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Sermon: Acts – Explain Yourself!

Acts 11:1-18

Light bulb

Light Bulb by JohnPoulos on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many Christians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Three, but they are really one.

How many agnostics does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Agnostics question the existence of the light bulb.

How many fundamentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
THE BIBLE * DOES * NOT * SAY * ANYTHING * ABOUT LIGHT BULBS![1]

And finally … how many Methodists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Change? What’s this word ‘change’?

Change is what our Bible readings these last three Sundays have been making us think about. Peter the Jewish apostle had to contemplate change in order to take the message of Jesus to Cornelius the Roman centurion. Cornelius had to consider change, because although he was a good man who believed in God, he needed more. Now, after Peter’s visit to Cornelius, where God has brought about dramatic change by the Holy Spirit, he is interrogated in Jerusalem who have heard about the incident on the grapevine and don’t like it:

‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’ (Verse 3)

So what if you’re like these people, not involved in the big change at the time but coming to it second hand at a later date? What if, like these people, you are among those who has to consider whether a change is good or not? How do you judge it? What if your minister or your Church Council say to the congregation, “Such-and-such is the way we should go,” but it all sounds rather flaky to you. What would a good response look like?

After all, it’s easy to judge a proposed change based on your instinctive temperament. You may have heard it said that when a group of people is faced with a proposal for change, they fall roughly into four groups:

  • The radicals, who want change, and today would be too late. Yesterday would be preferable;
  • The progressives, whose natural instinct is for change, but who may not be as extreme as the radicals;
  • The conservatives, who would prefer not to change. However, if you can make a good case, then they will happily go along with it;
  • The traditionalists, who will not change at any price.

The traditionalists are rather like the Anglican church warden who had been in office for forty years when the bishop met him one day on a visit to the church.

The bishop said, “You must have seen a lot of changes here during your forty years.”

“Yes,” replied the church warden, “and I’ve opposed every one of them!”

Listen

Listen by Ky on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

So, then, if you are not the first to hear the news, how do you respond toproposed change? The first constructive thing the Jerusalem disciples did was to listen.

I get the impression that when they say to Peter, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them,’ it’s a rather hostile, aggressive, accusing question. I say that because Peter’s speech in response exhibits all the classic signs of an ancient defence speech. He quotes the testimony of witnesses, the evidence of signs, and concludes with a rhetorical question.[2]

But to their credit, ‘the circumcised believers’ (verse 2, as Luke describes them) do not interrupt or hassle Peter. They listen carefully to his speech. We can be grateful that for all their initial antagonism, they are not the sort of people we sometimes find in our churches and in the wider world whose motto could be, ‘I’ve made my mind up, so don’t confuse me with the facts.’ You know the sort of person who only listens to a contrary view with the greatest of reluctance. Perhaps they are actually afraid that if they listen, the truth will persuade them they are wrong and they will have to change when that is the last thing they want to do.

Not the Jerusalem disciples, though. Sceptical they may be, but their actions show they want to go in the direction of God’s truth. And since a major part of that discernment process will be to detect where God is already at work, they devote themselves to listening to Peter.

So how good are we at listening to others in order to perceive the work of God? It requires above all that we have a heart and mind that is committed to finding the will of God and following it. Sadly, there are people in our churches who are too embedded to the traditions they love that they will not take the holy risk of listening. I suggest that such people probably love their traditions more than they love God.

Or there are those of us who prefer the sound of our own voices to those of others. We have an inbuilt pride that assumes God is more likely to speak through us than through other Christians, and so we don’t invest time and energy in listening to others.

Rather, listening is an act that honours other people. What they claim to be an account of God at work is worthy of our attention. We grant them dignity is people made in the image of God and called to be servants of God by giving them our time and concentration.

Critiquing Eyes

Critiquing Eyes by David Goehring on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Note that in all this I am not saying that listening should be naïve and uncritical. It certainly should not be the kind of exercise where we absorb everything that is said without filtering it. That is why the second element of responding toproposed change is to discern.

