3rd Sunday of Easter – April 15, 2018
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After 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. 5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 6The 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. 7Suddenly 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.
8Then 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. 9Peter 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. 10They 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. 11Then 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.”
12When 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. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15”You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter 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. 18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. (Acts 12:1-19)
The final verse of Paul Dunbar’s poem, Sympathy, has become so famous that it has taken on a life of its own. In the verses of his poem, Dunbar describes a bird in a cage. You’ve probably seen one before. An exotic, majestic-looking animal talks or sings in its cage without a care in the world. But in his metaphor-filled poem, Dunbar answers a question we never asked: Why does the caged bird sing?
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,”
So what is it? Why does a caged bird sing? In the final verses of his poem, Dunbar answers:
“But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!”
Maybe you have heard that poem before. It is filled with metaphor. The poem, of course, isn’t just talking about a bird in a cage singing of freedom. Dunbar used the poem to illustrate slavery and racism at a time when few wanted to talk about those issues.
But there have been many people locked away like caged birds over the ages. We see one in the book of Acts this morning. And the songs these Christian prisoners have sung while behind those bars have been nothing short of beautiful.
Dark days had come to the Early Christian Church. It certainly didn’t take very long. Jesus had risen. Forty days later he had ascended into heaven. Ten days after that the disciples preached on Pentecost. Thousands came to faith. The gospel message was spreading far and wide. It seemed nothing could stop the spread of the kingdom of God.
Then the devil struck back. “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.” These arrests didn’t end with persecution, however. “He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.”
James, one of the twelve disciples, one of the three men in Jesus’ inner circle, had been put to death! The news shook the community of believers.
The Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus loved it. “When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.” Would he be killed, too? In these trying times of persecution know one knew for certain.
But King Herod had a plan to make an example of Peter. He was, after all, a sort of leader for the Christians. If he could get rid of Peter, then perhaps this Christian faith would cease to exist. That is why we read that “Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.”
In the meantime, “he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.” It seems like overkill, doesn’t it? How many people does a king need to keep a fisherman under guard? Peter was already behind bars. Now he has 16 men guarding him, too? Herod didn’t want there to be any possibility of Peter escaping. I suppose, in a way, Peter was Herod’s prized catch – like a bird in a cage.
What do you do in those moments? As the walls you have built come tumbling down and the bars of this world surround you? What emotions flood your senses as persecution ramps up in your life and in our country? What goes through your mind as you sit in the dark, thinking about the wrongs you have faced in your life?
In those moments the devil is all too happy to lend you his advice. “Lash out against those persecuting you – persecute them back!” he quips. Or perhaps he tells us to find our own way out. “Trust in yourself,” he prods, “because God has abandoned you.” And it might feel that way as you sit alone in the jail cell of your hardships. And that is when he hits us with his final temptation, when he says: “Sit down, be quiet and give up.”
Captured for doing nothing wrong, locked away in that physical cell, guarded by 16 guards, Peter did none of those things. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t blame God. And he certainly didn’t give up. Instead, the caged bird started to sing. “A plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!”
Peter wasn’t the only one singing his prayers to heaven. “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Christian prayer looks to Christ. It remembers his wrongful capture. It looks to his cross, his suffering his death on our behalf. Christian prayer recounts Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. True Christian prayer humbly asks for Jesus help in the everyday struggles and conflicts and persecutions we face.
And those prayers, the songs of the caged-bird, Peter, were answered by his Lord. In the midst of the dark of night a bright light shone, filling the cell and chasing away the shadows. And angel of the Lord appeared. Peter’s chains miraculously fell off his wrists. “Quick, get up!” the angel commanded to a surprised Peter.
What followed was the easiest, most methodical prison break in history. The jail cell opened and they simply walked out past one set of guards, and then another. At last, the reached the massive iron gate that locked the entire prison away from the city. “It opened for them by itself, and they went through it.” Miraculously, Peter had flow the coop. And the bird that once was caged now sang a beautiful song of freedom: “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches.”
It is no different for you. You were a bird caged by your own sins. And because of those sins you deserved the punishment of hell. Then came your Savior, the Light of the world shining in the darkness. He came to take your place. He came to take your cross and your punishment and your death so that your cage would swing wide open. Christ set you free.
It doesn’t always feel like it, though. Like Peter, we still face persecution. The bars and walls of this world still close us in. The darkness still feels like it envelops us. You might still feel like the caged bird in this life. When you do, remember the prayers Peter and his fellow believers made. “A plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!”
I know why you can sing, too. “Since I know God never fails me, In his voice I’ll rejoice When grim death assails me. Trusting in my Savior’s merit, Safe at last, Troubles past, I shall heav’n inherit.” Amen.