Well it’s about that time of year again. That time when time is usually on our minds. In just two short days it will be one year later than it was a year ago, which usually prompts us to look back over that last year and figure out what we liked and usually more often what we didn’t like that we want to change next year. My mailbox has already been flooded with flyers for local gyms trying to guess what those goals might be for me.
But never minding the failed resolutions that inevitably come out of this, the real problem with all of that is that it tends to have a failed focus. The things we are proud of the year before and the things we strive to change in the next… well… are they the right things?
Today, let’s look at what the apostle Paul had to say and consider our past and our future in light of those words that God had him write. At the beginning of our section he writes:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
If anyone had reason to be proud and confident, it was Paul. He was a paragon of virtue. He was born of the right people, God’s own chosen nation. He followed every command from God and every tradition of his people. He was part of the moral elite, the Pharisees. If he was around today, he could be bragging on Facebook about how all three of his perfect children were excelling in their own extra-curriculars while showing photos from his last tropical vacation, the new house he’s building, the promotion he got this year, and how he hit his target weight in half the time expected.
And what does Paul say about all these things he should be bragging about?
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
And now what does he say about that life? He considers it a loss. He doesn’t just find that entire life to be worthless, he actually considers it detrimental to his life. In fact, he considers everything a loss when it is compared to the greatness of simply knowing his Lord Jesus Christ. Now, if you remember back, if you were here for our summer series on the book of Acts, you may remember that this was not a conclusion that Paul came to on his own. He didn’t suddenly realize that all that was wrong and worthless. God had to reveal it to Paul.
In that confrontation on the road to Damascus, God appeared to him and made Paul aware of exactly how wrong and backward his life had been from start to finish. God taught Paul that everything of his own he thought he should be proud of was in reality something to be ashamed of, and there was nothing good in himself. The house, the job, the vacation, the perfect life – those things were all hurting him, not helping.
Why? Because they weren’t good enough. They couldn’t save him. No matter how hard he tried to do everything right and have the perfect life and have people love him and all that, it wasn’t good enough for God. God demands perfection. What’s more, God requires that he himself be the focal point of our lives. That we do everything for him. Paul hadn’t done all those things for God, he did them for himself! Everything he thought was worth anything wasn’t just a waste of time, it was actively keeping him away from the God who could save him.
It was at this point, at the bottom of everything, when Paul had all hope in himself cut out from under him, that God showed him his mercy and grace in Jesus. And Paul understood the only thing worth anything in this life is Christ himself. Paul gave up hope in himself and clung to the hope of Jesus as his savior, trusting that Jesus alone is the only way he can possibly be rescued.
Now Paul’s experience may sound outlandish, and maybe the circumstances are. But those aside, this is the experience that every Christian goes through to come to a knowledge of their savior, the same Christ. Each one of us has to realize: I am sinful. I cannot save myself. I need Jesus. Only he can help me. Only he is worth anything in my life.
And so, the question now is, as I’m looking back over 2018 and looking on to my plans for 2019 – do my thoughts show that I’m convinced of this truth?
Do I really consider everything I have apart from Christ is a loss? Do we really “buy” that, or are we feebly clinging to the notion that some of what we have or do or are is worthwhile, profitable, useful? Sure, there’s plenty of stuff it’s easy to look at and identify as useless and harmful. We know that indulging our sinful temptations is harmful to us. Sin damages faith, it hurts our relationship with our God and it risks our eternal life.
But of course, God himself gives us great things to be used for our recreation and enjoyment…what about those? Even with those we must be cautious. These gifts are to be used to enrich our lives of service to him. They are a means to an end. They help us relax, recharge, lift our spirits so we can continue our work for God. But when the gift becomes the purpose, when all our time and energy gets poured into one hobby or recreational pursuit, it ultimately becomes a loss for us, because again, it is distracting us and taking us away from the only thing that is to our gain, our Lord Christ.
But even that doesn’t go as far as Paul was talking here. Remember he listed off all the great things about himself that he had claim to. Every achievement or source of pride – what did he say about them? He considered a loss. And for the same reason: they served to distract and take him away from our God. It is the same for us.
We need to see that there is no difference here. It could be the grossest display of sinful indulgence or it could be chasing a goal that isn’t our Lord or it could just be plain old pride in myself and my abilities and accomplishments. They all do the same thing: they lead us away from God. The best of who we are, the best of what we have and do in our lives…these too are a loss! Pardon me for a moment while I get a little complicated. They are a loss when we view them this way. Let me elaborate.
If I look see the best I have as the best I have, then where is the focus? If the best I can do I view as the best I do, then where is the focus? If I am proud of myself for my accomplishments, for the things I have done with the strength of my hands or the skill of my intellect, then I am worshiping myself and am taken away from God. Even if I take pride in all the good things I do for God, that I give him my money and my time without complaint, that I am a helpful member of the church body, then I am still worshiping myself for how great I am.
It doesn’t matter what does it, it doesn’t matter how it comes about, whatever it is, if our focus slips from looking ahead to eternity, then it is a loss to us! What is to our gain, what we do need is to keep our eyes forward, on Christ, as Paul tells us here. He had plenty to be proud of, plenty to indulge in, but his reaction was anything that kept him apart from Christ, anything that caused him to focus on himself or anything that wasn’t Christ was a loss to him. And why? Because only Christ had what he truly needed. Forgiveness of sins and the gift of righteousness.
This is why it is so dangerous to let the things of this life steal our focus away from Christ. Just like Paul, all the best we have… can’t save us. We do not measure up to God’s standards. Without Jesus, we are dead. We would be cut off from God and left to an eternity without any of his mercy or grace. There is nothing worse than that. There is no goal to set that is more important than avoiding that outcome. But we cannot avoid it ourselves. Nothing we have changes this for ourselves.
Only Jesus makes a difference. And it makes all the difference. Where we are unworthy and have nothing good to offer, Christ makes us worthy. His life of obedience is credited to us, and his innocent sacrifice on the cross eliminates the debt we owe our God. In Christ, and only in him, are we saved. We are declared innocent before God our Father and we are promised a heavenly home is prepared for us at the end of our time here. Through him we will, as Paul says here, obtain the resurrection of the dead.
When we understand and accept this dynamic between us and our God, it changes how we view our lives and it changes why we do whatever it is we do. When we recognize that nothing we have to offer is good in its own merit, we no longer do things out of pride or for praise or for any reward. Rather we do the good we do because God has made it possible. He gives us the strength, the time, the ability, and it’s the blood of Christ that washes our actions and makes them good for God. And we keep this attitude by keeping our looking ahead to Christ. With eyes on him, on what he’s done for us and on where he’s waiting for us – that sets our goals and mind straight for the coming year. As Paul concludes our section today:
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
As Paul says, we have not yet fully attained this goal of looking ahead to our God. We have not fully become as like Christ as we would like. But we do strive always to be better at it. Not by waking up each day and promising to “do better”, that will get us nowhere or even take us backwards. The way to pursue Christ is by renewing our focus each day on him. Learning from him, studying him, growing closer to him. That is what Paul is striving for here.
And when we do that, there’s a natural side-effect: Christ’s power will work through us to accomplish what we cannot on our own. We will grow to be more like him. Now, we recognize that this work will never be completed in this life. We will always have room to grow in him. But that is not an excuse for us to simply give up and say “good enough!” We should never be satisfied with how far our devotion to Christ has progressed! This should be our number one goal every year!
But if you look back over the last year and think: well I sure didn’t do that, then I have good news for you. Our devotion to God is not perfect and we should not despair when we do not live up to God’s standards. We strive, strive, strive… but never despair when we fail. It is because we fail that we have a savior. It is because we fail that Jesus died. And it is because of Jesus that our failures are forgiven. Forgotten. We show our love to God by showing him what he’s worth to us, but our expressions of love to God are simply that, they are not what keeps us in his favor, they are not what make him love us. There will be times of failure and every time we return to him, he has forgiveness for us.
Brothers and sisters, forget what is behind. Forget the things that drag you down to this world and hold you here. Forget your pride and yourself. And don’t look back with regret either. Forget your own failures; God already has. Leave the past in the past. Strain toward what is ahead. Look ahead to the prize that God won for you. Press on toward it. Make that your goal for 2019 and beyond. Reach for Christ every day like your life depends on it. God is reaching back for you, taking hold of you, guarding and guiding you every step of every day. Stay close to him, draw close to him. You are a forgiven child of God, you have absolutely everything to look forward to in him. Amen.
