Friday, July 31, 2015

Man of God

Sometimes I lay down and close my eyes and pray to God. 

Acts 6:8-15

New International Version (NIV)

Stephen Seized

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Last Sunday it seems we were just lining up seven men who would take charge of feeding widows in the midst of two branches of Jewish culture. The Hellenistic (that is, Greek influenced) Jews and the Hebraic (that is, Hebrew centered) Jews. Out of the seven there is one that gets a bit more description than the others. The writer of Acts seems to be setting this up for his readers to expect more. And, more is what they'll get. 

Last week's description of Stephen read:
a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit
Now that we have entered this next section the description reads:
a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
 I do believe that's what the apostles had prayed for back when John and Peter had their hands slapped for preaching about this Jesus. They prayed that God would perform "signs and wonders among the people". Sometimes our prayers get answered in a way we are not expecting and through people we did not designate or plan on. I picture Stephen as one of those people eagerly waiting in the wings. "Pick me! Pick me!" When seven men are named to take care of the widows, his name comes first and with extra description. Now, when some religious leaders come to find someone to persecute, it's Stephen. I can't help but wonder why, though. What was it about this man that makes the religious folks go nuts? I suspect that these Synagogue folks are already looking for someone in this group of disciples and apostles to pick out. The religious group wanted to do more to the apostles in Chap 5. They really wanted to imprison them and keep them under lock & key. Later, after they were miraculously set free, the scriptures note the feelings of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Chap 5 v33. After having some discussion with them concerning how Jesus dies at their hands...
33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 
 There is already "road rage" type feelings here. They want somebody's head. They want to take their anger out on somebody. Stephen seems to be standing out in the crowd. It also seems that he is doing more than just feeding widows. I feel as if Luke, the author of Acts, is looking in on this scene with a pastoral reverence. Many people in my shoes have look at their congregations knowing that this person or that person has gifts and abilities beyond what their current labor and work is currently achieving. Scroll back up and read those descriptions of Stephen again. This guy has been in outreach ministry, but his Pastor can see that he has gifts for the preaching and teaching ministry. Like a good lay person, Stephen is out doing more than the simple title of his ministry. He is doing more than just caring for widows. He is witnessing. Explaining the story of Jesus and why he came. He is praying over people. People are finding healing. God is moving through the ministry of Stephen.

And, the religious community is taking note. The Sanhedrin has zeroed in.

What was the "Synagogue of the Freedmen"?
It is important to note that there were many different groups with their various tiles referring to regions that they came from or a connection to some piece of history. We've made note of 2 groups already and their cultural significance. Depending on the translation you read from this particular group of Jews would be referred to as the "Freedmen" or "Libertines". Read again where these people are from - "Cyrene and Alexandria, as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia." The Greek towns lying west from Cyrene would naturally be called "Libyan". OK, so they are the Jews from this region. The title "Freedmen"would also give significance to what they went through in those places and regions. These are descendants of the Jews who went into captivity through places Assyria. Their descendants grew up in regions outside of Israel and have come back to settle in the land of their forefathers. Who knows the kinds of travesties and hardships they have endured? Now, they are free. But, freedom doesn't always bring with it a joyous attitude. Sometimes hardship and pain can bring a hardened heart and a scowl. Instead of being liberalized by their residence abroad, these "freedmen" were more tenacious of Judaism and more bitter against Stephen than those who had never left Judea.

It is important to note: within any religion there are many groups and movements. 
In the Gospels there are 4 major groups that stand out. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots and the Essenes. Today there are many different groups represented within the framework of Judaism, from Orthodox and Conservative to Progressive and Reformed. "Reconstructionist" Judaism and "Classical Reform". Over in the world of Islam there is a break down of many different groups based upon regional makeup and family lineage. Names that you might be familiar with from hearing them in the news. The "Shiites" and the "Sunnis". Sufi and Ahmadiyya are two groups with whom you might not be as familiar. Look at Christianity. The family tree that roots itself in the history of Jewish culture is widely branched out by the time you get to the top of the tree. All the denominations and groups. Methodist. Baptist. Lutheran. Presbyterian. And, then the break downs inside of those titles.

