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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.

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Sermon: Unwrapping Discipleship

This Sunday, I get to preach at one of my colleagues’ churches. So I’m reverting to the Lectionary for one week only. There are a few things in this sermon that have appeared before, notably in the first point. Please excuse that if the odd bit is something you’ve read from me before.

Matthew 4:12-23

Both Debbie and I had our main Christmas presents after the big day. I had asked people for money or vouchers that I could put together so I could buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. Debbie followed a similar route, and when she had finally weighed up the options and dismissed the idea of a new phone, she ordered a new camera. Like me, she ordered her present online from Amazon.

Being cheapskates – or as we like to think of it, good stewards – we ordered both products on Amazon’s free Super Saver Delivery. Effectively, that means second class post. Amazon gives you an estimated date by which your order should be with you.

I had ordered my e-reader first. I memorised the due date. I counted down, like a child. The due date came. And went. I phoned the local sorting office to see whether it was there and got a jobsworth who really couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, it turned up two days late, left outside the front door by the postie, even though we weren’t in. Debbie’s camera was a similar story. Apparently it was all down to a backlog they were still trying to clear since the snow of November and December.

We waited for the time of fulfilment and were disappointed. In that respect, we were like the people to whom Jesus came. Matthew tells us that his house move from Nazareth to Capernaum was fulfilment of the prophetic hope (verses 12-16). Just as Debbie and I (OK, particularly I) were wondering when our packages would come from Amazon, so God’s people were wondering when the Messiah would come and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Now, at last, the package arrives, and he’s called Jesus.

So – if the package has arrived, if Jesus the Messiah has come, bringing the kingdom of heaven – what do we do when we unwrap him?

The first action is repentance. The opening tone of Jesus’ message is,

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Verse 17)

What is repentance? We know it has to do with being sorry for our wrongdoings, but there is more to it than that. If it were only feeling sorry but without any change of heart or change of lifestyle, it would only be remorse. And remorse doesn’t change anything – apart from maybe persuading a judge to give a more lenient sentence in response to mitigation.

Repentance is bigger than that. In the Greek of the New Testament and even in English it means ‘a change of mind’. It means to ‘rethink’. Those of you who know French will recognise where the English word ‘repentance’ comes from. Remember penser, to think, so repenser is to rethink, to change your mind. The Greek metanoia is similar. When we repent, we change our minds about the way we live.

It’s like doing a u-turn in a car. We know we are going the wrong way, so we change our minds and our direction. Repentance, then, means a change of mind, so much so that we are sorry enough to change our actions.

So that unpacks one problem we have in understanding repentance. It is not simply being sorry, it is a change of mind that leads to a change in our actions. That is why it is also not the same as condemnation, which simply tells us how terrible we are but leaves us desperate and desolate about ourselves. Repentance brings positive change and hope.

Another problem we have with repentance is that we associate it with conversion and the beginnings of Christian faith, but not always with the ongoing life of Christian discipleship. Yet we do not make all the changes we need to make in our lives all at once, when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t even make all the essential changes before we die.

My point is this: repentance is not a one-off change of direction, it is an ongoing process in our lives. One of my favourite stories to tell about this involves the Local Preacher who was always the most popular preacher among my youth group in the church where I grew up. John Evill was born in Wales in 1902, two years before the Welsh Revival. He preached like the revival was still going on. In one sermon, he asked the congregation: “Have you been converted?” Then he added, “I’ve been converted – many times.” His point wasn’t that he’d regularly slipped back and denied Christ, it was that time and time again Christ had to call him to change.

So it is with repentance. It is a change of mind that leads not simply to one change of action, but to repeated changes of action in our lives, until our dying day. Paul tells the Philippians that God who began a good work in them will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Or, as the t-shirt slogan puts it:

Please be patient with me. God hasn’t finished with me yet.

When we unwrap the kingdom Jesus brings, then, the first thing it involves is a lifestyle of ongoing change, reorientating ourselves to the ways of God from our selfish ways.

The second thing we do when we unwrap the Jesus package is we follow. Having turned around, we now start positively and actively going in our new direction, the direction in which Jesus is travelling. To Simon Peter and Andrew, he says,

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. (Verse 19)

Then he calls James and John and we read,

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Verse 22)

I find the nature of Jesus calling these fishermen to follow him utterly amazing. For one thing, I am staggered by their immediate decision to leave their family businesses and go with him. Some people have said that they may already have known Jesus in the area, but it’s still quite a decision to go off like that. Why would they do it?

Here’s one theory. As I’m sure you know, it was common practice for Jewish rabbis to call certain young men to follow them, learn their teaching and emulate their lifestyles. However, they tended to pick the cream of the crop, those who showed promise from a young age. If you got as far as getting into regular work – as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John had – then you certainly weren’t among the elite. You were among the rejected. You were among those who were not considered up to the task of following a religious master.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls these men. To him, they are not rejects, they are people who are every bit as capable of following him as anybody else. Why? Because – as the old catchphrase puts it – it’s not your ability that matters, it’s your availability. You don’t need great gifts and talents in order to follow Jesus, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to him. And that’s what these four guys do.

