Last in series: 40 Days of Faith 2017
We are in the last week of Lent - the 40 day season of the church calendar leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday that gives us a yearly rhythm of remembering Jesus' death and resurrection.
Today is actually known as Palm Sunday When churches have historically marked the beginning of the final chapter of Jesus’ life before he was crucified — when he entered Jerusalem, with his disciples staging a sort-of kingly arrival laying out their cloaks and palm branches
And if you have been with us over these 40 days, you may remember that we have been using this lenten season as a bit of a prayer experiment A 40 day experiment in high faith - By high faith we mean believing God can pull off big things on our behalf that we couldn't on our own - SLIDE we’ve done this by praying every day of Lent for a Big Ask for ourselves, for 6 people in our everyday lives, and for this church
We also asked people to invest in BLV by coming to the Ball we had last night The Ball last night was awesome - riff
Our guide for the experiment has been the Bible's book of Acts. A book that is nbchalked full of high faith experiences.
SLIDE Now, the story of the book of Acts can be described as theeeekkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk early church's move from start-up project to sustainable movement, setting it up for enduring and ever-expanding impact Think of a diagram of moving outward in concentric circles They start with just Jewish people in the city of Jerusalem Then they get out to the wider region around Jerusalem -- Judea and Samaria -- to a more diverse group of people And then they begin looking to influence their entire known world. for the sake of this Lenten series we have been walking through the first 12 chapters of Acts, which document that first big step. The move outward from Jews in Jerusalem to reaching more diverse groups in their wider region.
And today I want to bring this series to a close by loo9king at the last story from this first big step of the early church.
SLIDE So we are brought to acts 12.
12 About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. 2 He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. 3 When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. Let’s just pause there, I can be easy to skim over this, but that is heavy stuff. (This took place during the Passover celebration.) 4 Then he imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover. 5 But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him. 6 The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate. 7 Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists.8 Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered. 9 So Peter left the cell, following the angel. But all the time he thought it was a vision. He didn’t realize it was actually happening. 10 They passed the first and second guard posts and came to the iron gate leading to the city, and this opened for them all by itself. So they passed through and started walking down the street, and then the angel suddenly left him. 11 Peter finally came to his senses. “It’s really true!” he said. “The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me!” 12 When he realized this, he went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer. 13 He knocked at the door in the gate, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to open it.14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the door, she ran back inside and told everyone, “Peter is standing at the door!” 15 “You’re out of your mind!” they said. When she insisted, they decided, “It must be his angel.” 16 Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking. When they finally opened the door and saw him, they were amazed. 17 He motioned for them to quiet down and told them how the Lord had led him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers what happened,” he said. And then he went to another place.
This is kinda a crazy story We see many of the leaders of this early Jesus movement facing some real turmoil, opposition. Their message was challenging the balance of power in the Roman world. Upsetting both the Jewish religious leaders and Roman authorities who both had a stake in maintaining the status quo, and in turn their power. As a result these early followers of Jesus start to face some very real persecution. Not like Starbucks isn’t putting Christmas on their cups anymore, nor really honestly like most anything Christians complain about as persecution in the United States
No, James is killed (!)
And Peter is imprisoned (!)
Taking a step back here, this is really challenging story.
These men are doing everything they can to bring the Good News of Jesus to as many people as they can.
They as much as anyone ever can say, with a great deal of certainty, we are doing what God wants us to be doing. They would be thinking - we are doing something that is an act of care and love, and for the betterment of world and those around us. I think when reading this, we can kinda skim over just how unfair this would have been. They are trying to do good and what they get in return here is violence, death, and false imprisonment. I think it would have been impossible to look around at what is happening and not conclude SLIDE Life is not fair So, we follow then Peter as he is unjustly imprisoned. And he is awaiting trial where either severe flogging or execution would likely be awaiting him. I don’t about you but, when I think about this it blows my mind. I just read an article in National Geographic about the 143 people who since 1973 have been on death row who were later exonerated and just over 4000 people who had been serving a life sentence to later be exonerated. Even if I was to believe that those were the only cases of false imprisonment, I find myself getting physically angry when I think about just how unfair it would have felt to be stuck in prison for something you didn’t do.
I think it’s important to note that the reason life can feel unfair is because... life is unfair It was unfair that when I happened to graduate from college it was worst time in US history to graduate from college. Thanks recession. It is unfair that I every sporting event that I want to watch starts so late that I can barely stay awake to watch it It was unfair when my friend Gordon could dunk on me in pickup basketball when I was in 8th grade, and I still can barely touch the net. Many people have told me that it is unfair how well I can move on a dance floor. And you know, Peter, at at least 4000 some odd people found it unfair to unjustly be put in prison I thought it was unfair earlier this week when an 8 year old girl told me that she hadn’t seen her father in 2 years. It is unfair that we are the richest nation the world has ever known, but according the the USDA 15.8 Million children go to bed hungry every-night. Growing up I thought it was incredibly unfair that my brother lost his hearing as a child, while all my senses were perfectly intact. I could keep going, but the reality is, we all know this. Everyone one of us can immediately bring to mind some example big or small, personal or societal that makes it painfully clear that life doesn’t always work out, life isn’t fair.
But, this passage (and many others throughout the Bible) demonstrate something really powerful if we can catch the nuance in it: that, although life is unfair, SLIDE god can still be good As Peter is sitting in his cell, dealing with the reality that life is not fair, something happens... We see him lead to freedom with gates literally opening up in front of him. God miraculously comes to his aide and frees him. In fact it is so miraculous that until he is actually standing outside the city gates he thinking that it must just be a vision And he then goes to Mary’s house where what has happened is so astonishing that they leave the dude standing the front door just knocking, and knocking for who knows how long, because they can’t believe what has just happened, it is that miraculous Across the board, Peter, Mary, Rhonda, everyone is blown away by what God has just done, blown away by just how Good God is, he has freed Peter!
