April 15, 2018

The Lord Hones Our Prayer Skills

3rd Sunday of Easter
First Lesson:  Acts 12:1-19

Second Lesson:  James 1:2-8

Gospel Lesson:  Matthew 6:5-13

Sermon Text:  Acts 12:1-19

With the season almost upon us, let’s talk fishing. I’m at best a novice fisherman. Most of my fishing is doing what I’ve done in the past or following a hot tip from a member. In time, I hope I can catch fish anywhere, any time. I esp. want to have go to, stand by techniques for any situation. Let’s say it is evening on Silver lake and there’s a slight west wind. I want to get to a point I can reach into my tackle box and pick out an old standby, something that will always catch the fish I am targeting. Sadly I am not close to that level, so I will gladly accept any advice and guidance you fisherpeople can give.

But does that sound like anything relating to spiritual matters to you? Something that always works.  Something you turn to when nothing else seems to be working. Something that is always there when you need it. Any guesses what, not whom, I am talking about? Prayer. No matter the situation or its severity, no matter the time or place, prayer is our “go to” thing. It is a gift of God meant to be used always, and especially when times are tough or we have no clue what else to do. I can’t do anything to help you when it comes to the right lure at the right time for fishing, but God, through his Word, can certainly help us hone our prayer skills. So that is what we are going to do this morning.

We’re focusing on Acts 12, Peter’s miraculous prison scape. The details are fascinating, and we could spend a lot of time on them. But after reading the text a few times, prayer kept coming back to mind. Why? And how? Let’s dig into it.

The 1st verses tell us why Peter was in prison. He, along with others, was doing what Jesus told them to do at his ascension, spreading the message of his work – his life, death, and resurrection – and what it means. The powers that be didn’t like this. They thought they’d gotten rid of the Jesus problem. But the exact opposite was happening.  Since Pentecost there had been an explosion of people following him. Leaders had to act, so they put some heading this movement to death (James) and persecuted others. Peter was the main speaker at Pentecost, so he is a natural target.  Off he goes to prison.

What does all this have to do with prayer? Peter is in jail for doing what Jesus told him to do.  And he was considered an extremely dangerous enemy of the state.  16 soldiers at one time were watching over him.  I’ll give you one guess what Peter was doing. The Bible doesn’t say it, but I am sure he was praying.  I’ll bet he was praying non-stop.  Humanly speaking there was nothing he could do.  Things really couldn’t have been worse for him.  So I am 100% certain he prayed.

That leads to a 1st point about prayer. So often when we have hardships/struggles, or when some unexpected problem shows up in our lives, we forget about our go to lure – prayer. Maybe we trust in ourselves to think or connive our way out of the matter. Maybe we’re so overwhelmed we forget to prayer.  Whatever the reason, that easily happens. What does God say about this?  “Call upon me.”  And not just that, he says to do so in the “day of trouble.”  If I wasn’t catching any fish, and I knew a technique would for sure net fish, I’d be a fool not to use it.  It is just as foolish for us to have our Peter like times and forget about prayer.  Use it, esp. in troubled times.  That is why God gave us this lifeline, this gift.

And what were God’s people doing while Peter was in jail? Praying earnestly.  Think about meal or bedtime prayers.  Can we admit at times those prayers aren’t very earnest? Or have you ever had it happen that your mouth starts watering during a meal prayer because you are so hungry, and all you can think about is satisfying that hunger?  We’ve all been there.

So what does it mean to pray earnestly?  It isn’t a time thing.  Nowhere does it list how long the believers prayed.  But their prayer was serious.  They weren’t just muttering words. They were calling on God in sincerity and with confidence.  They didn’t say, “Dear God, help Peter.  Amen.  Pass the hummus.”  They were dialed in.  They were earnest.

How can we be more earnest in our prayer lives?  1) Remember what a gift prayer is.  We are able to talk to God, the almighty King of heaven and earth, and we can because Jesus made us part of the family on the cross.  2) Think about what you are going to say ahead of time so you don’t ramble.  3) Tune out distractions.  Turn off the TV or the set the phone aside.  And 4) if you have fallen into a rut of saying the same prayer over and over (thus making it easier to be less than earnest), shake it up.  Try something new.  But above all, remember we are communicating with our God, enjoying the blessing of being able to bring everything, even our deepest fears and concerns, to him, just like the people in our lesson.

Back to Peter.  He is still in jail, still heavily guarded.  Even while he slept, he was changed to two guards.  Then, simply, his prayer is answered.  Miracle after miracle occurs. An angel wakes Peter up. Chains fall from his wrists. He gets dressed, and follows the angel.  They walk past guards unnoticed.  Strong iron gates open by themselves, and out Peter goes.