So imagine you are one of them. Imagine you have been passed over by other rabbis as not good enough. Now this one comes along when you are at an age when you no longer think such an opportunity exists and he says to you, “Follow me.” What does that do for your self-esteem? I like to imagine the four young men striding off from their boats with their heads held high and their chests puffed out.

Translate that into our church context. One of the things that saddens me as a minister is the time many church members speak of how inferior they feel to ministers. “You can do {X, Y, Z] because you’re more learned than me,” some say. However, in Jesus’ eyes, it’s not the alphabet soup I have after my name because I spent six years studying Theology that matters. It’s whether I say ‘yes’ to Jesus. I hope I can bring benefits to people by sharing my learning. But what matters in the end is one simple matter that puts everybody on an equal following, regardless of gifts, talents, opportunities, wealth or privilege. It’s this: will we say ‘yes’ to Jesus? All we need to be concerned about today is whether we are saying ‘yes’ to him in the places where he is calling us to follow him.

The third way we unwrap Jesus is by imitation. Hear again the final verse in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Verse 23)

The playwright Murray Watts tells a yarn that might explain how some of us feel about this verse:

An evangelist was so successful, he converted his own horse. He decided to develop his ministry with animals and took his horse to market, to exchange it for another. A farmer came riding along, on a very old horse, and the evangelist begged him to swap animals. The farmer looked at the fine fettle of the evangelist’s horse and agreed, delighted with his bargain. As he mounted his new steed, the evangelist explained to him about the horse’s religious zeal. The farmer looked at him incredulously.

‘It’s no good shouting “giddyup!” or “whoa, there, boy!”’ the evangelist went on. ‘To start, you have to shout, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” and to stop you have to shout, “Amen!”’

The farmer now realised that he was dealing with a nutcase, but he decided to humour him. The horse was in excellent condition and he accepted. As the evangelist trotted away on the famer’s ageing horse, the farmer shouted ‘Giddyup thar!’ to his steed. There was no reaction. He whipped the horse, but there was still no reaction.

‘Go on tharr! Get going!’ he screamed, digging in his heels. The horse refused to budge. The farmer scratched his head.

‘Perhaps that old preacher wasn’t so crazy after all,’ he thought, ‘oh well, no harm in trying.’ He took a deep breath and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah!’ Immediately the horse galloped off. The astonished farmer clung on for dear life as it sped along the road.

‘Whatever its religious quirks,’ he mused, ‘this is some horse!’ On and on the pious creature went, crossing fields, jumping gates. At last, hearing the sound of the sea in the distance, the farmer knew they were approaching the cliffs of Dover.

‘Whoaa there, boy!’ he called. ‘Whoaa there!’ He yanked the reins. The horse sped on regardless. ‘Silly me,’ thought the farmer, ‘I’ve got to say that special word.’

‘Blessing!’ he shouted. ‘No, that’s wrong. Faith!!’ he called, urgently. ‘No, that’s not right either.’

The sound of the sea came nearer, and try as he might, the farmer could not remember the right religious word. Suddenly, within yards of the cliff edge, he remembered.

‘AMEN!!’ he screamed. The horse stopped, inches to spare. The farmer mopped his brow and, lifting his eyes to heaven in gratitude, murmured, ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!’[1]

Maybe when we hear that Jesus went around preaching, teaching and healing, and when we realise that the call of the disciple is to imitate the teacher, we might feel like we are riding an out-of-control horse. Are we about to go over a cliff?

Disciples of a Jewish rabbi knew their call was to imitate the way their master lived. Some took that to considerable extremes, and if I mentioned specifics some of you might cry out that modern cliché, ‘Too much information!’[2]

So those first disciples of Jesus, watching him teach, preach and heal would have been making mental notes. This was their vocation, too.

But it contains scary aspects for us. Some of us are nervous about ‘proclaiming’ our faith. We would not feel able to ‘teach’ the faith. And as for healing people, well where do we begin?

I think there are two keys to embracing this. The first is to recognise that when we become disciples of Jesus, then we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. And the Holy Spirit brings all sorts of gifts to us that we did not previously have. If we are open to the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then we shall find ourselves equipped for Jesus-like tasks that we would otherwise be unable to do.

The other key is this. Only together are we the Body of Christ. You will contribute some gifts towards copying the ministry of Jesus. Your friend will offer other gifts. I will bring different gifts of the Spirit.

So yes, imitating the ministry of Christ is daunting – but only if we view it purely humanly. If we put ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, all sorts of things become possible that previously were never even on the radar of our imagination.

Let’s pray.


[1] Murray Watts, Rolling In The Aisles, p 90f, story 153.

[2] See Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus.