Seeking power, and giving it away

This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts chapter 14. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post.

Power is powerful. It has a capacity to attract gravitational pull towards itself or repel with similar force. It’s been the subject of the stories people tell since people started telling stories. When we come face to face with a person who holds power, it’s easy for us to find ourselves paying attention to the trappings of power as opposed to the person themselves. So when someone like Ghandi comes along, divesting himself of the trappings of power, his message becomes exponentially more attractive and subversive.

In Acts 14, covering the second half of Paul’s first missionary journey, we see the extent to which power – in this case, spiritual power – is both available to all of us but can also provoke wildly divergent reactions … ultimately laying bare the essence of our reactions to God Himself.

The chapter gives a quick overview of Paul and Barnabas’ experience in a number of different places. In each instance, though, we see that the power of God is available and active. God is at work in a real, direct, powerful sense  – in such a way as to be described as miraculous. So in 14:3 we read that ‘miraculous signs and wonders’ confirm the preaching of the news about Jesus. The same thing is repeated in a different city in 14:8-10 –  a man crippled from birth is healed by Paul after he has heard the message preached. It bears many similarities with the first healing miracle in the book, recorded in Acts 3 – a man crippled since the day of his birth, the apostle looking him directly in the eye, the man jumping as he’s healed.

A similar thing happens at the end of Paul’s time Lystra. Paul is stoned and described as being ‘left for dead’ (14:19). The Christians gather round him (14:20), and he’s able to walk back into town. We need to pause here to let sink in what actually happens. The people who stone Paul here know how to stone someone to death – it’s part of their tradition. They knew what a person who had been stoned to death looked like – so when they drag Paul outside the walls of the city, they really think he’s dead. There’s not going to be any doubt in their minds. The disciples gather round the apparently dead Paul – a turn of phrase which commentators tend to agree represents another way of saying they prayed for him – and the man who was previously assumed to be dead is able to get back and walk under his own power back into the city. There’s only one way that’s possible – the power of God.

The fact is that Paul would go on to write about this in his letters to the churches. There’s more than one list of the gifts given to the church by the Holy Spirit in the letters we attribute to Paul – they overlap and fill in gaps in one another. Look at just one – probably the most famous in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 and we find gifts of the miraculous and healing are right in there. It happens with Old Testament prophets (think, for example, of Elijah); throughout the life of Jesus; throughout Acts and on into the life of the early church. Records start with Iraneus, Bishop of Lyons in 200 C.E. referring to people healing in the name of Jesus, and carries on – in every era of the church, there are people discovering and rediscovering the power of God to heal. Nothing in the Bible or church history realistically allows us to think that gifts of healing and the miraculous died out with the apostles.

Now we know that we don’t live in a perfect world; we don’t see all the answers to prayers we want to because we live in war zone, waiting for the return of the king who will remake creation so that sickness, pain, tears and death are no more (Revelation 21:4). But it’s very clear from the Bible that God’s power is available to us to heal now – to demonstrate that what’s written in the Bible is still powerful, that God really is the same now as He was then, to pull back the curtain of eternity and give us a glimpse of what it will be like when the King returns. So it continues – I’ve prayed for people to be healed and not seen the answer we’d longed for. I’ve prayed for people and seen the deaf have hearing restored, withered muscles restored and pain subside. The power of God is here.

But people like you and me are nothing if not stubborn, and Acts 14 shows the variety of different reactions we can have to God’s power.

There can be outright opposition (14:2-3, 4-5), coming from the same hard hearts and jealousy which we saw at work in chapter 13 last week. There’s also, in Lystra, the sort of opposition that comes from misunderstanding. Lystra was the centre around the cult of the god Zeus; he was believed to have visited the city with his spokesman Hermes, to be recognised by only one elderly couple. His devotees in the city were determined not to make the same mistake again, so when Paul and Barnabas arrive speaking of a God and engaging in the miraculous they assume it’s Zeus returning and try to offer sacrifices. (14:11ff). It’s all the two missionaries can do to stop the townsfolk from making sacrifices to them.

Before we dismiss the Zeus-loving Lystrans we – followers of Jesus and atheists alike – should pay careful heed. Do we ever see one thing and let our assumptions lead us to one conclusion? Or do we stop to consider  – that if there is a God, isn’t it possible, indeed likely, that He may do some things which we find hard to explain without moving to a more ‘rational’ explanation?

Either way, Paul and Barnabas’ reaction is in sharp contrast to Herod’s – they point away themselves, towards the God of heaven and earth, the God of Jesus. Herod, (12:21ff) hearing the crowd acclaiming him in his finery as a god, accepts the praise – and pays the  terrible consequence. Herod’s all for taking all the acclaim and power he can get; Paul, by stark contrast, goes from Lystra back through other cities already visited (14:21-28), releasing other leaders, building them up and delegating power, giving it away, passing it on. It’s not his to hold on to – he’s there merely to hand it to others.

So the power of God is real and it is here. It is here to break into our lives. It is here to heal. It is here to demonstrate that what is written in the pages of the Bible still makes a difference now. It is here to give us a glimpse of what’s to come. So seek it. Use it point away from yourself to Jesus; use it demonstrate the only one with any power that counts isn’t you or me but God Himself. Seek it, and give it away.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th 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.

Learning a new language

This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts 13:13-52. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post.