Last week we heard God’s call to RETURN to the One who is Faithful even when we’ve been unfaithful because He will be Faithful Forever! This week God calls us to return to Him for Abundant blessings! Before we dig into Scripture, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. A Severe Lack of Blessing?
Our lesson for today comes from 2 Kings 4. Chronologically we’re going even farther back in time than the last couple of weeks; though the situation is similar:
Two weeks ago, we heard God’s call to his 7th century B.C. people to leave idol worship behind and RETURN to Him.
Last week we heard God’s call to 8th century B.C. people to leave idol worship behind and RETURN to Him.
This week we get to hear God’s call to 9th century B.C. people to leave idol worship behind and RETURN to Him.
It’s a bit like my high school Football coach. “Furious Feet! Furious Feet! Furious Feet!” He said it all the time.
When we were in practice: “Furious Feet!”
When we were in the 1st quarter: “Furious Feet!”
When we were tied in the 4th quarter: “Furious Feet!”
When we were in Pizza Hut after the game; “Furious Feet!” (OK, maybe not that last one)
You get the point? We kept forgetting. He kept rebuking.
The same was true with God. The people kept forgetting Him, He kept rebuking them:
“RETURN to me.”
In fact, in all of 1st and 2nd Kings you would hear the call of “RETURN to me,” so often that it makes you wonder if anyone ever stayed close to God.
Enter 2 Kings 4. It’s an account that takes place within a small community of prophets. It was a group of people that had dedicated themselves and their families to serving the Lord. They spoke His message and stayed closed to Him.
Unfortunately, for one woman who had not abandoned God, recent events had made it seem like God was the one who had abandoned her:
“The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as slaves.” (2 Kings 4:1)
A couple of notes as to why this woman was in such despair:
(1) Recently Widowed. It doesn’t matter how tough you are – losing your spouse is hard. Your spouse is someone that you’ve known for a long time. Someone you’ve partnered with for a long time. Someone you’ve gone through ups and downs with for a long time. The Bible says in marriage that “two become one flesh.” When one of those two are removed from this world – that flesh is torn apart.
(2) She’s a Widow in a Society that wasn’t Friendly to Widows. In the 9th century B.C. world, society wasn’t that friendly to women – at all. There wasn’t equal pay. There weren’t equal job opportunities. In fact, there wasn’t much for women to do besides care for the family and help tend to whatever vegetables they were growing.
Now that this woman’s husband was dead, the family’s source of income was dead. She had to feed herself. She had to feed her kids. She had to pay the rent, feed the animals and pay the bills. The last of which leads to the third problem.
(3) She had an Old Testament Credit Shark after Her. Yes. Even back then, in Old Testament Israel, there were bill collectors. They couldn’t call you on the phone. They couldn’t send you email after email. They couldn’t text message you or lower your credit score, so…they showed up at her front door.
For some reason, I’m picture this guy with one of those curly moustaches and a maniacal laugh.
Because this guy tells her that if she doesn’t pay him back, he’s going to take away both of her sons and make them into slaves. They will work for years trying to pay back what was rightfully his.
And to be fair – this wasn’t illegal. In Old Testament society, it was common for:
(1) families to be held responsible for other family member’s debts
(2) people to be taken as slaves in order to work off debts.
This was why she was in need.
This was why she was turmoil.
This was why she was in need of help from an Almighty, All Loving, Always Faithful, Shepherd God!
But she was having a hard time reaching out to him. Because…
(4) She was Struggling with Faith. Look carefully at her words to the lead prophet Elisha, “YOUR servant is dead and YOU KNOW that he revered the Lord.” It’s almost an accusation against the company of prophets, against the work that they did together, again Elisha, against…God:
Where is this God guy?
He’s supposed to be a shepherd?
He’s supposed to have Good Ways?
He’s supposed to always be faithful?
My husband is dead.
I have no job.
I have no money.
I’m going to lose my sons.
Where is this God guy?
All those prophets that worship Baal? They’re doing fine. Their wives wear diamonds. Their kids have Xboxes. They have fully founded 401Ks.
We’ve been following God our whole lives. Even devoting our lives to him – and now we’re losing everything.
I don’t think God can help.
I don’t think God cares.
I don’t think God is real.
Can you relate?
II. The Real Issue
To be fair – Elisha does not get very defensive.
He listens to her.
He hears her complaints.
Then, he offers his response: How can I help you? (v.2)
I have to confess the first couple of times that I read that I read it like this: “How can I help you?” as in “What types of things do you think I could do to be helpful?” But – the thing is Elisha follows up by asking her about what she has in her house. It becomes obvious that he knows exactly what she wants and exactly how to help her.
That’s why I think we’re supposed to read this not as “What things can I do to be helpful?” but “How can I help you?”
As in, I’m just a human.
As in, I’m just a sinner.
As in, why not go to God?
Why not seek the One who is faithful?
Why not reach out to the One who cares for you?
Do you see the implication? She was looking for help Away from The Helper.
And that’s the first WHAT NOW for you and me as well.
If you’ve got problems and you’ve got issues and you’re looking for help, but you aren’t seeking the Helper…how do you expect to find help?
That’s like walking into Home Depot. Not having any idea where to find the 7” Circular band saw that you’re looking for. Walking right past the Help Desk. Ignoring the Customer service counter. And when the nice gentlemen in the orange apron asks, “How can I help you?” responding with “I’m good. No help needed.”
God is our Help.
God is always faithful.
God is always good.
God is always shepherding his flock.
That woman didn’t seem to recognize it.
Now…God as going to prove it.
III. God’s Incredible Abundance
Elisha asks the woman a second question, “Tell me, what do you have in your house?” (v.2)
Which seems like good advice.
Ransack your home for something to sell.
Perhaps a rummage sale – or a lemonade stand.
But the woman responds that she has nothing…nothing besides a one small jar of olive oil.
Something she could use for a couple of meals.
Something she could cook up a meal or two – if she had anything to put in the olive oil.
Something that might last a day or two before it was totally gone.
Elisha tells her, “Go around and ask all of your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few.” (v.3)
If I’m that woman, I’m a bit confused.
Empty jars? That’s like the ancient version of Tupperware.
Everyone had a lot of empty jars.
Empty, clay, worthless jars. They stored everything from water to oil to food.
But you want me to get empty jars?
Sure, Elisha, I’ll go ask them for empty jars and then I’ll open a business where I sell the Tupperware to people who have lids that don’t fit on any of their current Tupperware – because everyone has 20 some odd Tupperware and 20 some odd Tupperware lids that don’t’ fit any of those 20 some odd Tupperware.
She might have been a bit frazzled.
But she listens.
Until she gets to the next part of Elisha’s instruction:
Go inside. Lock all the doors behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all of the jars and as each is filled, put it to one side. (v.4)
My jar is little. These jars are big.
My jar is one. These jars are many.
Yet – you want me to pour my oil into this big jar?
You want me to pour this tiny bit of oil into that gigantic jar?
Done. It’ll take me about three seconds.
She lifts up the little jar.
Her son brings over a large jar.
She takes a deep breath.
And the jar is full, “Son, get another one.”
And she pours
And she pours some more.
And she says, “Get a couple to stand by.”
And she pours.
And she pours.
And she pours.
And she fills up every jar in that room with oil.
Until she gets to the last jar…
And she asks her son for one more.
And he says, “Mom, we don’t have anymore!”
And just like that – the oil stops.
She takes the oil.
She sells the oil.
She pays off her debts.
Friends, there is no explanation for why the oil kept pouring.
It wasn’t the other jars – they were empty.
It wasn’t from her friends – the doors were locked.
It wasn’t from Mary Poppins – this isn’t 18th century London.
This was God.
A miracle from God.
A miracle from the abundant blessings of God.
The Bible says this, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)
It says this, “Test me and see if I won’t throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour open so much blessing that there will not be enough room to store my blessings.” (Malachi 3:10)
It says this, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Cor. 9:8)
God has an abundant number of blessings.
It’s like if you take all of our needs, all of our wants, all of our desires – clothing, shoes, food, drink, money, health – and we fit them into one of those little Dixie cups with a Disney character on the side.
