Our Off-Road Faith
On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high priestly descent. When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?”
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead–by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:5-12
Intro: I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine
He’s a good person – very perceptive and compassionate
– he is a man of God – and someone who needs order in his life
• he likes things neat and tidy and for day to be arranged
– for awhile, he was responsible for grandson one day a week
• he found arranging a schedule for a three-year-old a difficult project
◦ when he asked his wife for help, she told him, “Just take him out and go have an adventure”
• this isn’t babysitting – it is entering the world of a grandchild
◦ seeing through his or her eyes
◦ it is remembering how to have fun and how to be amazed
God doesn’t babysit us – he enters our circumstances
– he says, “Let’s have ourselves an adventure. Let’s find out where this road takes us”
• a highly structured, tightly controlled Christianity isn’t an adventure
◦ a Christianity consisting of cliches isn’t an adventure
◦ an excessively emotional Christianity isn’t the adventure we’re after
– an adventure is entering and exploring the unknown
• it is risk and challenge, hardship and danger,
◦ it thrill and accomplishment (at least the accomplishment of overcoming our fear)
• Christianity was meant to be an adventure
◦ why do you think Paul told us to put on armor?
The Christians in Jerusalem, directed and moved by the Spirit, were discovering the adventure
– they were willing to learn where the road they were on would lead them by taking it
– as to God’s will, they were learning it by living it
The road they were on led them into trouble
Trouble with the authorities isn’t adventure we hope to have
– v. 2, the “Sadducees” had a vested interest in the message of resurrection (v. 1 & cf. 23:8)
• they also had a majority position of influence in Israel’s religion and political structure
– the opposition of the Council (or Sanhedrin, v. 15) posed a significant danger
• they were the end of Jesus’ ministry
There are significant parallels between the interrogation and Luke 20
First, in Jerusalem Jesus’ authority was also questioned by priests, scribes and elders
Tell us, by what authority You are doing these things, or who gave You this authority? (Lk. 20:2)
Old Dogs and New Tricks
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer. And a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb was being carried along, whom they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, in order to beg alms of those who were entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms.
But Peter along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!” And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene–walk!” And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up, and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.
And all the people saw him walking and praising God; and they were taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the temple to beg alms, and they were all filled with wonder and amazement. Acts 3:1-10
Intro: Acts chapter 3 follows the pattern of chapter 2
It begins with a miracle and the miracle draws public attention
– the general reaction is wonder and amazement
• then Peter delivers a speech that provides a context for the miracle
◦ his central theme is Jesus Christ — and the name of Jesus
• the point of all this is that God calls the crowd to himself through Jesus
– but unlike chapter 2, in this episode there’s a complication
• after the speech, Peter and John are taken into custody
• and this complication is carried over into the next chapter
Let’s move in for a closer look
Archaeologists have excavated stairs leading to the temple mount
– this was the southern entrance and the primary approach for most people
• the stairway is broad enough to accommodate hundreds of people coming and going
◦ nearby shops provided items needed for worship
◦ and a number of small pools served for ritual cleansing
• there’s no doubt Jesus and his disciples walked these steps
◦ this is where I imagine Peter and John encountering the beggar
◦ it is easy to see why invalids would come here to beg
– Peter and John were not going to the temple to preach or make a scene
• it is likely that “the hour of prayer” was becoming a routine in their new life
• I would assume that they had seen this man before, since he was a regular there
◦ it is also possible that they seldom noticed him or the many other beggars
◦ they all blended into the background scenery one passed to get to the temple
Luke’s phrase “from his mother’s womb” prohibits clinical detachment
– it is more intimate than “congenital” or “from birth”
• it triggers different sentiments, combining hope and heartache,
◦ maternal nurture and a cruel fate, a loving biological bond and a systems failure
• that every day he was “carried” and “set down” there casts him in an infant-like state
◦ still dependent on others — though he was more than forty years old (4:22)
– I wonder if as a child, this beggar ever envied the kids who could run and jump
Going on with Peter and John, the story becomes uncomfortable
Seasoned beggars can pick out compassionate, empathetic people
– perhaps he recognized these qualities in Peter and John and called to them
• when Peter heard him, he “fixed his gaze on him”
• this is something you never do
◦ first, disabled do not like to be stared at — they want normal treatment
◦ second, it’s harder to look a needy person in the eye and say no
– for a moment, the air is electric with nervous tension
The Church Catches Fire
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we we were born?” Acts 2:1-8
Intro: In 1965 Harvey Cox published The Secular City
As if reporting confirmed facts, he declared the end of religion
– explored possibilities for theology in a godless world
• in the not to distant future, churches would no longer exist
– in 1995, Cox published Fire From Heaven
• in this work he reported the vitality of Pentecostal religion
◦ his research included visiting churches, “revival” meetings and interviews
• it is a warm, thoughtful and insightful work
◦ in the preface, Cox reflects on his earlier sociological and theological influences
“Perhaps I was too young and impressionable when the scholars made those sobering projections. In any case I had swallowed them all too easily and had tried to think about what their theological consequences might be. But it had now become clear that the predictions themselves had been wrong.”
