Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
October 24, 2015
Two weeks ago, before heading off to my class reunion, I ended with a downer in Scripture. Herod had James killed and Peter thrown into prison and held him with a sinister plan to have him killed after the Passover. Herod realized the death of James had pleased the crowd. His poll numbers had increased. As a good politician, he could only imagine what a bump he’d get from Peter’s death. But we know, having worked our way through this book, that Herod is not the one in charge of this story (nor is James or Peter or any other mortal). God is in change.
However, the twelfth chapter of Acts begins with Herod seemingly in charge, but then there is a series of comic adventures that almost sounds like a Keystone Cop episode in which Peter is freed from prison. The chapter ends with a demise of Herod. There is a two-fold message here: God will work with those who are faithful to bring about his purposes and God does not tolerate usurpers and imitators, as Herod learns the hard way. I will begin reading with verse 5 and will read from The Message translation as it best captures some of the humor that is found in this story. Read Acts 12:6-24
Halloween is coming up this week. It’s a good time to explore fear. Have you ever been afraid?
I was five the first time I went trick-or-treating. We lived out in the country at that time and the first stop was at Bunches, a grocery store in Eastwood, where we were given an apple. It seemed to be a good deal, to dress up and take a bag up to a door and say “trick-or-treat” and come away with goodies. You can get away with such things as a kid. As an adult, you’d be guilty of extortion, but as a kid, you’re cute. After Bunches, we went over to my grandparents and were joined by my grandma and my Uncle Larry. Together we went into town to see what kind of goodies we might collect. Larry, who is six years older, took my brother and me door-to-door while my Grandmother and Mother followed along in the car.
All was going along splendidly until we came up to an old big house. The house itself looked spooky, but we were with Larry and were not afraid. He rang the doorbell. We could hear the shuffling of feet and the door slowly squeaked open and we found ourselves standing in front of three grinning witches. These women were dressed in black and wore strange hats. My brother and I, leaving Larry behind as a morsel for their cauldron, raced no time in dropping our bags and running back to the car, shouting the alarm: “witches, witches.”
Mom met us before we got to the car. “You need to apologize to those women,” she said, as she grabbed our wrists and dragged us back up to the porch. We kept squirming and fighting to get away. “They’re not witches,” Mom kept saying, but we’d heard the stories of Hansel and Gretel and others who had been tricked by such evil women. Eventually, shaking in our shoes, we did apologize and learned they were not witches, but nuns wearing habits. Of course, at the time this didn’t make any sense to this five year old. “Nun” was the dessert you got when you didn’t clean your plate and habits was something usually modified by the word “bad.” We were developing a few of them… The nuns accepted our reluctant apology and laughed as they gave us each a handful of candy as our fear waned.
One of messages woven throughout scripture is the command not to be afraid:
- Moses tells Israel at the end of his life: “Be strong and courageous… for the Lord your God goes with you, he will never leave you nor forsake you.
- In the Psalms we are told over and over again not fear, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We do not fear for God is our light and salvation, for God is with us.
- Angels told Mary and Joseph and the shepherds not to be afraid.
- Jesus tells us not to worry about what we eat or drink or wear… for by worrying we will not add one hour to our lives. And that we should not be afraid of those who can kill be body but should fear the one who can destroy both the body and soul in hell.
- In Hebrews, we’re reminded that because God will never leave us, we can say with confidence, “the Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”
Sadly, though, we are often afraid. Fear sells. Politicians of all strips use fear to motivate us to vote for them. Ad agencies use fear to buy products that will protect us. Parents use fear to keep their kids in line and children use the fear of a crappy nursing home to motivate parents… Fear is all around us, even when we have never had things as good as we do now.
But when I look at our passage of scripture for today, it doesn’t appear those in the early church were afraid. Even though they had reasons to be afraid with bounties on their head; they had faith and trusted God. I don’t think any of us have faced a crowd with rocks, as Stephen had done; faced the sword of an executioner as James did; or spent time in jail waiting for death at the hands of Herod’s henchmen as Peter was doing at the beginning of our reading. If there was ever a time for fear in the church, it was in the first century, but the early Christians weren’t afraid. They knew God was with them and trusted the Lord. Yes, some of them died, but more and more came to experience the love of God as shown through Jesus Christ and the world was changed! If we could only so trust God today, imagine what God might do through us.
Our passage starts with Peter in prison and we get the sense that his demise is at hand. When the sun rises, Herod plans to make an example of Peter, but God has other plans. I find it interesting that Peter sleeps like a baby. If I was in Peter’s situation, I’d be restless and, as far as the chains would allow, would be pacing in the cell. The angel has to wake Peter and then has to tell him what to do: get up, fasten your belt, put on your sandals, wrap your cloak around you, and follow me. Peter follows in a stupor-like state, thinking he’s dreaming. It is only when he leaves the jail through the open gate, passing the guards who are asleep, that Peter realizes this is no dream; it’s actually happening. When they are safely outside of the prison, the angel leaves and Peter heads over to John’s mother’s house.
Luke, the author of this story, obviously has a sense of humor and expects us to laugh at all that’s happening. The heavy gate of the jail couldn’t hold Peter, but now he can’t get through the gate at the house where the disciples and believers have gathered to pray. Rhoda, the servant, is so excited to hear Peter’s voice that she forgets to let him inside, so Peter continues to knock on the door while she tries to convince everyone that Peter is outside. All she had to do was to let him in, but they don’t believe her. The knocking continues. Finally, someone opens the door and there’s great rejoicing. However, Peter is still a wanted man, so he heads off to an unnamed place while Herod has the guards executed. Again, we’re reminded of Herod’s power and how he misuses it.
Let me say a bit about this Herod, Herod Agrippa. There are several Herods in scripture. This guy is the grandson of Herod the Great, the one who killed the innocent boys around Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Agrippa ruled from 37 to 44 in the Christian era. He obviously has some of the same vanity of his grandfather and certainly liked his power, even though he wasn’t as powerful as his grandfather. He did not control as much territory as some of it was controlled by his cousin.
After telling about how Herod treated those guarding Peter, the author of Acts breaks from the story of the church to tell us about Herod’s death. This seems to be disconnected with the episode about Peter as it deals with other enemies of Herod, but Luke wants us to know what happens to tyrants. Herod’s enemies are in need of his aid so they play on his vanity. Herod is puffed with such praise, especially when they refer to him as a god. As a Jew (he was at least partly Jewish), Herod should have known the first commandments prohibits having anything before God, including oneself, but he likes hearing people call him god and in this praise, is struck down by an angel, dies, and is eaten by worms. “You shall have no other god before me,” God told Moses through the commandments, but Herod liked the idea of people seeing him as divine.
Interestingly, the story of Herod’s death is collaborated in other ancient texts. Josephus tells of it in greater detail, saying that the sun reflected off his silver armor in a way that he was praised by the crowd for being a god. Basking in this praise, he receives an omen indicating his imminent death.
There are two things I’d like you to take from this passage. First of all, we have a Savior and his name is Jesus and whenever we are looking for someone to help us be better, we should be careful. You want a better church, make room for God to work in your lives and in the life of the congregation. Don’t look for a savior as in the right pastor or the right elders or in the right staff person. We already have a Savior! You want a more fulfilling life. Don’t think you can have it by replacing your spouse with one who will be a savior. We already have a Savior and they will only disappoint us. You want a better country, don’t look to an individual politician or political party to be a savior. They, too, are mortal and will sooner or later disappoint us. We’re to look to God and as individuals, be open to being used by God for his work in the world. God works through individuals in human organizations to bring glory to himself and to further God’s kingdom, but God doesn’t like it when people think too highly of themselves. Humility is a virtue and it was unfortunate for Herod that he never learned the lesson.
The second things we learn is that when we, like the early church, trust God and spend time in prayer and lifting up one another, there is no end to what God might do. The early church was poor and powerless, but Peter walks out of jail like it’s nothing. God wasn’t done with Peter. God was with the church and that’s still true today. But we have to trust that God is with us. We have to move beyond a fear of what will happen in the future. God is in control. God desires salvation brought to the entire would. We need to accept this, believe it, and act in faith. The future of the church isn’t dependent on what I do or what you do, it’s dependent upon the power of the God of creation, the God of new life in Jesus Christ.
We’re coming up on Consecration Sunday, a day we recommit ourselves as followers of Jesus. Over the next few weeks, I encourage you to include in your prayers a petition asking God to show you how you might be used to further God’s work in our church, our community and in the world. Let us pray together. Please repeat after me:
Loving God, we thank you for what you’ve done in Jesus Christ. We bow before you in humility and ask you to show us how we can further your work at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, in the community and throughout the world. Amen.
 Deuteronomy 31:6
 Psalm 23:4, 27::1, 118:6
 Luke 1:30, Matthew 1:20, Luke 2:10.
 Matthew 6:25, 27; 10:28.
 Hebrews 13:5-6
 Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 17.168-170. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 186-187