St Michael’s 28th May 2017
Reading – Acts 4:1-3, 18-31
This week all of us have been shocked by the terrible events in Manchester. We have, of course, experienced many terrorist attacks over the years. But the choice of target and the age profile of the victims have been particularly hard to bear. If anyone doubted before the existence of evil in this world, surely the events of Monday evening have dispelled this myth.
Yet since the attack we have also seen the very best of human nature: the taxi drivers offering free lifts home, the dedication of doctors and nurses, the professionalism of our police and emergency services, and above all a community intent on showing that hate will not defeat love. And as people have come together, so the cry has gone out: “Pray for Manchester.”
But how exactly do we pray for Manchester? What words can we use? How do we relate to God at a time such as this? This morning let me say right at the outset I am not going to give easy answers. All I am going to do is offer some clues which may help us as we seek to pray for this beautiful but broken world, and the many young people whose lives have been changed forever this week.
Now at first glance our reading from Acts has very little connection with what happened in Manchester. There is no terrorist outrage; the victims are not young; the events happened many, many years ago. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and it is possible to make connections.
Last week John preached on how Peter and John went up to the temple and healed a man crippled from birth. It was a wonderful miracle and proof of God’s love and power. The man was understandably ecstatic. The crowds flocked to hear Peter and John explain what was going on, and there could be no denying that here was good news that everyone wanted to hear…
…well, almost everyone. The religious authorities, however, saw the name of Jesus only as a threat. They could not see the goodness in what Peter and John had been doing, but rather seized them and threw them into jail. Perhaps there are faint echoes here of the way ISIS can only see what is good and beautiful and true as something evil to be contained or destroyed.
So Peter and John are brought to trial. On this occasion they are released without punishment because the religious authorities are afraid of the people’s reaction. But Peter and John know that these threats are not simply empty words, and subsequent events only bear out their fears. In chapter 5 all twelve apostles are thrown in prison and the following day they are flogged. In chapters 6 to 8 we read of the arrest and trial of Stephen who is then stoned to death as the first martyr of the Christian faith. From this point on, the church faces persecution and opposition, as indeed it continues to do so right up to this very day.
How, then, do Peter and John respond to their threats? Well, the first thing to notice is that they immediately return to their fellow believers. Verse 23: On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. Now on one level this was a risky move as it would have exposed the whole church to potential danger. They easily could be accused of having troublemakers in their midst. Yet Peter and John knew that the response to any threat or danger was not to hide, but to find support and strength from their fellow believers.
For, just as we have seen in Manchester this week, the best way to meet opposition is to come together. And how much more true that should be for us as a church! That whenever any of us are under pressure because of our faith we find that our brothers and sisters are there for us, that we help one another find strength in the Lord.
Secondly, as the church raise their voices together in prayer, it’s really important to notice that before they ask the Lord for anything, they first take time to remember the God whom they worship and the faith in which they stand. Verse 24: “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” Now you might ask why the church needs to tell God that he made the heaven and the earth and the sea, but that is to miss the point. What the believers are doing here is reminding themselves that the God they worship is not a small, weak god who is only able to do very little. He is the God who, as we sometimes sing, has the whole world in His hands. He is in control of history. He knows the beginning and the end of all things. He is, as they call Him here, the Sovereign Lord, the boss, the one in charge.
Of course this doesn’t help to explain why terrible events should still happen, and I accept we are touching a deep mystery here. That’s one reason why in a few weeks’ time we will be starting a new sermon series on the last book of the Bible called Revelation. It may be a difficult book but it wrestles with the whole question of what it means to say God is in control, and I would very much encourage you to come along. For now, it seems to me that at the end of the day, when we face terrible events in the world, whether in Manchester or elsewhere, the bottom line is this: either every action is a random event in a meaningless world, or there is a God somewhere, somehow, who is in control. I know where I place my money.
I am not denying, though, that our questions, doubts, confusion still remain. So how we do we deal with them? This, for me, is where I find the words of the Bible to be such a great strength and comfort. Because the thing about the Bible, unlike, say, the words of the Quran, is that it was written by real human beings facing the same issues as ourselves, in a world made by God where terrible things happen.
