This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts 13:4-12. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post. This is my first attempt to turn a sermon into a blog post. I’d value knowing if this helpful to you or not.
Where is God? That’s a question that’s haunted people for as long as we’ve sought meaning in the world. From philosophers to the Russian cosmonaut who returned from a trip into space claiming to have looked unsuccessfully for God to any one who has ever felt alone or said that a place is ‘godforsaken’; it’s a question that most of us ask at least once.
We Christians think we know – God is with us. Push us for a little longer, and many of us will talk in terms of ‘taking God to…’ a people group, a person or a place. The missionary movement has sometimes been understood as being founded on that very idea – there are places where the news of the kingdom of God isn’t known, so the message and the gospel (and by implication God) need to be taken there. Many people have come to know God…but there’s been much damage along the way also.
The problem is that’s the wrong way round. Today we come to the beginning of what we call Paul’s first missionary journey. It takes place around the year 46/7CE, and lasts for 18 months. In it we see a template for being a Christian missionary – or more correctly, being a Christian as we’re all missionaries following a sending God. What we see in Paul, Barnabas and John is a model of mission and Christian life which reverses how we see any situation – that they go to a place where there is no church, no understanding of the gospel as we might think of it, and there they point out where God is already at work and invite others to join with God, to submit to Him and work with Him.
Instinctively we know this. We all understand, though, that what we know isn’t always the same as what we live out. The Bible’s actually quite clear that God is, somehow, everywhere. Take Psalm 18, written by someone in deep pain and distress of some kind. Look at how God is described as seeing the distress and moving towards it – not away from it as we may expect of a holy, distant God:
“The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water.” (Psalm 18:4-12, ESV)
Gods of the Psalm-writer’s day were aloof or manipulative – certainly not present in suffering and pain. This God, though, is quite different – He sees the plight of the writer and, in the poetic language, moves heaven and earth to be there with him or her.
Or consider Psalm 139, an outpouring of worship and awe and the creative and all-present power of God:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night”, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:7-12, ESV)
This is a God who is present. Everywhere. Or consider elsewhere in Acts. The curtain of the temple was understood in some way to contain the presence of God. How then, in Acts 3, is a beggar healed outside, in the courts of the temple? Saul on a dusty road (chapter 9), on his way to kill Christians. Surely God is not with him? Yet there God meets him. Peter’s on a rooftop (chapter 10), and God speaks in a vision. Peter is visited in prison, and led out (chapter 12).
We could go on. Enough to say, though, that this is a God with no limits, no no-go areas; and this is something Paul and Barnabas are alive to. They follow the prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit (13:4), travelling 26 km to the port, then making the 200km or more journey by boat to Cyprus (13:4). On landing, where does Paul start the great missionary project? Street-preaching? No. In a synagogue (13:5), the focus for the worshipping life of the Jewish community there. Why a synagogue? Barnabas and Saul and John know that God is already at work in a synagogue, because there people understand that the law and the prophets – what we call the Old Testament – is the inspired word of God. They expect to hear God speak through that. It is the story of God’s work in the lives of their ancestors, and they gather to retell the story and to look for Him to work again. The synagogue is where people have a sense of God speaking, and a sense of God acting. So they start there … and move on through the island (13:6).
From the synagogues they move on, and here the missionaries start to face opposition – not opposition they’ve looked for, but as they are faithful and obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, so the opposition comes. The course they are following comes straight from Jesus Himself. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about Jesus sending his followers out on a mission. Here’s part of His instructions to them:
“And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:11-14, ESV)
This is sometimes called looking for the person of peace – the person in any context who will welcome you and make life easier for your mission. They may not be a disciple of Jesus – but they are someone in whom God is at work to enable the kingdom message to be proclaimed. That’s exactly what Paul and his companions are doing here. In the case of Cyprus, we know of no Christian community on the island; there’s no sense of any follower of Jesus anywhere. What there is, is this man Sergius Paaulus – the pro-consul. In other words, the highest Roman authority on the island. In him, of all people, God was at work – because he asks for Saul and Barnabas to come to him (13:7)
This is where the opposition kicks in. There’s a magician, Elymas, who is associated with the pro-consul in some way (13:7). The missionaries represent a threat to him – his work and his influence. He wants to keep the pro-consul for himself (13:8). What happens next is remarkable. Paul (this marks the change in use of the name Saul to Paul), described as “full of the Holy Spirit” (13:9), confronts Elymas. What is the Holy Spirit, if not the personal, empowering presence of the living God? In that context, Paul confronts the opposition directly, unmasking deceit and corruption (13:10-11). The result of all this is an outward sign of an inward reality – for a period of time Elymas will be blind (13:11). The one who had sought to lead others astray is now groping in mid-air, arms flailing and in need of someone else to lead him (13:11). Unsurprisingly, the pro-consul is astonished, seeing the word of God matched by the power and work of God (13:12).
Of course, every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul, though, knew that we all leak – which is why in the letter to the church in Ephesus we find him saying (correctly translated) “go on being filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). There’s a need for us all to be daily refreshed by the experienced, empowering presence of God’s Spirit. Which means, of course, that there’s no such thing as a place where God is not. Yes, God is present with us by His Holy Spirit. That applies as much as to the places and people we go to as it does to us who go. The Cyprus which Paul and his colleagues land on shows no sign we can see of a community of Jesus followers or gospel proclamation. God’s at work anyway, in the Jewish synagogues and the heart of the Gentile pro-consul.
So truly, there is no place where God is not. Nowhere, no-one is God-forsaken. He is always there, always here, always at work. Which means many things. Not least, this: no matter how dark it is, how painful or frightening it may feel, God is with you. He has not left you.
That should comfort us. It should also cause us to confess and repent of those times when we’ve lived as if He’s not there, gone our own way, turned our back on someone whose opinion we’d rather not take into account. It’s easy to compartmentalise our lives – the fact of God’s presence with us should both comfort us, but also call us to humble ourselves before Him and seek His forgiveness.It should also mean that we go – wherever He may call us – to work, to our families, to our schools, to our streets, to another place – unafraid. Unafraid of what we may find, because if we go with the eyes of faith, we will find Him at work. Our job, empowered by the ongoing filling with the Holy Spirit, is to ask for the eyes of faith and point out His work to others, to show this matches with what He says, and invite others to get involved, to respond and join in.
Where is God? He is here. He is there. He is where He sends us.
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 4th November 2012. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. The sermon was not recorded.