Bad things happen over which we have no control, but we do have control over how we react to those events. We can plummet into despair or turn our hearts to prayer
real, passionate, focused prayer. Theres a disarming realism in this passage. Luke allows us to watch our forefathers and mothers face a tragic, confusing situation. Yet, in spite of their pain, they gathered to pray. They didnt pull away from each other to lament though, of course, private prayer was a foundational part of every one of their lives. They responded to the horrible news that their dynamic leader had been shamefully beheaded by crowding into a house and then together stretching out toward God in prayer. They gathered, they focused, and they persevered, and because they responded this way they averted another tragedy and released a miracle that restored everyones confidence in God.
There is no area of our lives that registers our level of faith more clearly than prayer. When discouragement strikes, the first thing affected is our prayer life. Prayer tends to decline because faith has been eroded by doubt or anger. We begin asking the big philosophical questions of why? or why not? Our natural minds shift into gear to try to think our way out of the situation. But the more we think, the more discouraged we become until all of life seems hopeless.
Choosing to pray
Prayer in such moments happens because we choose to pray, not because we feel like praying. Its an act of obedience based on a decision to trust God in spite of the way things appear. It stands on promises that were seared into our memories during better times. It stands before God ashamed of the way we feel yet clinging to grace, trusting that He will receive us in our weakness because of Christ. It dares to ask because it remembers He requires only a mustard seed of faith. It calls out Lord, help my unbelief! But the very fact that we have refused to be controlled by our doubts and have dragged ourselves to His feet shows that faith is still alive in us. It must be burning somewhere deep inside. And He, in His mercy, takes our little, smoldering-wick of faith and hears it, and responds with a miracle vastly out of proportion with anything we even hoped for.
Persecution had returned to Jerusalem. The popularity of the church had declined, and the acting king, the grandson of Herod the Great, a man who pretended to be a highly-observant Jew, had just executed one of their most outspoken and prominent leaders. And now he had another under arrest with the intention of killing him as soon as the holidays were over. From a human perspective the Jerusalem church was being devastated, and who can question that doubt and fear must have tried to overwhelm those believers. But in that dark hour God provided a faint glimpse of mercy. Peter wouldnt be executed immediately, so they were given a few days to pray
and pray they did! Instead of plunging into despair over the question of why God had allowed this to happen, they turned their energies to prayer. And Lukes description of this event provides such detail that we are allowed to see the weakness of their faith as well as the greatness of their victory. And its their weakness that gives us hope. If God heard their prayers, when their hearts were so heavy and their expectations so low, then Hell hear ours as well. Lets learn from their example and let our sorrows drive us to concerted prayer.
How to respond to bad news
As we watch the Jerusalem church respond to bad news we learn important lessons:
1) Acknowledge the mystery
This passage raises questions it doesnt try to answer: why did James die? Was it Gods will or was it a lack of prayer? It certainly seems to indicate that the churchs prayer was instrumental in Peters rescue, but it makes no promise that we can pray our way out of all persecution. After all, Peter later died a violent death in Rome. On that occasion he was not delivered.
In order to choose to pray we have to humbly acknowledge that there are spiritual mysteries at work which we may not understand until we get to heaven. But if were going to move forward, were going to have to stop demanding answers, we must deliberately take our eyes off the failures.
2) Acknowledge the promises
In spite of bad news we are encouraged by Scripture to pray boldly, confident that our prayers will change things. Listen:
This is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (1Jn 5:14, 15)
Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. (Mt 18:19)
And Jesus answered, saying to them, Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, Be taken up and cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. (Mk 11:22-24)
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not drive it out? And He said to them, Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. (Mt 17:18-20)
And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive. (Mt 21:22)
Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do
If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (Jn 14:13, 14)
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Mt 7:7, 8)
3) Acknowledge the grace
Gods grace does wonders in spite of little faith. We see faith in Peter (he slept), but very little in the gathered prayer group beyond the fact that they showed up to pray. Yet God called it enough to do a great miracle.
4) Acknowledge the process
They faced bad news together. It takes time to quiet down and listen, and it takes others listening with you to hear the many different insights God wants to give. Prayer does not seem to have much effect until the Spirit begins to lead us. At some point we become aware that God is guiding us and the prayer is actually changing things. As they did, we must also take time to gather, focus and persevere, to stretch ourselves out toward God.
5) Acknowledge the possibilities
What could we change with this kind of concerted prayer? What jail cells could be opened and prisoners allowed to walk out? In Peters jail cell God showed His absolute power over human and demonic hostility. His deliverance must have been an enormous faith-builder for the entire church. After that, who could limit the possibilities? God had proved He can release anyone from anything.
This passage challenges us to consider the possibilities of what converted prayer can do, and it assures us that even believers who judge themselves to have only mustard seed-sized faith can move mountains when they decide to earnestly pray. Here are some opportunities to start now:
The Table Project, Prayer Meeting, Life Groups, LTGs, Missions Prayer
1) Whats the greatest answer to prayer you have ever seen?
2) Have you ever felt the prayers of others praying for you? If so, tell us how you could tell.