Monthly Archives: August 2014

Sermon: How To Deal With The Problem Of Popularity

Sorry I haven’t (so far) been able to post last Sunday’s sermon, the first after my summer holiday. I have some computer problems. If I can post it when those issues are resolved, I will. In the meantime, here is the latest sermon in the series on Acts for this coming Sunday.

Acts 14:8-20

The desire for popularity starts young. Will you be picked first for a sports team at school, or will you be the one left at the end, who is unwanted by either captain? You fall in and fall out with the trendy girl.

In adulthood, you may want to be popular with the boss, or you may participate in cultural expressions of popularity, such as so-called TV talent shows. Either you vote for your favourite singer on The X Factor or you even enter for it.

And more widely, we have the irony that among the people most admired in society are often those who have loosened themselves from addiction to the approval of others. They say and do what they think and care about, regardless of whether people agree or support them, and strangely that is applauded. Perhaps when we laud those who are not addicted to approval, we realise deep down inside that our own desire to be endorsed by others is an unhealthy trait.

In our reading, Paul and Barnabas – who have just escaped possible death in Iconium – find themselves subject to an opposite manifestation of mass hysteria: huge acclaim. Not that they went looking for it, but if a lame man is healed through your words (verses 8-10), then maybe it isn’t surprising if you find yourself on the receiving end of adulation. Today, the TV crews would be there, experts would be pronouncing on the matter, and all this a few hours after it had been extensively dissected on Facebook and Twitter.

What goes right and what goes wrong in this story when it comes to the question of popularity?

Firstly, the crowd goes wrong, because they instantly lapse into idolatry. Granted, it is a spectacular deed, both unusual and miraculous, and you can’t blame them for thinking that God is at work somehow. The trouble is, they identify the human messengers with God. But it’s quite a leap to assume that Barnabas and Paul must be the Greek deities Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), and the priest of Zeus, who wants to offer a sacrifice of bulls and the honour of wreaths to the apostles (verse 13), doesn’t exactly show much discernment.

Now we may well find it hard to identify with the specific details in this part of the society. Probably very few of us have seen a verified miraculous healing, and it’s unlikely that any of us have been venerated as divine beings.

But perhaps we have known something like this on a more modest scale. God may have helped us to do something important. Perhaps we helped someone in need, and it all seemed rather ordinary to us, but then people began to praise us. How do we handle that?

I touched on this a few weeks ago when we considered the death of Herod Agrippa, who failed to give glory to God when he was wrongly praised for being divine. You may recall that he didn’t pass the praise onto God. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to respond to praise. Perhaps you remember me telling you the story of Corrie ten Boom, who said that when she received a compliment, she thought of it as being like a bunch of flowers that are not meant for her. So she enjoyed the smell of the praise, rather like she would a bouquet. But then she would pass the accolade on to Heaven, saying, “This is all for you, Lord.”

We can see here how very quickly the apostles reject the status accorded to them. They are deeply distressed, as the tearing of their clothes (verse 14) shows. But let’s be very careful, because although Barnabas and Paul are careful to direct all the praise to God, what they do is not an example of what some people call ‘worm theology’. That is, just because they want God to be praised rather than themselves, they do not say things such as, “I am only a worm.” All the elevating of God that they do is not done to project themselves as worthless wretches. This is not the Uriah Heep definition of ‘very ‘umble’.

The apostles know that God was the author of the lame man’s healing, and so they speak passionately about his goodness. They speak about his provision to all (verses 15 to 17), just as Jesus had said that God made the sun shine on both the just and the unjust (contrary to the misquote that ‘the sun shines on the righteous’). They spoke of God’s goodness to all in creation and provision, something that John Calvin was later to label as ‘common grace’. Even before anyone discovers the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for them, God has already shown ‘common grace’ in the way he has laid on good and necessary things for the sustaining of love, and has done so without favouring one group over another. It is not true that God only blesses the Christians: he starts by blessing all people.

And it is this kind of God who, the apostles say, calls people to repentance. We hear no description of a God whose severity is such you think he suffers from permanent indigestion. No: we hear the call to turn to him because everything else is so worthless in comparison to his goodness (verse 15).

Their concern is not to make fans for themselves, but disciples for Jesus Christ. I wonder whether that is our prime desire when someone praises us. If we too, believe in such a good God, a God of love, then should we not be more concerned for his popularity than ours?

And how might we respond if we do witness something out of the ordinary? Is it with adulation? Is it with some kind of ‘fan club’ mentality for the human beings at the centre of it? Isn’t it about time Christians stopped participating in the celebrity culture that obsesses our society? And isn’t it time that we stopped playing the same game in the church?

Some Christians today talk about ‘making Jesus famous’. To me that’s rather clumsy language, but it does make the point about the priorities we are to have when it comes to popularity. Whose fame are we concerned about? Do we want to burnish our own reputation, or do we want Jesus Christ to be promoted?

