As I say in this sermon, we often treat prayer as if it’s the maraschino cherry on top of church sundae. Instead, it ought to be at the very center of everything we do as a church and as individuals. The church in Acts 12 prayed as if prayer were a matter of life and death. Because it was. And it still is.
[Please note: The last few minutes of the sermon were cut off. Sorry! Refer to the sermon manuscript.]
Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-17
The Olympics are drawing to a close today. As usual, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them—especially the swimming. And no—not even the foolish, drunken antics of Ryan Lochte can detract for a moment from what our swimmers accomplished in the pool. Especially my favorite Olympic hero, Katie Ledecky. In the 4x200m freestyle relay, Ledecky was anchoring the team. And the Australian swimmer in the lane next to Ledecky started the final leg of the race with what I thought was a significant lead over Ledecky—89-hundredths of a second. And I’m like, “Ugh! I don’t like this!” But the announcer on the TV was far more confident than I was. She said, “I’m afraid that’s not going to be a big enough lead for the Australians,” and sure enough, Ledecky won by nearly two seconds!
Why did I doubt her?
An article in the Washington Post last week described the kind of goals that her swim coach, Bruce Gemmell, makes with her. Ledecky and her coach call them BFHGs. “Big fat hairy goals.” They mostly keep these goals a secret from everyone—including Ledecky’s own family. But t hey did reveal one of the goals that they set for the Olympics this year. The goal was that Ledecky would finish in the range of 3:56 seconds in the 400m freestyle. She actually finished at 3:56.46. So mission accomplished.
To put this achievement in perspective, they set this goal in 2013, after she won the gold in this event at a time of 3:59.82. The idea that she could shave off three seconds from her time between the world championships in 2013 and the Olympics in 2016 would have seemed—to outsiders—outlandish… crazy… impossible. That’s why they keep their goals secret. But, heck, even Ledecky had her doubts—when she and her coach first set this goal. She said, “I always rely on him to help set my goals, because you never know what’s possible unless you hear somebody else say it.”
Gemmell said, “The idea was, what’s the man-on-the-moon goal? What’s going to get you excited for three years and make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to practice?”
“Man on the moon” goal. I like that… Because in 1962, when Kennedy himself said, “We choose to go to the moon,” and do so before the end of the decade, it must have seemed outlandish… crazy… impossible.
Brothers and sisters, our church needs a BFHG goal. We need a “man on the moon” goal. We need a goal, as one pastor said, that will take nothing less than a miracle to accomplish. We need, as a church, to start believing again in miracles; we need to believe in the impossible—or, I should say, we need to believe in what’s possible only through Christ and his Holy Spirit. Seriously, Jesus told his disciples, on the night of his arrest, that it’s a good thing that he’s going away. He said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper”—i.e., the Holy Spirit—“will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” He said that if he goes, we, the church, will do the things that he did, but not only that, we’ll do even greater things—because he’s going away and giving us his Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, it’s time for us to start believing that “even greater things” are possible for us at Hampton United Methodist Church!
Today’s scripture gives us a clue about how we do that… And it starts with prayer. And it continues with prayer. And it ends with prayer. And when we’ve reached the end, we start over again. With prayer. We pray collectively as a church in worship. We pray as small groups—in Sunday school, in Bible studies, in UMW circles, in committee meetings, in church council. We pray in our homes, with our families—out loud; we pray privately, alone, in our “prayer closets,” as Jesus says.
Prayer ought to be at the center of everything that we do—as a church and as individuals! Prayer is the most important thing that we do. Or it ought to be…
Is it? Is it, really?
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; we 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 likes anyway—and we place it on top. It’s like a decoration.
I’m afraid that we as a church treat prayer like that maraschino cherry. It’s 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 with prayer when the meeting is finished. But in between… Do I believe that prayer is connected to all the stuff that happens in between?
Because if I did believe that, why would I be so stressed out all the time? Honestly… In Paul’s letter to the Philippians—which has a lot to say about the power of prayer—Paul is suffering under a very harsh imprisonment. Yet he writes these words: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
So three quick points: First, Paul says that the antidote to being anxious, to being stressed out, to being worried, is to pray. To continue to bring before God the very things that are causing you to worry. Second, Paul wouldn’t say it if he didn’t know from experience that it was true. Again, he says in chapter 1 of this letter that he’s not sure whether he’ll live or die in this prison: he’s potentially facing death. And even as he does so, he’s experiencing this peace that comes from taking all his requests to God “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” He’s living proof that his words are true. He has put them to the test, and this is what he knows is true. Third, the peace that comes to us through prayer “surpasses all understanding.” Which means, from an outsider’s perspective—when we consider the problem objectively… reasonably… logically… we may have no good reason to experience peace. But in spite of all that we can… And it happens through prayer.
This is what’s happening to Peter in today’s scripture. Peter is experiencing the peace that surpasses all understanding. How do I know this? Because he’s sleeping! You can’t sleep if you’re stressed out! He’s sleeping even though King Herod has arrested him. This is, by the way Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great—the evil man we meet every Christmas—and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded. And this Herod, like his uncle and grandfather before him, is a chip off the old block! But Peter experiences peace even though James, one of his closest friends and fellow apostles, has just been martyred by the very same king who has now arrested him. Peter has every reason to think that he’s going to be executed as soon as the Passover festival is over.
But is he worried? No. And we know this because he’s sleeping. What a dramatic change of heart Peter has had in just a few years!
