"Encountering the Living God"
June 12, 2011 Pentecost
50-Day Spiritual Adventure Wk.7
Acts 4:23-31 (with material adapted from Dr.Charles Lake & Rev.Bill Richardson)
THE CHURCH UNDER THREAT
Today we're dealing with part 7 of our 50-day Spiritual Adventure, "The Church You've Always Longed For." Do people actually long for a church? Some do; Garrison Keillor writes about just what it is people may be seeking when they come to church - not lessons or learning so much as an experience of the living God. He said, "We don't go to church to hear lectures on ethical behaviour, we go to look at the mysteries, and all the substitutes for communion with God are not worth anyone's time...If you can't go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can't go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can't see why anyone should go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church as a changed person."
That's what the first disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 - "They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them." (Ac 2:3-4) In response to their devoting themselves to seeking God, as "they all joined together constantly in prayer" (1:14), the Lord blessed them by filling them with His transcendent being and ecstatic speech.
But soon the church was threatened. Peter healed a beggar over 40 years old who had been crippled since birth. In response to this and the subsequent preaching of Peter and John, the priests, elders, and religious legal experts demanded an accounting and threatened them. See Acts 4:18-21a, "Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." After further threats they let them go..." (Ac 4:18-21a)
Christ's church in North America is under threat today: not so much from persecution as from indifference. People have given up seeking the transcendence and communion with God that Keillor speaks of; in a culture that worships comfort and consumerism, people are settling to be satisfied by much less. These substitutes are our modern idols. Pastor Bill Richardson observes, "It is in the midst of difficulty and conflict that the Lord seems close at hand.How different it is with us [21st]-century mortals who inhabit the church of the living God. Many of us have lost sight of the battle and therefore no longer need be attentive to God's presence. We see spiritual warfare as something to be debated, not a present-day reality. We have settled for a comfortable life in the suburbs, risking little for the kingdom of God. We don't sense God's presence because our circumstances don't require it. We are getting along quite well, thank you. Yet our hearts cry out for his presence to fill our very being and the activities of our lives." The emptiness and meaninglessness of the consumer lifestyle results in a spate of substance addictions, and self-destructive behaviours amongst youth and older folk, not to mention a steep toll on family life as people immorally yield to the temptation to 'play around'. At any rate, to many people today the church seems irrelevant as it doesn't compare with the fleshly thrills that can be so easily obtained.
Or maybe that doesn't apply to you. Maybe you are genuinely threatened and feel 'under the gun' - whether by economic challenges, health challenges, or relationship challenges. The threats are so real to you that you are desperate for God's help. Where to start?
THE WONDERS OF GOD
What can we learn from the example of Peter, John, and the other early disciples when they were threatened? What was their immediate action - go home and pout? No, they cast themselves upon God in prayer. Dr.Richard Lovelace, church historian at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, concludes that the [21st]-century church is not as apt to pray first and act later. He wrote, "The place of prayer has become limited and almost vestigial.The proportion of horizontal communication that goes on in the church (in planning, arguing, and expounding) is overwhelmingly greater than that which is vertical (in worship, thanksgiving, confession, and intercession)." He added, "Deficiency in prayer both reflects and reinforces inattention toward God."
But the disciples started with prayer. Now, note they didn't begin praying by spelling out their predicament. What's their focus? How WONDERFUL God is - His sovereignty, majesty, power, and the way He directs the drama of human plots and circumstances to eventually bring about His will.
Look at the start of their prayer in vv24b-28: "Sovereign Lord...[sovereignty] you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them [God's power in creation].You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David [God prophesies wonders centuries in advance]: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.' [God is not fazed or taken by surprise when His enemies try to gang up on Him.] Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed [ie the 'Anointed One' of Psalm 2]. They did [now get this! Here's the mystery and wonder of divine sovereignty in action] They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen."
Do you see the beauty of the context this gives when we're facing a threat or a challenge? Our problem may seem big - the threats of the high priests, Sadducees, and their ilk could be deadly - but is God shaking in His boots? Far from it! El Shaddai could take the worst possible crime in history, the crucifixion of His perfect innocent incarnate Son, and turn it around to make it a victory over sin and death for us! Jesus' condemnation at the hand of sinners was the ultimate injustice, the deepest degree of unfairness this planet could ever see. But it didn't take God by surprise. In fact, He so superintended the very events (without becoming responsible for their immediate evil-ness) that their timing corresponded eerily and symbolically with the heart of the rituals around Passover and forgiveness in Jewish religious life. To be sure, after the conspirators had finished doing their dirty work, their heinous crime, they would be confronted by ancient Scriptures detailing in written records from long ago the particulars of Messiah's departure - down to things like lots cast, pieces of silver, hands and feet pierced but bones not broken.
If God is so sovereign as to be able to bring good out of the worst evil that could ever happen (Jesus' death) - we can trust Him to be in charge of whatever troubles and challenges confront us today. "A God who could create a world by the mere word of his voice, who could reveal himself through the Spirit through his prophets, and who could effectually rule in human affairs was certainly adequate to care for them." (Dr.Charles Lake)
So, turn to God in prayer; and begin not with details of your woes, but His wonder - like the Lord's Prayer begins, focussing on God's beauty and greatness: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth AS IT IS in heaven..." The wonders of God are the only fitting framework in which to view our problems.
THE WORD OF GOD
Out of God's divine being (His wonderful characteristics, His loving beauty, kindness, holiness, and faithfulness), informed by His infinite wisdom and knowledge, emerge His excellent will which is distilled and expressed in His powerful WORD. God communicates based on who He is and what He wills. When the Spirit came at Pentecost, Peter interpreted the phenomena in light of what Joel had prophesied: Acts 2:17f, "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people...Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy."
Here again in chapter 4, Peter refers to Psalm 2 as a key by which to interpret the meaning of current events: v26 cites v2 of the Psalm, "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One;" then v27 shows how that's come true before their very eyes - "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed." Ultimate truth resides in God's word. So our most basic reality, the rock-bottom fact for us, is NOT our immediate trouble or current challenge, but the reality of God's Word, particularly His promises to us in Scripture as underwritten in His Son Jesus, the 'divine Yes' (2Cor 1:20).
Not only does God's word give the early church an anchor by which to understand and deal with current happenings, it becomes the main thing they want to share going ahead. God's word is the summation of who He is for us and all He has done and is doing for us, particularly in Jesus. So, what do the disciples pray for in view of the religious henchmen-leaders' threats: protection? Relief from the dreadful danger? No, look at v29 to see what they pray for: "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness." But - wait a minute: what was it the rulers commanded them not to do? V18, they 'commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.' The apostles pray for boldness to do the exact opposite, speak God's word, because they sense it's what's right to do in God's sight (4:19). Speaking God's message introduces His Kingdom and the name of Jesus into the battleground of our daily life in a dynamic way.
On the day John F Kennedy was shot, British novelist David Lodge was in a theatre watching the performance of a satirical revue he wrote. One sketch involved a character trying to look somewhat apathetic by listening to a transistor radio during an interview. The actor always tuned the radio to a real news broadcast. Suddenly came the announcement that President Kennedy had been shot. Reality arrested stage comedy. The audience, erupting in alarm at the true story, entirely forgot about the imaginary plot.
It's something like that when God's Word breaks into a situation - so startling, so deep, it snaps us back to what's most true in light of eternity. Who we really are in the sight of God. When we're feeling nonchalant about our spiritual lives, God breaks through by His word being proclaimed. Only then do we succeed in paying attention to what is most real: the curtain is lifted, the preoccupations of so much of daily living are shown to be transitory, inconsequential, like some poorly-written manmade stage play, and we glimpse what changes we need to make to be ready for eternity. To be judged finally by the Audience of One.
THE WREST & RESOURCING OF GOD
What happened as a result of the believers' prayer? V31, "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." Wouldn't that startle you, if it seemed a mini-earthquake was hitting your meeting-place? And to have a refreshing / filling with God's Spirit? The church encountered the living God. The Lord granted their request, as they'd prayed in v30: "Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." The miracles and wonders were already starting in the shaking of the house. After, the disciples continued to demonstrate God's power to heal the sick (Acts 5:12,16; 6:8).
This the 'wrest' of God (w-r-e-s-t): the Lord wresting or wrenching victory over situations which seemed to be in the grip of the evil one. The dictionary defines 'wrest' as "[to] force or wrench away from a person's grasp; distort into accordance with one's interests or views." An older usage refers to the key used to tune a harp or piano; the pins by which the strings of a piano are attached to the frame are called 'wrest-pins'. If you've ever watched a piano being tuned, you know how each pin has to be gradually twisted until the sound of the string comes into tune or perfect harmony with the pitch of the tuning-fork. So our sovereign God is so in charge of each situation, each predicament, that He works to bring about a resolution that, from the perspective of eternity, accords with His absolute goodness and justice. That may not become obvious until after the Final Judgment, but it IS what He's about: our circumstances will eventually be shown to be shown to reflect His glorious beauty, as the setting of a precious ring provides a fitting backdrop for the shining jewel.
Jacob 'wrestled' with God at Peniel; Jacob hung on til dawn, but his hip was wrenched, leaving him with a limp. Jacob had to learn to trust God to work sovereignly in dangerous circumstances such as a family feud, where a bitter brother might be out to take revenge, no matter how many gifts Jacob sent on ahead to try to pacify Esau (Gen 32:21-31). Sometimes our closest family relationships are the most painful ones, and most difficult to trust God to bring grace into. But the Lord was at work in Esau's heart, so when they finally met, Jacob could say: "to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably...God has been gracious to me..." (Gen 32:10f)
So we see in Acts 4 how God WRESTS victory from the evil's grip, notably the threats of the murderous religious establishment. He also RESOURCES the church with what it needs to witness to Jesus' resurrection. We won't go into it in detail today, but the remaining verses in chapter 4 outline how wealthy the church suddenly seemed when no one claimed their possessions were their own, but sold lands and distributed money, through the leader, to all who had need. 4:34, "There were NO needy persons among them." So the church actually became stronger after the threat, not weaker.
In addition to material resources, they received supernatural empowerment: v33, "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all." The word was going forth; God's wonders were being shown; the Lord's name was being renowned, His honour grew, and people felt blessed - 'much grace was upon them all'. They knew they were encountering the living God.
OVERCOMING ALL PERILS - INCLUDING LICE
What are the troubles facing you today, for which you need God's help and assurance? What conflicts that seem unresolvable, challenges that threaten to undo you? You can trust your life to the Lord. In the face of the rulers' threats, Peter and John knew God's peace as they strove to honour what was right in God's sight, and cast themselves upon His mercy in prayer. The battle is real, Luke reminded us as he wrote the story of the early church, but so is the Lord's presence. Corrie ten Boom often spoke of this battle. She spoke about dark days in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, when the forces of evil seemed on the verge of overcoming the light. She testified again and again to audiences and in her writings, "There is no pit so deep but God's love is not deeper still." It was in the midst of the conflict that she and Betsie saw God do wonders - use lice and fleas to allow a Bible study in the barracks because the guards were afraid to be infested; send a bird at just the right moment to lift the eyes of the prisoners away from the horrors of torture; or simply give the strength and courage to stand for the truth in spite of the consequences. It is in the midst of difficulty and conflict that the Lord seems close at hand.
So - are you ready to encounter the living God? That's why the Son of Man came, to seek and to save what was lost (Lk 19:10). You can entrust your life to Jesus, with your past and your future. As Gladys Hunt put it, "God never stops taking the initiative in relating to us. He is continually reaching out to us - personally, presently in each of our lives. He still calls; he pokes around inside of people, making them ill at ease, restless to know him. He reveals dissatisfaction and sin; He shows his love and faithfulness. His invitation is come, believe." Let's pray.