◦ the vitality of Pentecostal faith was evidence of how wrong they were
Pentecostal religion doesn’t prove God exists
– it proves that religious beliefs and fervent devotion are still alive for some people
• but to me it makes sense God’s light would radiate from this corner of Christendom
– the modern Pentecostal movement was all about fire and and heat
• it grew out of a strong belief that Acts 2:
◦ is a record of literal history
◦ and the phenomena reported still occurs in the lives of believers
We’re not told where this occurred, but it was a large enough space for celebration
– it was also large enough to accommodate onlookers
• though it’s likely that the crowd spilled out into the streets
(Notice how the repeated use of “and” links each statement in the first four verses, speeding up the action and intensifying the drama. The text does not slow down until the crowd really begins to wonder what is happening and then moves very slowly when they list the various regions associated with the “dialects” they heard.)
it began with the sound of a violent storm
• there was no gale force wind, just the sound
• the sound was followed by fire–or what looked like fire
• then whatever was happening hit the apostles and others who were there
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
◦ that is when they started speaking in tongues
◦ and this has been the hallmark of Pentecostal religion
I don’t want to get distracted by speaking in tongues (it’s been a big distraction)
– either they spoke languages they had never learned
• or they spoke gibberish that was (miraculously) understood by bystanders
– an act of God, like tower of Babel, but reversal of it
• instead of many languages resulting in confusion, they communicated one message
• “the magnificent things of God”
Luke leaves no room for guess-work regarding the response of onlookers
– they were “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed & astonished” (v. 7)
• and “continued in amazement and great perplexity” (v. 12)
“This Is What Was Spoken Of”
The events reported in the second chapter of Acts on the “day of Pentecost” (one of Israel’s annual feasts) is central to the church’s mission. For that reason, we need to pay careful attention to these spectacular phenomena. The Spirit of God came crashing into the bodies of Jesus’ followers, setting the church apart from any previous work that God had done on earth within a human community.
To fully appreciate this world-changing moment requires more biblical background than we have time to cover in our Sunday morning meeting, so this summary is intended to give you an idea of the deep roots these strange events had in the Old Testament.
The Wistful Prayer of Moses
God told Moses to appoint seventy leaders to assist him in the daunting task of taking the horde of Israelite refugees through the desert. The Lord explained that he would place his same Spirit that inspired and empowered Moses on these men. This meant they too would be divinely energized and directed by God.
When “the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again” (Nu. 11:16-25). In instances such as this, the English word prophesy can be misleading. We equate prophesy with words, either spoken or written. But the Hebrew word, as it is used in Old Testament Scriptures, can refer to the experience of a specific moment of inspiration in which God’s divine energy was released into the world through a human person. This inspiration empowers a number of different activities, including those performed by musicians–cf. 1 Chr. 25:1-3, where prophecy is connected with the playing of lyres, harps and cymbals.
