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Fitting Thanks

fitting-thanks

Below is a short meditation that I offered our church before we celebrated Holy Communion and fellowshipped together with a Thanksgiving meal last night. I offer it here for those who could not attend and for those who are seeking the only fitting object of thanksgiving this holiday season, Jesus Christ.

Have you ever had to wait patiently for something really wonderful and exciting to happen? I want you all to close your eyes and think back to a time when you waited for something special, something extraordinary. I want you to grab onto that picture in your mind and think about what it felt like to wait with anticipation for whatever it was.

Maybe you can remember a Christmas when all you could do was think about that one gift that you wanted above all other things, and the feeling of hope you had as you looked at the presents under the tree, wondering if it was there.

Maybe your wedding day comes to mind, and the anticipation of being with your beloved for the rest of your life. What was it like, as you waited for the day to arrive, when you got dressed up that morning and made your way to the service that would join you together as man and wife?

Perhaps what comes to mind for you is the birth of a child, and the expectant pause that comes before the frenzy of doctors and nurses, the cry of a newborn baby, and the absolute joy of witnessing new life and the blessing of parenthood.

Or possibly you remember the longing you felt in your heart as you waited for a loved one to return from a trip to distant places – when even a small distance seemed far to great, and even a short duration seemed like an endless age.

Did you tremble with excitement? Did you find it hard to sit still or to concentrate? Did you lose sleep and spend hours trying to distract yourself? Did you try to bottle all of those feelings of enthusiasm up, or did you bubble over with excitement and start jumping, singing, dancing, or talking someone’s ear off about what was about to happen?

Now, picture in your mind what happened when the day and the hour finally came when the thing, which you so anticipated finally arrived. How did you respond? My guess is that, whether you were waiting for a gift, a marriage, a child, the return of a beloved, or any other thing of significance to you, your first response upon receiving that thing of great value, was to give thanks.

1 Chronicles 15 and 16 documents the beginning of King David’s rule over Israel, and the return of the Ark of the Covenant to its rightful place in the tabernacle of the Lord. It seems the ark had been largely forgotten during the reign of Saul, and David couldn’t wait to bring it back into his house. This was the one thing he desired above all others, and he had been waiting with excitement for the day the Ark would arrive.

As preparations were made, David called together the Levites and ordered the heads of each house to consecrate themselves to God, so that they might be able to carry the Ark as God had instructed them in the book of the Law. Then they dressed in white linen and, with David leading the procession, they retrieved the Ark from where it was being kept, and returned it to the city of David.

King David was so excited when the moment finally arrived, that he danced in the street on the way through the city gates. This was an act so shameful to some that the Bible says David’s wife despised him for it. But David didn’t care, he had finally received that most precious thing he had waited for so long.

And his response when at last the ark rested in the tabernacle was to offer burnt offerings to God and appoint some of the Levites to minster before the Ark, giving thanks and praise to God – not for the return of the Ark, but for God himself.

1 Chronicles 16:8-36 gives us the words that David instructed the Levites to use in giving this thanks and praise.

1 Chronicles 16:8-36

8 Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
    tell of all his wonderful acts.
10 Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
11 Look to the Lord and his strength;
    seek his face always.

12 Remember the wonders he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
13 you his servants, the descendants of Israel,
    his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
14 He is the Lord our God;
    his judgments are in all the earth.

15 He remembers[a] his covenant forever,
    the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
16 the covenant he made with Abraham,
    the oath he swore to Isaac.
17 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
    to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
18 “To you I will give the land of Canaan
    as the portion you will inherit.”

19 When they were but few in number,
    few indeed, and strangers in it,
20 they[b] wandered from nation to nation,
    from one kingdom to another.
21 He allowed no one to oppress them;
    for their sake he rebuked kings:
22 “Do not touch my anointed ones;
    do my prophets no harm.”

23 Sing to the Lord, all the earth;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.
24 Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

25 For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    he is to be feared above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the nations are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.
27 Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and joy are in his dwelling place.

28 Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
29 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering and come before him.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his[c] holiness.
30     Tremble before him, all the earth!
    The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.

31 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
32 Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
    let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!
33 Let the trees of the forest sing,
    let them sing for joy before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.

34 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.
35 Cry out, “Save us, God our Savior;
    gather us and deliver us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
    and glory in your praise.”
36 Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    from everlasting to everlasting.

 

During the Thanksgiving holiday, it is customary for us to remember the physical blessings of this life; blessings of family, health, abundance, work, and all the other wonderful things of life. These are all good things, and it is right to give thanks to God for them, because all good things come from God.

But sometimes I wonder if we spend so much time giving thanks for the good things God has given us, that we forget to thank God for his greatest gift – himself. We substitute gift for giver in our prayers, and we run the risk of forgetting from where all good gifts come.

We have been truly blessed by God in immeasurable ways, but let us not forget, in this season of thanksgiving, that the greatest gift we have ever received is the gift of adoption as the sons and daughters of God, purchased through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving and worship are the only proper responses to the gift God has given us in Jesus; a gift of immeasurable worth and beyond compare. Yet how often do we stop and just thank God for who he is, and what he has done for us in Christ? Tonight and next week, as we remember to give thanks for all of God’s good gifts to us in this life, let us not forget to give thanks to our Creator and Heavenly Father, from whom all blessings flow, for the greatest gift we could ever receive – the gift of eternal life with him.

Thanksgiving begins at the table of our Lord. And so tonight, as we break the bread of Communion, let us remember that we have been brought together in Christ Jesus, to be a living sacrifice, pure and pleasing to him. This is our greatest thanksgiving offering.

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Sermon: Rest for Weary Souls

rest-for-weary-souls

“Rest for Weary Souls”
Matt. 11:20-30

May these words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be found acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

 

I. Introduction

Frustration. That’s the word that comes to mind when I read this passage. I wonder if Jesus was experiencing a moment of very human emotion when he said these words? I wonder if he was doing what you or I have done many times in our lives, and venting to anyone in earshot, because he is simply stunned by what he has seen. Here he is, the very Son of God, working miracles in the midst of his own people, yet they still don’t recognize him for who he is. They don’t understand the gift he has offered them, and they persist in their wickedness. If only they would listen! If only their eyes would be opened to the reality of God’s in-breaking kingdom. If only they would remember who God had called them to be – salt and light to the nations. If only.

We learn at the beginning of Matthew, chapter 11 that Jesus had just sent the twelve disciples out on their first missionary journey. They had already experienced so much in their short time together with him, and they were ready to take what they had seen and heard out to the masses. After Jesus had called each of the disciples to follow him, they had anxiously sat at his feet and listened as he taught the crowds who came out to meet him about the nature of God’s kingdom. He told them that he had come to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it, and then explained to them what the heart of the Law truly was. He taught them that sin begins with a disposition of the heart turned inward, away from God and others. And he explained that, even before people allow those inclinations of their sin nature to manifest as outward sins like adultery, murder, and revenge, they had still inwardly violated God’s law of holy-love by entertaining impure thoughts, and had invited God’s righteous condemnation. Jesus showed them that the kingdom of God is purity of heart and life, true love for enemies, and unrestrained mercy for those in need.

The disciples had also traveled with Jesus and had witnessed him performing miracle after miracle in their midst. They had seen him heal leprosy and a host of other diseases. They were there when Jesus cast out demons. They watched him heal a paralytic, restore sight to blind men, and even raise a dead girl back to life. After all of this, Jesus gathered the twelve together and instructed them in what they were to do next. He gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness (Matt. 10:1), and then he sent them out to the lost sheep of Israel – their own people – to preach the good news that the kingdom of heaven was near.

Jesus also gave his disciples a warning, before sending them out. He cautioned them that they would be mistreated on account of him, but promised them that they were not alone; that God would be with them, because they were precious to him. He reminded them that they must be willing to lose everything for his sake, and that only by surrendering their lives now could they ever experience everlasting life.

Once Jesus sent the twelve away on their mission, Matthew 11:1 says that he went on to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee, which was the region where his hometown was located, and the area in which he had continued to live and preach since his baptism. As he traveled from town to town, his activity caught the attention of John the Baptist, who by this time was being held in prison for his message of repentance and the coming kingdom of God. John sent some of his own disciples to ask Jesus if he was the promised Messiah.

It is at this point when I think Jesus began to get frustrated. Instead of answering John’s disciples directly, he basically told them to open their own eyes and ears to the work of God going on all around them. It is almost as if he was saying, don’t you recognize the signs of God’s kingdom right here and now in the things I am saying and doing? Do I really have to spell it out for you? Fine, go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Can’t you see for yourselves that the one who follows me is headed toward God, not away from him? Don’t my actions and words speak for themselves?

Have you ever been frustrated like Jesus must have been at this moment? Parents, I think it must have felt something like when you have told your kids something important a dozen times, and they just look at you as though you’re speaking a foreign language. You know you are being as clear as day, but the message just isn’t getting through. Jesus had been proclaiming the kingdom of God by his words and actions as clearly as possible, but people still weren’t getting the message. They didn’t trust their eyes and ears. And this wasn’t the first time Jesus had witnessed people who just didn’t get it. In fact, John the Baptist had to deal with it himself.

So Jesus spoke his mind to the crowd around him. He explained to them that the prophets had testified about the coming kingdom of heaven all the way until John came along, and since his arrival it had been advancing even faster than before. But like all the prophets who came before him, the people rejected John, as they were even now rejecting Jesus.

The evidence that the current generation had hardened their hearts and turned away from God was everywhere. They condemned John for doing one thing, and condemned Jesus for doing the exact opposite. They were blind and deaf to the work of God all around them. Nowhere was this more evident than in the towns of Galilee. Even though Jesus had been living among the people, teaching and preaching in the synagogue, and performing miracles in their towns, they continued to reject the call to repentance and belief. And in Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus even went so far as to publicly name the towns that had rejected him most, even though they had more reason than anyone to receive the good news.
Then Jesus explained what the problem was with all of those he has just mentioned. They were still trying to prove themselves righteous by their own ability. They were appealing to their own understanding of the Law, to which they had added so much unnecessary burden. They were so convinced of their standing as Israelites, that they couldn’t hear God’s call to follow him in the way of sacrificial love. So when Jesus prayed in verses 25 and 26, he gave thanks that it is not by worldly wisdom and intellect that people come to know the truth for themselves, but by a pure and simple faith in God.

Jesus took this further in verse 27, saying not only can the truth of God’s kingdom not be discovered by intellect alone, but it can only be found in him. Only the Father truly knows the Son for who he is. And only Jesus, the Son of God, knows the Father and his will, unless people recognize it in Jesus.

In the final verses of this passage, Jesus proclaims the heart of his message of repentance and the in-breaking kingdom of heaven. This is what he wants the Israelites to see in him, but they keep missing it.

“Come unto me,” Jesus said, “all you who are weary from the constant effort of chasing after God in the wrong direction, but who are weighed down by your own sin, and I will give you rest.” Its as if Jesus was saying “Don’t you see that I have come to give you true freedom from all of this posturing and playing at being righteous? I have come to make you truly righteous, and by none of your own effort, but by my sacrifice. My yoke is easy, because it is a delight to be joined to me. And my burden is light, because the burden of faith is freedom and peace. Can’t you see that I’m here for your benefit? Why do you keep resisting me, when all I want to do is give you a place in God’s kingdom that can never be touched by death or decay? If you will just come to me, you’ll find rest from all of this!”

 

II. Christ Offers Rest for Weary Souls

Through Jesus, and only through him, there is rest for weary souls. But what does that rest entail? I believe there are four parts that make up the rest Christ offers each of us today.

  1. Christ offers us rest from our endless efforts to earn our own salvation. The Bible tells us that, through Adam and Eve, sin entered the world, and we have inherited a fallen nature. Were it not for God’s grace and mercy restoring and sustaining us, we would be absolutely incapable of responding to him in faith. Because of God’s grace, we are able to discern right versus wrong, but until we submit to God through faith in Jesus, we are unable to truly choose what is right. Even so, because God has given us a vision of his holiness imprinted on our hearts, we strive to be better than we are. We try to “be good” and “do right”, and we constantly try to prove to others that we are “good people”. But there is no amount of flailing about after these perceived good things that will ever get us to our goal, apart from the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ. In him, we find rest from the weary work of trying to fix our broken lives on our own.
  2. Christ offers us rest from the guilt of sin. The Bible says that we have all fallen short of God’s glory. We have failed to meet his standards of holiness contained in the Law. The Law was given, so that we would be made aware of our sin and recognize that we are guilty of rebelling against God. Romans 3:20-22 says “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

Righteousness is the only standard by which God will declare us as innocent, but since none of us are righteous on our own, we need the righteousness that comes by faith in Jesus to justify us before God and remove our guilt. Paul goes on to say in Romans 5:9-10 that, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

  1. Christ offers us rest from the power and presence of sin, and he does this through the process of sanctification. Holiness is the absence of sin, and the Bible tells us that God expects his people to be holy as he is holy. This would be a tall order for people who are still under the power of sin. Even with the guilt for sin removed, what rest would there really be in Christ if we still have to struggle with the inability to choose what is right and avoid sin in our lives? Fortunately, the Bible also tells us that it is God’s will for us to be sanctified, or made holy (1 Thess. 4:3), and that process begins at the moment we are justified. Because of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, we have the power to resist temptation and overcome sin in our lives. We have the ability to actually become holy people, by God’s grace. We no longer have to struggle to please God, because he enables us to do so.
  2. Christ offers us rest through life with our Creator. God created humanity to enjoy and be enjoyed by him. Genesis says that God walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the evening. They had fellowship and intimacy and peace. When Adam and Eve sinned, they broke their relationship with God. Likewise, when we sin, we separate ourselves from a relationship with him. But when we accept God’s gift of grace, through faith in Jesus, the Bible says that we become adopted children of God. We are invited back into his household, and we enjoy a renewed relationship with him. Through Christ, we are welcomed back into the position that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall. We experience new life and peace with God, and we no longer have to fear death.

