WOMAN, YOU'RE MAD
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Acts chapter 12 gives us a story of a miraculous escape, a tyrannical king that meets his demise and a comical servant girl. We have the contrast of a mighty king who does not acknowledge God, with a servant girl who recognizes God’s work as it is happening. We’re told that it’s the Festival of Unleavened Bread when Herod kills James and then decides to arrest Peter. He wants to wait until after Passover to kill Peter though. How ironic that while celebrating a Festival that marks liberation of the Jews from slavery, Herod chooses to imprison Peter.
If we look back to chapter 11 we see that Herod has been persecuting the Church. With the stoning of Stephen, the believers scattered. But there is still a group of them in Jerusalem that continues to meet for fellowship and prayer. As they get the news that Peter has been arrested, they began to pray earnestly for him. The word earnestly is a two-part word in Greek, meaning “out” and “stretched”. Like praying prostrate on the ground. It describes tension. It was the same idea that Luke had when he described Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The believers have just seen their brother James killed by Herod so they know that things aren’t looking good for Peter. This understanding that Peter’s life is at stake compels them to pray earnestly. And as they are praying, a miracle takes place.
Over in the prison, Peter is sleeping. He’s chained to two guards and there are two guards standing at the door. Seems like overkill for one man, but Herod must understand there is an unusual power at work within Peter and he doesn’t want to take any chances. As Peter sleeps, chained and guarded, the angel of the Lord strikes him, waking him up and tells him to get up and get out. The angel of the Lord doesn’t mess around. Peter is fresh off his vision that we talked about last week of the sheet coming down from heaven with the food so he thinks he’s having another vision. He follows the angel out and once he’s in the street, he gets wise as to what is going on. A miracle. Deliverance. Freedom for the captive.
Because King Herod’s best attempt to stifle Peter and everything he stands for, is nothing compared to God’s power. Throughout history, there have been rulers, emperors, kings, presidents, intent on flexing their muscles and acting in opposition to God’s work. They all have their moment and then it comes to end but God continues on and his Church continues on. Perhaps Herod should have read up on his own history when, at Passover, the tyrannical ruler was defeated and the people whom he oppressed were freed. But Herod wasn’t concerned with pleasing God, he wanted to please people.
So Peter is free and he goes to where he knows the believers will be gathered – at Mary’s house. Here we meet Rhoda. Of all the people in this account, by human standards she is the least important. She’s a woman, she’s a servant, and she’s young. All these things about her tell us that she should fade into the background. Instead, she plays a central role in this story. I feel a little bad for Peter. Whenever we have an encounter between Peter and a servant-girl, it doesn’t seem to go too well for him. The “Rock” on which Christ will build his church, once again finds himself at the mercy of a young woman. He’s just been miraculously freed from prison, and all that stands between him and reuniting with the other believers is Rhoda. She’s in the courtyard so when Peter knocks, Rhoda goes to the door. She hears his voice and she loses it. It’s Peter! Hallelujah! She goes to tell everyone and, in her excitement, forgets to open the door and actually let Peter in. You can’t blame her can you? God had answered their prayers and returned the church’s beloved leader to them. As she tries to share this with the others, with those earnest prayers, they respond with “You’re out of your mind” or as one version puts it, “Woman, you’re mad!”.
You’re mad. This wasn’t the first time this phrase had been uttered and it definitely wasn’t the last. Think back to Luke when Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary rush back to tell the other disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead but the disciples tell them they are speaking nonsense. They thought they were mad. Think of Fanny Crosby who despite being blind and being accused of feminizing church music, went on to write over 8,000 hymns, many of which we still sing today. Think of Billie Holiday who decided to start singing about the lynching of Blacks in America or Malala Yousafzai speaking out against the Taliban. These women who were committed to speaking truth were likely familiar with the phrase “Woman, you’re mad”. But it didn’t stop them and it didn’t stop Rhoda.
Rhoda wasn’t just speaking truth, she was speaking the gospel truth. She was speaking of God’s deliverance and of answered prayer and of miracles. And we read that when the disciples didn’t believe her, she insisted. She only gets a couple of verses but in them, she insists that this body of believers, this church, listen to her because she is telling them God has acted. Oh that we would all have that same insistency when sharing God’s truth with others.
As Rhoda continues to insist that Peter is at the door, the believers decide it must be his angel and not Peter himself. They are more willing to believe that Herod has killed Peter than that God has released him. And Peter keeps on knocking. It’s interesting how the prison doors swung open so Peter could go through them, yet here at this house the door remains closed. God brought Peter to the entrance but the church needs to open the door in order to see God’s deliverance. Finally, they do open the door. Peter doesn’t enter but instead he motions for them to be quiet and tells them the rest of what Rhoda started. And then he leaves, probably because he fears for his life. That’s the last we hear about Rhoda.
She stands in stark contrast to the other major player in this passage, King Herod. While Rhoda is humble and gentle, Herod is proud and powerful. By human standards, he should be a leader and someone to look up to. Not a servant girl. Herod should be the one who is listening to God’s voice and leading his people along the right path. Not Rhoda. But God often uses Rhodas to
do his work, doesn’t he? Rhoda stands in a long line of nobody’s that God used for his work and his glory. People like Rahab and Esther, Samuel and David, Mary and John the Baptist and of course, Jesus, the biggest nobody of them all. To be born in a stable, raised by a carpenter, to die on a cross after only a few years of ministry. How many times did Jesus hear the words “You’re mad!”. How many times did he point out what God was doing for his people? How many times did he show through his words and his actions that he was the promised Messiah, not just for the Jewish people, but for the world? And how many times was he mocked, ignored, and ridiculed? What appeared to others to be madness was God’s great love for his creation breaking into the world and righting what had been wrong for a long time.
When we participate in God’s work, we will look mad too. For what reasonable person would look at the world around us and see that redemption is possible. Who can look at the pain caused by residential schools and say that healing is possible? Who can look at those struggling with addiction and say that freedom is possible? Who can look at homelessness and racism and say that a society where everyone is valued and cared for is possible?
It’s so easy to get distracted by the Herods of this world. The people who are in power and make a lot of noise and have a lot of money and even they think that they’re in control. But the problem with Tyrants, is that they worship themselves and, as we seen time and time again, pride only leads to self-destruction. For Herod, he was quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and he tried to make it right. He went on a diplomatic mission to try and sort things out. The people of Tyre and Sidon want peace because they’re hungry and Herod controls their food. So Herod gives a speech. It must have been a good one because it has the people crying out He’s a god, not a man! Herod’s pride gets the better of him, and he doesn’t argue. And here comes that Angel of the Lord. He strikes Herod down and he dies immediately and is eaten by worms. Other historical sources say that Herod had stomach troubles and died. The point is, he’s dead. You see, Herod thought that he was going up against a human institution, against people. He thought that he would take on Peter because he’s nobody. What Herod didn’t know was that when you mess with God’s people, you mess with God and you’re not going to win that fight. So for the Herods of this world who are acting in opposition to the work of God, for those who are working to exclude and divide and spread hate, their time is limited.
And we the church, will pray earnestly that the word of God will continue to spread and flourish. We will pray in the tension of knowing the realities of life around us and knowing what God desires for us. We will pray for the Herods and the Peters, and we will listen for the voices of the Rhodas. We will ask God to help us speak like Rhoda. The last word in this story is that the gospel continues to spread and flourish. Herod can’t stop it. He may delay it a little, but what Jesus began continues on, even to this day. That Spirit that emboldened the disciples and emboldened Rhoda is with us here and now.