I say all this to bring to light that while the essence of a particular religion is present in the heart of all the groups represented, every group has their own particular angle. Every group has particular facets and doctrines that are of importance to their group. Later in the Apostle Paul's letters, it seems he is running into Jews who aren't necessarily persecuting the Christians as much as being antagonists bent on refuting and discrediting this teaching about Jesus. The Jews that come against Stephen and the believers here in Acts 6 have one thing in mind. Kill the "Man of God". They want his head. They want this preaching about this would be Messiah to stop. And, the only way they see to do that is to rid the world of the one doing the preaching. They come to do whatever they have to do to make sure that this is done. Lie. Pervert the truth enough to get Stephen in trouble. Get other people to say things that he didn't actually say. Misquote him. All because they don't like the message that is being preached.

Everybody who did not believe that Messiah had come would have been in opposition to what the apostles are teaching and the disciples are believing. But, some groups take it a little more personally. Don't we have that problem today? When it comes to dealing with the evils in the world today and interjecting, dialoguing with other people, every group handles themselves differently. We have Christian groups who keep to themselves, like the Essenes would have done. We label them as "separatists", having gone off on their own into the desert and not interjecting with the world. We have groups like the Westboro Baptists who feel the need to go and protest anything and everything. Kind of makes you feel like you're dealing with a Zealot who would have done anything for their country. These people are a bit too overzealous for the Kingdom of God. We have people like the Sadducees. Did you realize that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body? On the edges of our picture of Christianity, we have groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons who hold to some strange beliefs. The Sadducees didn't last long after Jesus would have been resurrected and goes back to sit at the right hand of the Father in power and glory. Kind of hard to hang on to that non-resurrection belief when all these new believers are spouting off about the Resurrected Jesus. Then we have Pharisees. There's no other group that we draw more parallels too than this particular lot. The people who are so rigid and demanding and legalistic in their mindset and worldview. Everybody else has to be doing exactly what we think they have to be doing according to the way we have interpreted the law to mean and say. Pharisees are found in all facets and walks of religion. And, Jesus was hardest on these ones who carried the law and taught it to others.

It says here that Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin. What exactly is that? 
We remember the word from the Gospel accounts. Jesus was also brought before the Sanhedrin. The word Sanhedrin literally means a "sitting together", hence an "assembly" or "council" was an assembly of twenty-three to seventy-one men appointed in every city in the Land of Israel. In this political world we live in with agendas and plans made, councils can be formed and made with whoever the opposing groups wants to be on said "assembly". Who was making up this particular group of Sanhedrin? What regions and cities did they represent? If it's from twenty-three to seventy-one men, how many were actually there that day? Maybe just the ones they needed to get the desired result they wanted? Things don't change much over the centuries, do they? 

I'd like to come back to the notion of their cruelty. I speculate about these "Libertines" or Freedmen, as they were called. They don't seem very free. They don't seem to be living in the joy of their freedom. Why are they this way? Sometimes the hard times we endure in life tend to make us harder. With this particular group, the hardness doesn't seem to add up. If in fact they are descendants of people who were once in bondage from Assyria or Babylon, think about how long ago that would have been. Would it have been four, five, six hundred years prior? Why would anybody that many generations down the road still harbor any resentment or hardness in their hearts? Once again, our current world repeats the history we see here in the scriptures. Islamic groups blame today's Christians for atrocities that misguided people from Europe, who followed misguided leaders, who promoted the name of Jesus and came to the Middle East and pillaged the land for all it was worth. How does anything that happened so long ago really and truly affect today's generation? Why hang on to such bitterness and strife for this long? 

If in fact these men, who are opposed to Stephen, are in fact "Freedmen" as they claim, it was their ancestors long ago who were in bondage, not them. It is about what we pass along to future generations. It is about what we choose to keep alive and give life to that matters. Racial tension. Drug abuse. Alcoholic tendencies. Children aren't always born with these things. They are learned behaviors. Children follow what they see. Parents have the responsibility to lay new ground for their children to walk on. If we buy into the idea that old habits are ok to pass along, then our children will follow the same paths our ancestors did. Hatred will continue to flourish. Spiritual hardness will continue to prevail in the hearts of those who come after us. Unless we find a way to put it to rest. The opposite is too often the result however. We find someone to take our frustrations out upon. We don't seek the healing and the hope we need. We find things to nit pick about. We find things to gripe and complain about. We find people to persecute. We find people to grind under our feet hoping all the while that it will make us feel better to be in control of another person's fate. 

