methodist Church as a denomination; and most importantly we pray for this local church. We pray that we would be successful in our church’s mission; we pray that we could discern what God is calling us to do as a church. We pray for those who are sick and in need. We pray for each other. We pray by ourselves—and just as importantly, we pray together, as a community.

We do what the early church is shown doing in Acts chapter 12.

In today’s scripture, yet another Herod is trying to thwart God’s plan. Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, whom we meet every Advent and Christmas, and the nephew of Herod Antipas, the one who beheaded John the Baptist. This latest Herod executed the apostle James—one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. And Peter appears to be next. He arrests Peter, but postpones his execution because it’s Passover—and it would be unseemly to execute Peter during Passover.

Being arrested and executed around Passover should remind us of the crucifixion of Jesus. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, you may remember that Peter himself wielded worldly power by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave. And Jesus said, “No more of this!” The kingdom and the power and the glory that we speak of in the Lord’s Prayer are not like worldly kingdoms, worldly power, and worldly glory. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and the young church understands this. They don’t try to take up arms against Herod for killing James and now threatening to do the same to Peter. They don’t try to wield military or political power. But make no mistake: they are anything but powerless!

What do they do? What do they do when Peter is arrested? [Wait for response.] They pray! Verse 5 says, “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.” Far from being powerless, they are doing nothing less than accessing the greatest power of all, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself, who intercedes on our behalf to God the Father. The church prays, and as one commentator puts it, “The power of the church is the power of prayer.”

What we witnessed last week, in the rescuing of these miners in Chile, was the power of prayer. Nearly everyone was surprised at just how well these miners were; how healthy they were; how good their morale was while they were trapped down there. The word “miracle” was used frequently in news coverage to describe what happened in their rescue—and I believe that’s a good word even if we can explain everything that happened. God answered their prayers—and the prayers of the many thousands who prayed for them.

In today’s scripture, I think the first “miracle” occurs rather inconspicuously in verse 6: “Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers…” Peter was sleeping? Think about that for a moment. It reminds me of Jesus’ sleeping in the stern of the boat on the Sea of Galilee when the storm is raging and the disciples are afraid for their lives. Peter was among the disciples who couldn’t believe that Jesus was sleeping when their lives were in danger: “Lord, don’t you care if we drown?” By contrast, Peter is now the one sleeping in the face of danger: He knows his life is threatened. He knows what happened to James. He knows that he, too, might be executed. In spite of all that, he has the peace of mind that he needs to sleep soundly. Don’t you think that the prayers of the church helped Peter have this kind of peace? Whether he lived or died at Herod’s hand, those prayers were answered.

Prayer has power. And there’s a special kind of power that comes when the church gathers together to pray for something or someone. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he’s there among us. As we look ahead toward Commitment Sunday next month, the most important thing we can do as a church is pray about what the Lord is asking us to commit to give.

Because prayer is the most important thing we do!

As a church, we often get it exactly backwards. Let’s say church is like a hot fudge sundae—we get out a bowl; we put a few scoops of ice cream in; we slice bananas; we chop nuts; add them to the ice cream; we heat up the chocolate syrup; we pour it over the mixture; maybe we throw in some candy sprinkles—and then, at long last, we take that maraschino cherry—which, let’s face it, no one really like anyway—and place it on top. It’s like a decoration.

I’m afraid that we as a church treat prayer like that maraschino cherry. It is the last and least important thing we do. I am guilty of this! I go to plenty of committee meetings, church council meetings, and church business-related meetings. I sanctify the proceedings with an opening prayer; I bless them when it’s done. Do I give enough thought to how prayer is connected to the stuff that happens in between?

In his book on prayer, Richard Foster writes: “I would love to see our churches become houses of prayer. I know you would, too. All too often, they are places for everything and anything except prayer. I say this with sorrow, for I believe it saddens the heart of God. True, we need to have our business meetings and our committee meetings and our Bible studies and our self-help groups and our worship services, but if the fire is not hot at the center, these things are only ashes in our hands.”1

What if we made prayer the very center of everything we do?

What I’m mostly talking about is something called intercessory prayer. This is praying for other people. In addition to simply asking God for something, there are a couple of other important parts to this prayer. The first part is discernment. What do we sense that we ought to pray in this given situation? What can we realistically hope for? What is Jesus leading us to pray?