Secondly, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium also go wrong. Their problem is not idolatry – they knew their Ten Commandments – their problem is jealousy.

Now it’s all too easy today to take a misguided steer when it comes to the New Testament tales of Jewish people opposing Jesus and the early church. We know from the appalling legacy of history that the last thing we want to do is recreate what a Jewish friend of mine at work experienced as a child, when she was regularly called a ‘Christ killer’ in the street.

But neither can we simply take these stories in terms of the way Martin Luther and some of his successors interpreted them, namely that here was a group of people who had treated religion as a list of rules rather than as an experience of grace. The real situation was probably rather different. They were deeply devout, committed people, who wanted to know how God drew the boundary markers to denote who was ‘in’ when it came to faith and who was ‘out’. They understood that in their faith God had saved them by grace, but they saw good deeds not so much as saving them as proving they were members of the chosen people.

In other words, they weren’t that dissimilar to a lot of modern religious people. We may know that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ and his death upon the Cross, but we then have certain standards to determine who we think are real Christians. Those standards may have some connection with the Bible, or they may have a little more to do with our wider cultural. Sometimes they will be explicitly stated, and at other times they will implicit assumptions.

Why go through all this about the Jewish opponents of the Gospel, including those who stone Paul and leave him for dead here (verse 19)? Because I want us to understand that it’s quite dangerous when we look down on them. We can be uncomfortably like them. We too, in our desire to protect and honour the name of our God, can also fall into the same poisonous, lethal trap. In our zeal for God, we can, if we are not careful, unleash deadly energies as a result of our jealousy that can damage others.

I have seen it happen in churches when a new, young, enthusiastic Christian grasps something about the Gospel and runs with great energy and excitement with it. Many people are thrilled, but some others who are more experienced in the faith think that they should be the people receiving recognition. So they plot – usually quietly, behind the scenes. The young Christian is subject to whispers, questions, and ‘concerns’. Only if these don’t work does the game become more aggressive and public.

I have also seen it happen in churches when some people think that a certain area of church life belongs to them. They have a monopoly on it. Nobody else is allowed to enter their domain, or to make creative suggestions, because no-one can possibly do it better than the existing incumbent. So when someone else does come up with a good idea and people love it, they throw a tantrum and wreck relationships.

Oh, we may not try to stone someone physically, but if we have not guarded our hearts against having a jealous reaction when someone else achieves popularity, then we are capable of causing other forms of destruction.

What can we do about this? How can we avoid jealousy when someone else is in the limelight and not us? I believe the simple answer is to remember that everything in the Christian life is about grace – the undeserved favour of God. It is not simply that grace comes into play so that we initially receive forgiveness and a place in the family of God. Everything from there on in as well is about God’s grace. All the good things we receive are not because we have kept certain rules or standards that maintain a place within the ‘boundary markers’. No! It is always about grace. However much we change (and even that is by the grace of God), we are still not rewarded according to our perfection. God continues to bless and to use sinful, broken, frail people in the Church. And yes, that most certainly includes me.

In other words, let us pause to reflect upon the fact that we shall always be dependent upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are never so good that we can dispense with it. And if that is the case, then we must live like Jacob, with a limp, a limp that says we are sinners in permanent need of God’s mercy. And when we see ourselves like that, it is hard to keep up a sense that somehow I deserve something better than that upstart who has taken the spotlight off me.

Friends, we owe it to God, to the Church, to the world and to ourselves to guard our hearts with our perpetual need of grace.

And it is that same deep awareness of grace that will also make us see how ridiculous it is to promote ourselves instead of Christ. Once we recall how much we owe to him, we just look petty and silly when we think we should be elevating our own cause rather than his.

So – come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with a profound appreciation of grace. Convict us of sin where we have inflated our own self-importance in place of all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and in leaving the tomb empty. Enable us to be unconcerned about our own place in the church or society. Instead, fill us with a passionate desire to see Jesus Christ gain the glory for all that is good.

Speaking Well

Sound consultant Julian Treasure shares insights into what constitutes good speaking, in both a technical and an ethical sense. Well worth ten minutes of your time.

Church Growth And Discipleship

Alan Hirsch argues that hyperbolic church growth depends on an understanding of Christians being constant disciples, not simply worshippers, attenders, members or consumers.

Outward-Facing Churches


Joining the community

Joining The Community by Susanne Nilsson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Thom Rainer suggests seven powerful habits of outward-focussed churches.

What would be on your list?

Sermon: Acts – Who’s The Governor?

Acts 12:19b-25

Ted Robbins

Ted Robbins by Thwaites Empire Theatre on Flickr. Copyright Mike Johnson Mikeseye Photographic. Some rights reserved.