God has shown himself to be good here,
...but... life is still not fair. I mean notably James was still killed
I think this is why I find this passage so helpful, because it helps me navigate that tricky nuance in balancing these two realities
I think in our current world, in a lot of religious circles we can come across a way of talking about God, or thinking about life, that purposefully or not,
Can equate life circumstance, how well life is going for me, with how Good God is.
the reality though, is the fairness of life, our circumstances are very poor ways to evaluate the goodness of God
If we equate the fairness of our life with the goodness of God, inevitably life will show God as not actually good. (God can’t be good because life is obviously isn’t fair)
If we equate these two, the formula will eventually break down, and we either have to scrap the whole idea that God is good all together, or deny whatever unfair reality is we are experiencing, at times even saying that something terrible is actually good
I have know several people personally who have decided faith in Jesus was not for them for this very reason, because by equating these two things, the unfairness the world made it impossible to believe in a good God.
So, yes, I believe that this is a poor way to evaluate the goodness of God. SLIDE What is interesting to me though is that we see this equating of the fairness of life and the goodness of God much less in minority american churches, and frankly most of the churches world-wide And it is because, rather than seeing the world as SLID somewhat of a blueprint Where everything is working out as it should In these churches, that exist in less privileged sub-sets of the world. The world is not seen as a blueprint but more so as a battle, SLIDE in battles, there are sometimes losses, things sometimes get messy, things sometimes can be horribly unfair... BUT… this is A battle in which God is fighting for us. (!) For example, the tradition of African American Church in the US I was actually listening to a bunch of old spirituals this week. I thought it actually might be helpful to listen to a little bit right, SLIDE X2 And there is no doubt in whether this spiritual tradition that was born out of slavery recognizes the inequity of our world But, at the same time, it is hard to find any spiritual tradition whose music speaks so certainty of the Goodness of god. And the hope and belief that God’s goodness is in direct opposition and active battle with the oppression and injustice being faced.
I have found this to be a much more helpful and true-to-reality-feeling understanding, isn’t it?
And I am also really helped by the final part of our passage today,
where we see that in a world that is in fact often unfair, a high faith miraculous experience is huge. (!)
It is so important because, experiences like Peter had by getting freed in such a miraculous way, shows us that God is still good
Not in an abstract, removed way. Oh, God is good in general,
But in a real and concrete way, (wow God is good to me.)
Life may be unfair, but I have a God fighting for me. Who can win battles I can’t.
I am brought back to 7 years ago, when I was praying for some clear and concrete, much like we now are praying for our big asks over these 40 days.
You see, I was trying to decide if I should kinda take the next step at my job I had at the time in IT Staffing, or if I should totally change the long term trajectory of my life, and go to seminary.
I was totally confused and lost, and unsure of what I should do. But I did know whatever I did would choose would have major effects on the outcomes of my life.
And on top of that, if I were to go back to school the financial cost of going back would be enormous
The stakes felt huge to me
So, I prayed everyday for several months that God would guide me, and that whatever choice I made would clear. That whatever it was it would feel like Yes, this was the right way to go.
So, as I was praying for this I decide to call admissions at one of the schools I was looking at and talk to an admissions counselor
and while on the phone with this admissions counselor, unsolicited, he tells me that wants to recommend me, just from this one conversation, he wants to recommend me for a full scholarship.
And not two months later I had been accepted at this school and offered a full ride. Now to me this felt like God had given me an resounding answer. Like, blinking lights, This is the way you should go! And on top of it, I am gonna take care of the cost. You see I felt like God had broken into this world and shown me that he was good, not in general, but good to me personally And I go back to this, when I feel like things are not working out, when I ask for guidance today and don’t feel like I see any blinking lights, I go back to this when I feel alone in the world and as if it all falls on my shoulders. This memory helps me live in the complicated reality that although life is unfair God is still good
An so to my encouragement for you today is: SLIDE Commit or recommit to praying for a big ask everyday this week. SLIDE Then tell us about how it went next Sunday Or if you already have a story about your big ask from the last 33 days, tell us about it on the connect card today I think this is one of the really cool parts of this passage, Peter immediately went to share what happened with Mary’s whole house and her and everyone there had their belief in a good and real God increased. That each-other's stories can feed all of our hope, raise our faith that God is actually good. We share these stories so we can all have a more enduring persevering life and faith. One that is less shaken when life is unfair, one that is more confident in the fact that you are not alone, but have a Good God who loves you and is at work on your behalf But, it is super important to keep in mind that the goal of this looking praying for something miraculous, is that we experience the tangible goodness of God. It is not that everything in our life goes well, No it's about God, as an act of unearned love, showing himself to be good, in a way we can hold on to. Like I still hold on to how I felt God showed up for me 7 years ago.
Well, in moment I will pray, and we will enter into a time of singing and prayer. Something that spiritual communities have done for centuries. And I invite you to engage in that time in whatever way feels best to you. Maybe it is singing along and dancing. Maybe it is just sitting back and letting the music hit you. And, as we are doing that we will have a team of people in the back who would love to pray with you, It can be a really meaningful thing to have somebody else pray along with you. And I have found that God tends to show up in surprising and powerful ways when I have asked someone else to pray for me. It’s a safe and good group of people, no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice.
So if you will stand with me