If you happen to be the one receiving the persecution, take heart. 
This is exactly what Jesus said would happen. And, there is great reward for those who temper the fire of persecution. It says here that those who looked upon the face of Stephen thought they were looking upon "the face of an angel". Oh, to be so focused upon the person of Jesus that none of the outside pressures mount us as they could. There are people around us who trust too much in their established religion and cause the world around them pain and heartache. Their focus is not upon pleasing God, but upon getting what they want for themselves to make themselves happy. This is how Jesus said it would be. He didn't say it would be easy either, enduring the scrutiny of others. May the Spirit give us wisdom as we speak. May our hearts be encouraged by the fact that, even though the parties we engage in conversation do not listen to our words, the words we use are the words God has given us to speak. 

This one thing we know. That glory awaits. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Comfort Food Ministry

Showing God's Love in a practical way. 

Acts 6:1-7

New International Version (NIV)

The Choosing of the Seven

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters,choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit;also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

We have seen the former disciples now referred to as "apostles" come through some minor persecution. They have been thrown in jail momentarily only to be set free. They have been flogged and yelled at and told not to preach in the name of Jesus anymore only to head right back into the Temple courts and seek people in which to engage on the basis of the Message. Now, in Chap 6, it seems as if the story shifts gears. There are a few internal issues and matters to discuss as well as new people to be introduced to along the way. 

Every story, historical or otherwise, needs drama in order to catch the readers attention and hold it. And, if the bible is full of one thing, it is drama. Human beings are full of it and drawn to it. In sporting events, it is the games between two rivals that grabs the most enthrallment. Yankees vs Red Sox. Ohio State vs That Team Up North. Up until now we have seen the scripture in Acts make reference to the disciples being all of one heart and mind. The mere mention of two different parties of Jews here opens the door to a whole arena full of antics that will come to fruition in the realm of dissension and quarreling. 

We have Hellenistic Jews and we have Hebraic Jews to look at as we enter Chap 6. 
If you cared to click on the footnote marker in the scripture passage you'll find that Hellenistic is a Greek word referring to those Jews who have embraced the Greek culture. They most likely speak Greek as their everyday language. These are the Jews of the Diaspora, or "The Dispersion" referring to Old Testament times. Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon and Assyria. Jews have since come to move around and grow up in all parts of the world. Some Jews have come back to live and settle in the region of Israel, but have held on to the culture they grew up in. If they grew up in Roman parts, speaking Greek, then they would be referred to as Hellenistic. Hebraic Jews then are the ones who have stayed true to the Hebrew culture and the language. They have grown up around Israel and Judah, most likely. Even if they did not, the Hebrew language and the Jewish culture is what matters to them personally and to their religious life. The scriptures are read in Hebrew. Marriage is done within their Hebraic culture. Their social structure is kept within their own circles and families. 

SO, it should not come with much surprise when we hear that there is an issue between the two cultures and on such a simple and primal area of need. People need food. People need to be fed in every cultural climate, and in many cases, people are needed to facilitate the movement of fulfilling that need. Humans get hungry and find themselves in places where they cannot get food for themselves and their families. The central focus in our passage today is "widows". Most likely, they are females who find themselves without family or a spouse to support them. Many cannot work or do not have the means to find work in a culture so male dominated in the workforce. Women are thought of in more of a servant role. Their role is to serve the man in whom they are married. All they have and all they are revolves around the male they are married to and without that person any longer to represent them their existence become vicarious at best. Now, the Hellenistic community is noting that the widows in their midst are being overlooked. And, they want somebody to do something about it. 