Great, but what does that have to do with prayer?  Notice a few verses.  “Peter followed [the angel] 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.” Why is that a big deal?  Well, had Peter given up hope that he would be delivered?  Was that why he couldn’t believe this was happening or that this was a vision?  We don’t know.  But considering the situation, I wouldn’t be shocked if this was the case.

But even if it wasn’t for him, it does happen to us. As sinfully imperfect people, we want God to loose the chains and open the gates immediately.  And when that doesn’t always happen, sometimes we give up or we throw a pity party.  Or we stop looking for God’s deliverance or don’t even notice when he does come through.   But think how foolish that is. We called on God for a reason.  We know his love and his power.  We have read about that power and love many times in the Bible and we have seen that power and love over and over in our lives.  Why are we then surprised when God comes through, when he sometimes does exactly what we asked him to do?  There is no good answer to that besides the fact we are sinfully imperfect people with an imperfect, doubting faith.  But God knows that.  And we ask him to build up that faith so when we ask, we are looking for the deliverance he, in one way or another, always gives.

And a side note…  When we look for these deliverances and find them, doesn’t that help to build up our faith?  After all this happened, Peter says, “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.”  Maybe he did doubt in the past.  Not anymore.  I pray such open eyes and such deliverances does the same for us.

So Peter is free. Where does he go?  To a home where believers were praying for him. He knocks on the door, and this… causes a stir.  A servant girl – Rhoda – answers the door and almost loses her lunch.  Peter, the one whose cause seemed hopeless, was standing right in front of her.  Of course she runs to tell the prayer group.  But you heard their response.  “’You’re out of your mind,’ they told her.”  They thought she was nuts. Why?  This is closely related to the last point.  Had they given up hope?  Or maybe they had doubts about the power of prayer. If I had to guess, I’d go with the latter.  Why were they surprised?  Why question Rhoda’s sanity? Maybe it was because some of their earnestness wore off.  We don’t know how long Peter was in prison - maybe days or weeks. Maybe they thought nothing was changing. Why keep praying?

Felt that way? We all have. We pray and pray for someone with a nasty diagnosis but each report is worse than the previous.  We pray for peace in the family, but nothing changes.  We pray for an end to financial troubles, but things only get worse. Again, this is a result of the fact we’re sinners. Sinners doubt. Sinners give in. That’s us. We do it all the time.

But didn’t God say, “pray without ceasing?” He did. Why? To keep us looking to/relying on him, and to keep us focused. He knows all the different ways our brains can and will go, esp. in troubled times.  Even if God delays in giving an answer, that too is for our good.  He is building up our perseverance and patience, likely for something that is coming in the future. 

Once more to our text.  Finally the group goes to meet him, and there were astonished and overjoyed.  And what do you think they did? I think it is a safe bet to guess they prayed loud, boisterous prayers of thanksgiving.  That seems obvious.  Why mention that?  Well, think about how often we pray, get what we wanted/needed, then play the part of the 9 lepers that Jesus healed and forget to thank him.  It is a good thing to be enthralled over what was done.  But let us never forget to thank the one who caused whatever was done. It is our Lord – our perfectly loving, perfectly gracious, perfectly kind Lord.

So, pray in tough times.  Pray and look for results.  Pray earnestly.  Keep on praying.  Amen. Can’t do that, can we?  Why not?  Because too often we fail to pray in tough times. Too often we fail to look for results.  Too often our prayers are half-hearted.  Too often we easily give up.  I can scream at you and myself not to do this, but we have done this and sadly will keep doing this.  So what now? We turn to the one who never struggled in this matter – Jesus.  Ask yourself, “Why did Jesus pray?”  I bet most of you had this answer pop in your brain: “To give us an example.”  And while that is true that he did pray for that reason, that is not the main reason.

What do imperfect prayers like us need?  A perfect prayer.  Someone who prayed at the drop of a hat.  One who always looked for results. One who once prayed so earnestly his sweat was like drops of blood. One who never, ever gave up praying.  Do you know someone like that?  You do.  Thank God, you do.  Remember, Jesus had to do everything in our place because on our own we mess things up.  That means being baptized in our place. That means dying in our place.  And that means praying in our place, praying perfectly for all the times we failed to do so.  And that is exactly what he did.

And because he did, we know our forgiveness.  We know our prayer sins and failures are as gone as all our other sins and failures.  Because Jesus prayed perfectly for us, we have the blessed gift of prayer as our go to lure, our can’t miss piece of tackle.  And because Jesus prayed and did everything for us, we know we will never fail to have an audience before our Lord and never fail to have his loving ear bent our way. 

Help any?  I hope so.  If I knew a certain fishing approach worked, what would I be wise to do?  Use it when nothing else works.  Use it often.  Not stop using it.  And trust it will work.  That may not always bear fruit (or fish), but prayer will always “work”.  Our Savior promised so.  Instead of leaving it on the dock, let’s get out there and cast away with our prayers, trusting the Lord will bless us with a bucket full.  Amen.