Freedom from our endless striving to fix our broken lives, freedom from the guilt of sin, freedom from the power of sin over our decision-making and its presence in our lives, and a life of peace with our Creator and heavenly Father – these are all part of the rest that Christ invites us to enjoy through him. This rest is the gift of God to all those who believe.

III. Christ Offers a Present-Future Rest

This rest that Jesus offers to us, like the kingdom of God itself, is both a present reality and a future hope.

Freedom from the guilt, power, and presence of sin and a restored relationship with God begin right now, for those who believe in Jesus. We don’t have to wait until some future point in time. We just have to give control of our lives to Jesus now, and learn to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been examining what that looks like these last few weeks. We have seen examples of those who entered Christ’s rest in their present. People like Stephen, who gave himself up for the sake of the gospel. But you don’t have to be a martyr to enjoy this rest today. All you need to do is trust in Christ for your salvation, submit to his lordship in your life, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead you each and every day. As I have said before, God will always do the hard work for us. We just have to let him do it.

The rest that Jesus offers us is also a future rest. When we trust in Christ for our salvation and allow him to do the work of making us holy, God promises us that we will enjoy eternity with him. Eternity with God has two parts that we will discuss further at a later date. The first part of eternity is the promise of being with God in heaven when we meet our physical death. We know only that heaven is paradise without comparison, where there will be no more sorrow or pain.

But heaven is not the end, folks. Through Christ we have the hope of an even greater rest, as we are raised again to life in the new creation, what one author I respect calls “life after life after death”. This is the goal for which Paul is striving in Philippians, and it is the hope for all those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord.

 

IV. Application

This morning, as we close, I’d like to ask you a question. Have you entered the rest that Jesus offers to you through faith, or are you a weary soul? Maybe you are still struggling to please God or fix your own brokenness, only to come up short. Maybe you are still holding on to guilt over past sins. Maybe you are struggling today with ongoing sin in your life, and you don’t know how to overcome it. Maybe you struggle with the fear of death. Or maybe you question whether or not you have a relationship with God.

If any of this rings true for you today, you haven’t entered fully into the rest that Jesus offers. But you can do so today. If you have never made that first step of faith, where you confessed to God that you are a sinner and asked Jesus to become Lord of your life, you can do that right now. It doesn’t take a special prayer or a public ceremony. All you need to do is talk to God in your heart, confess to him that you know you have broken his commandments, acknowledge that you believe Jesus is his Son, that he died on a cross for your sin, and rose again from the dead, and ask God to forgive you for not trusting in him. Then invite Jesus to become Lord of your life and commit to following him. You haven’t done such a great job on your own, so what do you have to lose by letting him take control?

If you have already made that transition from death to life, through faith in Jesus, but you are still wrestling with one or more of those things above, then its time to stop struggling and let the Spirit take over. You can also enter into the rest that Jesus offers this morning, but you can’t do it if you are determined to steer your own ship. There is nothing to be gained from holding onto the guilt of things that God has forgiven. If this is you, like it was once me, then let it go. You are a new creation in Christ, and guilt has no more sway over you. If you are struggling with sin in your life right now, give it over to God and ask him to lead you out of it. By his Spirit you have received power of temptation and freedom from sin’s dominion in your life. If you are struggling with fear over the future and especially fear of death, you can ask God right now to give you the peace that passes all understanding.

Finally this morning, if you have entered the rest that Jesus offers us, don’t make the mistake of leaving it again. Continue to submit yourself to him each and every day, offering yourself as a living sacrifice, pure and pleasing to him, and you will continue to find rest through Jesus.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you that no power of intellect, no wisdom that comes from this world can show us the truth of your kingdom, but only a sincere faith in your Son, Jesus. We thank you that you loved us so much that you sent him as a sacrifice to free us from the guilt, power, and presence of the sin that separated us from you. Would you now teach us how to let things go that keep us from the rest that you have offered to us through Christ? Would you help us to become more fully yours each and every day, so that we might be found blameless before your throne and enjoy your promised rest in eternity? We ask all of these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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Sermon: From Asherah Poles to Altars

asherah-poles-to-altars

“From Asherah Poles to Altars”
Judges 6:1-10, 25-26

6 The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. 2 Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3 Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4 They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5 They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. 6 Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.

7 When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, 8 he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 9 I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”

25 That same night the Lord said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. 26 Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”

 

I. Introduction

The book of Judges tells the story of Israel in the time between the anointed leadership of Joshua and the sovereign rule of Israel’s kings. This was an era when God’s people were still separate tribes settling in the promised land of Canaan, and they lived in alternating periods of war and peace with their surrounding cultures. Under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites had begun to take possession of the land, and had won some key battles against their enemies. They had divided the land into each tribe’s inheritance by casting lots. And they continued to grow in power and influence in the region.

As Joshua died of old age we find the Israelites in a pretty good place, poised to conquer the remaining Canaanite tribes. And in Joshua 24:31 we are told what the key to their incredible success has been up to this point. It says, “Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experiences everything the Lord had done for Israel.” The key to their success was that they had been faithful to God, and had followed godly leaders. Joshua had prepared and led the people to follow God’s commands, and the priests had led the community in faithful worship. But the concluding verses of Joshua foreshadow what was to come next for Israel. As Joshua and Eleazar, the high priest, died and were laid rest along with Joseph’s bones, the symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham, the people of Israel found themselves without a unified leadership, and with a very short memory. In time, they would come to forget the mighty works of God on their behalf; they would fail to remember their covenant with God, and so they would lose their identity as a people called by his name.

As the book of Judges opens, the Israelites have decided to continue their campaign against the Canaanites. God commanded the tribe of Judah to lead the attack, and they had immediate success, defeating enemy after enemy. Though some of the other tribes who were not instructed to wage war experienced smaller defeats, Judges 1:19-22 says that the Lord was with Israel. But as the Israelites grew strong and stronger, they ceased to follow God’s instructions to the letter. Like their ancestors had done before them, they chose to ignore God’s decree that they were to drive out the Canaanites completely. Instead, they chose to enslave the Canaanite tribes and allow them to remain in the land.

By failing to follow God’s instructions, the Israelites had opened themselves up to not only physical, but also spiritual corruption. What seemed innocent at first, allowing these pagan peoples to live among them as slaves, eventually led to acceptance of their way of life, and soon that acceptance led to the blending of God’s people and God’s enemies through intermarriage (Judges 3:6). Just like the smallest bit of yeast will eventually work its way through an entire batch of dough, the pagan practices of the Canaanites worked their way throughout the tribes of Israel from family to family, until God’s people were utterly corrupted and turned away from him to worship idols made by human hands. The consequence for Israel’s disobedience was swift judgment at the hands of the Canaanites, who God allowed to overpower and subjugate the Israelite tribes.

The remainder of the book of Judges shows a repeated pattern of Israel forsaking their covenant with God, losing his favor and becoming oppressed by Canaanite tribes, then crying out for help and receiving deliverance from God through the judges. As long as the judges ruled, the people would follow God, but almost as soon as they died Israel would turn back to pagan gods and do evil in the eyes of the Lord. This happened a staggering six times in the book of Judges, over a period of just a few hundred years.

I wonder sometimes if the church’s memory of God’s blessing is as short as ancient Israel’s, and our hearts as stubborn to God’s leading in our lives. We have talked more than once already about memory, and how important it is that we remember who we are, where we have come from, and what God has done for us. When our memory fades, we run the risk of slipping into the same behaviors as the Israelites – behaviors that ultimately lead us away from God and his blessings.

 

II. Tearing Down Idols

Our reading this morning from Judges, chapter 6, falls in the middle of this period of Israel’s history, and we find that for the fourth time since Joshua’s death the Israelites worked evil in the sight of the Lord. Just forty years after God had rescued them through Deborah’s leadership they slipped back into their old ways. And in judgment, God allowed the Midianites oppress them so severely that the text says they became impoverished to the point that they cried out for help from the Lord.

God’s response to the cries of Israel was two-fold. First, he called the people back to remembrance. And he did this through an unnamed prophet, who told them:

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”

With this message, God reminded the Israelites who they were, where they had come from, and what God had done for them. And then he clearly stated to them what their sin was. God didn’t leave them wondering, unsure of where he stood or of what they were guilty. But he also didn’t cut them off from himself, with no hope of return.

The second thing God did was to answer the prayers of Israel by once again calling a deliverer from among the tribes, choosing a young warrior from the smallest tribe to show his power, made manifest in weakness. Notice what God didn’t do here. He didn’t wait for the Israelites to get their act together before acting on their behalf. He didn’t wait for them to repent, and he didn’t wait for them to purge themselves of evil. Instead, he acted in mercy to rescue them when they were totally helpless. This is the holy and loving character of God, which we still see displayed every day in people’s lives.

Though God is holy, and demands that his people likewise pursue holy lives, he doesn’t leave us to do this on our own. God is able to see our weakness, and offer grace to overcome. Just like the Israelites, God shows us the dark places in our lives and convicts us of our lawlessness. But he doesn’t leave us there, and he doesn’t wait for us to fix ourselves before showing us his loving kindness. He knows that we are incapable of loving him, until we have received his grace. And so the Bible tells us “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If we will only confess with our mouth that he is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we become recipients of his grace, and he frees us from the tyranny of sin and the fear of death. This is the good news of the gospel.

In the same way, God extended his grace to the Israelites in their time of greatest need and raised up Gideon to deliver them from the Midianites. But before Gideon and Israel could belong fully to him, God knew there was something that needed to be removed from their lives. The thing that had tripped them up over and over again was still holding them back. They had cried out to Yahweh, because they were desperate, but they were still harboring loyalty to false gods. And so, God’s first command to Gideon was to destroy his father’s altar to Baal and tear down the Asherah pole beside it. Then to show that God alone is King of Kings, he told Gideon to build a proper altar and use the Asherah pole as fuel for a burnt offering to God.

An Asherah pole was a representation of Israel’s idolatry. It was a physical symbol of all those things that were keeping the Israelites from submitting to God fully. I wonder if we look closely enough at ourselves, whether we would find Asherah poles in our lives; those things that we have allowed to creep in, and which steal our attention from God. Before you object and say to yourself that you aren’t an idolater, and that you haven’t developed the kinds of life patterns that would warrant the wrath that Israel experienced, I would remind you that with the Israelites, their separation from God began slowly and, like yeast, worked its way throughout their community until they rejected the one true God to follow gods of their own making. You see, Asherah poles don’t always seem so sinister when we first encounter them in our own lives. But left hidden or given free reign they eventually take on a power of their own, and can be life stealing.

So, what are some of these things that resemble Asherah poles in their ability to draw us away from God? I think you’ll find they are common enough that we easily overlook them, but if we examine them closely we quickly see their damaging effects. Here are just a few:

            1. Distraction – no one can deny that we are in an age of distraction like never before in history. We have more opportunity than any generation before us to get caught up in both trivial and non-trivial things that distract us from what is most important. And though there are many culprits that fit into this category, the biggest one in our time is entertainment. We are entertaining ourselves to the point that normal life events seem boring and meaningless by comparison. We allow entertainment to steal time away from family. We allow it to interfere with our work. We use vast quantities of money in its pursuit. The desire for entertainment even keeps us away from church, away from the study of God’s word, and away from those practices ,which have for centuries helped the people of God to listen to him more closely and to guard themselves from evil. And we are always wanting more.

Now I am not suggesting that God doesn’t want us to enjoy life. Entertaining activities are part of any healthy existence. But when we begin to allow these good things to distract us from the more important things in life, particularly spiritual things, we create idols out of them and they pull us away from God’s best for us. And entertainment is only of a thousand distractions in our lives.

In fact, some of us here have the exact opposite problem. Some of us are more distracted by our work than anything else. Whether its because we truly love what we do, or we feel overwhelmed by all we have to get done, or because we are afraid that we will be fired if we aren’t at the office for ten hours a day; whatever the reason, we have allowed our jobs to take center stage in our lives. We have fallen prey to the great lie of Western society that we are what we do for a living, when our true identity can only be found in Jesus Christ.

But most of us lie somewhere in-between those polar opposites of too much entertainment and too much work. We don’t find our attention focused completely on one thing, but rather divided over everything. We are constantly overwhelmed by life, harried by the “to do” list, and consumed by the clock. We have become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent, and a myriad of overlapping things in our lives have cobbled together to form a giant, faceless idol that tears our attention away from the only One who can give meaning to it all and provide comfort for our souls.

Have I stepped on everyone’s toes yet? I don’t want to leave anyone out; because the truth is that we are all distracted at times. We are all guilty of putting other things before God, of letting our gaze fall from him, in order to focus on the temporary, instead of the eternal; the finite, instead of the infinite.

            2. Discontent – Because we are privileged to have so much, there will always be a danger of us becoming discontented with what we have. We are surrounded by excess, and it is all too easy to become discontent with our own lives as we look at the lives of others around us. But God has called us live in a different way from the rest of the world. We are called to value people over possessions and relationships over exotic experiences. We are called to lives of sacrifice for the good of others. But when we allow discontent to seep in, we forget the blessings that God has already given us, and we become inwardly focused, rather than other oriented.