This is an early setting for what we will see ahead. 
This matter seems to be easily handled as we will find out. People are needed to meet the needs. It is a matter of ministry. What is ministry? Simply put - "meeting people's needs". But, the question facing the parties in today's scripture is also one that we wrestle with today. Who? Who is going to meet the needs that we see in front of us? Whether it is feeding widows or visiting the sick or going to the hospital, the question is always the same. Who is going to do it? Whose job is it to do these tasks? Is there a way to determine a set of priorities so as to suggest a course of action so that the needs can be met?

The apostles put an interesting and controversial question in front of the group that has gathered. This passage we are covering today is one that I have wrestled with and pondered over for much of my time in this career. When I first started into the preaching & pastoral ministry I began as a bi-vocational pastor. During my time in high school I found a love for working in the grocery business. I enjoyed sacking groceries and stocking shelves. As I turned a corner into my early twenties, I discovered the field of appliances. Specifically, washers & dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, microwaves along with sales and delivery service. I even learned some minor repairs. There was a certain pride I wanted to maintain. I also knew starting out that I would be in smaller churches that could not support a pastoral salary. I was single. I was alone. I had no additional debts or personal baggage to burden the church. It seemed like a viable plan. If I take the time to look back and focus on what really needed more time and attention back there it would most certainly be the amount of effort put in to studying and preparing for this very moment. The sermon on Sunday morning. This is what suffered the most. I seem to recollect that I felt people would see me working and doing the pastoral job and somehow be impressed with my effort. Maybe people would come to the church on that merit. Maybe they would be impressed with all my hard work. 

The thing I recently have come to embrace is the notion of unrealistic expectations. As I have taken the time to reminisce I have found I had lots of expectations that seemed good at the time, but weren't realistic going forward. I have come back to the apostles focus here again and again and have wondered if they got it right. What's wrong with focusing on feeding the poor and impoverished? Well, nothing. However, someone needs to be focused upon studying the word. Someone needs to focused on teaching the word to other people. Someone needs to be prepared to speak on the day of worship so as to share the word with the congregation. There is a ministry that needs to be done with the word. This "pastoral" ministry we have embodied in this 21st century world is familiar with and yet differs dramatically from the world the apostles were working. There needs to be someone qualified to study this Book. Someone qualified to speak on the matters it covers. Someone who has studied to shown themselves approved. In these early days of the discourse we see in Acts those qualified are the ones who actually walked and talked with Jesus. Today, we want someone who has taken the time to learn from others who have been in ministry and have studied the good Book. And, so, there is need to pull away from the general labor of the everyday world and focus on "the ministry of the word of God". 

The matter still lies before us, then - who will meet the needs of those who are desperate and find themselves unappreciated? Well, this is where our world centuries later might differ. The early church had no "pastors". This role is something that has been developed in the last few centuries. The early church had no one to stand and preach that "Sunday morning sermon". The apostles were figuring out their new roles as they went. I see great need for the pastors of today to lead by example. To go forth and be the ones who show God's Love in a practical way. In doing so, the hope is that people will see what we as pastors are doing and want to share in the venture to do ministry. I don't think that's an 'unrealistic expectation'. People should want to be involved in the life of their church. It's not the work of the pastor to make all of this happen. In the apostle's moment, they need people willing to take the load upon themselves and go forth. So do pastors today. 

I have often wondered...why seven? Was there anything significant about that number? The only speculation I seem to find centers around the number of days in the week. Maybe there was someone to take a day, each day of the week. People have to eat. Everyday. Here comes seven men ready to step up in this moment and be servants who would make sure that the widows of their time are met with the elements that will ensure they will have enough. One of those men is Stephen, who will be of particular importance to our study in a couple weeks. The scripture says that this pleased all that were involved. The apostles step up, lay hands on these seven, and pray for them as they prepare. 

The interesting part is this...
Because they chose this course of action, because they choose to do ministry in this way, three things happen. "The word of God spread quickly" it says here. Well, if you have twelve people focusing their time and attention on studying and teaching in the midst of a culture needing to hear about this Messiah, then it is probably going to spread. People want to hear. They truly do. Even today. Especially today. "The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly". It is a proven fact that when the church is focusing on the right things and people are involved in doing good ministry, things are going to happen. People are going to want to come see what's going on here. 

