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Living with Great Expectations

Acts 12

Jim Davis

Why is it that when we expect the unexpected from God most people suspect that we are out of our minds? Yet, throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation God has always done the unexpected. How many times has God revealed himself through the unexpected?

The story that I am about to tell you is said to be a true story of something that happened just a few years ago at USC. There was a professor of philosophy there who was a deeply committed atheist. His primary goal for one required class was to spend the entire semester attempting to prove that God couldn't exist. His students were always afraid to argue with him because of his impeccable logic. For twenty years, he had taught this class and no one had ever had the courage to go against him. Sure, some had argued in class at times, but no one had ever really gone against him because of his reputation. At the end of every semester on the last day, he could say to his class of 300 students, "If there is anyone here, who still believes in Jesus, Stand up!"

In twenty years, no one had ever stood up. They knew what he was going to do next. He would say, "Because anyone who believes in God is a fool. If God existed, he could stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking. Such a simple task to prove that He is God, and yet He can't do it."

And every year, he would drop the chalk onto the tile floor of the classroom and it would shatter into a hundred pieces. All of the students would do nothing but stop and stare. Most of the students thought that God couldn't exist. Certainly, a number of Christians had slipped through, but for 20 years, they had been too afraid to stand up. Well, a few years ago there was a freshman that happened to enroll. He was a Christian, and had heard the stories about his professor. He was required to take the class for his major, and he was afraid. But for three months that semester, he prayed every morning that he would have the courage to stand up no matter what the professor said, or what the class thought.

Nothing they said could ever shatter his faith . . . he hoped.

Finally, the day came. The professor said, " If there is anyone here who still believes in God, stand up!" The professor and the class of 300 people looked at him, shocked, as he stood up at the back of the classroom. The professor shouted, "You FOOL!!! If God existed, he would keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!"

He proceeded to drop the chalk, but as he did, it slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleat of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe. As it hit the ground, it simply rolled away unbroken.

The professor's jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk. He looked up at the young man, and then ran out of the lecture hall. The young man, who had stood, proceeded to walk to the front of the room and shared his faith in Jesus for the next half-hour. 300 students stayed and listened as he told of God's love for them and of His power through Jesus.

I received this story a few days ago by email from Jennifer Beadling. I have always believed that our faith resides in the truth of God's Word and have been suspicious of placing my faith in someone's personal testimony about what God is doing or has done in their life. Sometimes when I hear little stories such as this one, I want to dismiss it as a stroke of luck . . . after all I have something more substantial for my faith. But I have to be honest with you as I question my own thinking. Should I dismiss this story? Does God still do the unexpected? Am I out of my mind for wanting to believe this story? Such a simple thing . . . a piece of unbroken chalk . . . but it was what the professor requested for proof? Was it a coincidence? Was it the proof the professor asks for? Was it an answer to the student's prayer? James does say that every good and perfect comes from the father of the heavenly lights? (James 1:17)

Sometimes my faith is a very negative faith. I have no problem expecting the unexpected in a negative sense. You have experienced those moods where everything has gone wrong that could go wrong. At these moments you have all the faith in the world in Murphy's law that "If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong!" It is no trouble at all to believe that the next disaster that is going to happen is that the sky is going to fall or the roof is going to cave in. When it happens, you say, "I told you so . . . I knew it was going to happen . . . I knew the worst was yet to come!" Looking back on those situations, you may even begin to believe that there is something prophetic about your ability to predict the unpredictable. It is easy to be "a prophet of gloom and doom". After all we expect Satan to do the unexpected to make our lives unbearable. Too often, we don't expect God to do the unexpected to redeem us from the unbearable circumstances.

God Does the Unexpected

The book of Acts is all about God doing the unexpected. Speaking in tongues; healing a cripple; the apostles deliverance from prison by an angel; Peter's and John's deliverance from the Sanhedrin; God strikes Ananias and Sapphira dead; the death of Stephen initiating the spread of the gospel into Samaria; the eunuch's serendipity experience on his way back to Ethiopia; Saul's conversion on his way to kill other Christians; Cornelius' and Peter's vision for salvation of the Gentiles. The first century had a hard time learning to expect the unexpected. The story James' death and Peter's deliverance from prison in Acts testifies to this truth. As we look at Luke's account, hopefully we will begin to learn to expect the unexpected from God.
 