Last week, one of our very senior senior adult women in the church, who is in her 90s, complained about her prayer partners—a group of women who meet each week for prayer and Bible study. She said, “I need to get some new prayer partners.” And why is that? She said, “I lost my hearing aid last week, and they prayed that I would find it.” That sounds like a good prayer, right? Not for her. She said she told them, “I don’t want you to pray that I’d find my hearing aid. I want you to pray that God would give me my hearing back!” We have to discern what the right thing is to pray in any given situation. Maybe in that situation, it was more realistic to pray that she would find her hearing aid.

But there are other situations in which we need extra boldness in prayer. Richard Foster tells a story of young woman named Maria who was a student at the college he was teaching at. She fell out of the back of a pickup truck on campus and suffered severe head trauma. Foster, acting as her pastor, rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital, holding her hand and praying for her on the way, while the paramedics worked to save her life. At the hospital, Foster gave a group of students who gathered there a crash course on intercessory prayer: “The brain is bleeding and swelling from the impact of the injury,” he said. “So our initial prayer efforts must focus on seeing the injured capillaries in the brain begin to heal and for the swelling of the brain to slow down.”2

And that’s exactly what they prayed. And Maria did get better!

By contrast, Foster described an earlier prayer meeting for Maria with some of his fellow professors. They prayed things like, “It’s in your hands now, Lord; there’s nothing else we can do.” Or, worse, “Lord, help Maria to get well, if it be thy will.” Foster said that while he knew his colleagues meant well, their prayers betrayed the fact that they didn’t really believe that Maria would get better.3

Let me tell you right now, if I’m in a terrible life-threatening accident, and I’m being wheeled into an emergency room somewhere, and you’re praying for me, I want you to believe that God will give you what you ask for! Unless you’re praying like singer of that recent country song:

I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls

I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls

I pray all your dreams never come true

Just know wherever you are honey, I pray for you

But if you’re praying that God would do something good for me, believe that God will do it. Enough of these mamby-pamby prayers… You know what I’m talking about! Prayers that are too timid to ask God to do anything for us; prayers that hide behind pious language like, “if it’s your will,” and “we just place this in your hands,” because that pious-sounding language is often just a way to mask our own lack of faith—protecting us from disappointment in case God doesn’t give us what we want. Too often, we pray as if God isn’t really going to do anything anyway. Should we be surprised then when our prayers don’t get answered?

I had an acquaintance at this church who was raised Pentecostal, and she knew how to pray. Seriously, we were walking down the hall in this church, I was telling her about some problem I was having. She immediately stopped me in the middle of the hallways and said, “I’m going to pray for you.” She grabbed my hands and started praying—and I was a little self-conscious. I’m looking around, thinking, “O.K. I guess we’re praying now.” This feels… strange. But she prayed a powerful prayer, a prayer that gave me comfort and encouragement.

It was a little outside of my comfort zone, but I liked it! I want people like her in my corner when I’m being wheeled into the emergency room. Don’t you? God, please bless this church with praying people! Amen? Praying people who believe that their prayers have power! Praying people who really believe that God answers prayer! Praying people who have the audacity to believe that God will graciously, graciously, graciously give them what they ask! God, if we’re not already those kinds of praying people, please make us into those kinds of praying people!

Easier said than done, perhaps. Maybe you struggle with skepticism—maybe you have trouble believing God will answer your prayers. If so, here’s some good news. The church that prayed fervently for Peter was not comprised of superheroes of faith, either. They might have prayed for Peter’s release from prison, but they didn’t believe it was really him when he showed up outside their gate. Only Rhoda, the lowly servant girl, really believed at first. Ultimately, it’s not the strength of our faith that leads to answered prayer; it’s God alone who answers prayer. It’s all grace.

Some Christians also struggle with intercessory prayer because they simply don’t feel a desire to pray for others. If that’s the case, I have two pieces of advice: Pray for people you know and love. I get inundated every week with prayer lists—pray for my Aunt Sally’s next-door-neighbor’s cousin’s best friend who has gout. I don’t know Aunt Sally, nor do I know her next-door-neighbor’s cousin’s best friend. I simply don’t know how to pray for that person, and I don’t believe that mouthing words up to heaven is really effective. Some people can pray effectively for people they don’t know. Most people can’t. Second word of advice: pray that God would increase love within you. Because more than anything, praying for others is a way of loving others. As our love for others increases, we will desire for them things we cannot give them except through prayer.

Take heart: this kind of praying gets easier with time and practice.

So by all means, whatever else you do, pray!

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 197-8.

2. Ibid., 213.

3. Ibid., 213-4.

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