The last thing needs a bit of correlation and parallel thought. "...and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." Later, the apostle Peter would refer to all believers as a "royal priesthood". There were Jewish priests who did not believe in this Messiah the apostles presented. They did not believe the Holy One had come yet. Now they do. As believers in Jesus, we are all priests who have a responsibility to share and meet the needs of those around us. We meet those needs through what we share about our faith in Jesus Christ. A priest has privileges concerning the sharing of forgiveness and mercy. A priest can direct people towards God. You can direct people towards God too. You can share what Jesus has done for you. In doing so, you become not just a believer, but a follower. When we take the time to meet the needs of those less fortunate, we put legs on our faith. Others have a chance to believe in the One who can forgive and restore. 

It just takes a few good people. Seven sounds like a good number.
Or, ten. Maybe twenty. 

Maybe God is moving in your heart today.
Go be the servant God wants to use. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Falling On Deaf Ears

Go to jail. Go directly to jail. 

Acts 5:17-42

New International Version (NIV)

The Apostles Persecuted

17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”
21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.
25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Wow. Things seem to come in threes. 

The now "apostles" prayed for specific things to happen after last meeting with the religious leaders. They wanted signs and wonders to be done. Ananias and Sapphira provided a lot of excitement. They wanted to see healing happen. People dragged their loved ones out in to the streets on mats so just to catch and edge of Peter's shadow. They wanted to speak boldly for Christ and share the message of salvation in Jesus' name. Here comes the fulfillment of that prayer. 

Persecution is a eerie and wicked thing. 
Some questions come to mind as I sit here pondering the subject.
Why does it happen? Why do people persecute others for what they believe?

I feel as if I don't understand the word well enough. I haven't done any definition research in a while. This would probably be a good time to crack open Merriam-Webster. 

Full Definition of PERSECUTE

transitive verb
1:  to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically :  to cause to suffer because of belief
2:  to annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, or importunities) :  pester

The word is only used as a transitive verb. You can 'transfer' persecution. You can share it. Rarely do you see someone persecuting someone else on their own as a private cause. Most generally, it is something done by a group. The focus can be on one or more people, but it rarely comes from just one person. It usually come from a group; making it transitive. Just look at what happened to Jesus. He was persecuted from all sides. The Jews, who despised the idea of Jesus being God's Son and thought they understood what God wanted for them without Jesus' interpretation. The Romans, who didn't understand they Jews religion and simply wanted to keep any would be 'king' from rising up against the Emperor's rule. You could even make a case he was persecuted by the common people who tried to put him on a throne to rule over Israel as their King. They wanted freedom from the Roman rule over them so bad that they didn't truly hear the message of freedom and salvation on a spiritual level. 

Persecution comes when people outside our faith feel some personal sting about the central subject matter. The apostles here are sharing a message about salvation in Jesus, and it is also a message they have been warned about sharing. What is it about this particular message that seems to rub these religious leaders the wrong way? Again they are warned that they are not to teach in this name. They had been warned previously, as we read in Chap 4. But, there is a note that rings cold with the religious here that they cannot wrap their hearts around.
28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
The message of Christ brings us front and center with the need to confess our sins. There is a need to admit what we have done wrong as we approach God and seek forgiveness. And, in many cases, that is the very thing that keep so many away. It is also the very thing that causes some to rise up and persecute those doing the preaching. Admitting that one is a sinner is a very deeply personal issue. It takes us coming to a place where we have nothing to lose. "I'm a sinner. I admit it. I need help." Putting one's self in the shoes of these religious leaders we find they have much to lose. Their standing in society. Their power and prestige. They are not in a place where the message can easily penetrate the thick heart and cut through their pride. So, the opposite happens. They retaliate.

We need only look back at Jesus' life and see how it all unfolded.
It started with a man named John. He was baptizing and some of the religious, the Pharisees and others, come to the river to witness and inquire. John shoos them away. He senses that they are not in a place where they are ready to receive salvation. There is too much pomp and pretense. Maybe they are dressed in their religious garments. Maybe it all seems too much for show. In any sense, John the Baptist says...

