Strength in Seismic Times
James C. Denison
These were the headlines one day last week:
Pakistan quake kills 170, leaves thousands homeless
Paterson calls for federal rescue package for states
Fighting in Congo approaches Goma
Suicide attacks kill dozens in Somalia
China investigates tainted eggs in new food scare
Boy is 23rd child abandoned at Nebraska hospital
Market motion sickness to continue
Panel rebukes FDA on plastic bottle safety
It makes you want to throw away the paper before you read it and refuse to open the Internet, doesn’t it? Sixteen years ago, historian Francis Fukuyama spoke of the times as “the end of history.” He meant that history defined as the clash between nations and cultures was at its end. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and would bring democracy to Russia and Eastern Europe. The technological revolution would create a new global economy, one in which progress was inevitable. “The world is flat,” Thomas Friedman wrote—the Internet would make the world smaller and the nations more cooperative and synergistic than ever before.
How different things are today. Russia has turned to autocratic leadership; the rise of radical Islam and the war on terror has embroiled America and the West in protracted armed conflict; the dot.com bubble burst, then the housing bubble burst, and now we are dealing with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Anxiety abounds.
We’ve been here before. Believers in the first months of Christian history were facing a challenge even more dire than ours. We are not on trial for our lives, but they were. Our families are not facing systemic persecution and even annihilation, but theirs were. What they did then, we can do today. If we do, the God who helped and blessed and empowered them will do the same for us. Here’s how to find strength in seismic times.
How to turn to God
When we left them last week, Peter and John had just experienced the first healing miracle in Christian history. Crowds had run to hear the gospel; multitudes were brought into the Kingdom. But it didn’t take long for the enemy to strike back. The two apostles were quickly arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the assembled Supreme Court of ancient Israel. This body had the power to confiscate their homes, to flog and imprison them, even to ask Rome to crucify them.
Prior to this time, the fledgling Christian movement was not on the authorities’ radar. Jesus had been executed; with his death, they assumed his movement would die out. They had done nothing to seek or persecute the first Christians. But now all that has changed. Now their group is out in the open, their lives threatened, the future of their movement in doubt.
Peter preached the gospel fearlessly before them; the fisherman who had cowered before a serving girl proved again that the Holy Spirit can empower anyone to do anything. But the authorities were not persuaded. They “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:19) and let them go. If they broke the law again, the consequences would be severe.
Now Peter and John have returned to their Christian family and reported all that they had heard (v. 23). What would the movement do? They could tremble before the threats made by the Sanhedrin, abandoning their Great Commission and even their faith commitment to Jesus. This was the safe route to take, to be sure. Christian history could have ended here. The New Testament could have become just another ancient religious book describing a bygone spiritual movement, now interesting only to historians of antiquity. Everything was hanging in the balance.
Rather than retreat, these brave Christians advanced.
First, they sought God in prayer. They raised their voices together in prayer to God (v. 24a)—nothing private or secret about this.
Second, they trusted God’s providence. They announced that their God is the One who “made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them” (v. 24b). Not Caesar, not the high priest. They refused to recognize the authority of the Sanhedrin or anyone else before that of their God. Quoting King David and Psalm 2, they chose to see this as yet another time when “the kings of the earth” and “the rulers” stood against the God.
Third, they asked for God’s provision. They described their specific challenge: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (v. 27). Someone said that when a person persecutes your faith, “tell God on them.” They gave their struggle immediately to their Father, as nothing surprises him (v. 28).
Fourth, they experienced God’s power. In direct violation of the Sanhedrin’s order, they asked God to do two things:
Enable them to speak his word “with great boldness.” They knew that continuing to preach could cost them their lives and families, so they asked God for the “great boldness” they would need. Then confirm their message with his own power—heal, perform miraculous signs, and do great wonders. But they wanted him to do them “through the name of your holy servant Jesus,” so that no one could misunderstand the Source of this power.
With this result: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31). In seismic times, they had seismic power. And the movement continued; the word of God spread; the Kingdom marched; and today two billion people name Jesus their Lord.
The pattern continues
Was this prayer meeting an isolated event, something which happened on the other side of the world but bears little relevance for our lives and times? Absolutely not. There have been four Great Awakenings in American history. Every one of them followed the pattern we have seen this morning. Every one of them shows us that what God did in Jerusalem, he wants to do again today. When there is a crisis, if we will seek God in prayer, trust his providence, and ask for his provision, we will experience his power. He will shake the meeting, and fill his people, and glorify himself. Always.