Counting your assets
by Jack Wald | June 21st, 2009

Acts 12:1-19


I read all the William Goldman novels I could when I was in university and The Princess Bride was one of these. So when a movie was made of The Princess Bride in 1987, it was with eagerness that I  took my daughters to the movie theater and then a couple years later when we took a vacation in Europe, I read them the book as we took the train through Holland, France, Germany, Austria and Denmark. The movie is great, the book is even greater.

There are a lot of memorable lines from the book and movie: (warning: these lines will make little sense if you did not see the movie. If you have, they will bring a smile to your face.)

As you wish.

HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Why are you smiling? Because I know something you don’t. What’s that? I am not left handed.

True love.

Have fun storming the castle.

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Mawiage is what brings us togever today.

What are our assets?

This last line comes when Westley, the male hero of the story, has been killed by a torture machine that sucked all the life out of him. Because Westley’s true love, Buttercup, is about to be married to the wicked prince, they need to break into the castle to rescue her. So Fezzik and Inigo, Westley’s friends, take his dead body to Miracle Max who makes the diagnosis that Westley is not all dead, only mostly dead. He makes a life-giving pill that brings Westley back to life but because the pill acts slowly, Fezzik and Inigo have to drag him along and they come to a wall in front of the castle. It is this scene that is pictured on the bulletin cover.

Westley is still slowly regaining the use of his arms and legs and he asks Inigo, What are our liabilities?

Inigo responds, “There is but one working castle gate, and… and it is guarded by 60 men.”

Westley asks, “And our assets?”

That is always a good question to ask when you are in a difficult situation.

In this morning’s text from Acts, Peter is in a difficult situation. King Herod had arrested and beheaded James, the brother of John. Now he had arrested Peter.

This was not the first time Peter had been arrested. Some time earlier the Sanhedrin had ordered the temple guards to arrest the apostles and that night an angel had miraculously opened the prison doors and escorted them outside. The next day when the Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to appear before them, they were amazed to receive the report that although the temple guard had continuously guarded the cell, the apostles were not there. Then to their consternation, they received a second report that the apostles were back in the Temple grounds preaching about Jesus. (Acts 5)

When Herod arrested Peter, he did not want to make the mistake the temple guard had made. He assigned sixteen guards, four for each of the four shifts a day, to guard Peter. Two were attached by chains to Peter, one guard on each side of him, and two stood guard in front of his cell.

This qualified as a difficult situation for Peter. A guard chained to him on each side, two more at the entrance to his cell, more guards in the prison between his cell and the door to freedom outside, and only a few hours until his head would be cut off.

Herod had discovered that it pleased the Jews when he cut off the head of James. Now he would take the leader of the apostles and do the same to him.

In this difficult situation, Peter might have asked, “What are my assets?”

I’m not sure Peter knew his assets at the time, but later, upon reflection, he might have come up with this list: the prayers of the saints, the peace of God and the surprising power of God.

Let’s work our way though an analysis of these assets.

The prayers of the saints.

When Peter was arrested and put into prison, what did the believers do?

the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

Herod was trying to gain the favor of the Jews, partly because his family were Gentile converts to Judaism and not full-blooded Jews. So when the beheading of James proved popular, Herod decided to arrest Peter and hold him until just after the Feast of Passover so there would be more Jews in Jerusalem to witness his beheading of Peter.

This meant Peter was in jail for a number of days, perhaps weeks and during this time, the believers were earnestly praying to God for him.

This was not a casual prayer meeting. The believers did not gather at 7 PM have something to eat and drink and then begin to pray, pray for an hour and then go back home. They prayed earnestly for him.

This word earnestly is used also of the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke 22:42

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

The church gathered and for days they prayed. Especially this night before Peter was to be brought before Herod to be tried and sentenced to death, they prayed. They prayed earnestly.

How did their prayers help Peter? In what way were their prayers for Peter an asset to him?

Did he receive word that they were praying for him and that made him feel better, knowing that people were praying for him? That is often the extent of our prayers. We pray without really believing God will do anything, but we tell the people we are praying for that we are praying for them, intending that this will make them feel better.

But there is more to prayer than this. If this were all prayer was, we could just as well go to the store and buy a card that says, when you open it up, “Thinking of you in this difficult situation.”

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote in his letter about the need for us to pray for each other for healing and the forgiveness of sin and then went on (James 5:16-18)

The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Prayer does more than encourage people to know we care about them. In ways I do not understand, God uses our prayers to accomplish his purposes.

Frank Peretti is a Christian novelist who wrote a couple novels with a dual story line. In one story line there are people going through conflict and then in a second, parallel story line, he writes about the supernatural battle going on with angels and demons fighting it out. He suggests in his novels that the angels receive strength when Christians pray.

