God and weakness
God and human weakness
“but the church was earnestly praying to God for (Peter)”
Acts 12 v 5
This is the last chapter in Acts to record the events in the life of Peter. It is a remarkable blend of mystery and clarity, of human frailty and supernatural power. It is the story of Peter’s release from prison and the incredulous response of the praying church.
If you think about the way that Luke researched it you will see it draws on some interesting sources:-
Clearly Luke knew the story from the point of view of Peter – but he also has much detail about the part played by a minor character – Rhoda, and he includes – like bookends, at the beginning and the end of the narrative some informed comment about Herod – his motive, and his subsequent judgement.
But, of course, it is a story of the Early Church – presenting the Church as preoccupied with the imprisonment of Peter and James – and also as praying, but, it seems, with little anticipation of an outcome!
The story is interesting for two principle reasons this morning:
An insight into the way God dealt with weakness,
A view of the work of God as perceived by three groups of people :
The church meeting in Mary’s house
It should encourage us when we are examining the extent of our own faith, and finding how weak it is – to realise that it was ever so – even in the remarkable days of the early church. It should also challenge us as to which of those three groups most aptly fits our present situation.
I believe the passage has much to say to us as a Church Fellowship at this time, and also to us as individuals as we play our part in the history of God’s dealings with this local church.
I will return to the three groups in my application, but first I want to examine the central theme:
The way God works with human weakness:
God in the mystery of His will
God in the weakness of human confusion
God in the weakness of His church
1. God in the mystery of His will
2 Herod had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
Despite the amazement of all at the miraculous release of Peter, the family of John, and the relatives and friends of James would not be able to understand WHY – why God allowed that – and yet spared Peter. I dare say in human terms they might be forgiven for resenting it.
How could a disciple of such standing be spared in the needy early church?
Remember the words of the mother of James and John :
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
Matthew 20 20~
Of course God could have delivered James – but He chose not to. Ask why if you must – but there will be no answer this side of glory.
We often long to know – we cry out of anguish to a silent heaven. He must know best!
Such mysteries of God’s dealings with us provide the dark and shadowy background against which the GLORY of Peter’s miraculous release shines. They remind us that HE IS IN CHARGE and that WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE WORKINGS OF HIS PLAN.
In a much lesser sense – but in a sense more adjusted to our situation as a Church I find it increasingly difficult to understand the way things are with us as a fellowship.
The deacons have been very busy exploring what we felt were openings – but coming up with no solutions.
It is not difficult to become disheartened when you look at the way doors have closed and people we had thought might have been right for the church, turn out to be otherwise.
Of course God knows the answers. Sometimes – like those in the family of James and John in our passage this morning – the way seems incongruous.
B. God in the weakness of human confusion
The human weakness here is Peter himself.
Luke makes it very clear that Peter was in a kind of daze or dream – until the angel left 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
Angels are still at work – as unseen as here by Peter – yet obeyed. When no human agency could have provided the guidance and protection that Peter needed – God stepped in with angelic messengers.
God knows about our situation – and He has His own way of working it out:
(1.) The Weakness of that last night
This was the night before Herod was to bring him to trial.
Why not release him before? Ah Lord! Why not now? We say. And He keeps us waiting – but not too long : His timing is perfect – it is also dramatic.
(2.) The weakness of unrecognised deliverance
he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.
How often we can only look back after the event and see the wonder of God’s deliverance.
(3.) The weakness transformed – with the departing angel!
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 sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”
There are desperate conditions when the angel’s power is the only way out – but there are also the ordinary circumstances in which we too must “come to ourselves” and face in our own human weakness WHAT GOD HAS DONE.
The departing of angels has been significant before : Elijah ministered to, The Christmas angels …
But as important is the time when they have gone away – and we must fend for ourselves – with His help of course!
3. God in the weakness of His Church
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 girl 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 brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
What strikes us is the apparent contradiction between the Church praying and the Church recognising the answer to their prayers!
One of the great problems associated with prayer – and illustrated here – is that those who were praying were UNAWARE OF GOD WORKING to begin with.
There was no immediate “feedback” to them about how well Peter slept and how the angel came! But God was at work.
the church was praying earnestly
and Peter was asleep
and the angel appeared
and the angel went
and Peter arrived …
“You are out of your mind!” v 15
(1.) God often works without our knowing it
It is often so in nature
It is often so in providence
It is frequently so in Grace
(2.) God often works without our believing
Of course the Church was not entirely without faith.
I am sure there would have been those who were expecting a divine intervention – but they do seem to be in the minority this time.
Their faith – like mine – was well mixed with doubt and uncertainty.
(3.) God often takes us entirely by surprise
We react quite wrongly – even if naturally.
Do you think Rhoda ever forgot that knock and that voice?
And from Peter’s point of view – with pursuing soldiers (?) I expect he was surprised as well!
Luke’s narrative is wonderful in capturing the paradoxes and contradictions of human experience and weakness when God intervenes.
The practical application comes in Peter’s words in v 17
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 brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
At such a time – the turmoil of confused, if delighted believers, has to be stilled and a serious point made.
“for them to be quiet”
Give him a chance to explain – it will not lessen the wonder but deepen it!
Give them a chance to absorb the wonder of it!
If you look down the chapter you cannot escape the repeated theme of DAWNING AWARENESS OF GOD AT WORK.
The church today often prays fervently – but does not expect the answer to come knocking at the door.
“described HOW the Lord had brought him out of prison”
“Tell James (the Lord’s brother) and the brothers about this…”
There were other meeting places – possibly other prayer meetings – and although this was a popular place for Christians to gather at the time the brothers and James were elsewhere.
They would need to be encouraged too.
GOD IS AT WORK IN WEAKNESS
o Whether it be the weakness of his will not understood
o Or of human confusion like Peter’s
o Or the weakness of the Church.
But there is a FINAL APPLICATION that draws on the THREE GROUPS MENTIONED EARLIER:
THE GATHERED CHURCH
HEROD is not merely the bad character who provides a backdrop to the story.
He is seen as responding to the prevailing mood of the Jews at the time. He is shown to execute James – and, seeing it’s popularity – move on Peter.
He is also seen as a ruler whom God judges for his presumption.
This is an uncomfortable application – but it has to be faced, and not only by the avowed enemies of the Church. Whenever we are disposed to take actions that are motivated by pride or popularity – we are in great danger of judgement. We DARE NOT presume about our position to exercise choices – if these are motivated by anything less than a dependence on God Himself – they are doomed to failure.
SIMON PETER is unaware that God is leading him.
For a time he is helpless – and his actions are dictated by the angel. This is like the child being cared for at a time before he has learned to act for himself.
But that period is brief – and it will be followed by a time of RECOGNITION and RESPONSIBILITY
I suspect our situation can be like that. When will be ready to act for ourselves? When can God leave us to take the right direction? When we have PROPERLY WOKEN UP
There are some things the fellowship needs to learn – and the balance between leaving others to take the action for us – and using our own judgment.
THE GATHERED CHURCH
Clearly doing what it has to do – praying earnestly.
Yet surprised by the intervention of God! Because often God’s answer to our prayers is of a REMARKABLE TIMING and an UNEXPECTED KNOCK.
How are we found at present – responding to the pressures that beset the Church?
Guided as if in our sleep – or wakeful and obedient?
Acting upon political expediency – or out of wrong motives – like Herod, assuming we know best?
GOD IS AT WORK IN THE WEAKNESS OF HIS PEOPLE.