            3. Distrust – Let’s face it, some of us have good reasons to withhold trust. We have been lied to, we have been hurt, and we have been betrayed by those we have depended on. For some, the ability to trust seems so far away, we can’t even imagine what that looks like. But while fallible, sinful humans sometimes betray trust and harm one another in the process, we have a God who has proven himself worthy of our trust. The essence of faith is not just belief in who Jesus said he was, but also a sure trust and confidence that he was able to accomplish what he said he accomplished, and that he can lead us from death to life. When we allow our past wounds to fester and distrust of other people to continue in our lives, we impair our ability to trust God fully to supply all that we need. Without trust, we won’t ever be able to fully submit to God’s authority and follow him as our Lord and King.

I want to pause for a moment and point out that these first three life patterns that pull us away from God were familiar to Jesus too. In fact, these are some of the oldest tricks of our adversary. Satan used these same three things to tempt Adam and Eve in the garden, ultimately leading to their fall, and in Luke 4:1-13 we read the story of Jesus’ temptation, while he lived in the wilderness for forty days, where Satan used a variation of these same things in an attempt to derail Jesus’ mission. Fortunately for us, Jesus did not give in to these things, because he remembered who he was and what he was called to do.

These are not the only three Asherah poles that we sometimes construct in our lives. Another we should be wary of is despair, where we allow tragedy to choke out God’s grace in our lives, leading to hopelessness and lack of faith. Also denial, where we openly reject God’s commandments and his desires for us. It is a tragedy for many of us that we continue to break God’s commands, when Jesus has already freed us from the power of sin. When we willingly engage in sinful acts, we are choosing to deny Jesus and his power in our lives. Over time, this can separate us from God again. Other Asherah poles might be the love of money and power and fame. These are all recurring topics in scripture, and they are all condemned as contrary to the character of God’s faithful people.

My purpose today is not to point out some sin or other as more damaging, but rather to show that even seemingly harmless things like distraction, discontent, and distrust, when left unchecked, can draw us away from God and become idols for us. But there is an antidote for these things. God commanded Gideon to build a proper altar and offer a sacrifice on the ashes of his Asherah pole. In the same way, God calls us to erect altars over the remains of those idols we once worshipped, allowing them to be consumed by his holy fire, as we offer a pleasing sacrifice to him.

 

III. Building Proper Altars to God

So, what does a proper altar look like? I believe it is simply this: it is a life that gives glory to God, submits to his Lordship, and in all things points to Jesus Christ as the purveyor and perfector of our faith. It is the life of faith lived in hope of God’s promises, seeking to love God and one another as Christ loves us. This is a proper altar to God, and a sacrifice pleasing to him.

But how do we begin tearing down our Asherah poles that get in the way? I think it begins by getting rid of those things that lie at the root of our distraction, our discontent, our distrust, and all of those other things that pull our attention away from God. When we remove these things from our lives, the idols we have constructed quickly fall.

The first thing we need to do away with is unrepentant or habitual sin. By the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us, we have been given power to overcome sin in our lives. This is not a future promise, but is something that we can realize right here and right now. When we have confessed Christ as Lord, but continue to allow sin to reign in our lives, we open the door for all of those other things that pull us away to come pouring back into our lives. When we continue to willfully violate God’s commands, once we have been reborn, we spit in the face of God and make a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

Please hear me friends. We all may slip up from time to time. Though we are redeemed by the blood of the lamb we are still living in vessels of clay. But when we willfully commit sin, using God’s grace as a free license to do whatever we want, we invite ruin upon our heads. We have been purchased at a great price, and we have been brought from darkness into light. Why would we willingly turn around and walk back into the darkness from which we came?

The next thing we must get rid of, if we want to tear down our idols, are attitudes like bitterness, envy, malice and hatred. The Bible tells us that all who belong to God will be known by their fruit. But these attitudes run opposite to the fruit of the Spirit. There is no place for these things in the lives of Christians, and we have got to stop allowing them to take root in our hearts.

The third thing we must cast out in order to tear down our idols is fear. I have mentioned this before, and I will do so again and again; from cover to cover the Bible gives us the clear message that we are not to remain captive to fear, because Jesus has overcome death and the world. When we live in fear, we will never be able to fully trust in God.

Finally, if we really want to tear down the idols that keep us from God, we must purge our lives of apathy and laziness. These things are most closely related to the idol of distraction we talked about earlier, and are two of the biggest hindrances to Christianity in America today. We show our apathy when we become content to remain inside our walls, unwilling to step out as active participants in the Great Commission. We display our laziness, when we make excuses for why we haven’t spent time in God’s Word and prayer, or when we ignore spiritual disciplines that form our character and help to guard us from sin. We demonstrate the depth of our spiritual apathy and laziness, when we care little for our own spiritual growth and well being, and even less for the spiritual well being of those who are living apart from a saving relationship with Christ. We must rid ourselves of these immediately, or we are not truly living for Christ.

 

IV. Application

Friends, do any of these things strike a chord with you this morning? Are you taking time to regularly examine your life, asking God to show you the areas that you haven’t yet fully submitted to him? If you aren’t already doing that, I encourage you to start doing so right away. If we ask God to show us where we have constructed idols in our lives, he will be faithful to help us tear them down and construct proper altars to him. Like all difficult things that God asks us to do, we have to be willing first. He won’t force us to do it. But we also know that he won’t leave us to do the work on our own. When we submit ourselves fully to him, the Holy Spirit will open up all of the dark and dusty places in our lives and clean house.

So examine yourself. Are you distracted, are you struggling with discontent, or are having difficulty trusting again? Or do you see signs that you have constructed some other idol that is pulling your attention away from God. If so, ask God to help you seek out the root causes and remove them from your life.

I make it a regular practice, when I pray, to ask God to show me any sin that still remains in me. I ask him often to cast light on the areas of my life that I have not yet fully given over to him. And you know what? He continues to answer that prayer for me. He shows me where I am weak, and asks me to rely on his strength instead of my own. He shows me where I have given in to temptation, and provides a way for me to avoid it in the future. He shows me where I have failed to love others as he loves them, and assures me that I can learn to love more fully if I will follow in Jesus’ steps. And when God is done showing me all of these things, he always reminds me that I am his beloved child, and that he is pleased with me. This is the greatest gift a father can give to his child, and he gives that gift to me freely, every time I ask him to continue transforming my life.

Have you asked God lately what things remain in your life that interfere with your relationship with him? If not, I encourage you to make it a regular practice, starting today.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not left us alone in our greatest hour of need, but have entered the world you created in order to restore it to yourself. We thank you that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have power over the gods of this world. We are no longer held captive to sin and we need not fear death, but are called instead, by your grace, to ‘cast down our idols’ and turn to you, who alone can save us and make us your people. Amen.

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Is Itineracy an Answer to Celebrity Pastors?

itineracy-celebrity

I was not really surprised to see that Mark Driscoll decided to step down from his position as lead pastor of Mars Hill Church. There has been so much controversy over his leadership for so long that it was an inevitability, unless something drastic changed. His responses to criticism demonstrated either a lack of ability or desire to affect that change, and so it was only a matter of time.

The loss of Driscoll’s leadership was, no doubt, very difficult for the 15,000 or so congregants under his pastoral care, but Mars Hill is a mega church in every sense of the title, with multiple locations and a plethora of staff pastors to carry the load of care and leadership.

Or so I thought. Just this morning I read in Relevant Magazine that Mars Hill will be dissolving in the wake of Driscoll’s fall.

Now, not all of the churches will close their doors. Those that remain open, though, will do so under entirely new leadership. All Mars Hill staff are being terminated, according to the article. Some Mars Hill campuses will merge with other existing churches, some campuses will find new leadership and become independent churches, and the remaining campuses will close their doors. But the end result is the same: Mars Hill church will cease to exist, because of a single pastor stepping down.

A Cult of Celebrity

The church in America has been plagued by a cult of celebrity in recent decades. Churches deemed  “successful” are those that reach mega-size and multi-site, most often under the leadership of charismatic young-ish pastors.

And there is no denying their success, when measured by the standards employed. They see thousands of pilgrims come through their doors, they utilize their vast financial resources to engage with culture, and they plant dozens of church campuses as part of their networks.

Despite criticisms of shallowness, there are many faithful, Spirit led people attending mega churches, just as there are in small churches. And just like small churches, there are those who attend who are growing, those who are stagnant, and those who have not yet met our risen Lord in a life-changing way.

Mega churches have tended to cultivate something that is less apparent in their smaller counterparts. I am talking about celebrity pastors. We all know how celebrity pastors rise to fame. The church grows under their leadership, people begin to equate success with the individual, they begin publishing books and leading conferences or workshops, and before long the name of the church and the name of the pastor are intricately linked. At this point, the church ceases to be the church of Jesus Christ in name and becomes the church of Mega-Pastor-X, even though there may be real and faithful change happening in the pews.

This cult of celebrity is not less apparent in small churches because the people are different, but because the resources and reach of small churches are more limited. Yet, even so, you find celebrity on a smaller scale in many churches, where the lead pastor develops a fan following due to successes (or perceived successes) under their direction. This often leads to autocratic decision-making, which is just another form of celebrity.

Unfortunately, we have seen too often the devastation that comes when celebrity pastors fail in some way, as humans are prone to do. Whether their context is a mega church or a small church, the end result is the same. It is very difficult for churches of any size to recover their sense of identity and purpose when there has been a celebrity pastor in charge, who suddenly leaves.

Itineracy and the Pastoral Charge

My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, is imperfect. We have our problems, and some of those relate to our polity. We certainly have our share of celebrity pastors, too, but these are few and far between, and haven’t typically resulted in the negative dynamics we see in large non-connectional churches. But why is that?

Some might cite the average size of UMC churches as the reason for fewer instances of celebrity cult, but evidence shows there are many UMC churches which meet the statistics of mega churches, and as noted above, the problem is not limited to churches of a particular size anyway.

I think the answer lies in our practice of itineracy. This practice has its roots in our history, and reduces the potential for the cult of celebrity to develop in churches, by very simply limiting the amount of time a single pastor can lead a single church.

Now, I don’t want to get into a discussion about the drawbacks of itineracy. I know there are aspects, which are a real turn off to a lot of potential clergy. But my family has signed up for the itinerant life, because we see its benefits and because it is where God has led us to serve. And one of the positive aspects of itineracy is that, in most cases, a pastor does not stay in a single charge so long that this cult of personalities can develop.

I say in most cases, because there are some notable exceptions to this, which I think ought to be addressed. When a UMC church grows quickly, we still see a tendency to leave the pastor(s) under whom the growth occurred in those churches longer, as though growth is solely the responsibility or result of those leaders.

I don’t mean to suggest that a long tenure is always detrimental to a church either. There are many pastors who have faithfully served for decades in a single change, and their churches have flourished spiritually, as well as numerically. And yet, how will their churches respond when they are gone? With any long pastoral tenure, this question must eventually be answered.

My point is that we have an alternate option that has worked well for our denomination. In most cases in the UMC pastors are moved every 3-5 years with the following positive results in churches that are healthy:

1. Churches become more lay driven. They can continue in ministry without the lead pastor for a time. While visionary leadership is still essential, local churches do not dissolve when there is a leadership vacuum.

2. The pastoral vocation promotes humility. While there are certainly a boatload of arrogant clergy in positions of leadership, itineracy promotes humility by reminding clergy that they have been entrusted with the care of a congregation for a specific time, but that the long-term success of any church lies in their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, not their faithfulness to a specific pastor.

3. Churches become more mission-minded. When a church knows that their leadership will be changing on a regular basis, they cannot build their identities around that leadership. Identity must instead come from an understanding of who they are in Christ, and what mission he is directing them to follow. Churches who fail to follow that mission will ultimately close their doors, because they lack the consistent charismatic draw that celebrity pastors create.

This leads me to wonder, in an age where we see more and more negative consequences to celebrity leadership in churches, if the age-old practice of pastoral placement and itineracy might not be part of a viable solution to what ails the Church and her pastoral leaders?

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Sermon: Come and See

come-and-see

John 1:35-46

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter[g]).

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

 

I. Introduction

The gospel of John opens with a dramatic passage about the divinity, incarnation, and mission of the Word of God. In this confessional statement, the author confirms that the Word is co-eternal with God; he has always been and is not a created being. We learn that all things were created through the Word, and that he is the source of all life. And we learn that the Word became incarnate as a human male to dwell among his creation, that all who believe in his name are born of God and become his children, and that he was rejected by those he came to save, because they did not recognize him for who he was – the Son of God.

In just a few verses, the author paints a dynamic picture of the true nature of God’s promised messiah, who brought the grace of God to humanity in even greater measure than had already been given. But this picture is a far cry from the messianic expectations of Israel. Messiah, which means ‘anointed one’ was expected to be a great political and military leader, like King David. He was expected to overthrow the worldly powers through force, re-establish the kingdom of Israel, and lead as her king. So when the religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw a man like John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, wore animal skins for clothing, ate locusts and wild honey, and walked around proclaiming the kingdom of God and baptizing people for repentance, they were naturally curious if he was the sort of charismatic leader that could be the messiah they were looking for.

The introduction clarifies for those wondering that John the Baptist was a witness to the coming messiah, but not Messiah himself. And, when questioned by the priests and Levites, John immediately denied that he was the promised one, telling them that he had been sent to announce one would was greater than he. John knew who he was, and understood the work that he was called by God to do. He wasn’t concerned with his own glory or position, and when he saw Jesus pass by the next day, he immediately directed his own disciples’ attention toward Christ. By doing so, he started a chain reaction that continues even to our present day, where those who meet Jesus immediately go and find others to introduce to him.