Is this true? I have no idea. None of us has an idea. But we do know there is a spiritual battle taking place. Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:11-12 about spiritual warfare.

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

We know very little about the details of this spiritual battle and what part we play in it, but this much is true. God wants us to pray and in some way our prayers do make a difference. The prayer of a righteous woman or man is powerful and effective.

Would Peter have been released from prison if the believers had not been praying? God is all-powerful and his purposes will be accomplished. But perhaps, for some reason, he acts when the saints are praying. I don’t know.

What we know is the believers were worried and anxious about Peter and they did what we are instructed to do in Scripture. (Philippians 4:6)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

I have been reading The Prayer Life by Paul Miller who will be coming this September to lead us in a Prayer Seminar and in a Person of Jesus Seminar.

His book is helping me make positive steps in my relationship with God and one of the things he wrote is this:

If you are going to enter this divine dance we call prayer, you have to surrender your desire to be in control, to figure out how prayer works.

Because we do not know how God uses our prayers should not prevent us from praying. As his children, we let him know we are worried and anxious. We pray with faith that God will act – in his own way and in his own time.

In this case God used the prayers of the saints in some way to release Peter from prison and the church rejoiced.

This means we need to take seriously our prayers for our brothers and sisters in Christ when they are in difficult situations. We need to pray earnestly for them.

But don’t forget that the church had also most likely prayed for James just a short time earlier and God allowed James to die. We are not the general telling God what to do with our prayers. We pray in faith and wait to see how God will act.

We do not know why God allowed James to be killed and miraculously freed Peter to continue his ministry. We do not know God’s purposes.

We don’t control when we pray but we do participate with God in his work when we pray. So when you are in a difficult situation, alert your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you. In a difficult situation, you can count among your assets the prayers of the saints.

Peter had the prayers of the church and he also counted among his assets the peace of God.

One of the surprising details in this account is that Peter, on the night before he expects to be beheaded, his last night on earth, chained between two guards and more guards watching outside his cell, Peter is sleeping.

The saints are in an all-night prayer meeting, praying earnestly for Peter and Peter is sleeping.

This made me think of another time when someone was sleeping in the midst of a crisis. (Mark 4:37)

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

What allowed Peter to sleep on the night before he was to be executed? What allowed Jesus to sleep in the midst of a storm that terrified even the experienced fishermen among the disciples?

There are a variety of reasons people have difficulty sleeping at night. Parents of newborn children know one reason why. There are medical conditions that make it difficult to sleep. But when some people talk about having a sleepless night, tossing and turning but unable to sleep, it is because they are worried or anxious about something. It might be about a job interview the next day or a performance review at work. It might be because of an exam they have to take the next day. It might be because of a strained relationship with their spouse or child or parent or other some person. It might be because a hurricane is coming in the morning. There are many reasons why people have sleepless nights but it all comes down to feeling worried or anxious.

So why was Peter sleeping in his jail cell the night before his execution? Why was Jesus sleeping in the midst of the storm?

David wrote in Psalm 4:8

I will lie down and sleep in peace,

for you alone, O Lord,

make me dwell in safety.

There are two great promises in the Bible: The first is that he will never leave us or forsake us. We will always be able to count on his presence with us. God makes no promise that we will be spared suffering and tragedy, in fact, Jesus said that we would face persecution. But whatever happens, God has promised to be with us.

The second promise is that when we die, he will take us to be with him.

How was Peter able to sleep the night before he was to be executed? He had submitted to God and was trusting him with his life.

Perhaps he had a conversation with Jesus that went like this:

If you want me to join James, I am ready to be with you. If you want me to be released and continue to lead the church, I am ready to do that. I am in your hands and I am safe no matter what happens tomorrow.

That is the kind of prayer that allows you to sleep in the midst of difficult situations.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encouraged us to pray in this way. (Philippians 4:6)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The peace of God which transcends all understanding. This is what allows us to rest in the midst of difficult situations.

There are a couple of images in Scripture of this. One is from Psalm 131

But I have stilled and quieted my soul;

like a weaned child with its mother,

like a weaned child is my soul within me.

A second is from Jesus’ words as he grieved for the future of Jerusalem (Luke 13:34)

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

When you find yourself in a difficult situation, pick one of these images: a child held in his or her mother’s arms or a chick warm and safe under the wing of the mother hen or hold on to the image of Jesus putting his arms around you and holding you close. Release your fears, release your worries and anxieties, know that God is sovereign and that you are safe with him, no matter what happens to you or to those you love, and then experience his peace which passes all understanding.

