Sunday, 4 October 2015

Pointless praying

When Rhoda recognised Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed that she ran back without opening the door and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!" "You're out of your mind," they told her...  Acts 12:14-15
It's always been a bit of a mystery to me (and, if I'm to be honest, a bit of a disappointment) that the Bible contains so little humour. Of course it's not for me to argue with God - no doubt he has his reasons (though if you have a theory why it should be so, given the great importance of humour to the human race, I would be very interested to hear from you).
There are, however, places here and there which do raise a smile, and this story in Acts 12 is one of them.

Remember what has happened. Simon Peter has been thrown in prison by Herod, who wishes to destroy the church. But in the middle of the night an angel comes to him and sets him free. He makes his way to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the church has gathered and is "earnestly praying to God for him".

Pause for a moment, please, on that... The church is so troubled about Peter that it gathers for no other purpose than to pray for him. They obviously mean business. Good for them!

Yet what happens? When their prayer is miraculously answered they don't believe it. The servant girl Rhoda goes to the door, recognises Peter's voice, and is so flustered that instead of opening the door and letting him in, she runs in and announces "Peter is at the door!"

And what do they do? Do they praise God and say, "Amazing! Fantastic! Our prayer has been answered!" No, they don't. They tell Rhoda - poor soul! - that she must be "out of her mind". When she absolutely insists, they still don't believe her: "It must be his angel".

Two things raise a smile.

First, the behaviour of Rhoda. She gets herself into what is sometimes called a bit of tizz, and fails to do the obvious thing and open the door. I imagine we can all see ourselves in her - those times we have got so excited or confused about something that we just couldn't think straight. Later, we smile at our foolishness.

And second, the behaviour of the church. They pray fervently for something, but when it actually happens they flatly refuse to believe it. Even worse, they go on to dream up a rational explanation - “It must be his angel” - for the miraculous answer to prayer. Anything, just anything, it seems, rather than believe that God really has heard and answered.

Don't we recognise ourselves in that too? It’s only later on that we shake our heads, smile, and say, "Yes, that really was pretty stupid of me".

The serious point behind the story is this. How easily we slip into the mentality: "Well, we know we must pray - and so of course we will. But deep down we don't really expect anything to happen as a result".

But if that is the case, why bother to pray in the first place? It's just a waste of time. (I’m reminded of the vicar whose church was robbed of various valuable items. The following Sunday he asked the congregation to pray, and then added, “Mind you, I don’t suppose it’ll do any good as they’re probably miles away by now.” Now, just how ridiculous can you get?)

The Acts story is, on one level, a story about faith. The church had enough faith to pray - so let’s by all means give them credit for that - but not enough faith to believe it would make any difference. Perhaps we need to remember this next time we pray.

James, Jesus' brother, puts it like this (James 1:6): when we ask, we must “believe and not doubt, because the person who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind”.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer - as long as that prayer is offered trustingly and humbly. Oh, and as long as we leave God alone to decide the how, the when and the where.

Lord, forgive us that we often pray out of obedience or duty, but with little real expectation. Sometimes, Lord, this is because we feel our expectations have been disappointed in the past. But inspire us by your Holy Spirit to persevere in prayer until we see the answers. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment