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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is There Help from God?

Pastor Shim's sermon on August 14, 2011

Can We Count On God’s Help? Acts 12:1-24

“People are in the dark, they don’t know what to do
I had a little lantern, oh but it got blown out too.
I’m reaching out my hand. I hope you are too.” – Greg Brown, “In the Dark with You”

When suffering happens, people don’t know what to say or do –until they pray!
Acts 12 starts with a bad news about Christians. Some were put in jail, tortured, and killed. Apostle James was beheaded by Herod’s order. King Herod, seeing that his act of cruelty pleased the Jews, ordered Apostle Peter put in prison. King Herod had the authority to do as he pleased, and the Christians became powerless victims. That is, until they began to pray for help from God. Would their prayer make any difference for Peter, given the death of James, who was equally dedicated and loved of God, but dead? How does one deal with such a puzzle? Christians say pray for God’s help. Non believers say the universe is governed by predetermined set of laws. No intervention, in the words of two scientists: “There could be no exceptions or miracles. gods or demons couldn’t intervene in running of the universe.” - Stephen Hawking and Leonard Meodinow - The Grand Design.

There is a mystery about God beyond our understanding, and His ways are different, as Isaiah 55:8-9 puts it, “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, says the Lord. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Those who agree with God’s greatness and mystery trust Him to help them and point others to Him in times of trouble.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn from his times in the Soviet Gulags, “The Sign of the Cross”
The Russian author who spent many years in the gulag of Siberia bears witness to the power of the cross. After long suffering in the work camp of Siberia, he fell into despair. Like other prisoners, he had worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His days were filled with backbreaking labor and slow starvation. On a particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much. He saw no reason to continue living, to continue fighting the system. He thought that the rest of his life was meaningless, since he would most likely die in this Siberian prison. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.

Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude worksite bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to many other prisoners.

As he waited head down, he felt a presence. Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed. He knew that he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet in that moment, he knew that there was something greater than the evil that he saw in the prison, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented in that simple Cross. And through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Nothing outward had changed, but inside, he received hope.
Years later, Solzhenitsyn’s writings enlightened the entire world, telling us not only about the horrors of the Soviet prisons, but also witnessing to the power of God and the hope of the Cross - Fr. Luke Veronis.
God was there in Solzhenitsyn’s moments of despair. He used one of His suffering servants to point Solzhenitsyn to the cross, the symbol of God’s love. The Holy Spirit helped him to see hope in his despair, and that saved his life. We are all enriched by his writings, and the Nobel Prize award was an affirmation of his contribution. He was saved for a purpose like the Apostle Peter.

King Herod got it into his head to go after some of the church members. He murdered James, John's brother. When he saw how much it raised his popularity ratings with the Jews, he arrested Peter—all this during Passover Week, mind you—and had him thrown in jail, putting four squads of four soldiers each to guard him. Herod planned a public execution after Passover. All the time that Peter was under heavy guard in the jailhouse, the church prayed for him most strenuously. His survival depended on God. There was no possibility for Peter to escape. Praying for Peter would have been difficult for the church, having just witnessed the murder of their beloved Apostle James.

Herod intended to kill Peter to please the Jews who were opposed to Christianity. But the church appealed to the power higher than Herod. God had a surprise for all. God sent an angel to set Peter free from prison. Peter was at peace. Chained with soldiers, and he was sound asleep when the angel came to rescue him, The angel had to wake him up, and he told Peter to put on his shoes and cloak and follow him. Peter was escorted out of prison by an angel. Peter thought he was having a vision. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.”

Peter was set free by God, to the surprise of his friends. Peter knocked at the door of his friend John Mark’s mother. Rhoda; a servant, left him locked out and went to tell the group. They told her that she was crazy, but she insisted that it was true. So they said, “It is his angel.” Why did not the praying group believe Rhoda? They could have opened the door and checked. Were they in a state fear and shock because James was killed by Herod and Peter scheduled for execution? Greif blinds!

Peter kept knocking at the door until it was opened. At last they opened the door, and when they saw him, they were amazed. He motioned with his hand for them to be quiet, and he explained to them how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell this to James and the rest of the believers,” Then he left and went somewhere else.

Peter gave credit to God for his freedom from prison, not to the angel. An angel is the messenger of God. Peter was Christ-conscious even when in danger of death. He always advised to consider it honor to suffer for the Lord.

It was an embarrassment for Herod for the soldiers to fail in their duty. Therefore he ordered their execution. Herod ordered the death of sixteen soldiers who would have gladly given their lives in his service. He did not bother to wait and find out why Peter was able to escape. Perhaps he was afraid to. God let him know his delivering power. But Herod did not pay attention to the all powerful God.

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.

On the appointed day, Herod, wearing metallic robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. According to Josephus, he died five days later.

I started the message with the question, “Can we count on God to help us in our troubles?
We read the answer to church’s prayer on behalf of Peter and Peter’s deliverance from prison.
This passage from Romans 8 is most encouraging in times of pain or sorrow or loss. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom.8:35, 37-39)

Herod started out as one who was in charge, but at the end God’s people and God’s have the victory. I’d like to close with John Stott’s comment regarding Acts12: “The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing.”

God has the last word over those who reject him.

If you follow Jesus, your victory is guaranteed. But if you reject him your loss is eternal.

Pastor Shim Habte, Willows United Methodist Church, 544 N. Shasta St.
Willows, CA 95988 (530) 934-3190
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