Paul wrote to the believers in Rome: (Romans 8:38)

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When you are with Jesus, nothing can harm you. There is nothing the world can do to tear you away from Jesus. You are safe with Jesus and so you can rest in peace.

Peter had as his assets the prayers of the saints, the peace of God that allowed him to sleep and he had the surprising power of God.

What do you think the church was praying for on that all-night prayer meeting? Were they praying that Peter would trust in Jesus and be comforted by the Holy Spirit as he was beheaded? That is how many of us pray. We accept the fate of the person we are praying for and don’t dare move into the territory of the miraculous.

Were they a bit bolder than that and praying for his release, that Herod would change his mind the next day?

Had they perhaps begun praying at the beginning of Peter’s imprisonment that he would be miraculously released from jail, as had the apostles when the temple guard had arrested them earlier, but now after days and maybe weeks of praying with nothing happening, had they given up on this miracle taking place a second time? Maybe they had prayed for James’ release and that had not happened and now they were discouraged.

For whatever reason, they were not expecting Peter to be released from prison that night. When Peter appeared at their door, only the servant girl, Rhoda, believed it was Peter but she was so excited she did not open the door. The believers praying told her it must be his ghost.

Whatever they were praying, it did not include Peter’s miraculous release.

But neither did Peter believe it. The angel appeared in a great light. The guards were put to sleep or in some other way incapacitated so they had no knowledge of what was happening. The angel had to poke Peter to wake up. Peter stood up and the chains fell off. The angel had to tell him to put on his clothes and sandals and to get his cloak. They passed through the jail door and the outer doors and were walking outside and only after the angel disappeared did Peter realize he had not been dreaming.

Even Peter could not believe what was happening to him.

In one of Paul’s benedictions in his letter to the church in Ephesus he wrote: (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Paul had experienced the surprising power of God in his life. He knew from personal experience that God was able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

God uses angels to intervene in our lives. God sent an angel to free Peter from prison. Most of us have not seen angels but I believe we will discover, when we die and come fully into God’s kingdom, how active angels were in our lives.

The servant of Elisha was in a tight spot. Elisha was revealing to the king of Israel the secret plans of Aram so that Israel was always waiting for Aram in their military assaults and was prepared to defend themselves. The king of Aram was enraged and told his officers to go kill Elisha.

The spies discovered Elisha was in Dothan and the army of Aram surrounded the town. (II Kings 6:15-17)

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.

16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

17 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.

When Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told him

(Matthew 26:53)

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?

God uses angels to help us and he also uses his knowledge and power to orchestrate events so just at the right time, when we need help, the right person comes along to help us. It seems like a coincidence but we learn to understand this is God’s power being worked out on our behalf.

God appears to people in dreams and visions.

God has amazing resources at hand to accomplish his purposes.

Are you currently in a difficult situation? Your situation may not be life-threatening as was Peter’s situation, but the assets that were available to Peter are still there for you to use in difficult situations large and small.

Peter was in prison, chained between two guards, two more personal guards outside his cell, more guards in the prison and just hours to go before he would have his head cut off and these were his assets.

The earnest prayers of the saints were interceding for him. They may have been praying weak prayers without really believing, but God is the one who empowers our prayers and God used the prayers of the saints to help Peter.

Peter had submitted his life to God and was trusting him no matter what happened so that Peter was able to sleep, experiencing the peace of God that passes all understanding.

And because Peter was God’s child, the surprising powers of God were at his disposal to rescue him.

These are also your assets so when you find yourself in a difficult situation, large or small, let people know what is happening. When we share in a group we don’t always feel free to share the deepest needs of our lives. Find some people you can trust and let them know honestly the deep worries and anxieties you have.

When someone shares deeply with you, pray earnestly for them. Don’t be concerned that you don’t have a solution for them. Pray and allow God to work in the life of the person for whom you are praying.

Step aside from the noise and hustle and bustle of life and have a conversation with God. I remember once when I was in seminary, I pulled a blanket over my head and curled up in a fetal position and prayed, releasing to God all my worries and anxieties and then the peace of God that passes all understanding came over me and I was able to relax.

Let go of the thing you are holding on to so tightly. Be willing to live without what you want so badly to happen, or to live with the thing you so badly don’t want to happen. In either case, God is sovereign and you are safe with him. Put your situation in his hand and then relax, rest, be at peace.

Have confidence that because you are loved by God, he will use his unlimited powers to accomplish his will in your life.

You serve the Risen Christ who defeated death and reigns on high. He loves you and as long as you open yourself to him, he will accomplish his purposes through you. He will use his unlimited powers to protect you and bring you safely to your home in his kingdom.