One of the things about having children is that whether you like it or not, you become acquainted with some of the television programming aimed at them. One of the shows to which I admit a sneaking fondness is called ‘The Slammer’. Ostensibly set in a prison – hence ‘The Slammer’ – inmates can earn early release by performing in a weekly variety show called ‘The Freedom Show’. In reality, these are of course stage acts, and they are participating in a talent show. The children in the audience choose the winner by the loudness of their applause. Those who do not win are condemned to stay and face mealtimes where they always eat the dreaded ‘sloppy poppy porridge’.

‘The Freedom Show’ is compèred by the prison governor, who is imaginatively known as ‘The Governor’, played by the comedy actor Ted Robbins. He is assisted a warder called Mr Burgess, who is like a watered-down version of Fulton Mackay’s character Mr Mackay in Ronnie Barker’s comedy series ‘Porridge’.

However, the Governor wants to be more than a compère. He hankers to be a performer himself, and makes a big entrance to ‘The Freedom Show’ every week, often dressed garishly in clothes such as a yellow dinner jacket and bow tie.

When he comes on, he has a catchphrase. He calls out to the children in the audience, “Who’s the Governor?” and the children shout back, “You’re the Governor!”

I don’t know why it makes me laugh, but it does. Anyway, “Who’s the Governor?” becomes a suitable catchphrase for this sermon. Who’s the Governor – Herod Agrippa or God? Let me place that in context.

Herod Agrippa has just suffered a damaging reverse. Having gained political capital by imprisoning and executing some of the early church leaders, he thought he was onto a winner when he had the apostle Peter put in his ‘slammer’, and scheduled for execution. No long years on Death Row in those days. But Peter had miraculously escaped, and Herod in his temper – having been publicly shown up by the power of God – had the guards executed in a moment of pique. This has come not long after Luke has also recounted in Acts the story of the prophet Agabus foretelling a famine, and the church at Antioch responding by organising a relief collection for the disciples in Judea.

So we’re about to see a contrast between the worst of human rulership and the best of God’s kingly rule. As we do this, we shall learn more how to pray and witness today, even in the face of adversity, and more about the true nature of the God we serve.

Here are three areas of contrast:

Firstly, compassion. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. (Verse 20)

What’s wrong is that in the Hebrew Scriptures, a king was to look after the people. To be in dispute over the need for food was not good. To withhold food even from those of another nation was not normal behaviour for a good king. But the people of Tyre and Sidon need to grovel to get what they need from Herod. This is not right.

We already know that this Herod was a violent man from his treatment of the church leaders, and perhaps this is no surprise for a man who was the grandson of the so-called Herod the Great, the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and who might better be called Herod the Terrible. The Herod of our story, Herod Agrippa, had also been educated in Rome, and was a friend of the Emperor Caligula, to whom he owed his power[1].

We don’t know what this unsavoury ruler was going to do about the request from Tyre and Sidon, because he doesn’t get the chance. All we do know is that he had consciously allowed an unjust situation to develop, and there was only any possibility of resolution because one of his officials, Blastus, had taken a chance. This meeting was not by Herod’s initiative. He had shown no interest in the welfare of these people.

We know enough about heartless tyrants in the history of the world and in current affairs. Starving a population is a tactic both ancient and modern. From ancient Assyria to modern Syria, this is a common practice.

Contrast this with what we have seen in the church not long ago in Acts. The prophet Agabus has appeared on the scene and prophesied a coming famine. But the response of the church is to organise support for those who will suffer the most. It is like a reflex action. Think of Joseph in Genesis storing Egypt’s food in the seven years of plenty before the seven years of famine, and you will see a similar approach.

Esther McVey MP

Esther McVey MP by the Department for Work and Pensions on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

What it comes down to is that while the tyrants of the world starve people into submission, the God of the Bible is compassionate, and his people are called to witness to that compassion by modelling it in their own behaviour. That is why it is good that we hosted the Runnymede Food Bank here for its first two years of existence. That is why it is also good that the growth of the food banks in our country, usually started by Christians, have become an embarrassing indictment against heartless government policies. When we see cases like that of David Clapson, the diabetic ex-soldier who was penalised by a Job Centre for missing an appointment, had his £71.70 benefits stopped, couldn’t then afford food or electricity, and died from a condition resulting from not being able to take his insulin because he couldn’t keep the fridge going, then it’s important that Christians witness to the compassion of God in the face of a serious lack in high places. Earlier this year, Esther McVey MP, the minister for employment, admitted

that the number of sanction referrals made by jobcentre advisers is part of a “variety of performance data” used to monitor their work.

Our witness to the God of compassion, who inspired Joseph to feed Egypt, Agabus to warn the early church, and Jesus to feed the multitudes, is needed more than ever today. How will you do it? Buying supplies for the food bank? Supporting a charity? Directly helping someone in need that you meet? It needs doing.