 

II. Found People Find People

As soon as John identified Jesus to his disciples, they left him and began to follow Jesus. And the story tells us that when Christ turned to confront John’s disciples, he issued them an invitation to come and see where he was staying, presumably to learn what he was about. One of those disciples was Andrew, who became one of the twelve, and the first thing he did after meeting Jesus was to go and tell his brother Simon Peter all about him. He identified Jesus as the Messiah and invited his brother come and see for himself.

The very next day this pattern was repeated as Jesus first found Philip and invited him to follow. Then Philip, recognizing Jesus as the promised Messiah, immediately went to Nathanael and invited him to come and see for himself. Through this recurring pattern, we are given a glimpse of what happens when people encounter Jesus. And after more than two thousand years, the pattern hasn’t changed. It looks something like this:

  1. Someone who has met Jesus tells someone who hasn’t met Jesus all about him, and invites the new person to a place where they can meet him.
  2. That new person recognizes Jesus for who he is (The Lamb of God).
  3. They respond to the call of Jesus to follow him.
  4. They immediately begin telling other people about Jesus, and invite them to meet him.

This is a simple blueprint, but it communicates a profound expectation for all of us who would call ourselves followers of Christ. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have to embrace the notion that found people find people.

Let me say that again. Found people find people.

Jesus had a lot to say about finding lost people, who are far away from God. In Luke, chapter 15 he first shared a parable about lost sheep, with which I’m sure you are familiar. In this parable, Jesus told a story of a shepherd who has one hundred sheep, and loses one of them. The shepherd then leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the one who is lost, and upon finding the lost sheep he gathers together his friends and neighbors to rejoice over this one sheep who was lost, but has now been found.

Next, Jesus told a short parable about a woman with ten coins, who then lost one of them. He described how she went looking all over the house until she found her lost coin, and then called her friends and neighbors over to rejoice over the coin that was found.

Then Jesus told the story of a prodigal son, who took his father’s wealth as an early inheritance, left home, and squandered everything that he had in sinful practices. But when he returned home to beg for forgiveness and a place as a servant in his father’s household, his father ran out to meet him, embraced him, and threw him a party, because the son that he had lost had been found once again.

God is in the business of finding lost people and rejoicing when they are found, by making us part of his family. But while God continually calls to the lost through his prevenient grace and invites them into a relationship with him, the Biblical witness tells us that he still primarily uses his faithful disciples to seek out those who are far from him and make the introductions. We see this over and over in scripture as Jesus sends out the disciples to do wonders in his name, and as the church continues this work after his ascension in the book of Acts and beyond.

But if the Bible makes it so clear how important it is for even one lost person to be found and brought to Christ, and the example of Jesus’ disciples suggests that people who have met Jesus are expected to go out and find other people who don’t yet know him, then why on earth do we find this such a difficult task to do? Why aren’t we continually seeking out other people who don’t know Jesus, telling them about who he is, and then inviting him to a place where they can meet him?

I want to share with you some statistics that were recently compiled and published about “unchurched” people in America.[1]

  • According to surveys, “Eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited.” –Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door
  • “A study including more than 15,000 adults revealed that about two-thirds are willing to receive information about a local church from a family member and 56 percent from a friend or neighbor. The message is clear that the unchurched are open to conversations about church.” – Philip Nation, LifeWay Research
  • A survey from LifeWay Research “showed that many would respond to an invitation from a friend or acquaintance (41 percent), their children (25 percent) or an adult family member (25 percent).” –Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research

 

Yet here is a sad truth about the church’s response to such a potential harvest of souls. The same research found:

  • 7 out of 10 unchurched people have never been invited to church in their whole lives.
  • “Only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church. Ninety-eighty percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.” –Dr Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

 

III. Inviting People into the Presence of the Holy

When so little is required of us – to simply share our faith and ask people to come and see for themselves – why do we find it so difficult? Maybe its because we haven’t considered what a the simple gesture of an invitation really accomplishes. Let’s look at that a little more closely. I believe that when we take the time to introduce people to Jesus and invite them to meet him at church, at least four things happen:

  1. We help to tear down the barrier of fear. Even for those who sense God’s grace already moving in their lives and calling to them, fear can prevent them from seeking Christ. Fear of being an outsider; fear of the strangeness of this place called church; fear that they are guilty of sins too great to forgive; fear that they will be rejected once again; all of these fears and more can prevent someone from meeting Jesus and seeing him for who he truly is. But when we take the time to personally share with people who Jesus is and invite them to meet him in real and tangible ways, we help to dispel those fears and guide them into a saving relationship with Christ.
  2. We acknowledge their worth us, and more importantly to God. When we have the courage to share our faith in Jesus and what he has done in our lives, we are inviting people into a very personal space. By doing so, we demonstrate that they are valuable to us. When we show people who Jesus really is, and what he came to do for us, we also show them that God loves them and values them, not in spite of who they are or what they have done, but because they are created in God’s own image and precious to him. When we invite people to meet Jesus, we are inviting them to become children of God, like us. What greater value can we bestow on someone, than to call them family.
  1. We participate actively in God’s kingdom work. When we openly share our faith in Jesus and invite people to meet him, we are sharing in the work of the gospel, just like the Philippian church that we heard about recently. We become active participants in the Great Commission, and we prove that our faith is genuine.
  2. We allow the Holy Spirit to increase our faith, by seeing him work through everyday experiences. Few things in life can increase our faith more than to see God working through everyday encounters to transform sinful people into fully devoted followers of Jesus. When we actively share the gospel and invite people to meet Jesus, we allow the Spirit to increase our faith as we bear witness to the miracles he works every day in those people’s lives.

 

IV. Application

Two things are consistently taught in the New Testament: otherness and outreach.

  1. Otherness. In the kingdom of God, it’s not about me. Everything we say and do should point to the truth of Jesus Christ; who he is, what he has done for us on the cross, and what he is doing in us now by his Spirit.
  2. Outreach. The primary purpose of the Church is to reach out to those not yet in it. We are to live as sign posts to heaven, living witnesses to the gospel (Luke 19:10; 1 Corinthians 9:22).

But sometimes we lose focus on these things, don’t we? Like the parable of the Sower, sometimes life just starts to choke out the seed that God has planted in our souls, and we stop growing in our faith. We forget the joy we had when we first met Jesus, and so we lose interest in seeing that joy manifest in those around us. Do you remember what it felt like when you first responded to God in faith and accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Do you remember the excitement? Did you want to run out and tell the whole world about what God was doing in your life? I believe we can regain that sense of joy an excitement again. When we step out in faith to introduce other people to Jesus and invite them to meet him, we are able to participate again and again in the life-giving mission of God. Do you want to reclaim that with me this morning?

Or maybe you haven’t yet taken that first step of faith. Maybe you are still on your way toward a relationship with God. Maybe you have been hearing Jesus call you by name for years, but have never stepped forward to be found in him. Or maybe you are just hearing him for the first time. If this is you, don’t wait to respond to him. The Bible says that we can become members of God’s family today if we will just confess our sins before God, place our trust in Jesus, believing that he died on a cross for our sins and rose again from the grave, and commit to following him from this day forward. You don’t need any special prayer to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior today. Just talk to him, confess to him, believe in him, and commit to him, and the Bible promises that you will be redeemed.

Friends, when was the last time you shared your faith with someone? Maybe this is scary territory, or maybe you just don’t know what to do and say. There are two practical steps we can all take today to overcome the things that hold us back from introducing people to Jesus.

  1. Like Paul did in Colossians 4:3, ask God for an open door to share the gospel with people.
  2. Invite them to church. And if you aren’t sure how to do that, here are a few tips for making an invitation that gets a positive response.
  • Make the invitation specific – Don’t just invite guests to come “sometime”; say “join me this Sunday”
  • Make the invitation personal – offer to pick them up. If they don’t like that, then offer to meet them at the door, so they don’t have to enter or sit alone.
  • Make the invitation generous – offer to take them out or have them over for lunch after the service.
  • Make the invitation clear – let them know expectations for dress, music, childcare, etc. so that they will feel prepared for this new step.
  • Above all, just ask. What’s the worst that could happen? They might say no.

We have an excellent opportunity coming up for you to try out these tips. In two weeks, on November 2-4 we will be holding our annual revival. These services offer a great opportunity to invite people to try church out. The services will be informal, they will be wonderful times of worship, and anyone who attends will here the gospel preached. What better time to invite someone new to join you here at Union. But you don’t have to wait for a special service to invite someone to join you at church. And you certainly don’t need to wait to begin sharing your faith. I really believe that if we pray the words of Colossians 4:2 and ask God to open up door of opportunity to share the gospel, he will not only provide those opportunities, but he will also give us the words to say.

As you go into this new week and encounter people you know and don’t know at work or school, at the grocery store or a restaurant, I want to encourage you all to consider something. There is a good chance that the people around you at any moment are living apart from a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. You were once lost, too, but you have been found and led to Christ. Let’s keep the cycle going. Remember: found people find people.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray! Heavenly Father, you have shown us by your word that we are called to become active participants in your kingdom work. Would you help us to reclaim the joy and excitement of that moment when we first became your children, having been found and remade by your grace, through faith in Jesus? Would you open doors for each of us here to share our faith, and would you give us courage to invite others to this place, where they can meet your Son? We thank you for all those faithful disciples who you raised up to find us and introduce us to Jesus, when we were living apart from you. We thank you that you never stop seeking the lost, and that your faithfulness endures forever. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

Benediction

Therefore go, devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray that God will open a door for our message, so that you may proclaim the mystery of Christ. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders, making the most of every opportunity. And let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:2-6).

[1] http://backtochurch.com/participate/resources/statistics

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Sermon: Remember When?

remember-when2

“Remember When?”

Hebrews 13:1-16

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;

never will I forsake you.”[a]

6 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.

What can mere mortals do to me?”[b]

7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

 

I. Introduction

The book of Hebrews is one of the most theologically dense books of the New Testament. It includes a deep exploration of the person and work of Christ; it spells out the promise of salvation for those who trust in him; it provides a basis for understanding Jesus as our high priest and shows how he satisfied the terms of God’s covenant with Israel; and it explains that we have a new and better covenant through Christ. Though the content often prompts extended reflection, this letter also periodically turns to more immediate concerns for the faith community, such as the consequences for falling away, the nature of faith, and exhortations for living the Christian life faithfully.

The content of Hebrews is presented in a somewhat different way from the Pastoral Epistles. It offers a defense of the faith and instructions for living out that faith that are deeply rooted in the Old Testament. So, it should come as no surprise that with its conclusion Hebrews, chapter 13 returns to a familiar theme, as the author echoes the Old Testament call for the people of God to remember what God has done for them.

 

II. What Has the Church Been Called to Remember?

We have talked previously about the importance of remembrance for God’s people. We discovered that Scripture challenges us to remember three important things: 1) who we are, 2) where we have come from, and 3) what God has done for us.

We remember, first, that we are God’s special possession, created in his image and precious to him. Through Adam, sin entered into the world and we were each born with a corrupted sin nature. By our own sins, we have become alienated from our Holy God until all people are captive to sin and subject to death. But, though God is indeed holy, demanding holiness from his creation in return, he is also love, and so has offered a way to reconcile us to himself through his only Son. The Bible says that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, and that through him we can experience eternal life with God that starts right now. All this gift of grace requires of us is that we accept it, through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, the Bible says that we will be saved, and we are given the gift of his Spirit, who transforms us into the holy people God desires for us to be. This is who we are, where we have come from, and what God has done for us.

We have also talked about why it is important to remember these things. We remember, so that we don’t repeat our mistakes of the past. Throughout the Old Testament and into the new, we see that Israel repeatedly forgot what God had done for them, were lured away form him into idol worship, and became a cursed people because of it. Israel was, at various times, forced into slave labor, kicked out of their homes, beaten by their enemies, taken captive in foreign lands, and exiled from the Promised Land. But each time they remembered God, he returned to them and led them back to himself, always remembering the covenant he had made with them.

When we take care to remember what God has done for us in Christ, we guard ourselves from slipping back into the patterns of behavior that pulled us away from God to begin with. When we remember who we are in him, freed from sin and guilt, we are able to live fully in the hope that he has given us. But when we forget, we run the risk of repeating our past mistakes, and getting caught up in those things that lead us away from God and his blessings.

We remember, so that through our remembrance we might be found blameless. Israel’s greatest sins were those that occurred when they forgot that God called them to be a holy people. We, too, have been called to be holy as God is holy. We are called to put on the righteousness of Christ. But this is not something we can accomplish on our own. We need the Spirit to transform us, inside and out, and conform us to the image of Jesus. But he will never force this change on us. If we forget who we are and where we came from, we will fail to live in the power of the Spirit and submit to the authority of Christ. We cannot become a holy people if we don’t remember what holiness looks like.

And we remember, so that we will have the courage to act with boldness. This entails sharing our faith openly in the face of opposition, suffering willingly for the sake of the gospel, and seeking to live faithful lives as a people transformed by God’s grace in the midst of societies that reject God’s reign.

It is this last aspect of remembering that the writer of Hebrews is expounding upon in the passage we read this morning. The specific call of the Bible in Hebrews, chapter 13 is an exhortation to remembrance through action.

