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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.

Covenant Sermon

This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.

Romans 12:1-2

Introduction
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.

But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.

And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.

How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:

1. Sacrifice
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).

‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?

But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.

‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.

She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.

When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.

‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)

Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.

‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.

There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.

2. Transformation
Verse 2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).

Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.

In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.

So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.

This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?

We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.

But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.

In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.

In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’

And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.

One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’

Conclusion
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.

Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).

This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.