Who’s the Governor when it comes to compassion?

The second area of contrast is that of authority. There’s no doubt that Herod Agrippa enjoys power. We know what he does with it. It’s no surprise to see that he has an ego to match his sense of self-importance:

On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. 22The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ 23And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Verses 21-23)

Elsewhere in Acts, apostles like Paul are wrongly acclaimed as gods by adoring crowds, but they are always quick to deny it. Herod doesn’t. Was it all too appealing to him? He had turned up dressed in all his splendour, and had done everything to impress the need people of Tyre and Sidon with his status and power. It does him no good.

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The Christian knows that the proper response in times like these is to do what Herod didn’t do, and to give the glory to God (verse 23), like the great Dutch Christian Corrie ten Boom. You may recall her story ‘The Hiding Place’, in which she and her family, including her sister Betsie, sheltered Jews from the Nazis and ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for their troubles, where Betsie died but Corrie survived. Corrie became a popular and famous Christian author and speaker, and as you can imagine, received much adulation. But she had a wise approach to the receipt of compliments: she described a compliment as like a bunch of flowers. She would say, “These smell nice, but they are for you, Lord.”

How might we approach a proper humility, then? There are some behaviours that look like humility, but aren’t. These include the so-called ‘humblebrag’, where we say something great about ourselves, but set it against a self-deprecating comment, yet really we are trying to tell people how wonderful we are. There is the wrong use of the word ‘humbled’ when we actually mean ‘proud’ – for example, “I am so humbled by the number of people who said they liked my sermon last week.” It’s OK to admit to excitement, but let’s not re-label pride as humility. There is the failure to take a compliment when God gave us the gifts – we need to remember Corrie ten Boom’s bouquet of flowers. Or there is the “All the glory goes to the Lord” school of hyper-spiritual sanctimoniousness. Again, Corrie ten Boom had the balance right.

There is a lovely quote from C S Lewis on the subject in his book ‘Mere Christianity’:

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Who’s the Governor when it comes to authority?

The third and final area of contrast is that of judgement.

And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. (Verses 23-24)

Does this sound unlikely to you – that Herod was struck down, eaten by worms, and died? What if I told you that the Jewish historian Josephus records this incident, too? His account is different from Luke’s, but it is complementary. Where Luke says that Herod didn’t give glory to God, Josephus says he failed to rebuke the impious remark. And where Luke says that an angel struck Herod and he was eaten by worms, Josephus tells us that he was struck by severe stomach pains for five days, and then he died.[2] The one who judged violently and unjustly was himself judged.

We know the frustration and horror of looking on while the depraved thrive in power. We can name any number of wicked despots from the present day or the recent past. So too could the biblical authors. They wondered aloud why the wicked prospered, often at the expense of the righteous. They asked why God wasn’t doing anything. And of course we know that Jesus told stories like the parable of the wheat and the tares and the parable of the net which indicated that the separation of the good and the evil would not happen until the last judgement.

Yet here we see an example of judgement being executed in this life. So perhaps this is a time to remember that when we are dealing with the kingdom of God, we speak about it as being both ‘now and not yet’. There is a ‘not yet’ about the kingdom of God in that all will come finally and fully under God’s rule at the end of all things, after the last judgement. But we should not lose sight of there also being a ‘now’ element to God’s kingdom, in that we do see some examples of God reigning in kingly power and overthrowing wickedness, sin, and suffering in our own day and time. That seems to be what the early church witnessed when God sent his angel to strike down Herod Agrippa.

And there are examples from even the darkest times in recent history. Rees Howells, a Welshman deeply affected by the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905, and the founder of the Bible College of Wales, was deeply affected by spiritual awakenings he witnessed as a missionary in southern Africa. During World War Two he was led by Christ into a deep ministry of intercession, which you can read about in the classic book ‘Rees Howells Intercessor’ by Norman Grubb. While some of the story is a little strange, Howells and his colleagues prayed with passion and vigour throughout the war, sensing particular direction from the Holy Spirit at certain times to pray in particular ways for certain specific outcomes. The book is an astonishing account of how God led and answered their prayers, leading eventually to the downfall of the Axis powers. We can talk about the genius of military leaders, the inspiration of politicians, tragic tactical mistakes, and so on. But there is an obscure yet vital story to be made known about the spiritual dimensions of Hitler’s downfall through intense, committed prayer.

Given that, let us not lose hope when we pray for the needs of the world today and every day. We may have to wait, because God’s actions are ‘not yet’, but we never know when he might execute justice ‘now’. So if that is possible, why should we not in prayer ask him to be at work in our time, tipping the thrones of the unjust until they fall from their perches?

Remember this question: who’s the Governor when it comes to judgement?

And more generally, that should be a question to guide our lives: who’s the Governor?

[1] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p 383f.

[2] Op. cit.., p 390.