 

III. Active Remembrance

What is active remembrance? Active remembrance includes all of those things that we do, which demonstrate to one another and the world around us that our foundation and hope is in Christ, and that he has rescued us out of darkness and brought us into his light. [REPEAT]

Active remembrance is the ordinary activity of people who have been saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and who are being transformed into holy people by the Holy Spirit. These acts of remembrance are not extraordinary moments of grace in the lives of believers. They are the expected outpouring of God’s grace in every moment of our life with him. When we allow these grace-driven behaviors to manifest continually in our lives, we become living memories of God’s activity in the world.

Notice I said that we allow these behaviors to manifest. When we fully submit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ and permit the Holy Spirit to put our spiritual houses in order, these things become automatic responses. But, as I have said before, God will not force us to do any of this. All of his grace is given freely, but it must be received with a willing heart. This is good news for those who believe in Jesus since, like the salvation he offers, it doesn’t depend upon our own merit or effort, but on the grace of God alone. I am convinced that it requires far more work to resist the promptings of the Spirit to become conveyors of God’s grace than it does to allow his grace to pour out of us freely; just as it requires so much more effort to contain a river than it does to allow the water to continue along its chosen course.

The specific ways that we actively remember what God has done for us in Christ Jesus may change with time and location, but these specifics always stem from a common core of remembrance activities. This passage from Hebrews 13 lists at least seven activities the church should engage in to actively remember the work of God in their lives.

 

  1. Active remembrance is loving one another.

It is no secret that the Bible regularly urges the church to love one another. And it should come as no surprise, either. Just recently we have read about this is 1 Peter and Philippians, where both Peter and Paul plead with the church to seek unity with one each other. When we love other Christians as God loves us, we truly become the one body of Christ, co-heirs with Jesus and adopted children of God. And this is, perhaps, the greatest witness we can give to the world that God is love.

 

  1. Active remembrance is showing hospitality to strangers.

We cannot reserve the love of God for those within the walls of our church, though. Jesus demonstrated for us that God’s grace has been extended to all, and both the Old and New Testaments command God’s people to welcome the stranger and extend mercy to those in need. By doing so, we open the doors for God’s grace to pour in and we prepare the soil of people’s hearts for the seed of the gospel.

 

  1. Active remembrance is remaining pure.

Last week we learned that, in order to be a faithful people, we must obey God’s commands. Let’s hear Jesus’ words again: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

God demands that his people become holy as he is holy, and holiness is purity. Through Christ’s sacrifice we have been washed white as snow, but we cannot remain pure if we do not follow God’s commands, which have been given so that we might know what God’s standard of purity looks like. The great news is that we don’t have to do this on our own. As born again Christians, we have been given the Holy Spirit, who abides with us and works to transform us into the image of the Son, if we will just let him.

 

  1. Active remembrance is holding fast to the teachings of the Apostles.

Holding fast to a teaching means putting it into practice. It is not merely belief, but belief resulting in right action. The Bible certainly challenges us to learn and profess right beliefs in who we are, who God is, and what he has done for us. But faith without works is a dead faith. No matter what we profess to believe, if we do not act like Jesus, he is not really the Lord of our lives, and we are merely spewing out vain words when we say that he is.

 

  1. Active remembrance is acknowledging that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, and that we don’t need anything else for our strength.

The original audience of Hebrews had apparently begun to look to things like ceremonial foods for their strength from day to day. Since that time, the church has done similar things over and over again. Some have sought strength and peace through the buying and selling of indulgences, some through relics, some through prayers to the saints, and so many more things could be named. The author of Hebrews reminds the church that we do not need these other things. There is nothing that can be added to Christ’s sacrifice; it is the once and for all, perfectly pleasing atonement for sin, and the only way that we can be saved. Active remembrance is a call to openly acknowledge this truth through our complete dependence upon Christ for all that we are.

 

  1. Active remembrance is remembering venturing outside our walls in order to build an eternal kingdom, rather than seeking to maintain an earthly kingdom (or maybe a church building?) that won’t last.

This one may be particularly difficult for many of us. Within the walls of our church, we find comfort and identity. Here, we are a church family. We know one another intimately, and though we might not always see eye to eye, at least we know we are loved here.

But we find it so easy to get used to routines, don’t we. We like to do things a certain way, we like to see the same people each week, and we enjoy the peace that comes from knowing what to expect when we are gathered together for worship. But when we grow comfortable with things as they are, it becomes all to easy to forget that this church, with its buildings and its people, will eventually pass. But God’s kingdom will endure forever.

Friends, we should be about the building of God’s eternal kingdom, more so than the maintenance of this earthly one. But that requires us to step outside of our walls, actively seeking those who live apart from God and introducing them to Jesus, who loves them enough that he died for them. When we risk everything for the Great Commission we might one day lose our buildings, we might even lose our identity as Union United Methodist Church, but we will have gained a stake in God’s eternal kingdom, and we will be welcomed into his courts as good and faithful servants.

 

  1. Active remembrance is remembering is continually offering God a sacrifice of praise by professing the name of Jesus and doing good works in his name.

When we openly profess the name of Jesus, pointing to him as the source of all good things, and seeking to make a name for him, rather than ourselves, we engage in active remembrance of his life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and his promise of eventual return. And when we do good works in Jesus’ name, we confirm our witness to the world as people transformed by God’s grace. As Ephesians 2:8-10 reminds us: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

 

IV. Application

So then, how will we answer this challenge from the writer of Hebrews? As you reflect this morning, do you recognize the fruit of the Spirit in your own life? Do you find yourself engaging in active remembrance, or have you taken a passive stance?

On this special day in the life of Union United Methodist Church, we have an opportunity to publicly remember those faithful witnesses who have come before us, and to reflect on all that God has done in and through this community of faith. So, as we remember our history as a church, let us grasp even more tightly onto our identity as the Church of Jesus Christ. As we reflect on our past, let it be with an eye on the future hope of what God will do through us, as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the coming years.

This morning, I would like to leave you with a thought from an article I read this week that challenged me to look at my own habits and desires more closely. I encourage you to listen to the challenge here. Ask yourself, “What sort of expectations does this places on me?” And then ask your Heavenly Father to show you where you have not yet met those expectations.

“The Gospel is truly radical: “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Through the Gospel, the Holy Spirit creates the faith to embrace Christ with all of His benefits. We are delivered from condemnation and are made part of the new creation in Christ. Filled with grateful hearts, we look for ways to glorify God and to love and serve our neighbors. We are eager to grow. Fueled by gratitude, we look for opportunities to glorify God and to love and serve others. In God’s covenant community, we hear His will for our lives, confess our sins, rest more in Christ, and seek to show God’s faithfulness to each other in our ordinary callings.”[1]

Are you ready to claim the power of God for salvation? Seek Christ! Are you prepared to experience a gratefulness of heart that seeks ways to glorify God, to love and serve our neighbors? Seek Christ! Are you ready to encounter the richness of God’s covenant community, the church? Seek Christ! There is no substitute for it. Nothing else will satisfy!

And when you have sought after Christ and the power of his Spirit, and find that he truly lives in you, don’t delay in doing the good works that your Father has prepared beforehand for you to do. Don’t allow the work of God in you to become a passive memory of something long past. Step out in the faith that God gives you and actively remember. Give constant testimony to the good news that Jesus Christ saves, and then prove the truth of your declaration with your life.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you have called us as a people to remember. We remember your mighty works in creation. We remember your faithfulness to Israel, as your chosen people. We remember the coming of your Son, Jesus and his announcement of your in-breaking kingdom. And we remember Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, by which you have set us free from sin and death and welcomed us into your family.

Kind Father, would you help us to become active in our remembrance? Would you lead us by your Spirit into works of mercy, justice, and evangelism that lend weight to our words and confirm to the world that your Word is true?

As we close our service of worship this morning, would you send your Spirit among us? Convict us our failures to submit fully to you. Transform us by your presence with us, and lead us out into the world with courageous passion to do your work. We thank you for the lives and witness of all the faithful members of Union Church, who have gone before us. We thank you for your many blessings upon this church. And we ask that you would continue to raise up faithful disciples in our midst for many years to come, until Christ returns in final victory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!

 

Benediction

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” May you go forth this day seeking to offer yourself as a living sacrifice, acceptable and pleasing to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!

[1] Michael S. Horton, “What if Having an Extraordinary Life Isn’t the Point?” in Relevant Magazine, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/what-if-having-extraordinary-life-isnt-point

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Sermon: Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Faithful People

faithful-people

“Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Faithful People”

Acts 6:1-15

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

 

I. Introduction

Over the last three weeks, we have taken a brief look at some of the characteristics that marked the church in the early chapters of the book of Acts. We discovered that they were first, and foremost, a gathered people. Beginning with Jesus’ command to the Apostles in Acts 1, the church gathered together in prayer to seek God and to wait upon the coming of the Holy Spirit. Following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the church continued to meet together regularly for prayer, fellowship, and to learn from the Apostles’ teaching. Through their dedication to prayer and patience in waiting on the Lord, the church became fully dependent upon God for their strength and purpose. They sough to act where God gave them opportunity and direction, and in the fullness of God’s power. As a result, Jerusalem bore witness to many miracles at the hands of the Apostles, and received the good new of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Last week we learned that the church was a generous people, who each gave out of their abundant blessings, until there were no more needy among them. We learned that extravagant generosity is a reflection of the divine nature, and a powerful witness to the world of God’s grace and mercy. Through the story of Ananias and Sapphira, we learned that there are serious consequences for greed and lying to the Holy Spirit, and that these can damage the witness of the church. But we also learned that generosity builds our trust in God (and likewise his trust in us); it demonstrates that the kingdom of God is a present reality, as well as a future hope; and true generosity is an outpouring of God’s love, shed abroad in our hearts.

All of these things – their patient waiting upon God as a gathered people, their complete dependence upon him for their strength and purpose, and their extravagant generosity – worked together in the life of the church to mold them into a people who would be known, above all, for their faithfulness.

 

II. Stephen’s Story

We know nothing about Stephen before Acts, chapter 6, when a small crisis had arisen in the church. It seems that some of the Gentile Christians had complained to the Apostles that their widows were being overlooked by the Jewish Christians during the daily distribution of food. The Apostles sensed that personally dealing with this issue would take them away from the important work of prayer and teaching the Word, so they gathered all of the disciples together and instructed them to choose seven men from among themselves to oversee the daily food distribution. Their only requirements were for these men to be full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit; characteristics that should mark any mature believer.

We are then introduced to Stephen, who is described as a “man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” and who was chosen as one of the seven overseers. Stephen was an ordinary Christian living in Jerusalem, but his faith made him appear extraordinary, and the Bible tells us that he was “full of God’s grace and power,” and that he “performed great wonders and signs among the people”.

There are a couple of noteworthy observations we can make about the story of Stephen’s selection to service.

  1. Stephen was easily identifiable as someone who exhibited great faith, and who was filled with the Holy Spirit. We have no indication that finding Stephen and the other men who would serve was a difficult proposition. Apparently, it was easy to recognize people in the church who were filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Just like the marks of the church are easily discernable when we look for them, so too is the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The presence of the Holy Spirit can be found where these are apparent in the lives of believers.

These characteristics were common enough, that the disciples had no difficulty finding them, which begs a question: shouldn’t we still be able to identify these things in others when they are present? Shouldn’t these still be a common sighting in the church? And shouldn’t all those who are leaders in the church be looking for signs of maturity and encouraging those in whom we see wisdom, faith, and the fullness of the Spirit to service in the church?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, but they require us to follow the example of the early church in some specific ways. If we want to be able to readily identify those who are maturing in faith, we first need to be spending lots of time together. Now, this is something we, as a local church, do very well. We love to spend time together, and our calendar gives testimony to that fact. But, like the early church, we need to be regularly meeting together for more than pitch-in meals and work days. We need to be regularly gathering together in prayer as the body of Christ, seeking God’s grace and will for us. And we should also be gathering together regularly to study God’s Word and learn from the teaching of the Apostles.

Over the next year, we will be looking at ways that we, as a church family, can begin spending more deliberate time together for these purposes outside of Sunday worship and our whole church gatherings. We will be talking about what it looks like to be involved in small group discipleship, and discuss models for developing patterns of serious prayer and Bible study in our lives. I hope you will be open to these conversations and not consider them just one more thing to put on your busy calendar. When we attend to the things of God first, we set the groundwork for success in every other endeavor. I know that many of you already engage in regular rhythms of personal prayer and study. But we can learn so much more when we also do these things together, seeking God’s grace and will jointly as one body, just as the church has done since it’s beginning. By doing this, perhaps we will become more attuned to the presence of the Spirit operating in each of our lives, and able to better identify gifts for service in the church.

This leads us to a second observation about Stephen’s selection to service.

  1. He immediately committed himself to the task he was assigned, while continuing to operate within his gifts at the same time. He didn’t have any special skill set for delivering food, or as the Apostles put it “waiting tables”. He didn’t consider the work beneath him. Stephen was charged with a task, and he immediately engaged it to the best of his abilities, without compromising his God-given gifts.

I sense that Church leaders are sometimes caught between the desire to see people living into their specific gifts and abilities and the practical need for believers to just step up and do the work of the Gospel. For a long time I thought we would be better of if we sought out people with abilities that specifically match each ministry task, ensuring that everyone is operating within their gifts. But that way of thinking is simply not sustainable. For one thing, sometimes people need a break. What if you are the only person in the church with a comprehensive understanding of electrical systems? Does that mean that you are destined to serve as a trustee for the rest of your life? Or what if you happen to be a schoolteacher? Does your effectiveness in your job mean that you have to also be a Sunday School teacher until you retire? Many times people do want to serve in areas of ministry that are familiar to them, but sometimes God has placed the desire to serve in a completely new area on people’s hearts. How can we encourage folks to follow their calling, when we are burying them in work they just happen to be good at?