We think about bringing that Dixie cup to God, but then for some reason we conclude:
He can’t handle this.
This is too much.
I’ve gotta do this on my own.
But the truth is that as we bring our Dixie cup sized requests to God – He begins pouring – pouring out abundant blessings.
And it’s like Niagara Falls in that Dixie cup.
God is able to abundantly provide for you.
God does abundantly provide for you.
And you might say, “But why don’t I get the million dollars that I asked God for way back in 5th grade? God must not be that abundant.”
Do you remember what happened with the oil?
It only stopped flowing because the family couldn’t handle anymore.
It’s not like God couldn’t produce more; the family didn’t have the ability to handle more.
Here’s the truth:
The problem isn’t God’s abundance; it’s our ability to handle God’s abundance.
God says, “You can’t handle that million dollars. You’d spend it all on Doritos and end up on the street.”
God says, “You aren’t yet strong enough to handle fame. You’d trust yourself and stop trusting me.”
God says, “If I bless you with that job, you’ll forget about me, disown me, and remove yourself from eternal life.”
God says, “I’ll provide for you abundantly, even abundantly providing for you means barely providing for you so that you keep your eyes on me and receive the MOST abundant blessing that I have to offer.
Case and point:
We have our own legal indebtedness. It’s true.
And now – I don’t have a hold of your Credit Card score, nor have I been compromised by the Lizard Lick Repo.
The Bible says that we are legally indebted to God.
We are supposed to live perfectly.
Every time we sin, we owe him the legal debt of death. “The Wages of sin is death.” (Romans 3:23)
But God has an abundance.
He came to earth.
He lived perfectly without incurring any sin debt of his own.
He died innocently to pay for your sin debt.
And the payment was abundant.
Because his blood began to pour from his side…
It covered your first sin.
His blood kept pouring from his side…
Enough to cover your second.
It kept pouring…
37th sin covered.
It kept pouring….
Bring me the 2,708th!
It kept pouring…
That’s sin number 120,262 completely covered.
God’s blood poured out on the cross until every last one of your sins was covered.
Such that YOU are abundantly forgiven.
And the blessings don’t stop there!
You now peace with God.
You are a part of his kingdom.
You are His child.
You are loved.
You are in His care.
You are never alone.
You are empowered by His Spirit.
You are given gifts of the spirit.
You have the promise of heaven.
You will conquer death.
You will live forever with him because of His abundant blessings in Jesus!
Friends, God provides abundantly.
Return to Him and take part of his abundant blessings. Amen.
We are continuing our series on the book of Acts. Throughout the book, we have seen how the Gospel of Jesus confronts all kinds of sins. The self-righteousness of the Pharisees, the Satanic worship of Simon, the persecution of Saul…
But today, we are going to look at a time when the Gospel confronted a weird kind of sin. A kind of sin that is STRANGE, but not all that uncommon in our modern world. In fact, if we’re not careful, it can become a problem here at Gethsemane. In the next minutes, we want to identify (1) what the weird kind idol worship is (2) how does it manifest itself in our own lives and (3) how do we defend against it? Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. A Weird Kind of Idol Worship
The lesson starts in Acts 14:8 in a place called Lystra. Before we get into what happens there, let’s briefly recap where Paul and Barnabas have been so far:
Pisidian Antioch. While there, Paul and Barnabas had the opportunity to preach in the synagogue. The response? A few believed; others argued with them; shouted at them; and verbally abused them. When Paul responded by taking the Gospel outside the synagogue and to areas where people that weren’t even associated with the synagogue were, the opposers tracked him down, orchestrated a mob and threw Paul and Barnabas outside the city.
Iconium. While there, Paul and Barnabas again preached in the synagogue. Again, some believed. And again, some resorted to verbal abuse to get Paul to shut up. Paul responds by speaking boldly for the Lord (v. 4), but again the opposition is strong. The people of Iconium begin to plot, not just to throw Paul out the city, but to stone him to death – a fate avoided because of a few loving friends who sneak them out of the city.
In short, things weren’t going that well for Paul and Barnabas.
The Mission Trip had become a bit of a downer.
I imagine they hoped things would get better soon.
In Lystra, there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking> Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. (v.8-10)
If you’ve been following this entire series, maybe you’re starting to think: “Another paralyzed man made to walk?” Isn’t that like three times already?
Peter did it. (Acts 3)
Philip did it. (Acts 8)
Peter did it again. (Acts 9)
And now Paul did it.
But it doesn’t get any less impressive, does it?
He had been lame…from birth.
That means he had never walked.
He had never stood.
He had never taken a step.
Never done a burpee.
And all it takes is him hearing about Jesus’ incredible power…
About how He healed the paralyzed.
About how He healed the lame.
About how He walked again after his own predicament – this thing called death – where you really can’t move at all – and yet Jesus rose from the dead and walked again!
About how He promised all who believed in Him healing in heaven.
The man hears all of that, believes and is healed.
This wows the crowd!
They see the man healed.
And they started chanting…
…but not for God.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul they called Hermes. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas. (v. 11-13)
In the world of the Early Church, Greek was the main language that just about everyone knew. It was useful for trade and communicating between countries. It’s similar to English in today’s world. If you know English, you’ll be able to communicate in just about any country.
Paul had probably been speaking in Greek with the crowd. But when the crowd sees what happens, they are so excited that they immediately revert back to their Lycaonian language.
It’s kind of like if you’re practicing Spanish. And you’re thinking really long and hard about words to use. You’re considering tense and voice and mood. Until…you a get text message that your grades are in and you got an A” and you start shouting: “Awesome!” No Spanish; just English. It’s your heart language that speaks when you’re excited.
That’s the reaction of the crowd. They begin shouting in their native tongue with excitement because they believe that Paul and Barnabas are gods. More specifically; they call Zeus and Hermes. Those are the names of the Greek gods which had a very prevalent religious following in the Ancient World. Zeus was the god of thunder. He’s the one who hurls lightning bolts from the sky. Hermes was the messenger god – he’s the one who brought messages from the gods of Mt. Olympus to the people of earth.
Nowadays there aren’t a lot of people that still believe in these gods. It’s kind of an ancient, defunct religion. But it still holds some power in Hollywood. Including one of my favorite versions from the movie Hercules: Zeus and Hermes. (If this is what people thought of when they mentioned Hermes, I’d be a bit upset if I was Paul… Why does Barnabas get the big muscular guy?)
The people don’t stop at calling Paul and Barnabas gods; they want to worship them like gods. The priest of Zeus was nearby. He runs to the local temple. He opens it up with his keys. He grabs some of the oxen that they were going to sacrifice to Zeus later that week; he takes down some of the incredible, ornamental wreaths around the temple, and he makes his way back to the crowd – ready to offer his gifts to Paul and Barnabas.
The people are smiling.
They people are shouting.
The people are thinking that Paul and Barnabas are gods!
How are Paul and Barnabas going to react?
To be fair – this must have been pretty nice.
Recently, they had been verbally abused, rejected and threatened with being stoned.
It must have been nice to have a crowd that loved them so much that they LITERALLY: worshipped the ground they walked on.
Paul could tell them to “Go, get us a hammock.”
To “Go, grab us a margarita.”
To “Go, cut down some palm branches and keep them waving as we, your gods, begin our cushy new life and reign over the city.”
It might be nice to have people worship you like a god…
That’s not what Paul and Barnabas do…
They get an interpreter.
They find out that the crowd thinks their gods.
They tear their clothes in agony.
And rush out into the crowd shouting:
“Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God.” (v.14-15)
Did you hear that?
Their message is to turn from THESE worthless things.
As turn from this worthless kind of idol worship.
And that worship kind of idol that you are worshipping…
WRITE THIS DOWN: Idol worship is fearing, loving or trusting anything more than God. The specific weird kind of idol worship that the people of Lystra were dealing in was fearing, loving and trusting in Paul and Barnabas more than God. It was putting people – even Jesus preaching people - above God.
II. A Not So Weird Kind of Idol Worship
But we are 21st century Americans.
We are an enlightened people.
We wouldn’t worship humans…right?
Remember the definition of idol worship:
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you bow down and worship them or that you hold worship services where you sing at a big statue of some person.
It means, loving, trusting, or fearing something or someone more than God.
And if that’s the definition, maybe this weird kind of idol worship is more common than we thought.