Here’s where I see discernment going on in the story. Peter does something very modest in his speech. He omits all reference to the sermon he preached – he is not claiming that the conversion of the Gentiles is his work. Instead, as he prepares to tell his listeners about how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household, he substitutes for his sermon the words of Jesus:

John baptised with water, but you will be baptised withthe Holy Spirit. (Verse 16)

Now these words of Jesus were originally aimed at his disciples, not later Gentiles, but Peter clearly sees an applicable parallel. He knows how the words were fulfilled at Pentecost, and he has just seen something similar at Caesarea. The words of Jesus are an appropriate interpretation of the recent ground-breaking events he has witnessed.

What does this have to do with discernment? These words of Jesus, taken by Peter to support a valid interpretation of the spiritual experience in question, are the decisive matter for ‘the circumcised believers’. Now they know that what they are hearing about from the apostle fits within the grand sweep of God’s purposes, because they fulfil a great biblical theme. Later in Acts the believers in the town of Berea will test what they encounter against the Scriptures, so here the listeners don’t even have to search the Scriptures themselves, a relevant one is given to them on a plate by Peter. Not only that, it fulfils ancient prophecies in which Israel is called to be a light to the nations. The call that Jonah ran away from is embraced here.

The test of discernment, then, is whether what they hear in their concentrated listening constitutes something that is in harmony with the great purposes of the God who sent his Son and later sent his Spirit.

We, too, would do well to engage in a similar approach to discernment. If something is being proposed, it will not be something with a proof text we can find in the Bible – and let’s remember how the various disciples in Acts underwent vastly different fates. Some survived and were honoured; others suffered; still others were martyred. So with varying destinies in this life, we can hardly take the proof text approach.

But what we can do is ask whether what is being proposed fits harmoniously in with what we know of God’s great story, his grand narrative of salvation. Does the proposal honour Jesus Christ? These should be the ways in which we discerningly evaluate whether to accept the suggested change. What we should not do is merely evaluate according to our own tastes and preferences.

Praise God

Praise God by Tim Shields on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Finally, there is a third characteristic of responding to calls for change, but it is one that only comes into play if the first two stages – the listening and the discerning – have been passed positively. If the proposal has been filtered out by those two, then what I am about to talk about does not apply. So – if the proposal for change has met the tests, this third element is praise. Hear the final verse of the reading again:

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ (Verse 18)

What a transformation this is for the Jerusalem disciples, who began this dialogue with a sceptical, even hostile question. The aggression has gone, and now we have worship. Division has been averted, and we have a heightened sense of unity among the believers. There is a great opportunity now for the early church to take giant strides forward, not only with those who could have been at odds united, but also with an expansion to include the Gentiles.

Nothing energises the Church of Jesus Christ like a united sense of joy in his purposes, and delight in the God who calls us to be his worshippers, disciples, and witnesses. Holding onto what we’ve got because we feel the need always to defend the old ways will not lead us into joy and praise, because it will only inculcate in us a grim defensiveness like Canute vainly telling the waves to retreat. And changing just for the sake of change will not lead us to deeper and truer praise, either, because all that will do is make us into flaky fly-by-night characters.

No: true praise bursts out from among us when we detect God taking us back in a fresh way to his ancient plans and purposes. Praise comes when we sense that God is doing something new among us, something new that is yet also compatible with all he has revealed about himself in the past.

What is our corporate voice as a church? Is it one of joy and praise, because we are committed to going forward in the purposes of God? Or do we have an uncertain voice, because we have not made up our minds whether we are serious about following God’s will rather than our own self-indulgences? Or is there a heaviness among us, because we fill our time with criticising one another or taking pot-shots at all our petty hates?

Or do we have a heart as big as the world, a heart that therefore embraces God’s love for all creation, where he longs to do his transforming work, and to which end he desires to change us first so that we might be suitable vessels for his purposes?

