I once asked one of my clergy colleagues how his Church was doing. “Joys and frustrations” was his reply. “Joys and frustrations” he said.
He rejoiced that his church in central London was growing in size, and he was confident that the Christians in his congregation were growing in their faith. But there were frustrations too. Obstacles to overcome his church was to continue growing. Problems that needed to be solved if Christian ministry in his parish was to flourish. Joys and frustrations.
Over the next few weeks we are spending time looking at the life of the early Church. A church described for us in the book of Acts. A church that experienced its own joys and frustrations.
If you were here last week, you will know that the first Christian church was experiencing dramatic growth in its early days. Large numbers of people were coming to faith in the risen Jesus and joining the first Christian fellowship. The preaching of the Gospel was producing fruit, sinners were being saved, people were experiencing new life and new hope. It must have all been a source of great joy and encouragement to the leaders of that early church.
But there were frustrations too. Because in our passage today the church has just suffered a setback. Its ambitions for further growth seem to have just been frustrated.
Two of the church’s leaders, the apostles John and Peter, had just been arrested by the Jewish religious authorities. They’d been put in prison for preaching about Jesus. Imprisoned for telling people that he had risen from the dead. Incarcerated for inviting sinners to turn to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
It is no surprise that John and Peter’s preaching was not well received by the religious rulers in Jerusalem. Because they were the same rulers who only weeks earlier had accused Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him to death. These Jewish leaders could not tolerate the message that the first Christians were proclaiming, and commanded them to be silent. As we join the scene in verse 23 today, John and Peter have just been released from jail and return to their church fellowship. No doubt with the threats and warnings of the authorities ringing in their ears.
This presented the first church with a great problem. They knew God wanted them to keep telling the people the good news about Jesus. But the ‘powers that be’ in Jerusalem were telling them to be silent, to keep quiet. How frustrating! What a challenge! What was the church to do?
Before we look at what the early church did do, I hope you appreciate that we face a similar situation here at St. Michael’s:
- Like the early church in Acts, we too are under orders from God to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples of Jesus. It’s the Great Commission we have all been given. Telling people in our community about Jesus has to be our number one priority. Helping people to follow Jesus must be this – and every – church’s chief concern.
- Like the early church we also have many reasons to rejoice. As we look back over the past year here at St Michael’s we should rejoice over growing numbers and new faces among us. We should rejoice at the opportunities we’ve had to share our faith with people from every age and stage of life. For instance, in the last month alone nearly 200 school children heard about Jesus at our “Easter Cracked” event, and a thousand homes received our new magazine explaining the meaning of Easter. We have so much to be thankful for.
- But like the early church we also face frustrations. Like the first Christians we too have obstacles to overcome. For example, we live in an increasingly secular and materialistic society. A society in which Christians who are open about their faith are viewed with suspicion or even hostility. A society in which more and more people believe they have no need of God.
- We also face internal as well as external challenges. Currently our church finances are a constraint on our ministry and our giving must grow. We also need more people to serve as Sunday School helpers – and we continue to look for more volunteers to be welcomers on the door each Sunday.
- And at home I know many face personal frustrations and anxieties. Frustrations and anxieties caused by poor health, job insecurity, relationship difficulties – and so on.
Faced by such challenges and frustrations, what should we do? Should we throw our hands in the air in despair? Should we abandon all hope?
No. We should do what the first church did when faced with frustrations – we should turn to prayer. Look with me at verses 23 and 24 today: “On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” A powerful prayer meeting had begun.
Faced with frustrations, prayer was their first reaction, their first instinct. And it should be ours too. Prayer should be our first response to any challenge or frustration we face. Prayer should replace anxiety and come before any action or important decision.
So for the remainder of our time today, we’re going to consider why the early church prayed, and what they prayed for. Lessons we would do well to learn.
- Why pray? Because God is in control (v.24-28)
Firstly, we should pray because God is in control. The early church prayed because they believed God was powerful. The first Christians knew that God – and God alone – had the power help them.
The General Election campaign is well under way – with all the political parties appealing for our votes and competing for power. But if the polls are to be believed, it seems likely that there will be a ‘hung’ Parliament on May 8th, with neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband having an absolute majority. Their power will be limited – their authority will depend on the support of smaller parties.
Our passage today reminds us that God has no such difficulties. His power is unqualified. Because in verse 24 we are told that the first Christians prayed to a “Sovereign God”. To be sovereign is to have absolute authority, to have total power, to be in complete control.
As their prayer continues, the first church share with us two pieces of evidence for God’s power and authority. In the opening words of their prayer they remind us of God’s power over the material world, and his power over mankind.
For a start, in verse 24 they acknowledge God as the creator of the material world: “Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”
They early church knew their Old Testament, and they certainly knew Genesis 1. By his power, by word, everything was made. The God who had the power to create the cosmos, who had the ability to throw the stars into space and fill the earth with life, certainly had the power to help them – and help us – in answer to prayer.
But God’s power isn’t confined to the material world, to the physical universe alone. He has power over people too. Men and women can’t compete with the power of God. Because in verses 25 and 26 the first church reminds us of another passage in the Old Testament. A passage from Psalm number 2. Listen again to what it says: ‘“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.”
In other words, this inspired Psalm is teaching that any human effort to challenge God’s good purposes is ultimately doomed to failure. Any effort by powerful men and women to thwart God’s great plans for the world is in vain. Specifically, any human effort to oppose God’s ‘anointed one’ will not succeed. But who is this Anointed One? The answer is that Anointed One is another word for ‘Christ’. So this psalm is saying that any human effort to oppose Jesus Christ cannot succeed.
In verses 27 and 28, the church gives us the most vivid and important example of this. Listen again to what they prayed: “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” When Jesus was crucified, those crucifying him thought they were finishing him off. But the events of Easter proved them all wrong.
Unbeknown to them, it was God’s plan all along that his Son would die on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins. By crucifying Jesus, the Roman and Jewish authorities were unwittingly advancing God’s plans and furthering Christ’s mission, rather than finishing it off! And, of course, God had the power to reverse Christ’s execution by raising him from the dead.
Our Sovereign Lord can transform even the worst human actions and intentions, and use them for good. He can work through the most challenging circumstances to achieve wonderful things.
The great news is that if we are Christians we are on first name terms with the most powerful person in the universe. We have access, through Jesus, to the throne room of Heaven. As we pray, we can speak to a Sovereign God who can create a universe out of nothing. We are speaking to a Heavenly Father who carries far more authority than any human ruler. We are addressing a Lord who can even raise the dead. No wonder the first church was eager to pray, and so should we be!
- What to pray for? God’s will and God’s power (v.29-31)
But what should we pray for? In one sense we can and should pray for anything that concerns us, anything that could causes us anxiety. For example, the Lord’s Prayer says we should pray for things as basic as our daily bread.
But what should be our priority for prayer? What should be the first topic on our tongues when we talk to God? The answer in our passage today is that God’s will should be our first concern. The first thing we should ask for in prayer is for God’s will to shape our lives. For God’s agenda to be our agenda. For God’s mission to be our mission. Or, to use the words of the Lord’s Prayer, our priority should be to say to God: “your kingdom come, your will be done”.
This principle is illustrated very clearly in the prayer the church prayed in Acts 4. Listen to verse 29: “Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness”. Faced with the threats and demands of the Jewish authorities, the first Christians didn’t pray for physical protection. They didn’t pray for a quiet life, they didn’t pray for fame and fortune, or for health and happiness.
No – they prayed that God’s will, God’s plans, God’s mission would continue. They prayed that God would help them to keep boldly speaking of Jesus. They asked God to give them all the strength, stamina, courage and miraculous power they needed to keep serving him and telling people about Jesus. It was a great prayer to a great God.
And in verse 31 today the church’s prayer was answered in a most spectacular way. Because “after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” As the earth moved beneath their feet, those first Christians could be in no doubt that God approved of their prayer – in no doubt that he had responded positively to their request.
As I draw to a close, I hope the applications for us from today’s passage are obvious.
For a start, I hope it is clear that prayer is worthwhile. Whenever we pray we are coming before the most powerful person in the universe. We are approaching a Sovereign God with the resources to help us in any situation and in every circumstance. Someone with whom we can share our greatest joys and our deepest frustrations. So let’s all give serious time to prayer – in our daily lives, in our weekly house groups, and in our monthly prayer meetings. Our next church prayer meeting is here on Wednesday 6th May at 8pm – please put it in your diary!
Finally, I hope it is clear from today’s passage what we should most be praying for. As individuals and as a church we should be praying that God will be at work through us:
- We should be praying that God will help us share the Gospel in Gidea Park.
- We should be praying that he will provide St Michael’s with the money and manpower we need to serve him.
- And we should be praying that God’s Spirit will be at work in the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbours – preparing them to respond positively when we invite them to church or tell them about Jesus.
At my old church in Wimbledon, the church where Helen and I met, the vicar had a favourite saying. A saying he used to use to open church prayer meetings. He would say: “When we work, we work. But when we pray – God works!” So let’s pray!