This way of thinking also has a way of letting people off the hook. We think that, since so-and-so is an expert on finance and accounting, we should just let them handle the budget and not get involved ourselves, when a fresh, untrained perspective might be just what is needed to bring balance to the work of ministry.

It is truly a wonderful thing to be given the opportunity to serve in areas where we sense God’s gifting. I am beyond blessed that I have been given the opportunity to serve in my area of calling as a pastor. But how often do we pass up an opportunity to serve God where he wants to use us, because we are waiting for him to provide us with a place that we think suits us better?

Sometimes, we just need to roll up our sleeves and be willing to dig in wherever we are asked to serve. Stephen set this example for us. Though he was clearly gifted by God for a specific work (Acts 6:8 says he performed great wonders and signs among the people, by God’s power), when tasked with what we might consider a menial chore, he responded quickly to serve with intentionality. But get this, we are told about the signs and wonders he did after the fact. His choice to serve over the distribution of food didn’t keep him from using his God-given gifts. If anything, his work among the people likely gave him more of those opportunities than he would have otherwise had.

Have you been challenged by God to step out and lead a new ministry in our community? Has your heart been broken for an unmet need in Brazil? Have you seen a need for workers, where there are few to be had? Or do you sense that God is leading you to do something new within our church walls? I have watched as several of you have recently stepped into roles that you might not have previously considered, but for which God has given you a passion and his strength to succeed. Some of you did so because you saw the need and responded; others have stepped up where I or someone else has asked you directly to do so.

Many of you have found places to commit your talents and abilities to the church’s ministries and mission, but some of us here today are hesitating to commit fully to the call for gospel workers. And some of us here have become so comfortable in our service, that we have stopped letting God stretch us and call us out into new areas of ministry and mission, where he can work even greater things in and through us than we ever dreamed.

I believe God is challenging our church this morning through his Word to re-evaluate what we are doing to serve him, and how we are doing it. I believe he is calling us to step out of our comfortable surroundings and begin seeking his will for us as a church family. I believe God wants to stretch us and lead us into new mission fields in our own community and into new ways of showing his love to one another through our service. But for this to happen – for us to be ready for the work that God is even now preparing for our church – I believe we must first raise up an army of Stephens in our midst.

 

III. What Does it Take to Be Like Stephen?

What does it take to be like Stephen? First, let’s consider what Stephen was not. Stephen was not an Apostle. This means that he was not one of those tasked with the ordering and leadership of the early church. He had no special ministry training. He was a regular guy, who likely had a regular job where he provided a service to his community. Yet, while he was not called specifically to a vocation in ministry, he met all of the prerequisites needed for the role in which he was asked by the disciples to serve.

Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. These two characteristics are interdependent, and they are the essence of Christian maturity. Indeed, I don’t see how the one can exist without the other. It is impossible for us to be faithful under our own power, so faithful living must mean living dependently upon the power of the Spirit in our lives, like we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Likewise, it is impossible to truly live in the power of the Spirit without being faithful. When we rely on God for our strength and purpose, the Spirit sanctifies us, transforming us into the very image of Christ, the faithful Son. So, what does it take to be like Stephen? I believe it requires the spiritual maturity that comes from seeking to live faithful lives in the power of the Spirit.

 

IV. To What Are We Called to Be Faithful?

Now, I’ve tossed around the word “faithful” quite a bit this morning, and I think it is time for us to define what that really means. It is one thing to say that we have faith; it is another thing entirely to live as though we are full of faith. The one requires an orientation of the heart, and the other requires us to act according to that orientation. If we are to become like Stephen, I believe we must be faithful in at least five key ways.

  1. We must be faithful to God’s commandments.

If we are to grow in spiritual maturity and become faithful disciples of Jesus, we have to start by transforming our behavior. And this begins by following God’s commandments. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We are commanded to remember and obey the heart of God’s law, which is summarized by the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, and even more succinctly by Jesus in the New Testament, when he said that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all of our heart and soul and mind, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. All of the law and prophets hangs on these commands. If we would be a faithful people, we must begin with faithful adherence to God’s commands.

 

  1. We must be faithful in our witness to the death and resurrection of Christ.

By our actions and our words, each and every day, we either bear witness to the truth of the gospel, or we deny it. If you remember, a few weeks ago we saw that both Peter and Paul issued challenges to the church to live in such a way that their lives would stand as testimony to the truth that God had called them out of darkness and into his wonderful life. They were challenged to do this by seeking unity among themselves and by maintaining purity among the nations. We do this by following step one above and obeying God’s commands.

But we are also called to bear witness to the good new of Jesus’ death and resurrection with our words. When Peter healed the beggar outside the temple gates in Acts chapter 3, he immediately used that miracle as an opportunity to point to God and his mighty work in Jesus as the source of his miraculous power and the foundation of our hope. If we want to be a faithful people, we must become comfortable with acting as we know Jesus would act, and with verbally bearing witness to his death and resurrection at every possible opportunity.

 

  1. We must be faithful to the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

I know we have talked about this over and over again, but this is a burden that God has laid on my heart for our church. I believe that he wants lead us into even greater opportunities to serve him in our homes and community, if we will just learn to lean daily into the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When we begin to trust fully in him for our strength and purpose, he is able to do so much more through us than what we can accomplish on our own. I am convinced that God is already moving in our midst, stirring our hearts to hear his vision for our future. But until we begin operating as a people fully dependent upon him, we won’t be ready to receive his vision or act upon it in the way that he would have us.

 

  1. We must be faithful to the Great Commission.

In order to become spiritually mature disciples of the King, we must become faithful to his kingdom work. Jesus gave a final charge to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The Great Commission is God’s plan for building his kingdom on earth. It is a work founded upon his grace and mercy, established and confirmed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and fulfilled through his Spirit acting in the lives of his people. But like all of God’s good gifts, he won’t force us to buy into his kingdom vision. He leaves that choice up to us, by inviting us to participate in his ongoing labor of love in the world.

 

  1. We must be faithful to the church and her mission.

If we are going to be faithful to God’s kingdom work, we must also be faithful to the way in which he has chosen to implement that kingdom on earth. God has chosen to work in the world through Christ’s church. When we are faithful to commit our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to the church, we become active participants in God’s mission and bearers of his grace to the world.

 

V. Application

There is another chapter to Stephen’s story in the book of Acts, and it is not an easy one to hear. Stephen’s ministry to needy Christians and the miracles he worked by the Spirit’s power eventually led him into conflict with the Jewish religious leaders, just like it did for Peter and John. We learn in Acts, chapter 7 that he was taken before the Sanhedrin, where false witnesses were produced to testify against him. But rather than swerve from his faith in the face of threats, Stephen chose to live faithfully, as he had done all along. He pointed out the hypocrisy and evil of the religious leaders, how they had rejected God’s law in their hearts, even while pretending to uphold it with their actions. He testified to God’s greatest act of love in Jesus Christ, and then condemned his accusers for sending Jesus to the cross.

One can imagine that none of this sat well with them. But it pushed them over the edge of a conflict that had been building for some time and sent them into a rage. Stephen was dragged from the assembly and he was stoned to death for his witness to the gospel. But by God’s grace alone, he remained faithful in his final moments, and he called out for God to forgive his murderers, testifying with his life to the grace of God.

What are you prepared to risk in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus? Are you willing to commit yourself to keeping all of his commandments, even when they stretch you and convict you sin? Are you willing to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Christ through both your actions and your words? Are you ready to become fully dependent upon the Spirit working in your life? Are you prepared to fulfill the Great Commission – to step outside these walls and seek out the lost and broken, so that they might be brought into relationship with our loving God? Are you committed to giving yourself fully to the church and her mission? Will you sacrifice your money, your security, your pride, your rights, and your way of life in order to live faithfully to the way of the cross?

Are you willing to give your very life, as Stephen did, so that one more lost sheep might be brought back into the heavenly fold? Because I am here to testify this morning with all the saints who have gone before us that nothing less will do! God does not want or need half-hearted followers. He desires a faithful people.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Our Heavenly Father, we come before you seeking your will for us. Lord God, we desire to be your faithful people. We desire to surrender ourselves to you, to be shaped and molded into the people you would have us be. Would you send your Spirit upon us and make us faithful by your grace. Help us to become captive to your kingdom vision, willing to go wherever you lead us. Would you break our hearts for the lost and broken, give us courage to seek out those who are far from you. And would you give us the resolve to remain your faithful people, until Christ returns, and we sit at your heavenly banquet.

 

Benediction

Now go from this place seeking to live as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Amen.

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Sermon: Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Generous People

generous-people

“Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Generous People”

Acts 4:32 – 5:10

4            32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

5            1 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.

 

I. Introduction

I have to confess that the story of Ananias and Saphira has always caused me to do a bit of a double take. It is one of those parts of the Bible that, no matter how many times I read it, causes me to pause and to ask myself, “What just happened?” Up to this point in the narrative of the book of Acts, we have been witness to the building momentum of the early church. This small group of Jesus’ followers had begun by gathering together to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, like Jesus had commanded them to do. They had committed themselves to prayer and to seeking the power and purpose of God in their lives. They had surrendered themselves to the Lordship of Christ, becoming fully dependent upon God. And they had submitted to the teaching of the Apostles. All of this the church had done willingly, and they saw God working in their midst as a result.

As early as Acts, chapter 2 we see the Holy Spirit moving in a mighty way at Pentecost, and allowing people from all over the world to hear the gospel message in their own languages. And as Peter preached to the masses in the fullness of the Spirit, we are told that three thousand people turned to God in faith through Jesus, and were added to the church that day.

Now that the ragtag group of disciples was growing, we might expect their interactions to change. But we find instead that they continued with their practice of meeting together regularly for fellowship and prayer and instruction. On top of this, we find in Acts 2:42 and following that the believers began to share all of their possessions and started meeting in the temple courts to praise God publicly. The result of all this was that they found favor with the people of Jerusalem, and even more people came to faith.

In Acts 3 we read the story that we discussed last week of Peter healing a beggar outside the temple gates, leading to an opportunity for Peter to share the gospel with those who had witnessed this miracle. This led to persecution from the religious authorities, who didn’t like all this talk about Jesus, and who dragged Peter and John before the Sanhedrin. In Acts, chapter 4, we read that Peter was filled again with the Holy Spirit as he spoke to the Sanhedrin, and was able to give a faithful accounting of the gospel and the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone. And despite the threats leveled against them to stop speaking and acting in Jesus’ name, the Apostles continued to preach and teach the good news of Christ, the believers continued to gather in prayer and fellowship, and the church continued to grow.

Everything seems to be going so well for the church. They are growing in number, they are seeing miracles worked in their midst, and as we are told again in Acts 4:32-37, they continued to give up their own possessions for the common good, living lives of extravagant generosity as a testimony to God’s grace in their lives, until “there were no needy persons among them (v. 34).”

I don’t know about you, but that is the sort of church I would want to be part of. That is a church that changes lives and cultures and ushers in the kingdom of God. Even amid of the persecutions that were to come in Acts, chapter 5 and beyond, the church flourished. Once the Spirit of God was unleashed upon the faithful, there was no stopping the spread of God’s grace and truth.

But then something happened. Right smack-in-the-middle of the church’s rise, we find this story about Ananias and Saphira, and their disastrous fall. It is part tragedy and part warning to the church to be on guard against sin.

 

II. What was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira?

So what exactly happened here? What was the sin that Ananias and Sapphira committed? Just prior to this story, in Acts 4:34-37 we are given a picture of the pattern of generosity typical of the early church. There is a reason the text says that nobody was in need; it was because people were selling their homes and possessions and giving the money to the church for the shared benefit of all. Barnabas is just one example of this type of extravagant generosity. We are told that he sold a field that he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the Apostles feet. He gave generously without being prompted, he didn’t hold anything back for himself, and he gave without any fanfare. He simply followed God’s leading and gave out of his abundance.

Now, contrast this with what we are told about Ananias and Sapphira. As chapter 5 starts out, we are told that they also sold some property, indicating that they probably had heard about Barnabas’ gift, or at least the gifts of others. This is substantiated by Ananias’ actions, which exactly match those of Barnabas. But there is one big difference. While Barnabas brought the entire sum he received for his property and placed it at the Apostles’ feet, Ananias and Saphira conspired to keep some money for themselves then lie to the Apostles, telling them they had given the whole sum to the church.

One aspect of their sin here appears to be that of pride. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be known as generous. They watched what others were doing, saw that their gifts were well regarded, and wanted to be recognized as part of that group of charitable people. But they weren’t acting out of a spirit of generosity, which we know because they held money back for themselves. Instead, they were acting generous, so that they might be known as generous people. I think a good comparison to our contemporary society is when a wealthy family gives a financial gift to a school or other institution with the condition that it must be used to build something with their name on it. In seeking to be known for their gift, though, Ananias and Sapphira were violating Jesus’ command in Matthew 6, which says:

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:2-4).”

Their actions also demonstrate that they we being held captive in some way to greed. Their self-seeking reasons behind selling their property and giving the proceeds to the church were certainly enough of a problem. But to add insult to injury, Ananias and Sapphira conspired to keep back some of the money for themselves. Now, had they chosen to keep part of the money for themselves and simply told the Apostles they had done so, no fault would have been found with them. But the act of covering up their plans demonstrated the depth of their greed. It is the nature of sin to cause shame, which is why so often we hide our sins from others, and why we also attempt to hide our sins from God.

