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Sun, Jun 02, 2019

Prisoner

Duration:24 mins 12 secs

Our Second Reading for this morning comes from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, verses 1-19. Today is the final sermon in our series Solid as a Rock: Peter, the Church, and the Acts of the Apostles. We have followed Peter and the early days of the church as they sought to live into the new reality unleashed through Jesus’ resurrection. Peter has preached, healed, protested, and seen visions. The disciple Tabitha witnessed through her faith and small acts of discipleship. Today, we find Peter once again in prison. Death appears to be his fate, but God has other plans. Let us hear this Word of God.

1 About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. 5 While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

6 The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. 8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

12 As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” 16 Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the believers.” Then he left and went to another place.

18 When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

James the brother of John is dead.

Peter sits in prison. Execution date set for tomorrow.

Imagine being there in that moment praying with the church. What do we really expect will happen next?

A knock at the door and a maid filled with joy, announcing that Peter was standing at the gate?

You are out of your mind!

They must have killed him early and so it is his angel.

Would we really have expected anything different?

French writer Anais Nin once said that “we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” Another way to put it might be that we see what we expect to see.

Back in 1999 a group of scientists attempted to test this theory. I suspect most of you have seen this experiment, but if you have not, I am going to ruin it for you. So, feel free to put your fingers in your ears if you’d like. The experiment was to watch a video and count the number of times the people wearing white pass a basketball. The video begins and you see three people wearing white and three people wearing black. Each team has a ball and both teams begin to move, weaving back and forth, passing their ball. After 25 seconds the video goes to a black screen with words asking how many times someone wearing white passed the ball. It gives the answer and then it asks another question:

But did you see the gorilla?

Like I said, I’ve ruined it for you. More than half of the participants who took part in the experiment did not consciously notice that halfway through the video, a person in a gorilla costume walks across the screen, stands still in the middle of the weaving teams, beats his chest, and then walks off. More than 50%! Participants in the experiment were so focused on counting basketball passes that they could barely pay attention to anything else. They did not expect to see a gorilla, so they didn’t. As one commentator wrote: “while it is often said that ‘seeing is believing,’ in reality the contrary is true: believing is seeing.”

So, what is it that we believe and what do we see?

Because it seems to me that Peter is not the only prisoner in this story.

Herod is a prisoner. He is imprisoned by his power, his ego, and his fear. He has James killed and sees that the crowds approve. So, he arrests Peter and intends to kill him too. He doubles down on security, guards, and chains. When he discovers that Peter is gone, the only thing he sees is a failure of his guards. He cannot see God at work, so he has the guards executed. Someone is going to die that day. Herod is a prisoner. It is all he can see.

Peter is definitely a prisoner. Arrested, guarded, and chained. He knows that he is to be put to death in the morning. An angel appears, wakes him up, his chains fall off, he got dressed and followed the angel out of the prison into the street. But Peter did not believe what he was seeing. He thought it was a vision. He too is a prisoner of his expectations. It is all he can see.

The church is a prisoner. They have gathered together at the house of Mary the mother of John and they are praying. They are praying fervently. And yet, what do they really expect will happen in the morning? When the knock comes at the gate and Rhoda runs in, they think she is out of her mind! It cannot be Peter - he is locked away in the prison. Maybe the disciples should start paying attention to the women who come announcing good news. The last time it was Mary announcing that Jesus had been raised. This time the maid Rhoda announces that Peter is at the gate. But they cannot see it. They are prisoners of their expectations. It is all they can see.

While it is often said that “seeing is believing,” in reality the contrary is true: believing is seeing.

My friends, what is it that we believe and what do we see?

Presbyterian minister and author Fredrick Buechner tells the story of once seeing exactly what he needed to see. He writes:

I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter's illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany. The owner of the car turned out to be, as I'd suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.

Without the eyes of faith does Buechner see the license plate at all?

My friends, what is it that we believe and what do we see?

As we gathered here for worship this morning, do we believe that we will see some friends, hear beautiful music, offer some prayers with sincerity, and hopefully get something out of the sermon? Or do we believe that we will witness God claim the life of young Hank so that it will never be the same? That our eyes will be opened and we will recognize our risen Lord in the breaking of the bread? That we will encounter God in ways that transform our lives? What do we believe and what do we see?

In this week ahead with Vacation Bible School do we believe that the children will have some fun, sing some songs, and make some crafts? Or do we believe that this week can be a moment for them to hear the good news of the gospel? Do we believe that this week might be one that they will remember for the rest of their lives? What do we believe and what do we see?

As we go about our daily life, do we believe that God shows up in unexpected and surprising ways? That God brings us joy and hope and love? That God invites us to join in making all things new? What do we believe and what do we see?

My friends, we are prisoners of our expectations. We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. As the church, as those who know the power of the resurrection unleashed in this world, let us be people of faith who expect to see God. Let us be preachers, healers, protesters, witnesses, and visionaries who point others to what God is doing in this world. Because God is at work, and if we believe, we just might see.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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