Acts 12:1-19
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists. Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating." When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!" "You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel." But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place. In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. (NIV)


The Four Scenes of Acts 12

The first scene in Acts 12 is one of a monarch forcing his rule to appease the Jews to enhance his political aspirations. Herod kills James and seizes and imprisons Peter fully intending to kill him. Herod takes every precaution to insure the success of his plans. "After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover." Four squads of soldiers were guarding him, four soldiers in each squad. Herod was taking no chances. Herod was going to prevent Peter from escaping as the apostles had earlier. (Acts 5:18)

"So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him." In the second scene in Acts 12 we find the believers in Jerusalem gathered at the home of John Mark earnestly praying for Peter. Meanwhile there was another scene going on at the prison. Imagine if you would, a single television screen with a smaller caption screen down in the corner to enable you to see two distinct events simultaneously. On the major portion of the television screen believers are praying. On the caption screen you see the scene at the prison. Angels appear, unbeknown to those praying. Notice the intensity of the prison scene "Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. 'Quick, get up!' he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists. Then the angel said to him, 'Put on your clothes and sandals.' And Peter did so. 'Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,' the angel told him."

Peter is released and you see him walk to John Mark's house while the believers are hunkered down praying for their very lives.

When the apostle Peter was put into prison, a group of Christians met to pray for Peter. It is evident that the whole time they were praying for Peter, they believed he was as good as dead. Their prayers for Peter might have been more of a eulogy than a prayer of release. They may have been thinking that the person at the door was his angel that was to announce his death. It is little wonder they thought Rhoda was out of her mind when she announced the unexpected arrival of Peter.

Peter's arrival was an unexpected answer to the disciple's prayer. You can see the shock on their faces as Peter's arrival is announced. The prayers of earthbound believers often become stale and trite. We want God to do the unexpected, but we really don't expect him too. We know that with God all things are possible, but do we really believe they are probable. Our prayers are earnest, but we have little expectation. Our faith is so rooted in earthly circumstances that we are unable to look up and to see the handiwork of God. When God does the unexpected we have difficulty believing what God is doing.When God answers prayer in an unexpected way, we often have difficulty recognizing his answer.

Even Peter has difficulty believing the unexpected. The story is actually a little humorous. Initially he thought he was having a bad dream. "Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. (Not exactly a gentle nudge) 'Quick, get up!' he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists. Then the angel said to him, 'Put on your clothes and sandals.' And Peter did so. 'Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,' the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, 'Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.'"

Understanding what is going on behind the scenes is the key to expectant prayer. God is busy answering their prayers while they are praying them. If we could by faith look through the veil of time into eternity, we would see God moving heaven and earth for our salvation.

I was on a flight into O'Hara airport in Chicago a few years ago. It was early in the morning and the air traffic was heavy. I had on a head phone listening to the piped in music. There was a channel you could switch to that enabled you to hear the air traffic controller, giving directions to the pilot. You could hear the controller tell the incoming flights to descend to a specific altitude and he gave each a specific heading as the planes were directed to circle the airport until they could land. I will never forget the intense consecration of the controller directing the air traffic. At one point the air traffic controller said to all pilots listening for directions, "Please don't contact to me, I will contact you, we are very busy this morning." Every time I take a flight I think about the intensity of the work behind the scenes that is taking place to bring that aircraft to its intended destination while passengers are sitting comfortably in their seats.

That is the kind of thing taking place in eternity to insure our safe arrival in heaven as we speak, only it is on a much grander scale. Angels are being directed, heaven and earth is being moved in unexpected ways to accomplish God's will in our lives. God and his heavenly host are working around the clock making sure that everything conforms to the purpose of his will so that he may glorified through his work in us.
 

Ephesians 1:11-14
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-- to the praise of his glory. (NIV)


The Syrian army surrounded the city of Dothan. They were seeking to route out the prophet Elisha. The city woke up to discover their enemy surrounded them. The story is found in the following verses.
 

2 Kings 6:14-18
Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city. When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "O LORD, open his eyes so he may see." Then the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, "Strike these people with blindness." So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked. (NIV)
There was a time when the thought of angels held a much larger place in the minds of men than is the case today.  If you visit a gallery where there is a good collection of religious art, you will find that the painters of former days loved to crowd their work with representations of angelic beings. Modern man, however, has almost banished the thought of them from his mind. While it is true that some have believed too much concerning these messengers of God, (Heb. 1:14), our temptation is to consider them too little.

The reason we expect little in our prayers is because we fail to see the God who is in charge of answering our prayers. Obviously these believers got far more than they anticipated. They were praying expecting very little, God did something great, so great that the disciples had a hard time accepting the answer. The believer's prayer was earnest, I don't know what they were praying for, but it is obvious that they got more than expected.

