It was a serious story told with a sense of humor. For the serious part, Peter was held in prison about to be executed by Herod Agrippa I. Security was tight. Herod had four squads of four soldiers each to take turns guarding Peter around the clock. Peter was in prison bound with chains sleeping between two guards, when an angel appeared. The chains fell from his hands. The angel instructed him to get dressed, put on his sandals, and follow him.
Peter thought he was seeing a vision. They passed by the first guard, then the second guard, and finally they were to the iron gate leading to the city. The gate opened for them automatically. When the angel left him, Peter realized that he had really been through a most unusual prison break. It was a humorous realization, but a serious situation to be on the run from Herod Agrippa and his soldiers.
Remaining free was also serous business, but the story continues with some humor. Peter went to the house of Mary. The servant girl, Rhoda, was so excited by Peter’s arrival, she left him standing in the street! So much for trying to remain out of the sight of the authorities. The people inside praying for Peter’s release were convinced that Rhoda had it wrong. “It is his angel,” they said. While all of this was going on, Peter continued to knock. When Peter was finally admitted to the prayer gathering, “they saw him and were amazed.”
We read the account and wonder: why didn’t they believe what they had been praying for had come true? They knew the reality of prayer is that we don’t always receive what we pray for. God is not a cosmic vending machine: insert earnest prayer and the requested answer immediately dispensed. The Apostle James had already been executed by Herod Agrippa. No doubt this same group had earnestly prayed for him. God doesn’t always answer prayers in the way we would choose.
Their faith is seen in praying even up to the eleventh hour. (God’s rescue of Peter was just in time delivery.) They did not doubt the importance of prayer even if they had an initial surprise of Peter actually being at the door. They did not doubt the importance of prayer even if previous prayers had not been answered in the way they wished.
We must pray in the same way. God has invited us to ask and to intercede for others. But this is a relationship, not magic. We trust that the heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts. We trust even when the answer is what we don’t want. God will grant the strength to cope. Luke could tell this story with good humor, because he trusted the God who is in ultimate control of history.