“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory”
Familiar words that many of us pray daily – in one version or another....but I wonder what we think we mean as we remind God of his own omnipotence.
Do we actually expect to run into evidence of the truth of our assertion – or do we envisage divine power as something remote from everyday life?
In the REAL world power surely lies with the state – or with those individuals and organisations whose material resources apparently enable them to do exactly what they please, with no thought of consequences.
Even a very cursory glance at the news would support this – which is, as it always has been, part of the challenge of faith.
Today's readings are all about power – visible and hidden, expected and surprising, human and divine.
There is human power aplenty in our Old Testament lesson, as Solomon sets to and builds a Temple – a house of God whose 7 long years of building, to an exacting blueprint, seems somewhat familiar to those of us who love and work in this place.
Every detail is prescribed by the architect and catalogued to the nth degree.
Goodness knows what would happen to anyone who dared to move the cherubim or challenge the approved dimensions of the doors.
Solomon's Temple. Famous to this day...A work of skill and beauty but one whose existence is conditional on something that Solomon, in all his glory, cannot control at all.
You see, God has a view about things – and it cannot be overlooked.
He makes it very clear that Solomon cannot and must not view the creation of the Temple as an exercise in self promotion...
If the building is to mean anything at all, if it is truly to stand as the House of the Lord – then it must represent Solomon's continued commitment to live within God's laws.
The Temple is to be a sign of covenant, of value only as long as that covenant continues
if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then (and ONLY then) I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.’
Though the Temple is long gone, of course – we might usefully pause to reflect whether God's special relationship with Israel is honoured in recent events...and whether any house of prayer, however beautiful, however impressive, can stand true to its purpose if that fundamental obedience to God's way of love is forgotten, even for a moment.
“Thine is ...the power...”
There is human power at work in Acts too, as Herod determines to please the Jews by crushing Christianity before it can do further damage. With first Stephen and now James dead, it looks very much as if he is going to have things his own way.
Even though it is Passover, the great Jewish festival of freedom, Peter is imprisoned...and we can imagine how that act resonated with the beleaguered followers of Christ, as they remembered what had happened to him at the Festival of Passover just a few years before...Small wonder they were fearful for Peter, as they waited for Herod to bring him out to receive the people's judgement.
What could they hope to do?
Human power must have seemed very much in the ascendant and I'm sure that some followers of the Way were tempted to meet that power on human terms – to take up their swords as Peter had done in Gethsemane.
But – they too are people of the Covenant – the NEW Covenant confirmed on the cross...and they remain true to it.
Instead of turning to violence in their turn, they mobilise their forces in prayer.
How charmingly naïve.
We're often inclined to look back with admiration, even envy, to the New Testament church...to celebrate their courage, their zeal, their absolute faith in God.
But this passage is rather comforting for those of us who, from time to time have wondered whether prayer is a bit of a cop-out, or suspected that we are resorting to words in an attempt to shift the responsibility for a situation from our own shoulders to God's, with no great expectation that this process will actually change anything.
It's comforting because clearly neither Peter nor those praying for him are actually looking for direct action from God at all.
The angelic visitor who arrives in Peter's cell, bathed in light, perhaps recalls those who visited the shepherds in the field. I love the detail – the way he prods him in the ribs - “Get up quickly”.
Certainly this angel is the bearer of good news – but it isn't until he has left Peter alone in the street that the sleep-fuddled apostle really believes what has happened to him.
“It's just a vision...I'll wake up in a minute”
Again, this experience seems quite familiar (though in far less dramatic circumstances)...
I am often all too quick to dismiss and rationalise my own encounters with God – because, perhaps, it feels safer that way – and it's helpful that even those who were closest to Jesus in Galilee had the same bad habit!
It's just my imagination...surely I'm still secure in my prison cell...except that I feel the pavement beneath my feet,
What's more, though the Christian community were engaged in deep and fervent prayer for Peter's safe release- they just couldn't believe it when it happened either!
Oh WHAT a relief for me on my more wobbly days.
I try to live in faithful expectation – but more often than not I carry on as if I have no thought that God might be actively interested in my daily doings, that he might actually intervene as I have asked him to do.
And I'm not alone.
EVEN the early Church, so close to the fire of Pentecost, fell into the same behaviours..the same pattern of faithful doubt and doubtful faith.
There's dear Rhoda, so beside herself with joyful excitement that she leaves Peter standing on the doorstep...And her community telling her that she has lost the plot in claiming that their prayers were answered...while Peter, the one for whom they have been praying, just keeps on knocking on the door!
I really don't think that anyone at that all-night prayer vigil was expecting a day-break like this.
Divine comedy indeed - but also a reminder of who really holds the power – even now,
even in the face of the hatred, violence and misery that assail us whenever we look at the news.
There is power at work – and the long view reminds us that, whoever seems to hold the upper hand, that power rests finally with God.
It's true that in time Peter will be silenced by the state
It's true that, too often, bad things happen to good people...Stephen and James are among too many – a line stretching from 1st century Jerusalem to 21st century Iraq...
But beyond these truths, the truth of the gospel continues to work...and the mission statement that Jesus presented in the synagogue in Nazareth continues to be worked out in the world
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor...to preach deliverance to the captives...to proclaim the day of the Lord's favour”
So, in the face of fear and doubt, in the face of anger and grief,we can still dare to pray for the coming of God's Kingdom with confidence that our prayers will be answered, that the kingdom, the power and the glory are HIS now and forever.