That the leaders Moses appointed to assist him experienced prophecy only this one time and “did not do it again,” most likely served to validate the ongoing inspiration of God’s Spirit that would enable them to perform their duties.
For some reason, two men who were on the list of leaders were running late and failed to reach God’s sacred tent in time to join the others. Nevertheless, when the Spirit rested on the sixty-eight, he fell upon these two men as well. While on their way and still in the camp (among the people), they also began to prophesy. Joshua found this offensive and recommended to Moses that he “restrain them.” Moses, however, replied:
Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them! (Nu. 11:27-29)
Apparently, until that moment the experience of God’s Spirit coming on a person in power was unique to Moses. Later on, Joshua is also described as being “filled with the Spirit” (De. 34:9). Otherwise, the experience of being supernaturally energized by the Holy Spirit was not a national privilege but the exclusive experience of specific people.
Who Else Experienced God’s Spirit In this Way?
Short answer: Anyone who had a significant role in the life of Israel, including political, military and spiritual leaders. Also anyone whose participation in worship was of special interest to God. The list includes:
- Artisans and craftsmen who constructed God’s sacred tent with all its furnishings and decorations (Ex. 35:30-35).
- People who served as Israel’s judges–i.e., interim leaders whom God used to rescue Israel from foreign invaders and oppressors (Jdg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:26, etc.)
- Israel’s first two kings (1 Sam. 10:6–and notice that like Moses’ leaders, Saul also “prophesied”–; 1 Sam. 16:13).
- The prophets of Israel (2 Chr. 24:20-21; Eze. 11:5; Mic. 3:5-8, etc.).
Old Testament theologian, Walther Eichrodt, observed that God’s formation of a people devoted to him entailed “the emergence of specially equipped men and women whose leadership in word and deed . . . dragged the dull mass of the people with them, again and again smashing and sweeping away all the obstacles . . . raised against them.” And further on:
“Looking back, we may describe the overall spiritual pattern of classical prophecy as that of a dynamic power released by a new sense of the reality of God. This dynamic, invading Israelite life and thought with overwhelming force, sweeps away all that is stagnant, and unleashes a forward movement which can no longer be restrained, and which, once in full career, pauses for nothing.”
George Ladd commented: “The most notable work of the Spirit in the Old Testament was an ‘official ministry’, i.e., the Spirit endowed certain people because they filled particular offices . . . . The symbol of this official impartation of the Spirit was the anointing with oil.”
And William Barclay wrote, “. . . the fact remains that in general the work of the Spirit is connected with the extraordinary and the abnormal. The experience of the Spirit [in the Old Testament] is not an experience for the common man or the everyday.” It was, instead, reserved for special people appointed to fulfill specific tasks.
A Prophetic Twist
The prophet Joel delivered God’s word to Israel in a time when the nation’s agriculture was being ravaged by locusts. Although the people shared in the blame for their desperate condition, there was a radiant hope on the horizon:
It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29)
Joel’s prophecy almost sounds like a response to Moses’ prayer, that all God’s people would be filled with his Spirit and prophesy. That this outpouring of God’s Spirit would include even children and slaves–society’s least valued members– stresses the universal nature of this promised gift. The destiny of God’s people was to become a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), a nation devoted to God’s work, empowered by his Spirit.
Now We Come to Acts Chapter 2
When the disciples experienced the phenomena of the Spirit during Pentecost, the crowd that formed around the believers were astonished and perplexed. When Peter stood up to explain what they were witnessing, he used terms that were familiar to them, quoting from their scriptures and specifically citing the words of Joel that we just read. He introduced the quotation by informing them, “this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel.” The promised future had arrived and it was happening before their eyes.
The amazing exploits and inspired writings associated with people like Moses, Samson, David, and Jeremiah were extended to all of Jesus’ followers. The work of the Spirit that William Barclay described as “abnormal” and “extraordinary” was being experienced by normal, ordinary men and women. Unbelievable, right?