Matthew 3:7-10

New International Version (NIV)
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Ok, there are a couple of ways to respond to this. 
If a person really wants forgiveness and is will to produce that "good fruit" that would cause one to feel sorry about their sins and repent so as to turn away from sin and seek God, then they'll find what they are looking for. But, if you're in the shoes of these Pharisees and Sadducees, then a person might feel rebuffed. Who are they to admit they are sinner? They are the leaders in their religious community. They don't need to come down to the same level as the common, ordinary people. They don't need that kind of forgiveness.  Feel the indignation. Feel the outrage. Feel the anger swelling inside. The recent line from the upcoming movie Batman v Superman rings appropriate to quote here. Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred is giving the Dark Knight some fatherly advice as he does so eloquently throughout his history. Bruce seems to be weighing all the information about this "Superman" and, from the previews, it seem to be turning him cold towards this fellow superhero. I find it suitable to the mindset of these religious leaders hearing of their need for salvation. 
That's how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men... cruel.
 When weighing new information we are receiving it can humans to fall to their knees in sorrow as they seek to find a new corner to turn in their lives, a new leaf to turn over. The message of salvation in Jesus can leave one feeling powerless. That powerlessness can lead to turning over one's life to God as we find that there is a greater power as work in the world than ourselves. Or, it can take people down a dark path. After that early encounter with John the Baptist the religious leaders are seeing and hearing of this man from Nazareth, this Jesus. It starts with his early teachings. They come, not with true questions as if they needed an answer to bring them closer to God. No. They come to argue. They come to fight. They come to bait Jesus with his words and his explanations of the scriptures. Remember, if you will, conversations like this one...

Luke 20:19-26

New International Version (NIV)
19 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.

Paying Taxes to Caesar

20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
25 He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

Jesus had just told the Parable of the Tenants. It clearly put the religious leaders in the spotlight, and in not a very good light. They were shrewd enough to understand the parable was about them. Still they have a decision to make. Take Jesus' words seriously and find forgiveness. Or, allow their hearts to be hardened and become war-like. We know from this passage how they were and what they were seeking to do. They had their hearts set on expunging the country from teaching of this Jesus. And, to do so would most assuredly mean that he would have to die. And, Jesus does die. At the whims of Jewish trickery in the hands of a Roman court. Jesus gives it all. 
"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Now, these followers of Christ have come to preach this same message of salvation.
The religious leaders are still in a haze as to what it has to do with them. Why do these simple folks assume that they had something to do with the death of this would be Messiah? Still they have a chance to come forth and own their sin. Still God is reaching out and wanting them to find the forgiveness they so desperately need. Still, they cannot find it within themselves to admit what is their need.

If it were not for the providential speaking of one of these men in the Sanhedrin, the apostle fate might have been found here. They might have all died in this moment and the book of Acts would be over early or have taken a different route. There have been uprising and rebellions before. Why would this one be any different? None of the other "messiahs" who have shown up at the doorsteps of the Temple so as to take down these religious placesetters has amounted to anything. Why would these men be any different at all? Let them go. They won't hurt anything. They'll be scattered just like all the rest.

The Sanhedrin can't just let them go. They are roughed up a bit. They are warned again not to teach in the name of this Jesus character. And, then they let them go.

Have you ever felt like you might be in a place where the message has fallen on deaf ears?
Can you put yourself in the shoes of the religious and see any hardened place in your heart?
What has God been trying to say to you that you have not been receiving, but rather have been shrugging off and making it seem less than noteworthy?

Have you been out sharing the word with those around you and feel as if the world is not listening? Take heart. That's how it is supposed to be. Same thing God told Isaiah. Same message Jesus explained to his disciples.

Matthew 13:10-17

New International Version (NIV)
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

Share. Preach. Go forth. 
Even though they might not understand. Even though the people in which we speak to, many times, won't get it.  Speak. Share the message because it gives you joy. That joy comes from the Center of our lives. A place that only those who follow in the mercy and forgiveness we have will understand. 