The most obvious aspect of their sin was that Ananias and Sapphira lied about what they were doing. But notice what Peter says to each of them in turn. He doesn’t accuse them of lying to him; their sin is that they lied to the Holy Spirit. This wasn’t just any gift, this was a gift given to God. What should have been a pleasing sacrifice to him was instead tainted in the same way that Cain’s sacrifice was tainted in Genesis. They had substituted something second best and given it to God as their first fruits.

So Ananias and Sapphira were seeking recognition through their gifts, hoping to make a name for themselves among the church; their hearts were held captive to greed, which they sought to cover up; and they lied, not only to the Apostles, but more importantly to the Holy Spirit, by giving something second best and claiming it as their first fruits. And by their negative actions, they risked upsetting the momentum of the fledgling church by damaging the good reputation they had built up in Jerusalem.

 

III. The Church as a Generous People

Why was it so important to highlight the generosity of the early church in Acts, and why is it still so important for the church today to be truly generous? I’d like for us to consider three reasons briefly this morning.

  1. Generosity helps us to trust God more fully.

When we are truly generous with our finances, we give beyond what we might consider comfortable, and we do so trusting that God will take care of us. It is very difficult to become dependent upon God, when we are still trying to maintain control of our lives. But when we surrender to God those things which are most fundamental to our wellbeing, it frees us up to do the work of the gospel, trusting that God will supply what we need.

It is equally important for us to realize that this trust goes both ways. When we are generous with the blessings God gives us, he is willing to trust us with much more. Consider Jesus’ words in Luke 16:10-13:

10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

  1. Generosity demonstrates that God’s kingdom is more than a future hope; it is also a present reality.

I think we sometimes find it easier to think about God’s kingdom as a future promise to the faithful. We spend a lot of time talking about final salvation in the church, but this has sometimes come at the expense of our focus on the present. When Jesus walked the earth, his call to those he encountered was to repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand. God’s kingdom is here already, and while it has not yet come in its fullness, it has begun to break in to our present reality. We are called to live as people who recognize the lordship of Jesus in the present, even as we wait for his return and the fulfillment of his promises in the future. But it does little good for us to claim that Jesus is Lord now, if we don’t also act like it. One of the first ways that we can demonstrate a new kingdom is to overturn this world’s ways of doing things, and that begins with generosity and selflessness, where the world only offers greed and self-preservation. This leads us to a third and final observation.

  1. Generosity is an outpouring of God’s love shed abroad in our hearts.

True generosity is a picture of God’s love. When we give with abandon to the mission of the church and to those who are in need, we reflect the self-giving nature of God, who did not withhold his most precious gift from us when we were in need; instead, giving us a gift in Jesus, that is of unsurpassable worth. If we really believe that God is love, and that his love has been manifest through the cross, then we should seek to love as he does, keeping nothing for ourselves, and giving everything for the sake of the world.

The church has more reason than anyone to give extravagantly, and without prejudice. And the early church was known for their generosity. Notice what the Bible doesn’t say about the early church. It doesn’t say that they went into public and condemned the lost before giving to their aid. It doesn’t say that they pointed a finger at their sinning neighbors and demanded them to change before offering them help. The Bible doesn’t say that they weighed carefully whether or not a needy person was deserving of their help. It doesn’t say that believers only gave if they were certain the recipient wouldn’t use the money to get drunk or hire a prostitute or gamble it away. The Bible simply says that they gave, until there were no more needy among them. And the gospel spread in their wake.

Ananias and Sapphira forgot a fundamental truth that we all need to be careful to heed. None of the blessings we have in this life belong to us. They are all gracious gifts from a loving Father in heaven. They are given and taken by his will alone, and we are only stewards of his grace so long as we seek him first, and consider all of these other things as secondary to knowing and being known by him.

 

IV. Application

I’d like to say something on a personal note this morning. I know that our church is filled with generous people. Our family has been on the receiving end of your kindness more times than I can count already. We see it in the way you treat one another and the way you give whenever there is a need. So my challenge to you is different than it might be in another setting, where people struggle to give at all. I know that you are already taking seriously God’s call to live generous lives. But I believe God still has a challenge for us here this morning.

As with anything we do in life, it is so easy to fall into a routine that doesn’t really challenge us all that much. We get used to doing things a certain way, because it is comfortable to us when we know what to expect. For that reason, I would venture to guess that many of us here are still giving the same amount to the church or mission that we have for years, and with the same frequency. We continue to do this, because we are used to it. But like an athlete who is training to get stronger or faster, we have to continually challenge ourselves if we hope to grow. God doesn’t often ask us to act out of our own strength. Instead, he calls us to greater faithfulness in those areas where we are weakest, so that we might better learn to trust in him and his strength to supply our needs.

So here is my challenge for you this morning. I would like for you all to seriously consider this. When you have given as generously as your comfort allows, when you have given your usual tithe to the church, when you have given your support for mission, and when you have answered those occasional needs that arise, I would like you take a moment to ask God if he wants you to give more? See what he says, and then act, even when it takes you outside your comfort zone.

And while you are at it, I would encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are you giving grudgingly to the church and others? When you give, do you resent the gift, and does it bother you that you could be using that money for something else? If so, it might be time to ask God why, and to seek his leading in understanding how to best steward the resources he has given you.
  2. Are you giving out of a sense of “Christian” duty? I have so often heard people say that they do things for the church because they believe it is their obligation to do so. I don’t believe God wants us to act from that motivation. God doesn’t want our sense of duty; he wants our love and devotion.
  3. Are you giving your first fruits to God? Are you really giving back to God the very best of the blessings he has given to you? If you aren’t sure, think about this: Do you give more to your cable or satellite provide or your mobile phone company than you give to the church? If we would be fully dependent upon God, we need to first surrender our best to him.

I know it is always an uncomfortable thing to talk about money in church, so let me be clear about something as we wrap up this morning. God doesn’t need your money. God desires your whole heart. And he knows that for many of us, the only way to captivate our whole heart is to first remove the barrier that money creates. He wants us to become fully dependent on him, and for some of us that will have to begin when we surrender our finances to him.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, you have been so good to us. You have showered us with your blessings, giving us so many good gifts. Teach us to become good stewards of the resources you have given us. Help us to give with extravagant generosity, so that we might become bearers of your image and witnesses to your loving-kindness.

God, where we have failed to follow your promptings toward generosity, we ask your forgiveness. And where we have failed to see the needs of others, we ask for your mercy. Be with us now, we pray. Teach us to surrender ourselves more fully to you each day, and continue to conform us to the image of your Son Jesus, as we seek to walk in the power of your Spirit from this day forward. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Benediction

Hear the words of Jesus: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Therefore, go from this place seeking to serve God only, and sowing the seeds of the gospel everywhere you go through lives of extravagant generosity. Amen.

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Sermon: Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Dependent People

dependent-people

“Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Dependent People”

Acts 3:1-16

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

11 While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.

 

I. Introduction

I can only begin to imagine what must have been running through Peter’s mind when the beggar first spoke to him at the temple gate. He had been in this very situation so many times before as he followed Jesus from town to town, proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom. Jesus had been approached by many others like this man; some seeking physical healing, others deliverance, and still others searching for relief from their grief over the loss of a loved one.

And Peter had watched his Lord responded with God’s loving kindness in each of these situations. He had personally seen Jesus heal leprosy, blindness, paralysis, a crippled hand, bleeding, and scores of illnesses. Jesus had, at one point, healed Peter’s mother in law. He had driven out countless demons by a word, and he had even raised people from the dead.

But always, with each encounter, Jesus looked beyond the concerns manifest on the surface. At each step of the way, the physical healing that Jesus performed preceded the deeper emotional and spiritual healing that was needed. When he healed lepers, he had them show themselves to the priests, so that they might be declared ritually clean and return to their homes and families. In one situation recorded in Luke 5, Jesus embraced a man with leprosy, healing him from his disease and restoring to him the human touch he had gone without for so long. When some men lowered their friend through a roof where Jesus was teaching, in hopes that he would make him walk, Jesus offered him forgiveness for his sins. When Jesus healed a man who had been born blind, he answered a deep fear, when he assured him that his blindness had not been the result of sin, but an opportunity for God’s glory to be made known. When Jesus healed the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, he made her clean again according to the Law, and returned to her the possibility of human contact. And when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he was giving back to Lazarus’ sisters the head of their household, and their means of financial support. In each of these cases, Jesus had healed the physical as a means to glorify God and to restore these people emotionally and spiritually as well. Jesus’ healing was more than a surface treatment; it was complete, returning them to a state of wholeness.

Peter had been present for all of these. And he was also present for Jesus’ transfiguration, had seen him walk on water, and through faith had stepped out onto those waters himself. Peter had witnessed the power of God in and through Jesus on countless occasions leading up to this moment in time, and most significantly, he had witnessed Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Peter knew first hand the power of God, and I am sure that, as he turned toward this beggar at the temple gate, he recalled Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 14:12-14: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

And yet Peter’s road leading to this place had been a rocky one as well. Like the rest of the Apostles, he had often failed to see the deeper meaning of Christ’s words and actions. Though he had exhibited great faith when he stepped out on the water, his faith had quickly been replaced by fear until he sank beneath the waves, and had to be rescued by Jesus. In one breath, Peter had declared to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16),” and with the next he rebuked Jesus, saying that he would not allow him to suffer, die, and be raised; thus leading Jesus to confront him with the truth that his mind was held captive to human concerns, rather than the things of God (Matt. 16:22-23).

Peter often alternated between great moments of faith and courage, and moments of bumbling about as though he could not understand what Jesus was teaching him. Peter’s ultimate misstep came when he denied Jesus before his accusers, just as Jesus had told him he would. And in doing so, Peter’s heart was laid bare before him, and he caught a momentary glimpse of his desperate need to become fully dependent upon God, rather than himself.

What a tremendous relief it must have been when Jesus restored Peter after his resurrection. As Jesus asked him three times whether or not Peter loved him – once for each of his denials – the pain must have been unbearable. And yet, as Peter had witnessed so many times before, Jesus’ healing was more than surface deep. He reached down into the deepest recesses of Peter’s heart to heal his greatest wounds. When Jesus put the broken pieces of Peter’s life back together, he was made whole again. And I believe it was at that moment that Peter finally learned to trust fully in God, and rely on God for his strength and purpose.

I have my suspicions that all of these details and more flooded into Peter’s mind as he stood there, looking at this beggar, and considering what to do next. As the beggar called out to Peter and John, they turned to him, and the Bible tells us that they “looked straight at him,” then Peter spoke and invited the man to return their gaze. In so doing, Peter responded as Jesus would have responded, looking past the surface problems to find the deeper troubles this man faced. As one who made his way through begging, this man was living on the margins of society. Ignored, abused, discounted, and scorned. He had no position in his society, no place, no purpose in their eyes. But God sees men and women for who they truly are, created in God’s own image and precious to him.

When Peter and John looked directly at this man and invited him to do likewise, they were demonstrating to him that they really saw him, and that he was of sacred worth to them. They saw that his real need wasn’t for money, but for physical and spiritual healing. So Peter acted just as he had seen Jesus act countless times before, knowing that the power to make a difference in this man’s life was not his own, but the power of God in him. He healed the man physically as a precursor to the spiritual healing he was about to offer through Christ to all those who witness this miracle.

 

II. The Church as a Dependent People

Peter was only able to do what he did, because he had learned to depend completely upon God for his strength and purpose. And as the story of the book of Acts unfolds, we see the early church of Jesus Christ exhibiting faith in the form of complete dependence over and over again.

We learned last week that the church was a group of people who gathered together regularly in prayer, to seek God’s will for them. They developed a pattern of active waiting upon the movement of the Holy Spirit. And once the Spirit moved, the church acted with boldness, trusting in the presence of the Spirit to glorify God and further his mission in the world.

Six times in the book of Acts, we see the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” to describe members of the early church. And each time that phrase occurs, it is followed by someone stepping out in faith to act according to God’s will, and with the confidence that they are doing so in the power of his Spirit. In each of these cases we see people who were depending on God to lead them each step of the way.

Though we are separated from the church of Acts by more than two thousand years, nothing has changed about God’s call to become dependent on him for our strength and purpose. We are still God’s people, gathered in the name of Jesus Christ to worship God and to be his agents of change in the world, as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission.

 

III. What Does it Take to Become Fully Dependent on God?

What does it take to become fully dependent upon God for our strength and our purpose in life?

  1. First, we must be found in Jesus by grace, through faith. If we would be fully dependent upon God, we must first become reconciled to him. How can we hear his voice if we are separated from him? The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We have all failed to meet his standards of holiness. We have all been disobedient to his commands and failed to love our neighbors. But God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son as a willing sacrifice for sin, so that through him, we might become daughters and sons of God. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, who was born, walked the earth as a man, died on a cross, was buried, and on the third day rose from the grave by the power of God the Bible tells us we are born again into new life, and we no longer bear the guilt for our sins. And the Bible promises that all those who are born in Christ will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. We can only become fully dependent upon God if we have first submitted to him in faith, by his grace.
  2. Second, we must come to fully recognize who we are to him, as his beloved child. Once we are born again through faith, we become God’s children, heirs to his kingdom and co-heirs with Christ. All children are dependent upon their parents. As children, we look to our mother and father to provide us with shelter, clothing, food, and safety. We also look to our parents to give us guidance in life, to direct us so that we don’t step off of the path to success. In the passage we read from Luke 12 this morning, Jesus told his disciples that they were of great value to God, and that, as their Father, he was willing and able to give them the kingdom and meet all of their needs.