Because today’s scripture reminds us of another event in Peter’s life—when Peter and his fellow disciples are on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, in the midst of a terrible storm; they’re bailing water; they’re fighting wind and wave; they’re desperately afraid for their lives—while Jesus is doing what? He’s sleeping! Because Jesus is unafraid! Peter is most assuredly not sleeping then… In fact, he and his fellow disciples are literally afraid for their lives. So much so that they go to Jesus and say, “Why are you sleeping? Don’t you care that we’re going to die?” And here… Here it looks like Peter is going to die. And far from being afraid, he’s experiencing that peace that surpasses all understanding—whether he lives or dies, he has peace.
And it’s the peace that comes, Paul says, through prayer. And not just Peter’s own prayers… But also… the prayers of the church, who, we’re told, are gathered together in the middle of the night “earnestly praying” for their brother Peter.
All that to say if I’m going to a church committee meeting, or a church council meeting, or any other kind of church gathering, and I’m not experiencing this peace—if I’m stressed out—man, I’m probably not praying enough.
What about you? Are we worried? Are we stressed out? Are we praying enough? Are we trusting enough? Are we believing the words that we pray—or is prayer like that maraschino cherry that we put on top of our church sundae? Are we bathing all of our efforts as a church in prayer? And if not, are we surprised that in spite of our hard work, we still come up short—that we don’t have enough young people, enough money, enough space to do whatever it is we want to do?
See, I believe we as a church need a “man on the moon” goal—a goal, like Katie Ledecky, which gets us out of bed in the morning and inspires us to get to work—in our case, to get to work for God’s kingdom; we need a goal that may sound crazy to outsiders, because it requires nothing less than a miracle from God in order to achieve it. But that’s O.K. because from now on, I want us at Hampton United Methodist Church to believe that we’re in the miracle business!
Do you believe it? Do you really?
Because here’s the thing: If we’re going to have that kind of goal, we’re not going to reach that goal apart from God’s people at Hampton United Methodist Church doing what we see the church doing in Acts chapter 12—which is to say, we’re not going to reach it apart from prayer.
I mentioned Paul’s letter to the Philippians… In chapter 1 of that letter, Paul says something remarkable. He’s talking about how God is using even the fact that Paul is prison to advance the gospel. And that gives him reason to rejoice. Then he writes, beginning in verse 18, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” It’s only through your prayers, Paul writes, that he’s going to accomplish what he needs to accomplish—in other words through the prayers of God’s people at the church of Philippi, Paul will be successful.
Paul will be successful not through the prayers of sophisticated, mature Christians who grew up in Christian homes, grew up going to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, who got confirmed when they were 12, who’ve taken Disciple Bible study, and who’ve had many decades of experience as Christians. No, it’s not through the prayers of those kinds of people; it’s through the prayers of baby Christians—people who haven’t been believers very long, who don’t know much about the Bible, many of whom wouldn’t even know how to read the Bible if they had one—it’s only through their prayers that Paul will be successful!
Why would Paul, of all people, be saying this? He’s an apostle, for heaven’s sake! He’s encountered the resurrected Lord! Objectively speaking, he’s written words that have had a greater impact on the world than any other writer or philosopher or theologian in world history. Not to mention he’s had more success planting churches and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ than anyone else who’s ever lived!
And yet he’s willing to say, in so many words, “My success depends not on my strong faith in Jesus, not on my intelligence or wisdom, not on my skill as an organizer or strategic planner, not on my people skills or my creativity; my success depends on you—my little flock of baby Christians at the little church at Philippi. Specifically, it depends on your prayers. God is going to do what seems impossible through your prayers. God is going to work miracles through your prayers.”
Do I have the humility to accept the fact that my success as a pastor depends on your prayers. Do I have the humility to believe that what I need for my success in ministry is what I myself cannot provide? Only God can provide it, through your prayers. Do you as a church have the humility to believe that what you need as a church is something you cannot provide? Only God can provide it, through our prayers. I hope we believe that…
Because in the same way, what the city of Hampton, Georgia, and the surrounding community needs is something that we as a church cannot give them. Only God can give Hampton what it needs. And he has ordained the church, including this church, to be that place through which God gives Hampton, Georgia, what it needs—and to do so in response to God’s people praying. And if we don’t pray the way we should, then the tragic reality is that God may not give Hampton and the surrounding community what it needs. What does James say? “You do not have because you do not ask God.”
In today’s scripture, it seems clear that there is a causal relationship between the church praying and Peter being released from prison. If they hadn’t prayed, it’s very possible that Peter, like James, would have been executed. I mean, Peter was executed later on, of course—but because of this church’s prayers he had twenty more years of apostolic ministry.
Our prayers have a powerful impact on the world.
I hope I’ve convinced you of this. I hope I’ve challenged you. And maybe some of you are feeling guilty because you know you don’t pray like you should. And you’re not praying the way you should because you don’t have a lot of faith that your prayers are going to do anything.
If so, I want you to notice something: This little house church in Jerusalem is praying fervently for Peter’s release from prison. And when Peter shows up at the front gate outside the house, how does the church respond? With unbelief. They tell Rhoda the maid, “You’re out of your mind.” And they say, “Maybe you’ve seen his ghost—because he’s dead. Or maybe you’ve seen his guardian angel. But you certainly haven’t seen him; he’s in prison!”
Now, let’s get this straight: the church has been praying that Peter would be rescued, and when God actually answers their prayers, and rescues Peter from prison and execution, they don’t even believe it at first! Where’s their faith? Why didn’t they say, when they heard a knock at the door, “Maybe that’s Peter! Maybe God has answered our prayers! Maybe he’s at the door”?
They didn’t say that, however, because this church isn’t so different from us. This church, whose fervent prayers accomplished a mighty miracle from God, didn’t have a lot of faith—just like we don’t have a lot of faith.
The good news is that “not a lot of faith” is just enough faith for God to do miraculous things.
1. John 16:7 ESV
2. See John 14:12-14.
3. Philippians 4:6-7
4. James 4:2 NIV