A few years ago, Clark Pinnock wrote:
“Evangelical religion in our day had tended to become overly intellectualized . . . . We have become insecure in the presence of the strange, paralogical powers of the free, dynamic Spirit. And instead of lamenting our deficiency we have sought to restrict the outpouring of the Spirit to the first century so as to direct attention away from our own spiritual poverty.”
Theoretically, all Christians are special people appointed to a specific task–the task of giving testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. We are empowered to let the world know that Jesus is alive by telling them how he has worked in our lives. Those times in which we are filled with God’s Spirit gives our words greater force and effectiveness.
A Satellite View of Acts
My intention here is not to provide background information or a structured outline of Acts like you could easily obtain from a study Bible, commentary or find online. Instead, I want us to enter Acts with a general idea of where it will take us. In my first talk I suggest a reasonable plot for the story that Acts tells. The ongoing tension that recurs in almost every episode carries the narrative from beginning to end.
Dear Theophilus (Acts 1:1, The Message Bible)
The Book of Acts is the second installment of a two volume work (the Gospel of Luke being Volume I). The opening chapters of Luke and Acts share certain similarities. The obvious one is that both are addressed to Theophilus. Others similarities include:
- Predictions regarding what is soon to occur and specific instructions.
- The ministry of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus Christ.
- Someone is or will be “filled with the Spirit.”
- The presence of Mary (at the birth of Jesus and the birth of the church).
- A period of forty days preparation before Jesus began his ministry and again following the conclusion his ministry (Lk. 4:1-13; Acts 1:3).
Although Acts is the only New Testament book to report events after the life of Jesus, what Luke recorded was not strictly history.
Biblical scholars have tried to identify the class of literature that would best describe Acts (including one suggestion that compared it to a “television documentary like 60 Minutes”). Why is this important? Because genre affects how we read a book (fiction, biography, poetry, etc.).
For our purposes, we will treat Acts as a sacred text. Perhaps Luke knew it would be read as scripture–in the same way he and his contemporaries heard God’s Spirit speaking “through the mouth of David” (Acts 1:16; 4:25). This is consistent with Paul’s view, that God granted apostles and prophets new revelations to make known his inclusion of Gentiles in the promise of Jesus Christ (Ep. 3:3-7). Luke may have been called to such a role.
Acts may employ a number of well-known literary conventions, but it was not bound to any one formula.
Key Words and Ideas
There is a great deal of activity and far-reaching movement in Acts. Nevertheless, the action tends to swirl around specific themes. Typically, two or more themes will overlap as the stories unfold.
- Jesus Christ–and the “name” of Jesus.
- The “witness” that Jesus’ disciples both became and gave (to his ongoing life and work through resurrection).
- The Holy Spirit, who empowers the disciples to be witnesses.
- The gospel and the word that is proclaimed everywhere.
- The kingdom of God–an important piece of the gospel message.
- Rejoicing and joy as a frequent response when the word of God takes root in a community, family or individual life.
- Old Testament quotations, which inform decisions made by the apostles and that are used to explain the person of Jesus as well as to understand the phenomena they experience.
Acts is a book of stories, usually told in clusters, in which one event leads to the next. However, Luke does not always create a link between clusters or even between one story and the next, yet he is able to do this without breaking the book’s forward momentum.
Like Acts, Luke’s gospel also created a sense of events being driven forward (in that case, by the emphasis Jesus placed on getting to Jerusalem (e.g., Lk. 9:51; 13:32-35). In fact, the book of Luke begins and ends in Jerusalem (in the temple). Acts, however, begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome.
We can identify in Acts critical stages of change and spiritual development in the communal life of Jesus’ followers:
- A shift from Jerusalem as the center to churches in Gentile cities. This is especially evident in the way Antioch becomes a hub for Gentile ministry and mission. In Acts as well as his letters, Paul seems intent on decentralizing Christianity by creating independent churches over which elders were appointed (Acts 14:23) and that operated under the guidance and authority of itinerant apostles and prophets. We may notice that in Acts Paul’s encounters with leadership in Jerusalem did not always go well.