It's a place welcome to all. Only those willing to admit their need will find it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Healing Time

Asking is the hard part.

Acts 5:12-16

New International Version (NIV)

The Apostles Heal Many

12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.

We have noted that the Apostles asked God for many things.
They wanted signs and wonders to be performed in their midst.
Last week we saw the account of Ananias and Sapphira played out before our eyes. Withholding what we have from the Lord has a way of not working our so well. This week we see another moment where the now Apostles have seen their simple prayer answered. 

This moment is after the great sign done through the couple who sold their land and withheld their money. The sign seems to have created so much of s tor that people are believing the message. They saw great signs and wonders done through Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe God is doing the same work through these 12 men. People are now dragging their loved ones and friends out into the streets. Some of them are on mats and cannot walk. People are bringing their sick from all the towns around them. People who have been tormented by unclean spirits are finding the release and freedom they have long desired. 

What stands out to me in this short passage is the article of faith. 
What does it take to stir that kind of faith up in us? How much faith does it take to be in a position where we can find the healing we so want and need? 

John Wesley was in such a moment early in his life. Returning from the States where he had a run of unsuccessful preaching, John found himself on a boat with a bunch of Moravians. Both on his trip to the States and then back to England, he witnessed their joy and faith in midst of travelling through horrendous conditions while travelling through storms and at time wondering if they might stay alive. The Moravian he connected with in his travels was a man named Peter Boehler. The subject of faith was personally heavy on Wesley's mind as he dealt with all the confusion in his heart. Speaking with Boehler one day after his trip back to England the subject of faith was central to the discussion. It seems Wesley wanted to view faith in varying levels. Boehler's response was so concrete. Wesley thought about maybe quiting the preaching he had been doing. 
Immediately it struck into my mind, “Leave off preaching. How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” I asked Boehler, whether he thought I should leave it off or not. He answered “By no means.” I asked, “But what can I preach?” He said, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
 Faith. It is central to all we do as Christians.
Look at the people whom Jesus touched. Look at the people who wanted to touch Jesus. A woman who just wanted to touch the hem of his garment. Just the end of the tassel. Instantly she is healed. Her faith is what made it possible. Jesus said so. These people in Acts 5 have seen and heard about a great and mighty sign. Now, they are dragging their loved ones right out into the street, on beds, on mats, just to be in the shadow of Peter as he walks by. They aren't touching anybody. They just want to be in the shadow of Peter. That's faith. God wants to heal. The apostle's prayer was to see healing int heir midst. And, God honors that prayer. All are healed. Everyone. What was that Jesus has said to them? He said they would do even greater things than he had done. Here is the start of it.

Faith works it's way out in the most curious ways.
People who walk away from traditional ways of medicine and go holistic. Seems crazy. Are the reports we are hearing about radiation and chemotherapy and the effects it actually have on cancer cells really accurate? For some folks it's just not working. Some people leaves the doctors and nurses to change their diet and their intake. Flushing out the harmful toxins from their bodies, people are reporting that cancer cells are diminishing. It takes faith to try something like that. Have we gotten to attached to modern medicine to give something else a try? Prayer and consideration are needed before one just recklessly ventures into this.

We serve a God who wants a 50/50 relationship with us. He reaches out. We respond. And, God is absolutely willing to carry 100% of the load of we can't handle it. Look back at Genesis 15 where God walks through the blood while Abram sleeps. God basically tells us that he is willing to take the punishment of not keeping the covenant on behalf of both parties. "By his stripes we are healed." There is healing needed on so many levels. Physical. Mental. Spiritual. We are most familiar with praying for our physical healing. Maybe there is mental healing needed before one can understand what God is trying to communicate about His Son Jesus. Maybe people have been attacked by our enemy on a spiritual level and have been hurt. Maybe in their faith. Restoration is needed on all levels so that we can be the people God wants us to be.

Well, this isn't a long message today because we are going to spend time around the altar today at Thornville United Methodist. I'm encouraging people to come lay out what they have on the altar. I'm encouraging others to come and pray around those who are gathered. We are going to reach out in faith to the Almighty. And, I believe, in faith, God will honor our requests.