I was recently with a group of pastors where one of the participants prepared a devotional based on Acts 12. As we discussed this portion of scripture, the topic of prayer was brought up due, in no small part, to the mention (in verse 4) of the church earnestly praying to God for Peter, who was at the time in jail, and the mention (in verse 12) of the people gathered in Mary’s home who were praying throughout the night. Despite all this prayer, earnestly offered, the church was not prepared for Peter’s miraculous escape and were astonished when he knocked at their gate. The dynamics of engagement with God through prayer is a wonderful mystery.
I wish I could tell you how prayer works. I wish there was a formula where you could plug in your request and you would know the outcome. I wish I was not like the early believers written about in Acts 12 who powerfully and persistently prayed for Peter but were unable to comprehend the answer. It seems that we are consistently praying in one direction and the answer comes unexpectedly from another direction. Is it possible that our faith effects our ability to anticipate the answer, or do we pray with the realization that our faith will grow through the unanticipated ways the Almighty will work the resolution? Whatever the machinations or motivations for our prayers may be, we are called to present our requests before God.
[Jehoshaphat prayed,] “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV)
I like Jehoshaphat’s prayer. Here is the king of Judah, the earthly ruler of God’s people, crying out to God because of an impossible situation – a vast army from Edom was just beyond the city gates. What would you pray for if you faced certain destruction unless the God of creation intervened? To strengthen your forces? To give success to your plans? Thankfully for us who are puzzled by prayer, Jehoshaphat’s petition takes a different tack.
“For we have no power….” It is as if Jehoshaphat is saying that God will have to do something if anything is going to be done. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words: we cannot arrest cancer, we cannot end violence, we cannot create wealth, we cannot change a human heart. We pray because we are powerless to effect much of what we pray for.
“We do not know what to do….” Jehoshaphat has no plans, so asking for success in the abstract is fruitless. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words as well: We are often unable to process all the details of our situation, let alone formulate action steps to bring about change. We are much better off to leave the process to the one who holds all things in order: God.
“…our eyes are on you.” Ultimately, Jehoshaphat determines that the only thing to do is watch for God’s movement and follow Him. A better prayer has never been uttered: to paraphrase, “Show me where you are and enable me to remain there.”
We have no overwhelming power, but Christ does. We have no earth-shattering plans, but Christ does. But we do have the ability of focus our attention on the things that matter…may that singular point of focus be Christ as we make every petition and request to Him.
There are fascinating details surrounding the final hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is comforting to know that the impending suffering of our Savior did not cause a panic in His heart: His matter-of -fact planning of the Passover, His peaceful interactions with the disciples (including His betrayer) and His willful arrest on bogus charges. It is also comforting to know that His concern was not on His future alone, but also for the future of those He loved. Above all, it is comforting to know that Jesus prayed for those around Him when His hour of darkness had arrived.
As the Lord and His followers made their way from Passover meal in the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has a conversation with Peter. Jesus told Peter that the enemy wanted His destruction, but Jesus also told him that He has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. Jesus told him that he’d deny knowing Him three times before daybreak. Jesus finally promised Peter that he would be restored and, in turn, strengthen the others. And it all happened just as Jesus predicted – Peter did, in fact, cave into the pressure of the situation and deny the Lord three times, the last denial to a young servant girl.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” Matthew 26:71-72
What would make a burly fisherman like Peter cower before a kid? What would make a grown man lie to a child just hours after being told he would? Was it self-preservation, a ruse to escape the same fate as Jesus? Was it fear, a deceptive word to avoid suspicion? It is impossible to know what was going through Peter’s mind as he fielded questions and followed Christ from a safe distance. It is possible to relate to Peter’s experience: we all have times when the risk of confrontation supersedes our core beliefs and common sense.
I am not good with confrontation: there have been times that a restaurant server gave me something other than what I ordered and said nothing, that I have listened to a long list of inaccurate statements and offered no corrections, that neighbors have taken my parking space or celebrated too late too loudly and I have suffered silently. I’d like to frame my inaction as a virtue – patience or tolerance – but this behavior ought to be more properly defined as something less noble. It may be better framed as cowardice or insecurity. I’d like to think that that I would stand tall when facing the big challenges. It is something that I am continually working on.
Like Peter, I am grateful that Jesus knows my heart, knows my need, knows my weaknesses, and intercedes for me. Like Peter, I am susceptible to denial in casual conversations and to cowardice when it comes to the things of faith. Like Peter, I have been restored and equipped for service in building the kingdom and strengthening the saints. It is good to have weekends like this to remind people like us that Jesus came to save sinners like me.