- A shift from Peter as the movement’s leader in Jerusalem to James being in charge. Perhaps this is the price Peter paid for his ministry to Gentiles.
- A shift from the church as a Jewish sect to a religion with a Gentile majority. Interestingly, the radical communal life of Jerusalem believers in the early chapters of Acts was not duplicated in Gentile churches.
At Peace With Waiting
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up into heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.
Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Acts 1:1-8 (chapter 1)
Intro: We have in the New Testament four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus
But his story does not end with the gospels
– this point is made explicit in last verses of Matthew and Luke (Mark leaves us in suspense)
• John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ conversations with the disciples to get them ready
– the book of Acts is the continuation of the gospel story
• and when we get to final chapter of Acts, we’ll see there is room to add more chapters
If like the Gospels Acts is a story, what is the plot?
– as I see it, the tension that runs through the book is this:
• will this venture that grew out of the ministry of Jesus succeed or be derailed by humans?
• we’ll see that the movement is threatened by
◦ conflicts instigated by enemies on the outside
◦ poor decisions or wrong actions initiated by believers from within
– chapters 1 and 2 narrate the transition from Jesus’ ministry to the Spirit’s ministry
Let’s walk through the first chapter
Like the gospel of Luke, Acts is addressed to Theolphilus
– I don’t doubt Theophilus was a real person
• yet I also suspect that Luke played on the meaning of his name: friend (or lover) of God
◦ both volumes were written to inform and inspire people who are inwardly drawn to God
• Luke’s first work is summarized as “all that Jesus began to do and teach”
◦ and from there he immediately jumps to the end if volume 1
– God’s Spirit was actively involved in the final days of Jesus’ physical presence on earth
• it was “by the Spirit” that Jesus “gave orders to the apostles”
An important piece in the Lord’s parting conversation was his response to a question
– the disciples had devoted their lives to following Jesus because of an assumption
• namely, that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring God’s kingdom into the world
◦ Israel, having been oppressed by other nations for centuries, would rise to the top
◦ God’s direct rule of the world through Israel would bring an ultimate state of peace
• but when the disciples asked whether Jesus was finally fulfill his mission,
◦ his response was, “That’s none of your business” – God keeps his calendar private
◦ that information wasn’t given to them, but what would be given is God’s Spirit (vv. 7 & 8)
– we can read verse 8 as a loosely structured table of contents
But seeing that the Spirit was already present, what’s this talk about mean?
– I’ll try to give a full explanation next week, but for now power and upon are key words
• the Spirit would create the road ahead and energize them to walk in it
◦ now this is much better than getting a “design for church”
◦ then having to hammer it out on our own
What Do You See?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. Genesis 1:1-5
Intro: I want you to do something for me
Please–think what this phrase might mean: And God saw that the light was good
– what first comes to mind is probably wrong
• for example, that God suddenly perceived or realized something
◦ that he made a surprising discovery
◦ or that an insight occurred to him that hand not already been in his mind
• if we maintain theological credibility, these are not real options
– so give it some thought and we’ll circle back to this phrase later
The Bible begins at the beginning
In verse 1, the clock starts ticking
– the universe appears like an infant fresh from womb
– and there is God, its Creator — Architect, Artisan and Sculptor
• he begins by creating the raw elements for his project
◦ energy and matter and the space to accommodate its formation
Reading these verses, I find myself drawn to the words that depict God at work:
– God said, God saw, God separated, God called
• compact, succinct, profound
• this is a description of the way God organized the chaotic stew
◦ by speaking, separating and calling, God gave the elements order, form and beauty
“God said” – the speech or word of God is essential
– it turns a mass of atoms into something specific
• it gives a thing an identity–e.g., after creating light, God named it
◦ in a sense, naming a thing gives it existence
– God soon shared this responsibility of labeling things with humankind
• he had Adam give names to animals, while Eve named her children
Darkness is one of the primal facts of our universe
Unlike us, however, God is not affected by darkness
– God is more than the universe – he is within it and beyond it at the same time
• the universe does not contain him, God contains it
• darkness does not exist for God
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You. (Ps. 139:11-12)
– but since God was making the universe for us, he switched on the light
Following Jesus Christ
Into Whatever Comes Next
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11
Intro: I’ve enjoyed reading in the Gospel of Mark this past week
It has been like sitting in a garden or wandering through a forest
– something rustles in one of the verses and I have to take a closer look
• there is much in Mark that inspires and much to savor
– it seemed like something here could provide a good theme for my last talk of 2015
• I want to share with you some of my impressions of Jesus
• since I’ve been reading two chapters at a time, that’s how we’ll go through this
Chapters 1-2: Jesus is always composed and unruffled
For example, his baptism was marked by several supernatural phenomena
– the heavens opening, the Spirit descending and the voice speaking from the sky
• but there is no indication at all that any of this surprised Jesus
– then later, he is not shocked that people would come to him for healing
• nor is he disturbed by a demon’s screaming as he taught in a synagogue (v. 24)
• Jesus acts as if all this is perfectly normal, exactly what he expected
◦ nothing knocks him off balance — it is as if the extraordinary were his daily routine
◦ it seems that around Jesus, miracles cease to be miraculous
Now let’s take a look at the people who came into contact with Jesus
– here we see a sharp blatant contrast: Jesus’ equanimity and their excitement
• two words come up in response to Jesus (vv. 22 & 27)
◦ they were amazed at his teaching and actions
◦ they perceived that Jesus exercised an unique authority
• immediately it became obvious that he was extraordinary
◦ he knew and interacted with a world that was closed off to them
It is always of critical importance that we acknowledge the humanness of Jesus
– he is among us as one of us — he hungers, tires out, cries, loves and so on
• yet he is of a higher human order — one that we are incapable of duplicating
◦ in other words, Jesus is a type of being we cannot grow into
• Jesus is a one-of-a-kind human — flesh and blood like us, yet more
◦ this does not make him less susceptible to pain and sorrow (Heb. 2:14-18)
◦ rather, it enables him to help us at the same time he is able to identify with us
Fourth Sunday of Advent
“Now muster yourselves in troops, daughter of troops;
They have laid siege against us;
With a rod they will smite the judge of Israel on the cheek.
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”
Therefore He will give them up until the time
When she who is in labor has borne a child.
The the remainder of His brethren
Will return to the sons of Israel.
And He will arise and shepherd His flock
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God.
And He will remain,
Because at that time He will be great
To the ends of the earth. Micah 5:1-4
Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joyh. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:39-45
Intro: Like other Christmas scenes taken from scripture,
The moment Mary entered the home of Elizabeth has inspired countless paintings
– from the rigidly posed figures in ancient icons
• to Renaissance realism and many of today’s cheesy illustrations and graphics
– all of these paintings tell a story
• yet each one is like a still frame extracted from a video
• the backstory adds depth to the single picture
Previously, an angel had visited Zacharias and then Mary
Both were frightened at first
– both were given an impossible promise
• both were baffled by what they were told
• and both asked a logical question given their circumstances
◦ yet the old priest was punished for asking,
◦ while young virgin was graciously answered
– though questions look similar, they’re not the same
• Zacharias: By what will I know this? (v. 18, literal)
• Mary: How will be this? (v. 34, literal)
◦ Zacharias’ question had to do with knowing, Mary’s, with being
I know many Christians share in common my struggle with faith
– our spiritual growth stalls or stops at Zacharias’ question
• we hesitate to commit to God’s will unless we first know how it will work
◦ that if we don’t understand what he’s doing, we can’t move forward
◦ we expect everything we are led into to have a rational explanation
• if we aren’t given a map or travel itinerary, we postpone making the journey
◦ before we jump in, we want details and we want certainty
– I easily relate to biblical characters like Thomas or Nicodemus
• when Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again”
◦ he did not ask the Lord, “Can we do that right now?”
◦ instead, he asked, “How can these things be?”