There is another dynamic to recognizing who we are in Christ. If we are God’s children we should also want to please him, just like all children want to please their parents. The only way that we can please God is to follow his commandments. He has given us his commands to direct our paths, so that we will be successful in life and maintain our relationship with him. We must become obedient if we are to become dependent.

  1. Third, we must seek to live under the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than our own power. We have talked about this before, but it is worth saying over and over again. We cannot hope to follow Christ fully, as his disciples, unless we learn to live in the power of the Spirit. God sent the Spirit to counsel us, to guide us, and to transform us into the image of his Son. Through the Spirit God works to sanctify us, making us holy as God is holy and teaching us to love as he loves. But in order for us to live fully in the power of the Spirit, we have to first get out of our own way. The first step of faith is submitting to the Lordship of Jesus, but we must continue to submit to him every day, choosing to follow where he leads us and allowing the Spirit to do the work of making us holy.
  2. Fourth, we must be prepared to act as Jesus would act. When the beggar spoke to Peter, he had a choice in how he would respond. He could have turned away and continued along his path. But because Peter had followed Jesus closely for so long, he knew how Jesus would respond to this situation. And because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, he was prepared to act as Jesus would act.

Folks, there is only one way for us to become prepared to act like Jesus would, and that is to become his disciples, paying attention to what he did and allowing God to conform us to his image. Just like any relationship, if we want to intimately know Jesus we have to spend time with him. Discipleship is more than just showing up to church on Sunday. True disciples seek to know Christ more fully each and every day. They sit at the master’s feet in prayer. They learn about his character and will by reading the Word. And they put into practice what they see through ministry and mission. When the beggar asked Peter for money, he was prepared to act in the same way he had seen Jesus act so many times before. He was prepared to look past the surface, to this man’s deeper needs, and he trusted God to meet those needs through him. Because he knew Jesus intimately, he didn’t hesitate to do exactly what Jesus would do, and he reached out his hands and touched him, instantly healing him and giving glory to God.

  1. Finally, if we want to become fully dependent upon God, we must be quick to give all glory and praise to him, through Jesus Christ. After Peter healed the beggar, he didn’t jump up and down saying, “look what I did”. He didn’t stand there and take in the adoration of all the witnesses to this miracle. Instead, he immediately pointed to Jesus, and used this man’s healing as an opportunity to give glory to God and share the good news of the cross.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeking credit for the good things that God does through us. But the way of the cross is a call to deny self for the benefit of the world. When we are truly dependent upon God for our strength and purpose, it means that we know that God is God and we are not. It means that we no longer seek validation from the world, or even one another, but from God alone. When we trust in God fully to supply all of our needs, that includes our need for a sense of belonging and affirmation that we are living according to his will. It means surrendering our rights to be known by the world, because it is enough to know and be known by God. If we are living dependently upon God, in all things we will point to Christ as our Lord and King.

 

IV. Application

The early church lived as a people fully dependent upon God for their strength and purpose. They gathered together in prayer to wait upon the Lord, and then acted in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because they were dependent upon God, they were prepared to act under his authority and power, as we saw Peter do, when he healed the beggar by the temple gate.

Church, we can become fully dependent upon God again. We can learn to live with his power and purpose in our lives. But for this to happen we must first become humble. We must stop pretending that we can do everything by ourselves. We must give up the illusion of control that so easily distracts us, and submit ourselves fully to the Lordship of Christ.

Friends, I believe God is preparing to do a new and amazing work in our church. I believe he is preparing to send us out in his name like never before, as bearers of his love and grace to our community. But if we are going to be faithful to his calling upon our lives, we first have to become fully dependent upon him. We have to stop trying to do things under our own power, and look to God to supply us with his power and his vision for us. So let me ask you this: have you fully given yourself over to God through faith in Jesus? Do you know that, in Christ, you are a new creation, born again into the family of God? Are you seeking to live with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in your life? Are you seeking to know Jesus more fully every day, so that you might be prepared to act as Jesus would act? And are you giving praise to God and pointing to Christ in response to every good thing?

Total dependence upon God can start right now, for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. It is a free gift of grace. Are you ready to receive it?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, we come before you this morning in need of your grace. So often we try to live under our own power. So often we think that we can only depend on ourselves in this world. Forgive us, we pray, for failing to see that you are a dependable God. Forgive us for forgetting that, when we place our trust in Jesus, it means trusting him not only for our future salvation, but also for our present hope. Kind Father, would you teach us how to become fully dependent upon you for all that we need and all that we are. Help us to live as your beloved children, heirs to your kingdom, and filled with your Holy Spirit. We ask these things in the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.

 

Benediction

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And now, may you go from here, fully depending on God to direct your paths, so that through you, he might continue to do even greater things in our midst. Amen.

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Sermon: Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Gathered People

gathered-people

“Marks of the Church (Acts 1-8): A Gathered People”

Acts 1:4-14

4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

 

I. Introduction

When we encounter the disciples in the first chapter of Acts, they seem to be in a state of puzzled shock. They had accepted that Jesus was really risen from the dead and was fellowshipping with them, but they are perplexed about what this means. Some of them were still stuck in their old ways of thinking about who the Messiah was expected to be. Wasn’t he supposed to overthrow the rulers of Rome and take over as the new King? Wasn’t he supposed to usher in the new Kingdom of Israel? Even though their original expectations for Jesus had clearly been blown away with his death and resurrection, the disciples didn’t seem to know where to go from there.

When approached about their dilemma, Jesus responded to the disciples in what might be considered a disappointing fashion. They came to him in verse 6 asking when he was going to make his move, and his response in verse 7 was to say simply that it wasn’t for them to know the time and place when God would complete his work of bringing in the Kingdom. In fact, he had just told them to hold their horses and wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit arrived. But the disciples had become impatient. Jesus was still with them, so why weren’t they conquering Rome?

Perhaps this is one of the reason that Jesus chose that time to ascend to the Father in heaven. Maybe he knew that the disciples would never become truly and fully dependent upon God, learning to live together in unity, so long as he remained physically present with them. They would always be watching Jesus, waiting for him to move, rather than living into their newfound identities and moving in the power of the Spirit.

Even as Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples remained dumfounded, as though they had no idea what was going on. Jesus had clearly told them that he would be going to be with his Father, but they still couldn’t picture what life would be like without his physical presence. It wasn’t until angels arrived to encourage them that Jesus would be back that they finally listened to his command to return to Jerusalem, where they were to wait for God’s next move.

Up until this point, the disciples had spent almost all of their time with Jesus, looking to him for their leadership, to make the calls on what they were to do at each step. Now, in his physical absence, they began to come together for the first time as “the church” of Jesus Christ.

 

II. The Church as a Gathered People

Later in the New Testament, Paul began to use the Greek word ekklesia when describing the church. This term is still with us today, as we refer to our ecclesiology, which is the theology of the church, or our ecclesial structures like annual conferences and districts. But the term was already in use in the Greek-speaking world of the first century. An ekklesia was most basically a gathering of citizens called out of their homes to assemble for the purpose of deliberating, or making decisions for the community of which they were citizens. Paul and the early Christians took this word and injected it with new meaning, in light of their understanding of who they were in Christ. The church, as the ekklesia of Christ, were to be a people called out of the world, who would gather to worship God and then act in decisive ways as citizens of God’s Kingdom. As we see in the first few chapters of Acts, the ekklesia, the church, the gathered people of God came together in three very specific ways that should serve as a model for the way that we gather as Christ’s church in this time and place.

 

  1. First, and foremost, the church gathers to pray together.

Oswald Chambers once said, “Prayer is the exercise of drawing on the grace of God.” It is not only the primary means by which we make our requests known to God, but is also the primary means by which God extends his grace to us through his presence. Through prayer, we are given assurance of who we are in Christ, we are given courage to stand in the face of opposition, and we are granted peace from the troubles of this world. When we pray, God changes us, so that we can see his perspective on things. When we hit our knees in prayer and seek God, he is able to use us as his instruments in the world. He shows us who he is, and we become more dependent upon him. And as we depend more and more on him, we experience his grace in fresh new ways.

So why is it that the church so rarely gathers for the purpose of prayer? We used to call Sunday services “prayer meetings” for a reason. But how much of our time together do we actually devote to submitting to God in prayer, asking him for what we need and depending on him to supply it, and seeking his vision for our future? I wonder sometimes if we have become too comfortable in knowing that we can approach the throne of God at any time? Prayer has become an undervalued commodity, because we always have in our minds that we can go to God anytime we really need to, and so we hold our prayers in reserve until we get into a fix that we can’t get out of on our own.

We need a larger view of prayer. We need to begin seeing it for the value that it offers us. The great Christian author C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.” What he meant is that we make a daily choice whether or not to depend on God for our strength and purpose. If we would choose dependence, we must do so continually, each day, by cultivating a life of prayer. This choice is personal, but it is also corporate, and we must choose as a gathered people to come together for the purpose of prayer if we hope to receive God’s grace in greater measure. This was the posture of the early church, and we can see in Acts 1:14 that they began with constant prayer.

 

  1. Second, the church gathers to wait upon the Lord.

In Acts 1:4 we learn that Jesus’ last command to the disciples was for them to wait for God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. He then reiterated this command in verse 8, instructing them to wait until the Holy Spirit came to begin their work of proclaiming the Kingdom to the ends of the earth. Jesus knew that if the disciples ran out and began doing things in God’s name before they were living in his power, they would be doomed to failure. And if they took off running in the direction they thought they were to go, before waiting for God to give them his vision, they would be heading in the wrong direction. So Jesus commanded them to wait.

 

When God’s power did finally come on the disciples, through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were prepared for it, because they had waited in prayer for God to move in his own timing. Since they had paused to receive God’s vision and his power, their actions were consistent with God’s mission, and the results were remarkable, as thousands came to faith.

I have often heard it said – and have said more than once myself – that there is a danger to the busyness of our churches. The danger is that, in our desire to do good things in the name of God, we run the risk of missing God’s bigger vision for us. Sometimes, when we are too busy doing good things for God, we miss out on his best. As the church, God’s gathered people, we need to cultivate a habit of waiting on the Lord. We need to learn to seek him, before we seek to do things for him. This isn’t an excuse for laziness, to somehow avoid doing the difficult work of the church. It is recognition that any work we do under our own power is insufficient, while the work we do under God’s power and leading is miraculous.

 

  1. Third, the church gathers to break bread and learn from the Apostles’ teachings.

This is probably the way in which the church more often gets things right. As the global church, we are good about getting together for fellowship and to learn more about our faith. We are doing these things right now, and it is a fun experience. But when we limit the breaking of bread and the teaching of God’s Word to something we do on Sundays, because we have always done it, we once again run the risk of missing out on the greater blessings God has in mind for us.

The church in Acts gathered together for fellowship and learning so that they might be renewed, and so that they might become equipped for ministry. We need both renewal and equipping in the church. But too often it seems that we choose one or the other. We have churches that spend so much time equipping the saints to go out and do ministry that they forget who they are as a church and they burn out. Other churches spend all of their time and energy finding new ways to renew themselves, but never quite find the momentum to equip one another properly for the work of ministry.

We should be asking ourselves regularly, which sort of church we are, and which sort of church we want to be. If we are to faithfully represent the ekklesia, the gathers people of God, we must be attentive to these things.

 

III. Application

Over the next few weeks we will be talking about some other marks of the early church in Acts. As we do, I want to challenge you to consider whether or not we exhibit those characteristics in our church. And then I want for us to begin intentionally seeking ways to cultivate those qualities. My suggestion is that we should start with prayer. The church in Acts gathered together for the purpose of prayer, and so should we.

As it happens, we have two opportunities coming up to gather as a church for the purpose of prayer. The first of these opportunities will be the weekend of our Faith Promise Sunday. We will be having a prayer vigil on Saturday, October 25 to support our guest speakers and to prepare our own hearts to hear how God is leading us to give to, and to serve in, the mission of the Church. The second opportunity will be in the week leading up to our revival on November 2. From Monday, October 27 through Saturday, November 1, I will be asking each of you to set aside time during your lunch break to pray specifically for the revival services. We will pray for our speaker, so that his message for us will faithfully represent God’s word to his people. We will pray for those in our community who might attend, asking God to break down any barriers keeping them away. We will pray that through this revival even one person who is living apart from God now would be led to faith in Jesus Christ. And we will pray for our church that we would be renewed by the Holy Spirit and become sensitive to where he is leading us. I would like for our entire church to get involved in this, and there are three ways that we can do so.

  1. Pray individually at designated times and as you are led.
  2. Pray together as families in the evening.
  3. Pray together as the church body in Sunday School and worship.

And let’s not stop there. Over the next few weeks, I want for us to begin seeking out ways in which we can begin gathering together with purpose, to worship, to pray, and also to wait upon God, to seek his vision for us, to renew ourselves, and to equip one another for ministry.

 

IV. Closing Prayer

Kind Father, we thank you that you have called each of us by name, and that you have gathered us together to be your church. We thank you that when Jesus went to sit at your mighty right hand, you did not leave us alone to wander aimlessly, but you sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, to comfort us, and to guide us.

Heavenly Father, we confess that too often, we still seek to live under our own power. We get caught up in going things for you, and so forget to seek your leading in our work. Would you teach us to begin each day afresh on our knees in prayer? Speak to us in those moments and lead us into a deeper understanding of your Kingdom. Father, teach us patience as we wait for you to move, and give us boldness to act once your vision has been made clear.

Bind us together, we pray. Make us your church, your gathered people, so that through us the good news of your Son Jesus might be made known in our community. We pray this all in Jesus’ name. Amen.