We all know that we express our deepest thoughts and feelings most easily in our mother tongue. A couple of years ago I helped out with an Alpha course in the mediu-security wing of Pollsmoor prison. When it came to group discussions, we’d start in English, but when one of the guys in the group got passionate about a point or was trying to express something more personal, they would often transition from English into Afrikaans, sometimes over the course of a single sentence. Then they’d be off and running, talking at length and great speed for a few minutes. They’d finish, often with a polite “Thank you”; and a kind group member would take pity on me and attempt a translation. It’s not surprising that this happens – if we want to talk about the deep stuff of life, we do so most easily in the language that comes most naturally.

At St Peter’s we have a community of about 120 people, with what I estimate to be about 12 different nationalities and as many different languages among us. That’s great diversity, reflecting the area in which we are placed. We use English as a common language, but sometimes we’ll pray the Lord’s Prayer in languages of our choosing – maybe we could move towards songs and hymns in other languages … it’s a great way to express unity in diversity. We’re not just a diverse group in terms of spoken languages – there’s also the ‘cultural’ languages we speak – students, taxi drivers, people who sleep on the street and so on … how do we speak those languages? We’ll come back to these thoughts in a little while.

Last week we looked at Paul & Barnabas starting out on the first missionary journey, and the template they give us as we all live as missionaries in the world God calls us to; going to the place where God is already at work and getting involved there. Here that continues  – they arrive in Antioch, and head once again to the synagogue. The synagogue rulers – those responsible for the ordering of public worship – invite them to speak (Acts 13:15-16), which Paul does.

His sermon falls into 3 sections. In the first part (Acts 13: 16b-25) he sketches the highlights of Old Testament history – which is the history of the community that gathers at the synagogue. He contrasts the disobedience of the people with the faithfulness and the grace of God – God endures (13:18) their faithlessness as they wander in the desert; they get judges to lead them even when they do what is evil in God’s sight; they ask for a king and eventually get one who is a Godly man (13:22) despite the fact that God tells them they should not have a king.

From there, Paul moves to the second section – to Jesus (13:26-37), demonstrating that Jesus fits in line with this history and the prophecies they know so well, unrecognised by some but God’s son nonetheless (13:27). Paul moves seamlessly from there  to his conclusion – an invitation to respond to the grace of God in Jesus (13:38-41).

It’s a familiar structure for a speech about Jesus to an orthodox Jewish audience – it has all the hallmarks of Stephen’s speech  before his martyrdom. Stephen’s sermon, though, concentrated on the disobedience of the people; Paul’s here majors on the contrasting grace of God.

Initially the response is good – there’s a desire to hear more (13:42), to which Paul and Barnabas respond the following week (13:44). Within a week, word has spread and a huge crowd arrives (13:44-45); and it’s this that exposes the hard hearts of some in the synagogue community. Seeing the newcomers, they are jealous and protective of their privileged status, which they put into action by lashing out with gossip and slander (13:45-46). Pau seizes the opportunity, and like Stephen he’s now able to talk clearly about the disobedience of people who claim to belong to God; which leads, ironically, to Gentiles turning to God for themselves (13:48). This is too much for those who hold the religious power; the welcome and invitation of a few days earlier is revoked, and the evangelists are expelled from the region under threat of persecution (13:50), provoking a dramatic response as Paul & Barnabas shake the dust from their feet as the leave (13:51).

That in itself was provocative. Dust was symbolic for a good religious Jew; a rabbi’s attentive student was said to be so close to him that the student was covered in his master’s dust. When a rabbi passed through a Gentile area, he would shake the dust from his feet as a prophetic sign of the danger of ignoring God … as this dust is shaken off me, so God will do to you in your disobedience. In another echo of Matthew 10 (verse 14), Jesus had told his disciples to shake the dust from themselves as they left a region in which they found no welcome for the message of the kingdom of God. So as Paul and Barnabas do this, they stand in a prophetic lineage with Jesus, turning the religious obedience of the synagogue rulers back on themselves. They are now the ones under judgement.

All through this, Paul and Barnabas have been speaking the language of their audience – from the history of the community which opens the synagogue sermon to the prophetic dust0-shaking as they leave, they are speaking a cultural language of their audience.

There is a good heritage for this. Jesus, after all, was God speaking human language, a man able to empathise with our weakness; to experience our temptations but get right for us what we could not get right for ourselves. This is what we’re all called to respond to: the God who makes us in His image then stoops to speak our language so that we can hear him. Have we heard Him? Have we responded to the amazing grace of the God of creation learning our languages?

Do we learn from that, and learn then languages of those around us? Do we in Mowbray, or wherever we are, learn the languages of students, drivers, homeless; those in Mowbray and those from all over who pass through? Do we embody Jesus and the kingdom of God in language that will then be heard? Or do we harden our hearts and become jealous as those of other tongues encounter God and come into our community’s orbit? Imagine a church with such missionary language-learning, resourcing and equipping communities of mission of all those in our surrounds, embodying the kingdom of God in a way which will be seen and heard.

To whom is God calling us, you? What languages, cultures is he putting on you heart? To go and learn will lead to persecution and misunderstandings and gossip, as it did with Paul and Barnabas. Their response? Joy (13:52). How is that possible? They are filled with the presence of God (13:52).

Ask for the presence of God to fill you and flood you, giving you a language to speak, a place to go and joy in all circumstances.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 11th 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.

Where is God?

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.