Here are a few ways that this weird kind of sin is plaguing society and maybe even plaguing your life.
This might be an easy one to see. Because the truth is that humans spend more on Instagram to see if the Kardashians have any new hairstyles than they do in the Bible to see if God has anything holy we need to emulate.
And it’s not just looking up to them either.
Imagine for a second that there a new social issue comes up. Some people say one thing about it. Other people say another thing.
But before you make a decision on how to react to the issue, you check to see –
What does Emma Stone have to say about that?
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger approve?
I can’t weigh in on the issue until the Rock posts a witty comment and tells me how to think.
Why go to a sinful people for how to think on an issue?
Why not go to God who is ALWAYS good and in fact invented absolute morality?
To trust a celebrity over God, that’s a weird kind of idolatry.
Notice I didn’t say science. I am not anti-science at all. I enjoy making a baking soda volcano as much as the next guy. Science is good. Science is valuable. Science helps you understand the complexities of God’s creation.
But science also has subjective presuppositions that go with it. When a scientist has the presupposition that there is no God and can be no God and anything not explainable by science must be a lie – then scientists will tell you that…
There’s no way that the miracles described in the Bible can happen.
There’s no way some dude died and then came back to life.
There’s no way some dude walked on water.
There’s no way some God made this world in 6 24-hour days.
There’s no way some dude made some paralyzed guy walk by just telling him to.
Here’s where it gets dangerous: If you trust that scientist, more than the God’s Word, then who you are really trusting?
God wants us to use His Word to inform our understanding of science.
Not scientists to inform your understanding of the Bible.
Because that’s trusting a scientist whose been here 40, 50, 60 years? More than God who was around since before eternity and has shown no signs of aging.
To trust a scientist over God… that’s a weird kind of idolatry.
This happens every time that elections roll around whether you are Democrat or Republican or any other kind of party. We listen to our favorite candidate speak. We become engrossed in their promises. We live and breathe whatever it is they are saying – and we put our trust in them to make our lives on this earth better.
And then when it doesn’t? We have a tendency to double down.
We have a tendency to defend that person no matter what they say and do.
Even if what they say and do is not godly. (And by the way. If you think I’m talking about one particular person right now, you’re wrong. This applies to a plethora of politicians from a plethora of political parties).
If the words of a sinful, fibbing politician become bigger dogma than the words of God, that’s a weird kind of idolatry.
Maybe you saw this one coming. This is essentially what happened with Paul and Barnabas. The people worshipped those who told them about worshipping the true God more than the true God. To be fair – this isn’t as obvious as it was in the story. There aren’t any hymns sung to the glory of me.
But…this is a danger.
A couple of years ago. I had been helping someone out over a few months. There had been counseling. There had been teaching. There had been phone conversations where I pointed them to Jesus and they found comfort.
But one week – as I had told this person – I was on vacation. I went up to the Midwest. I was visiting family and I saw his phone call. I saw it and tried to focus on my wife. They called again; I said …Nope I gotta focus on my wife. Finally, a third time… I figured it was an emergency.
“Yes, this is Pastor.”
“Pastor! We’ve got a problem. My wife said this, and I think she’s wrong. Can you please tell her so?”
Well…I’m kind of on my vacation.
Please, pastor? You’re the only one that can help.
Actually. No. God can help. Right now, I’m working on my family and I’m working on connecting with my wife.
But God can help. He speaks in his Word. He answers prayers.
Did you try any of that?
“So, you’re not gonna help then?”
Did you know that I have never seen that person again? It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I think it highlighted an issue:
That person trusted me more than God.
And that cannot happen.
And if you trust me, or some other pastor, or some other theological speaker more than God…
That’s a weird kind of idolatry.
To be fair – we could keep going on with this list, but I think you get the point.
If you fear, love or trust a person…any person more than God, then you are just like those people in Lystra. You are committing idolatry.
If you have been committing idolatry, you need to do exactly God, the real God says and “Repent. Turn from these worthless things to the Living God.” (v14)
III. The Real God
Because the REAL GOD? He is capable of immensely more than any human being. Listen to three quick reasons that Paul gives for worshipping the Living God:
1. He made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them…(v. 15)
We aren’t just talking about some celebrity who made one platinum record, but God who forged the very minerals necessary to make the entirety of all platinum within the bellows of earth.
We aren’t just talking about some scientist who has invented a way to identify one strand of DNA, but the God who invented and distributed every single strand of infinitesimal DNA in the history of the universe ever!
God is so much more powerful than any human could dream to be.
2. He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons…and plenty of food... (v.17)
We aren’t just talking about some politician who might make your life on earth better for a bit…if they can get their laws to pass and if they don’t change their mind, but we are talking about the God
who has provided food for the whole world.
Who keeps the sun shining.
Who keeps the rain raining.
Who keeps the plans growing.
Who has given you broccolis and bananas, grapes and grape wine, corn on the cob and the corn necessary to make the Dorito!
God takes cares of you – even when you don’t believe in HIM and don’t give HIM glory – he takes cares of you.
And beyond that – God promises to take care of you for eternity.
God is so much more consistent than any human being could ever be.
3. He Fills your hearts with Joy. (v.17)
We aren’t talking about some pastor -- who might be able to help you feel a bit better…if he isn’t distracted, if his training allows and if he’s not sleeping.
God is always able to help.
He’s never distracted.
He knows all things.
He has never slept and will never sleep…not even for an afternoon nap.
God is constant.
And God brings the ultimate joy! Because…who else do you know that can save you from sin?
No human can save from sin.
Only God himself who came down as a human to save us from sin.
Want proof? Easy.
Most humans die. Many humans that many have looked up to over history have died:
Julius Caesar? Dead.
Stephen Hawking? Dead.
Jesus? He died, but then…He did the one thing that no living human has ever been able to do – He brought Himself back to life.
This is Jesus.
This is the REAL, LIVING GOD.
If you put your faith in Jesus, He provides complete, absolute forgiveness for all your sins of idolatry.
For all the times you have trusted others more…
For all the times you have feared others more…
For all the times you have loved others more…
Jesus brings absolute forgiveness.
IV. WHAT NOW?
Look at how this lesson ends. Paul tells them that he’s not God and the people get rather upset.
In fact, what happens is that the riot group from Antioch meets up with the people who plotted in Iconium, they make their way to Lystra – rile up the crowds there and suddenly:
The very group that had previously been worshipping Paul, drag him outside the city.
They throw him on the ground.
They shout violent and vicious things.
They pick up stones.
They hurl them at his head.
He falls to the ground in the heap.
And the people? They cheer.
They high five.
They leave feeling pretty good – they’ve killed that God lover.
But Paul? He’s not dead.
God has given him life.
And he gets up.
And he brushes himself off.
He meets up with Barnabas and keeps preaching about Jesus.
Friends, you do the same.
Keep trusting in the TRUE God.
Keep preaching about the TRUE God.
And the true God…He will give you Life. Amen.
We’re picking up right where we left off last week in the book of ACTS. If you remember, last week we heard about a guy named Saul. Saul was the Commander-in-Chief of Destroying the Gospel and murdering any Christian he came across. He hated Jesus. He hated Christians. He persecuted Christians to death.
Then, something happened.
Jesus appeared to him.
Jesus spoke to him.
Jesus brought him to repentance.
Jesus forgave him.
And Saul came to faith. He was baptized. He learned from other Christians and soon began preaching the very message he had been persecuting.
Jesus visibly appeared to Saul.
And empowered Saul to turn his life around.
Do you ever wish Jesus would do that to you?
Do you ever wish he would appear to you in the flesh, holes in hands, a reassuring pat on the back and a few magic tricks to prove that your faith is the truth?
Today we’re going to follow the Gospel as it makes its way to a few different cities filled with people who didn’t get to personally see Jesus and who hadn’t gotten to witness His miracles. Our goal is to discover, along with those people, that the Gospel is ABSOLUTELY TRUE. It’s powerful. It’s public. It’s proven.
But before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Two Stories of the Gospel’s Power
The true stories we want to look at start in Acts 9:32. Both these stories center around the Apostle Peter. He is one of the original 12 disciples. He lived with Jesus, worked with Jesus, and learned from Jesus. He saw Jesus die. He saw Jesus rise from the dead. He was personally commissioned by Jesus to “go and preach the good news of forgiveness in Jesus.”
At this point – Peter had done that. He had preached a sermon to over 3000 people at Pentecost. He had stood up for the Gospel in front of the enemies of Jesus. He had taught, commissioned and sent out newer disciples to share the Gospel.
Peter is kinda like District President (DP) Don Tollefson.
Who’s Don Tollefson? He’s a pastor. But a Pastor of a lot of people. Pastor Tollefson is the President of the North Atlantic District of our group of Lutheran churches. He encourages all the churches in the district. He helps facilitate ministry ideas. He shares resources. He travels from city to city to city, up and down the North Atlantic Coast uplifting congregations with the Gospel. Over the past couple of weeks, I know he’s been to Harrisburg, PA to help a mission congregation ready to get a pastor; he went up to Orleans, Ontario, Canada to commission a new pastor for our congregation up there; he made his way to Milwaukee, WI to meet with other District Presidents and develop plans for continuing to share the Gospel throughout the U.S In short, district presidents rack up quite the good number of frequent flier miles.
Peter was doing something very similar – without the frequent flier miles. He was travelling about the country. And he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. (v.32) Lydda was 27 miles to the Northwest of Jerusalem. Christians from Jerusalem had fled there during Saul’s persecution in Jerusalem and a tiny congregation had formed. Peter went to that small congregation at Lydda to encourage them.
While he was there, Peter did what pastors sometimes do when they visit other pastors. He went with local leadership into the community. Maybe grabbed some local fare, stopped by the local coffee shop and went by the park. It’s good to get to know the leaders of the local church and their community so that you can offer the proper advice and encouragement.
While Peter was doing this, he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for 8 years. (v.33)
He hasn’t been able to walk.
He lays on the side of the street.
He never leaves the bed-like mat that his friends set up.
And the local congregation leaders must have been like: “Oh him!?! He’s there all the time. It’s a sad story really. He can’t get a job. He doesn’t have a lot of money. Sometimes we stop and give him bits of leftover sandwich from our last potluck, but…he’s kind of a lost cause. Anyways Peter, have you ever tried Potato Rounds before…eh…What are you doing?”
Peter moved away from the other leaders.
Peter moved towards the bedridden man.
Peter said to him:
“Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.”
And immediately Aeneas got up. (v.34)
Let that sink in.
No physical therapy.
No knee braces.
Not even an Essential Oil treatment.
Just words spoken in the name of Jesus.
And immediate, incredible, complete healing.
Meanwhile – 11 miles Northwest of this miracle – another congregation is having a tough time. In the town of Joppa, a very important member of the congregation had just passed away. Her name is Tabitha. According to Scripture, Tabitha was always doing good and helping the poor. (v.36)
It appears she made clothes for them.
She made food for them.
She delivered food to them.
She helped a lot of people.
But she had gotten sick and died.
When the disciples in Joppa heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” (v.37)
Because this was a hard one.
Tabitha was such a blessing to the church and the community. Why would God take her? Why would she die?
Her death was confusing, maddening and saddening!
They needed answers. They needed comfort. They needed someone with a connection to Jesus like Peter had to uplift them with Godly words.
And Peter quickly realized this. He hurried up to Lydda. He went to Tabitha’s home.
When he arrived, it was filled with people.
Holding up shawls and dresses that Tabitha had made for them.
Handing him a piece of cake – in the style of which Tabitha used to make.
Falling to their knees and asking Peter, “Why?”
Eventually, they led him upstairs.
They showed him to the room where there lay Tabitha’s body.
Her cold, dead body.
Peter fought back tears.
If only he had gotten here earlier. He could have asked Jesus to do what he did for Aeneas.
He could have helped her.
He could have healed her just like Jesus had done.
There was something else Jesus had done, too…
Peter asked everyone to leave the room.
They obliged because – “Peter probably needs a moment or two to process…”
When he was alone, he fell to his knees.
Then, he looked up.
He turned to Tabitha’s cold, lifeless body and said:
“Tabitha, get up!”
She opened her eyes and seeing Peter she sat up. (v.40)
II. Three Truths about the Gospel
There are a lot of interesting themes to explore in these two stories. We could talk about the importance of working for the Lord like Tabitha. We could talk about the value of getting into the community how Peter found Aeneas. We could discuss the value in sending Synod Leadership to encourage congregations in faith.
But the heart of these stories – is the heart of the entire Bible – Jesus.
And Jesus is directly tied to the Gospel.
Here are three truths about the Gospel from these lessons:
(1) Jesus is Powerful
Look closely. Peter didn’t do the healing by himself.
Peter said to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you.” (v.34)
Peter got down on his knees and prayed. Then Tabitha was healed. (v.40)
Notice Peter didn’t say: “I heal you,” nor did he get down on his knees and pray: “Dear Me, Please help Me and Heal this lady for me.”
Peter turns to God.
Peter turns to his Savior.
Peter turns to Jesus.
Jesus heals Aeneas and Tabitha!
To be fair – we shouldn’t be surprised! Jesus did the same thing while he physically walked the earth. He made the blind to see; the deaf to hear; the lame to walk; the sick to be well; the water to become a walking surface; the storms to become quiet; the bread to multiply; the water to become wine; the dead to come back to life.
But – I guess the only incredible caveat with these miracles, is that Jesus does them while he’s not even physically, visibly, tangibly there!
I’ve got some power. Sometimes the Office Supply company we work with delivers boxes of paper. Each box holds about 10 packages of 500 sheets of paper. They’re pretty heavy. About 50 pounds.
If I am around, I can lift it and put it away.
If I’m not around, I can’t do squat.
Jesus wasn’t even physically around, yet his power was able to:
(1) Instantly heal a man who had not been able to walk for the last 8 years.
(2) Bring to life a woman who had died!
Jesus is still Powerful.
He removes all your sins.
He destroys all your guilt.
He busts through the gates of hell itself.
He powerfully penetrates the preventive walls of unbelief and brings believers into his family.
(2) Jesus is Public
But you might say:
Yeah, right! Peter is in on it! It’s all a big scam. Aeneas pretended to be unable to walk for 8 years just so that Peter could appear to be the hero with the message of Jesus – even though Peter probably wasn’t even a follower of Jesus when Aeneas began his ruse?
And Tabitha pretended to be dead – she held her breath (for days?) and got the hundreds of people mourning at the house to believe that she was dead just so that Jesus would “appear” powerful.
Here’s the deal. Both of these miracles are extremely public.
They aren’t done in private.
In regard to Aeneas it says: All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw Aeneas and turned to the Lord. (v.35)
Notice it doesn’t say “All of Aeneas’ friends who were in on the 8-year ruse.” Nope. All the city. Everyone. Even the people who were kind of annoyed with Aeneas being bedridden, asking for money, day after day after day. Peter meets Aeneas. Many are watching. Aeneas stands up. They don’t think: “Faker.” They think: “Savior.”
And with Tabitha it’s just as public. Remember – She died. The people washed her body and cleaned it. They sent for Peter. Peter arrived when they were in the middle of the Ancient version of the “wake.” They are throwing Tabitha’s blankets in Peter’s face and everyone is talking about how she is dead and how sad it is.
No one is saying; “I think she’s faking it, Peter.”
After Jesus raises her through Peter: Peter called for the believers, especially the widows and presented Tabitha to them alive. This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord. (v.41-42)
Because…She was dead and now. She was alive.
This is key for you and me. Because what Luke wrote down for us in Acts; he wrote down only a maximum of 10 years later. And this book of Acts was circulated throughout the churches. The people in Lydda read it and said, “Yep. That’s right. I remember when he healed Aeneas.” And the people in Joppa read it and said, “Yes. They got it right. I remember when Tabitha came back to life.”
The point? This stuff is public. It’s real.
It’s not that way in other religion.
It’s not like…
The Prophet Mohammed who went up on a mountain by himself.
Or Joseph Smith, found of Mormonism, who went into the forest by himself.
Or some scientist who hypothesizes this world must have started this way – even though I wasn’t even there.
Jesus’ power is public. Real, visible, viewed by many.
Even at the highlight of his story…
Jesus died before hundreds.
He hung on a cross before hundreds.
He was confirmed dead by hundreds.
Then, he rose.
He appeared before hundreds.
He showed himself before hundreds.
He spoke again with hundreds.
Jesus is public!
(3) Jesus is Proven
This leads to our third “P” word.
If Jesus is powerful and public. Then, Jesus, is also proven.
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus offers visual proof of invisible truth.
Public visual proof of private invisible truth.
Aeneas visibly gets to his feet before hundreds.
Tabitha comes back to life before hundreds.
Jesus visibly dies and visibly is buried and visibly comes back to life.
Proof that the Jesus is truth.
Proof of the invisible miracles that Jesus claims for us:
Proof that your sins are forgiven.
Proof that you have peace with God.
Proof that Jesus is the Savior.
Proof that by believing in him you will enter eternal life.
If you doubt!?! You’re doubting the power of a Savior that has done countless visible miracles in the face of tens of thousands of witnesses.
If you doubt!?! You’re doubting God. You’re doubting the Holy Spirit. You’re doubting Jesus.
Don’t doubt. Believe.
III. What Now?
I don’t mean do a physical turn right here, right now. This isn’t P90x.
The Bible tells us to “turn” spiritually.
That’s what the people in Lydda did. They saw the power of Jesus in healing Aeneas. They turned to the Lord. (v.35)
They stopped trusting themselves.
They stopped trusting their own abilities.
They stopped trusting some statue god.
They trusted their Savior.
Do the same. Even if you are a longtime Christian! Turn. Because the devil has a way of getting us to turn to ourselves, to money, to things and stuff and to trust them rather than Jesus.
Examine your heart.
See where you’re wrong.
Turn back to Jesus.
And if you’ve never trusted in Jesus, hear God’s plea:
Stop trusting yourself.
Stop trusting your money.
Stop trusting your abilities.
Stop trusting your own modern fake gods and start trusting the real, only true God, Jesus Christ, who died to save you.
And he did so.
Because when Peter was faced with a dire situation. When he came face to face with death in the face of Tabitha. When he said to himself, there is literally nothing I can do to help – he got on his knees and prayed.
Do the same thing.
Too often when things get out of hand; when things are out of our control; when things are beyond our control we keep thinking:
I can do this. I can figure this out. I can stand.
Jesus doesn’t want us standing.
He wants us kneeling.
Humbly in prayer before our God.
This isn’t necessarily physically; but a ‘kneeling’ in your heart. Humbly agreeing that you are a sinner and the situation is beyond your control and you need your almighty, all powerful, paralyzed man healing, dead widow raising, out of the grave conquering God.
Turn to your God.
Fall on your knees.
Trust in your powerful, public, and proven Savior.
Thus far in Acts we’ve heard a lot about the Apostles – the guys that were the leaders in the church – the guys that Jesus promised the powerful Holy Spirit – the guys that Jesus hand-picked to spread the Gospel around the world. These men were integral to the Early Church.
But…what about the rest of the church?
What about the “ordinary” Church member?
Today we are going to look at an “ordinary” church member named Stephen. As we do that, we’ll learn some things about ourselves as “ordinary” church members here in Raleigh. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The “Ordinary” Church Member named Stephen
The majority of Stephen’s story come from Acts 7. But before we get there, I think we should actually start with a phrase from Acts 5:29:
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
Stephen didn’t say that.
But I imagine that phrase bounced around in his head as the sharp tip of a spear pressed against his lower back directing him to an angry mob of Jewish opposition.
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
The phrase had first been uttered by the Apostle Peter. While Stephen didn’t exactly hear it from Peter’s mouth, it had become somewhat of a rallying crying for the Early Christians. In fact, it played a key part in bringing Stephen into the Early Church. Yes, he was first intrigued by the message of Jesus – full and free forgiveness because of Jesus’ death at the cross, but then, it was the conviction that drove him to being actively involved.
The apostles were willing to obey God and teach the message of Jesus…
…Even when others opposed them.
…Even when they were put on trial.
…Even when the opposition threatened death.
…Even when their backs were torn to a bloody mess by the violent lashings (floggings) as a result of their preaching the Gospel.
“We must obey God rather than men.”
That’s why Stephen had signed up.
That’s why Stephen had gotten into this mess.
A few weeks earlier the Apostles had requested some help. The church had been growing so quickly – which was a blessing. There were over 10,000 people who confessed Jesus as Savior. But since it had grown so quickly the work had gotten beyond the scope of 12 men and some of their ministries had started to be neglected.
Case and point – the distribution of bread for the widows. There were quite a few widows in the church and, at the time, widows were treated as the bottom rung of society. They couldn’t get jobs. They couldn’t make money. They were usually in poverty.
The church had been dealing with that by setting up a mobile food bank. Members were to give contributions of money; Christians that worked in the bakery would make some bread, and the disciples would grab a big old cardboard box, stuff some bread into it, and deliver it to the widows in need.
But…the program had gotten too big.
The disciples had other priorities.
Some widows had been forgotten.
Doubly unfortunately, the issue had gotten racial. The widows that were Greek began to complain that they were being ignored because they were Greek and the only ones to receive bread were the widows that were Jews…because they were Jews. Granted, that wasn’t what the Apostles were doing; they were simply too busy preaching and teaching. Still they did recognize that racial tensions and divisions were not a good look for a church whose entire premise was “Jesus died for everyone.”
So…the Apostles made a plan. They decided to choose seven men to help them in the distribution of food. Seven men who would deliver the bread and visit the shut ins. Seven men who could share the message of Jesus as they went; and free the disciples up to share the message of Jesus all day long.
One of the men they chose was Stephen.
And Stephen accepted the appointment.
And Stephen was awesome at it.
He loved seeing the smiling widows answer the door.
He loved helping them restock their empty shelves.
He even enjoyed it when the older widows squeezed his cheeks, told him how they wish they had a grandson like them and gave him a Werther’s for his trouble.
And that’s what Stephen did.
He did the ordinary job of delivering bread.
He did the ordinary job of sharing Jesus with those he met with.
He did the ordinary job of sharing what he was doing and why he was doing it with the people he met with.
And that – was why he was arrested.
By the same men that had arrested Peter.
He was arrested for delivering bread and teaching the message of Jesus.
So, he stood.
Hands cuffed behind his back.
A spear implanted into his lower back.
A room filled with vicious, angry, violent opposition.
And they were telling him to stop.
Now they were telling him to never mention Jesus again.
Now they were telling him to shut up or die.
He wasn’t an apostle….
He wasn’t trained for this…
This wasn’t in the job description!
“We must obey God rather than men.”
There was that voice again.
And Stephen couldn’t help himself:
“Brothers…friends…well trained and high respected scholars of the Old Testament Scriptures!”
Ya’ll are Old Testament scholars, so can I ask you a few questions about the Old Testament?
Do ya’ll remember Abraham? God made a promise to him to move to a country he’d never heard of and he’d bless him. People rejected that message. But God fulfilled that promise.
And do you remember Joseph? God promised him in a dream that he would one day be a ruler. His brothers rejected that message and threw him into slavery. But God fulfilled that promise.
And do you remember Moses? God promised to leader Israel out of Egypt through him. The people rejected Moses and didn’t believe him. But God fulfilled his promised. He performed 10 miraculous plagues. He split the Red Sea. He brought them out. And then…they still rejected Moses and worshipped a golden statue of a cow.
And do you remember Elijah? And Elisha? Isaiah? Jeremiah? Joel and Habakkuk? God prophesied through them. But the people rejected them. They beat them, imprisoned them and killed them.
Friends, that’s what our ancestors did.
And that’s what you are now doing.
You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears; you always resist the Holy Spirit. (7:51)
You always resist God’s truth.
You are resisting the very Savior God sent for you – Jesus Christ.
And with that…the room erupted.
There were loud shouts.
There were swear words.
There was tearing of clothes and clenching of fists.
There were stiff-necked, with uncircumcised hearts and ears; resisting the Holy Spirit.
And Stephen dropped to his knees.
He looked up.
And he smiled:
“Look, I see heaven open and I see Jesus Christ standing at God’s right hand.” (7:56)
And the men charged the floor.
And they grabbed Stephen.
And they threw him outside.
And they began to throw stone after stone, rock after rock at Stephen.
Eyes swollen, mouth bleeding, lungs gasping for breath, said one last thing:
“Jesus, receive my spirit and don’t hold this sin against them.” (v.59)
And then, he died.
II. Lessons from Stephen about being an “Ordinary” Church Member
I think Stephen’s story is one of the most powerful in the entire Bible.
I think it’s incredible because Stephen was your average everyday church member with an average everyday church job.
Yet there are some incredible lessons that we can learn from this ordinary Church member. Here are a few things the ordinary Christian does…
(1) “Ordinary” Church Members Serve (Even when It’s Delivering Boxes of Bread)
Because that was probably not the most glamorous job.
It wasn’t that job that got your name in lights.
It wasn’t a job that would get you on a social media post.
It’s not the kind of job that develops its own hashtag: #ServingBreadIsAwesome
But Stephen did it anyway.
Because service is key.
Jesus said, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:28)
Stephen remembered how Jesus served him (by dying on the cross for his sins) and was motivated to serve others.
Here’s the thing – we have a lot of people that are a part of our church community.
And some of ya’ll are very smart. I know which ones I shouldn’t have a conversation about medical terms and which ones to avoid talking about computer coding with because the conversation will quickly go over my head.
Some of ya’ll are smart enough to do top level, top notch, sophisticated stuff…
…We need to be like Stephen.
We need to be willing to do the less glamorous jobs.
We need to be willing to humbly serve others…whether we have a master’s degree, a college degree or a high school diploma.
We need to be willing to deliver bread, to serve cookies, to water plants, to pick weeds, to change the classroom hamster bedding.
That’s the heart of service.
It’s the heart Stephen had.
It’s the heart Christ wants us to have.
(2) “Ordinary” Church Members …Knows God’s Word is MOST Important
That is why the Apostles came up with the position of bread deliverers.
And its why Stephen took the job.
Because God’s word was most important. And the Apostle’s needed to be spending their time doing that.
It’s why Stephen took advantage of the personal conversation and opportunities he had to share the message of God’s Word.
It’s why Stephen refused to compromise on God’s Word – even when faced with death.
Again – this is a key point of us today.
Because sometimes the things that we volunteer for at church don’t seem to be related to God’s Word.
There are things that are easy to relate – preaching, teaching, worship music playing, eldering….
…But other things are harder to see the connection. Things like: weed pulling, coffee making, website maintenance, and watching kids in the nursery.
In the bigger picture, these things free me up to share God’s Word. They free up Precious Lambs teachers to teach God’s Word. They free up guests and visitors to focus on God’s Word. They are absolutely, important and integral to a congregation’s Planting the Message of Jesus in the Heart of North Raleigh.
May I take a brief moment to free up all of you Stephens out there. To thank all of you who have been serving throughout this past year – as we grow, and more things are on my plate and more things are on our plans – thank you for your service to keep God’s Word as most important.
And a brief what now – consider ways you can continue to do that. Keep your eyes open as you serve for ways that you can share Jesus on a personal level.
Whether it’s talking to a fellow volunteer while trimming weeds…
Or welcome a visitor while you greet.
Or simply not complaining – like the people were doing – to help us stay less focused on complaints and more focused on our Savior Jesus.
(3) “Ordinary” Church Members …Suffer for their Faith
Because Stephen didn’t do anything wrong.
Stephen was simply delivering bread.
He was helping the sick.
And he was telling about Jesus.
But he suffered. He suffered even giving his life over to death.
Here’s the reality. Sometimes church Members, even “ordinary” church members suffer for their faith.
In fact, I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more often? Because Pastors deal a lot with church people.
Pastor have to spend a good amount of time in God’s Word prepping a sermon.
Pastors often get to teach people on their turf.
You work in the world.
You live in the world.
You have friends and family in the world.
You do life among the people that reject His Word and sometimes –reject you for following Jesus.
Expect to suffer.
A mean comment on Facebook.
A tension at work.
An angry speech from a family member.
Expect to suffer for following Jesus. Because honestly, it’d be extraordinary if ordinary church members didn’t suffer for their faith.
It’s entirely ordinary for ordinary church members to suffer.
And that’s ok.
It’s ok, because of our final point:
(4) “Ordinary” Church Members…Receive the Extraordinary Crown of Life
That’s the message that empowered Stephen to be willing to die for his faith.
He knew his Savior.
He knew that Jesus conquered death.
He knew that Jesus promised that he too would conquer death.
And then – after his sermon – after the crowd is already angry – Stephen looks up and sees Jesus’ standing in heaven.
That’s really interesting.
Because usually in the Bible, God is presented as “sitting on his throne.”
But here Jesus is standing.
You have to picture the same thing.
You have to picture the same thing, because it’s truth.
When you are suffering, when you encounter opposition, when you are struggling to maintain faith in an opposing to faith world, see Jesus standing and calling to you.
Revelation 2:10, Jesus says this, “Be faithful even to the point of death and I will give you the crown of life.”
That’s an extraordinary promise.
It’s an extraordinary promise to even ordinary people like you and me.
And it’s true.
When you cling to that extraordinary promise, God will work through ordinary you to do extraordinary things.
Isn’t that what happened with Stephen? His story is written in Scripture. His passion is recorded for us to read. His confident holding to God’s Word motivates us to stand up for God’s Word.
The “ordinary” church member – through whom God worked extraordinary things.
Brothers and sisters may our God do the same through you.
May he work extraordinary things as we work to Plant the Message of Jesus in the Hearts of North Raleigh. Amen.
I’m pretty excited today because we are beginning a brand-new series in which we study the book of Acts. Acts is a book that picks up right at the end of Jesus’ life and work on this earth. It chronicles the Early Christian Church and their struggles to maintain faith in Jesus and share Jesus in a society that was very much against Jesus. I’m particularly excited because I think we can learn a lot from this group and its early escapades.
Still – you might say:
Why are we studying the Early Church? That was over 2000 years ago. A lot has changed. We have iPhones. We have self-driving cars. We have Starbucks Coffee. We have the ability to order something at Walmart online and pick up curbside.
How, in the world, are we similar to the Early Church?
A lot of ways:
The Early Church was a relatively small group of people
We are a relatively small group of people.
The early church was trying to share Jesus with their community.
We are trying to share Jesus with our community.
The Early Church faced a society that was hostile to Christianity.
We face an American society increasingly hostile to Christianity.
The Early church was led by God.
We too are led by God.
We are very similar to the early Church. In a lot of ways, they underwent the same challenges that we are going through. Study their values, their goals, and their errors – will teach us some very important lessons.
Today we are beginning that journey in Acts 1. It’s the last interaction with Jesus and his disciples before he leaves them. Our goal is to listen to Jesus words, analyze them and take to heart a few valuable words about mission work here in North Raleigh. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The End of One Mission
Acts 1 is where we are going to be to start. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”
A couple of notes:
The book of Acts was written by a guy named Luke. When he talked about his “former book”, it’s a reference to a book in the Bible called – “Luke.” That book is all about Jesus’ life, ministry and death.
Interesting to note that Luke, as a character in his own historical account, doesn’t appear in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, he doesn’t appear in the book of Acts until about 2/3 of the way through the story. That’s important because it means Luke was not an eyewitness of most of his accounts. However, Luke was a journalist. A scholarly journalist. He investigated thoroughly the accounts of Jesus and the Early Church in order to write down first-and accounts of what happened.
His first book focused on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
His second – on what takes place next.
Acts is the sequel. It’s the part two. It’s the Empire Strikes Back to Star Wars. It’s Weekend at Bernie’s II to Weekend at Bernie’s.
That’s why these first couple of verses require some knowledge of the first book. Because in the climax of the book of Luke, Jesus dies. He is killed on the cross. But then, three days later (spoiler alert) he comes back to life. After he comes back to life he presented himself to his disciples and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
That’s because Jesus had died. The disciples had seen him die. Most dead people stayed dead.
It was hard to believe he had come back to life. And when the disciples first saw him – they were frightened and figured that they had seen a ghost or a vision or some kind of illusion.
If you read Luke’s book, you can read about those convincing proofs.
He appears to some women at the tomb.
He appears to two disciples on the road.
He appears to his disciples in a locked room.
He appears again and again to remove the disciples fears and convince them – HE IS ALIVE!
Fast Forward to the book of Acts. It’s the end of the 40 days. Jesus has appeared to them throughout those 40 days. The disciples are no longer frightened, and their doubts have dissipated.
So…they ask Jesus a question:
Lord, are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel? (v.6)
Are you finally going to put the Roman government in its place?