 

[1] The first three light bulb jokes are taken from http://txipl.org/lightbulbjokes

[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts Of The Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p363.

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Sermon: Elizabeth And Mary – Gospel Women

Luke 1:39-56

For weeks now, the shops have had a soundtrack of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. (Or is it months? It feels like it.) Slade with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, Wizzard singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Elton John inviting us to ‘Step Into Christmas’, Wham recalling ‘Last Christmas’, and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ now soundtracking mass consumption rather than relief for the poor.

Oh – and Johnny Mathis crooning ‘When A Child Is Born’. Musically it’s not my taste, but he sings of the hope that a child’s birth will bring. And as Christians we think of the particular hope brought by the infant Jesus.

Not that the announcement of a pregnancy or a birth is joy for everyone. Debbie and I know how carefully we had to release the news of her pregnancies for the sake of dear friends who had been unable to have children, and it was only right we tried to be sensitive about that.

However, when Mary and Elizabeth get together for their first-century NCT ante-natal meeting, the vibes are all positive. Not because both pregnant women are merely excited about the prospects of motherhood, but because both prophetically know something about the significance of their forthcoming arrivals. It is those responses I want us to think about this morning.

The first response is joy. Being six years older than my sister, I have a few memories of when my mother was expecting her. One is of how Mum invited me to put my ear to her tummy to hear the baby. Unfortunately, all my ear got was a kick from the womb!

Elizabeth feels John not kick but leap in her womb when Mary arrived and greeted her (verse 44). Elizabeth herself is filled with joy in her own response to Mary. She is filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 41) and says, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (verse 42). None of this is to give Mary some unique status, for Mary only sees herself as a humble servant of the Lord. But it is to illustrate the great joy that surrounds the forthcoming arrival of God’s Son in the world.

Joy, however, is not always our instant reaction to Christmas. Either we witness alcohol-powered celebrations, or our to-do list becomes so crowded with writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting decorations down from the loft and a hundred other things that the simple joy of Christ’s coming is squeezed out of us. For me, if it’s a Christmas with a lot of church services, I can just get to Christmas afternoon and collapse. Not that two young children, and one big kid of a wife want me to!

However, in this story, Elizabeth and her unborn son bring us back to the source of true joy:

The attitude of Elizabeth is representative of what Luke desires in any believer. What a joy to share in the events associated with Jesus. What a joy to share life with him.[1]

We too ‘share in the events associated with Jesus’ and ‘share life with him’. For although we do not feature on the pages of Holy Writ with him, we are part of his ongoing story. The invitation to faith is an invitation to share in the story of God through Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of sharing life with him, because he came, because he called us and because he sent the Spirit.

So perhaps the Christmas story is a time to recover the joy at the heart of faith in Jesus. it’s a fair criticism that many churches seem devoid of joy, even when you account for the fact that not everybody expresses joy in a loud, exuberant way.

Now I can’t somehow command people to be joyful – although in various places Scripture certainly exhorts us to have joy. But what I can suggest is that we take time this Christmas simply to meditate on the great story of Christ’s coming again. As we dwell on it, unwrapped from the paper and the tinsel, we shall find our sense of wonder being renewed, and with it the joy that the coming Christ has made us part of God’s story of salvation. How astonishing is it that God took on human flesh?

Martin Freeman, the actor best known for his portrayal of Tim in ‘The Office’, has recently appeared in a film called ‘Nativity!’ It’s a comedy based on a nativity play at a primary school. In an interview to promote the movie, Freeman said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that in the Christmas story greatness is expressed in humility. He couldn’t think of a better story. To my knowledge Martin Freeman is not a Christian, but if he can get excited by the nativity, surely we can recover a spirit of joy, too?

The second response is faith. In her final words attributed to her in the story, Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Verse 45)

Mary is blessed in this sense: she is

‘happy because God has touched [her] life. Such divine benefit rains down on those who trust him and his promises. Blessing emerges from God’s ability to bring his promises to completion, but to share the benefits, we must be confident that God does what he says. The first sign of such faith in Mary was her willingness to let God use her (v 38). The second was her immediate (hurried) visit to Elizabeth, who herself served as a sign that God keeps his word and can give life (vv 36, 39).’[2]

Elizabeth and Mary are both examples of faith because they trust God’s word. He will fulfil his promises. They act accordingly, and such is Christmas faith. Our faith is not merely to ‘ooh and aah’ at a newborn baby. It is to stake our lives on God’s promises.

If that is the case, then how crazy it is to celebrate Christmas with schmaltz and sentimentality. If a true Christmas response is about faith in the promises of God, then our celebration should surely be marked with acts of daring belief in our God, because he has spoken and he will deliver on what he has said. Here, there and everywhere in the Christian Church we seem to have contracted a disease which makes us play safe all the time. We are like the man with the one talent who buried, rather than those with more who risked all in the name of serving their master.

For if with joy we have been incorporated into the story of God by the gift of Christ, then one consequence is surely to start going out on the edge for him. Not just for the sake of it, I mean, but because that is what God did for us in the Incarnation: he went out on the edge.

Many of our churches are dying of good taste, where everything has to be ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We’re doomed by a combination of Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘Insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result’ – and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – except it is broke. Isn’t it time for daring faith in Christ who took the risk of human flesh?

So perhaps we could give Jesus a Christmas present. We could be willing to go out on a limb for him. Not just for the sake of it – otherwise it’s like the temptation he faced in the wilderness to thrown himself from the Temple – but actually to get on with listening to the promises of God and then get on with risky faith.

The third and final response is one of praise. Mary’s great response is praise, and it comes to us in the form of the song we call ‘The Magnificat’. But what kind of praise does she offer?

Put simply, Mary praises God for his works of salvation, and she does so comprehensively. She covers his salvation in the past, present and future – in the past with God’s people, in the present as he is at work in her, in the future as people recall what he has done in her and with all who revere him. She celebrates God’s grace and mercy to those who humbly trust him, and his justice against the rich and proud.

There is so much we could draw from Mary’s song of praise, and I, like many other preachers, have preached whole sermons just on the Magnificat in the past. But for this morning, let me just be content to say that a key aspect of Mary’s praise is that she praises God for his mighty deeds.

Maybe you think that’s unremarkable. So what? Let me suggest that sometimes we base our praise of God on other criteria. How often is our praised based on our feelings? We praise, depending on whether we feel up or down about God, faith or life in general. If our circumstances are good, we feel inclined to worship. If we are down in the dumps, we may not think about praising God.

But what Mary shows us is that God is worthy of praise purely on the basis of his deeds – what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Worship may be emotional, or it may not. But regardless of our feelings, God is worthy of praise. ‘I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,’ said the Psalmist. It’s why we rehearse the story of salvation from creation to the Cross and on to the return of Christ when we say the Thanksgiving Prayer in Holy Communion.

God has done great things. He is still doing great things. He will continue to do great things. Sometimes the thought of this will stir our hearts and we will be lifted to raptures. Other times we won’t, but our praise will be no less genuine, because we are giving God the praise due to his name as an act of obedient faith. It may well be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ on those occasions, but it is true praise when we choose to acknowledge the truth of God’s mighty deeds in Christ.

So if this Christmas you are feeling disheartened about your faith, it may be an act of faith to choose to praise God. Meditate on his creation, his persistent wooing of a wayward humanity, leading to him sending his Son, who one day will rule the created order unchallenged. You may or may not feel any different for doing so. But you will find your perspective on life more truly aligned with God’s.

And that is good. It’s what the Christmas message and the entire Gospel does.


[1] Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p44.

[2] Ibid.