I must confess that in difficult times I don't always know what to pray for and I don't know what to expect. All I can do is ask God to intervene and give me his best to accomplish his will. I can confidently trust the Lord to give me what he wants to give. I know that will be enough. This attitude makes my prayer a prayer of expectation.

God's Answer to Prayer is Comprehensive

Herod was furious with rage over Peter's release from prison. "In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while." (Acts 12:18-19 NIV) What do you think Herod was thinking after Peter escaped for the second time by the hand of God? I can only imagine outrage steadily building toward believers.

Try to imagine how the believers felt. Peter had escaped, but I doubt that they believed that it was the end of the outrage of Herod. They know if Herod kills Peter, the killing won't stop with Peter. The Jews had killed Stephen, and the Jews have influenced Herod to kill James and imprison Peter with a death sentence hanging over his head. The disciples probably believe that they are as good as dead. This is what makes the last scene in Acts 12 a clincher as God steps in and takes care of Herod once and for all.
 

Acts 12:19b-24
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king's country for their food supply. On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to increase and spread. (NIV)


"They shouted, 'This is the voice of a god, not of a man.'" This was what an ancient king wanted to hear. The Caesars were believed to be deified rulers, even sons of the gods. He wanted the god-like power of the Caesars. Herod's arrogance was never greater and his end couldn't have been swifter as God steps in and manifests his rule and power to the disciples. Herod answers to the plans of God in harmony with the prayers of God's sons and daughters.
 

"The circumstance noted in Acts 12:20-23 is also recorded in Josephus (Antiquities XIX.viii.2 and cf.XIX.vi.7). There are differences of detail, but they are complementary and not contradictory. Luke's insight sees God's judging hand in the events which Josephus reports from the outside." (Anthony Lee Ash, The Acts of the Apostles Part I, Sweet Publishing Company, Austin Texas. Page 173.)


"Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died." Josephus indicates that a brillant light appeared around Herod as the sun's rays fell on Herod's resplendent silver robe. Josephus also says that Herod did not rebuke the impious flattery. Luke indicates the people were fawning him because of their economic needs. (Anthony Lee Ash, The Acts of the Apostles Part I, Sweet Publishing Company, Austin Texas. Page 173.)

The last scene reveals that God is not only busy taking care of the immediate; he is taking care of our future. Luke emphasizes that the persecutor died, while the Word of God grew and multiplied. The real power belonged to the praying disciples and they emerge victoriously. The Lord knows so much more than we do. Here see God's comprehensive plan for the first century church.. In taking Herod's life, the disciples future is much brighter without his threats.

Depending upon God's plan raises our level of anticipation and expectation for our present needs and our future hopes.

Expectantly Trusting God's Plan

There is another element of truth running through each scene of Luke's narrative we must not overlook . . . trust! Have you noticed how sound Peter was sleeping with a death sentence hanging over his head . . . it really becomes humorous. "Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists. Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating."

Peter may have not expected what happened, but he was definitely resting in the strength of God's grace. Peter slept through Jesus' prayerful night in Gethsemane in ignorance, but he sleeps through his personal ordeal in faith.

Throughout Luke's narrative the disciples throughout Acts are trusting in God to provide as they make prayers of intercession. They don't get what they expect, but what they get far exceeds their expectation.

Conclusion:

The story is told of a small town in which there were no liquor stores.  Eventually, however, a nightclub was built right on Main Street.  Members of one of the churches in the area were so disturbed that they conducted several all-night prayer meetings, and asked the Lord to burn down that den of iniquity.  Lightning struck the tavern a short time later, and it was completely destroyed by fire.  The owner, knowing how the church people had prayed, sued them for the damages.  His attorney claimed that their prayers had caused the loss.  The congregation, on the other hand, hired a lawyer and fought the charges. After much deliberation the judge declared, "It's the opinion of this court that wherever the guilt may lie, the tavern keeper is the one who really believes in prayer while the church members do not!"

When we expect great things from God, there will always be those who think we are out of our minds.

We are far from being out of our minds when we expect to experience great things as God unfolds his comprehensive plan bit by bit and piece by piece before our very eyes throughout our entire lives.

It is easy to get so tied up in what we want in prayer that we fail to see the answer knocking at the door.

The future of this church lies in the comprehensive plan of God to save the souls in this community.

What is your expectation for the future? Do you know that your real future begins with the comprehensive plan of God for your salvation?

Are you trusting God's plan?
 
 

 

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