• he could not imagine the method or mechanism of rebirth
◦ but he didn’t need to know
◦ it was something that could happen to him, not an accomplishment of his own
By contrast, Mary did not ask for a rational explanation
– she was prepared to accept her role and was already on board
• basically, her question was, “What’s the next step?”–i.e., “How do I get pregnant?”
– she jumped over Zacharias’ question and Nicodemus’ question
• she went straight to belief and surrender (vv. 38 & 45)
◦ she accepted what she was to be
◦ “may it be done” translates the Greek genotmai, “to cause to be”
• God wanted her to be something, not merely know some things
◦ he wanted a willing partner
This next point may surprise you
God doesn’t consult with me or seek my advice
– and he doesn’t bother to explain everything to me
• if I waited for explanations, there would be long delays
◦ by the time I had the information I wanted, the opportunity would be long past
• we feel like it’s is so important to know,
◦ that we won’t cooperate with God unless he tells us how and why
“How is God going to help with my bills?”
“How is he going to fix my circumstances?”
“How is he going to put my marriage back together?”
– what do we t think we will gain by knowing?
• comfort? the illusion of control?
I’ve said it before:
Third Sunday of Advent
A Song of Joy
Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all you heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away His judgments against you,
He has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
You will fear disaster no more.
In that day it will be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not be afraid, O Zion;
Do not let your hands fall limp.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.
And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.”
And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”
Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”Luke 3:10-18
Intro: The verses from Zephaniah belong to the traditional cycle of Advent readings
What was Zephaniah’s ministry and message?
– the nation of Judah had been misled by two corrupt and violent kings
• the whole society, top to bottom, was in desperate need of reform
• their current king, Josiah, was only eight years old when he began his reign
– the word God gave Zephaniah was for the king, judges, priests, prophets and people
• God’s discipline had been harsh–and could be even harsher
◦ but if they were ready to return, he was ready to receive and restore them
• Zephaniah advised and encouraged both king and people to seek the LORD
An interesting feature of Zephaniah’s short book is the way it is organized
– Mary Douglas refers to it as “ring composition”
• a literary form that was characteristic of many ancient writings
• the end of the story (poem, etc.) comes back around to the beginning
◦ a distinct theme that occurs in the opening is repeated at the end
◦ in complex rings, everything matches up, from start to middle and middle to end:
• frequently, this form places the key theme in the middle
[This is just for those of you who read these notes from my Sunday talks] The main headings of David Dorsey’s analysis of the literary structure of Zephaniah are as follows:
a coming judgment upon the wicked of Jerusalem (1:2-6)
b coming judgment of corrupt leaders (1:7-13)
c Yahweh’s judgment of all the nations (1:14-18)
d CENTER: call to repentance (2:1-3)
c’ Yahweh’s judgment of all the nations (2:4-15)
b’ coming judgment of corrupt political leaders (3:1-7)
a’ coming restoration of Jerusalem and its fortunes (3:8-20)
(The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker, 1999, p. 313)
– the book begins and ends with a series of “I will” statements (made by God)
• only in the beginning, they are all negative and at the end they are all positive
• several other details strengthen this connection between beginning and end
◦ e.g., the same Hebrew word used in the first sentences recurs in the last sentences
(translated remove in 1:2-3, but translated gather in 3:18-20)
We’re fortunate to land in the book’s pleasant meadow
– the passage above is an invitation to rejoice for what is on the horizon
• how does this fit the Advent theme?
• we are reminded to approach Christmas with joyful preparation
This is not first time I’ve come to a topic I have no business addressing
Forty-two years ago, I settled into scripture to prepare a sermon on our love for God
– all at once, it seemed that God spoke to me, gently but clearly:
“You don’t love Me, you know”
• I did not reply, but immediately and quietly chose another topic to talk about
• later on I had to come back and face a bitter truth
◦ wondering, “Well what am I doing in ministry?” I realized, I loved to teach
◦ the inner conflict this raised eventually resulted in an important change in me
– I am not a joyful person – I lived through too many years of depression