So let’s go back to the church gathered in Jerusalem. Where exactly do they find their comfort and their strength as they pray? As for so many believers over the years, in the words of the Psalms, and more specifically in the words of Psalm 2: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. Yes, on a local, national and international level the world is in uproar. There are coalitions of ungodly forces and Christians are being persecuted. But somehow in the midst of it all, the Lord and His Anointed One, Jesus, have not stopped being in charge. The forces of evil will not prevail. In the end they will be defeated.
How do they know this? Well, before the believers begin to pray, they do one more very important, we might even say crucial, thing. Yes, they have recognised that God is sovereign. They have turned to Scripture for comfort. But how do they know their faith in God is real and relevant to their situation? Because, finally, they turn to the cross and remember just what Jesus went through on their behalf.
As we read in verses 27-28: Indeed 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.
Now, I wonder, do you naturally turn to the cross when bad things happen? If not, then this morning I would strongly suggest that you should. Because the cross is the reality and the proof that God is who He says He is; that He is not a God who stands distant and aloof from the brokenness and suffering of this world but who in His Son Jesus Christ experienced the most terrible pain and agony; that He is not a God who is weak and powerless but through the death of His Son has defeated all sin and death and evil; that He is not a God who remains unknown and unknowable but has opened up a way into His presence that we might know and love Him for ourselves. In short, it is the cross that gives us hope that prayer will be answered.
So, how then finally, does the church pray? Listen to these remarkable words from verses 29-30: Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus. I’m not sure that if I was in the same position as these first believers I would be offering such a prayer. I would be praying, perhaps, for protection, or for the Lord to take the threat away. In fact, boldness is probably the last thing I would ask for.
Yet the church recognised that whatever might be happening to them, the one thing they could not compromise was their obedience to Jesus. As we heard in our gospel reading Jesus commanded His disciples to testify about Him. Just before He was taken up into heaven, He told them in Acts 1:8 – our reading for Ascension Day – But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And as we thought on Thursday evening, this task of being a witness is not an optional extra for the spiritually keen. The moment we all go out from this church building this morning we will be an advertisement for the Christian faith. Following Jesus involves quite literally going where He goes, and doing the things He tells us to do, whatever the cost.
And indeed when terrible things happen in this world can we really afford not to speak God’s word with great boldness? I am sure there are many people at the moment who are wondering whether God is in control. There are those who are turning to the pages of the Bible for comfort but who are not sure whether they can trust what they read. The Lord Jesus has given us the task of sharing the good news because it is a real and living hope that others desperately need to hear. We need to tell of our Lord Jesus who became Immanuel, God with us, who took up our suffering on the cross and who died to defeat the power to evil. We need to show that through Him we can know God as our Heavenly Father and experience the reality of answered prayer.
This doesn’t mean that our task will be easy. There will be times when our courage will fail us, and we will need to ask God for fresh boldness. And boldness doesn’t necessarily mean being pushy and offensive. It means that when the opportunity comes we are faithful to God rather than fearful of how others react. It means that we love all whom we meet so much that we tell them the full story of who Jesus is and what He has done for them.
Now this doesn’t mean I know exactly how I should pray for all that has happened this week in Manchester. But as I have watched all those pictures of young people struggling even to speak about those terrible events, I have been praying that somehow Jesus would be a reality and a comfort to them, that those who bear the name of Jesus would have an appropriate boldness to reach out to them in their need, and that the power of prayer in Jesus’ name would be seen to overcome evil.
And it perhaps also significant that this week the Church of England has begun its national campaign “Thy Kingdom Come”. I hope you know what is happening here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas and that even if you cannot take part directly, you are covering everything we do in prayer. Because there are too many people living and dying around us who know nothing of the Lord, who have never known the reality of His love, and friends, this should not be so. If our season of outreach and prayer means anything, it is that the Lord grants us the boldness to testify to the power of Jesus.
But the question is: when we pray, are we ready to receive the Lord’s answer? Verse 31: 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. The Lord answered the believers’ prayer because they were all united and committed in their desire to follow Jesus. What about us? This morning, let’s unite in prayer. Let’s remember that the Lord is sovereign. Let’s turn to the Bible for comfort. And let’s claim the hope that is ours in Christ so that through us many find the comfort and the strength that they need. For His name’s sake. Amen.