Are you finally going to take your place as ruler on earth?
Are you going to set up a Christian Utopia here in Jerusalem?
Are you going to give us spots as princes and judges and cabinet members?
Are you going to get a palace where we can each lay down in a hammock, while someone waves a palm branch to cool us and someone else feeds us grapes?
Are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel?
We could get into the inaccurate soteriology of the disciples.
We could discuss their incomplete understanding of God’s Will.
We could talk about their complete failure to correctly apply Messianic prophecy.
But for our purposes, it might be best to simply paraphrase Jesus’ response to their question.
The disciples ask: Lord, are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel?
Jesus replies, “No.”
II. The Beginning of Another
But Jesus doesn’t dwell there. Look at his comments in verse 8. Because in verse 8, Jesus completely reverses the disciples’ concept of what comes next. Look at Jesus’ words:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (v.8)
(1) Spiritual, not Structural
The disciples had this concept of Jerusalem being actually, physically rebranded. They pictured the population sign being changed from “Jerusalem” to “Christ-a-topia.” They thought the Roman flagged being dropped and replaced by a flag with a giant cross. They figured that the “Knights of Columbus – Jerusalem Chapter;” would soon become the “Knights of Columbus – Jesus City Chapter.”
But they were wrong.
Jesus was never interested in setting up a physical kingdom of earth.
It didn’t ask for a throne.
He didn’t ask for political power.
He didn’t want the title of President.
He was interested in people’s hearts. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word.
The Holy Spirit brings people to faith.
The Holy Spirit builds people in faith.
The Holy Spirit builds people into God’s kingdom.
The Holy Spirit builds people as God’s kingdom.
Do you see the twist? The disciples thought that God’s kingdom would be a physical, geographical location.
Jesus taught that God’s kingdom would be spiritual.
That’s important for us to remember.
Precious Lambs’ expansion is getting closer and closer to completion. Trees are planted; the building is painted; inspections are done to start getting drywall hung in the building. Soon it’ll be complete. Soon it’ll be filled with children. Soon it’ll be a fixture of North Raleigh.
But that’s not the end game.
Our goal is not to simply cut the red ribbon.
Our goal is to use that building to build connections to the community.
Our goal is to use that building to build souls into Christ.
Our goal is to use that building to build God’s kingdom.
Remember – God’s kingdom is spiritual, not structural.
That (school) building is not the end.
This (church) building is not the end.
Jesus in people’s hearts is the end.
(2) Not on the Sidelines Anymore
The disciples had asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore...” They had this picture of Jesus heading out and giving speeches. Of Jesus physically leading the charge against the Romans and knocking out entire armies simply by calling down fire from heaven.
But that’s not how Jesus says it will work. Check out verse 8b. Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”
For years, the disciples had been on the sideline.
They had cheered Jesus on.
They had watched safely on the sidelines.
It was time to get in the game.
And that’s even more shocking when you consider who the disciples were:
“You” as in the disciples.
“You” as in Doubting Thomas.
“You” as in too nervous to say anything at my trial John.
“You” as in unknown, unimportant seeming Simon the Zealot.
“You” as in racist Nathanael.
“You” as in greedy Philip.
“You” as in loud mouthed, thinking without talking, denial of Jesus, Peter.
Since it is recorded for us to read…
“You” as in “you.”
Sinful, imperfect you.
That’s so important to remember. Because it is so easy to feel like “God could never work through me.”
I’m too old.
I’m too young.
I’m too quiet.
I’m too loud.
I’m too sinful.
But if you believe in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit.
If you have the Holy Spirit, God has chosen you to be a part of his kingdom.
If you are a part of his kingdom, you aren’t just a brick. You’re a builder: God has tasked you with building his kingdom.
And God will build his kingdom through you.
He just might not build it where you expect.
(3) Not Local, but Global
Because again - final twist - the disciples asked Jesus if he was going to rebuild the kingdom “in Jerusalem.” With Jewish people, who spoke the Jewish language and celebrated Jewish holidays and got together to talk about how great the Jewish people were.
But look at Jesus’ response: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (v.8b)
Jesus didn’t want the message to stay with the Jews.
Jesus wanted all places.
You know – places like Raleigh.
Places like Durham.
Places like Chapel Hill.
Places like Morrisville, Zebulon and Fuquay-Varina.
Do you understand?
And that’s our goal. Our goal is to #GatherToTheGarden. It is to Plant the Message of Jesus in the Hearts of North Raleigh.
Notice it doesn’t say, “To plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of People who look like us…in North Raleigh.”
It doesn’t say, “Plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of People who talk like us…in North Raleigh.”
It doesn’t even say, “Plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of people who think like us…in North Raleigh.”
Plant the message of Jesus –everywhere.
Which is a bit intimidating.
Intimidating for us…and we’ve got over 100 gathered today.
The disciples. There were less than 12.
And they were supposed to bring the message to the ends of the earth?
And then, Jesus does something that makes the situation even more intimidating.
Because as he is talking…
As he is finishing his speech…
As he is smiling in their direction…
His feet lift off.
There’s about 6 inches of space between him and the ground – and the space keeps increasing.
Suddenly, Jesus is going up and up and up…
…like he’s a balloon without a balloon.
…Like he’s a kite only there’s not a kite.
…Like he’s being lifted by a drone, only drones are about 2000 years away from being invented.
He ascends past the trees.
He ascends past the birds.
He ascends past the clouds.
And the disciples – are stupefied.
In part, because that was incredible.
In part, because “HE LEFT THEM!?!” How can they ever continue his mission?
As the disciples are staring up into the sky…
They don’t notice two men join them.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come bac kin the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (v.11)
In other words, stop looking up.
Start looking around.
That’s what Jesus has called us to do.
Stop looking up.
He’s up there watching over you.
Stop waiting for Jesus to come back.
Stop waiting for Jesus to do the work.
He works through you.
Stop looking up.
Start looking around.
Start building his kingdom. Amen.
Joshua dabbed at the perspiration on his forehead.
They’re almost all here, Mr. Joshua Sir.
Joshua nodded from his seat behind a tree and took a sip of water. It was an important day. Joshua, the general of the Israelite army, was about to make a speech to tens of thousands of Israelites. They had gathered in Shechem – a place centrally located to the entire land of what – until recently – had been called Canaan.
Now it was known as Israel.
Joshua smiled at the thought. This is exactly what God had said. Over 500 years ago, God had promised this land would be theirs. God had said that he would give it to them. God had promised that he was going to do some awesome things to get them to this point even when they were slaves in Egypt!
And God had.
When they faced a roaring flood stage river and were unable to cross, God was with them…and split the waters in half for them to cross.
When they faced a gigantic 12-foot-thick wall surrounding the city of Jericho, God was with them…and knocked the walls at the sound of a trumpet.
When they were running out of daylight to defeat their enemies, God was with them and held the earth in its place, on its axis, pausing the universe to give them the land he desired to give!
The land was theirs.
It was all thanks to God.
But…recently…people seemed to be forgetting that.
He had overhead some of the soldiers talking about “What a great thing it was that they had done. And how they had won this land for themselves.”
He had seen fliers being passed around for a new group’s weekly meetings: the W.I.A.A.S. We Israelites Are Awesome Society.
He had noticed fewer and fewer people had been attending worship services on a weekly basis.
Even as Joshua watched the people file into the makeshift amphitheater, he could see signs of it.
The “Baal, golden calf god” t-shirts were speckled throughout the arena.
A tattoo could be seen that read “Praise to Asherah! The cool NEW god”
The look of annoyance on the teenager who could clearly be seen mouthing the words, “Why do we have to listen to what the LORD has to say? He isn’t relevant anymore.”
Joshua shook his head
And his eyes got a bit teary eyed.
How could they forget? How could they forget the LORD?
He got the signal from his assistants. The people were ready.
He took a deep breath.
He may have been old. He may not be hip. He may not be cool.
But he knew…EXACTLY what needed to be said:
Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served or the gods of the Amorites in whom you are now living. But…as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (24:15)
Today we look at the final chapter in the book of Joshua. We will unpack this statement from Scripture as we learn (1) why serving two gods doesn’t work (2) which household gods to throw away (3) which God to serve and (4) how to ensure that our households serve that God. Before we do that, a prayer: Strengthen us this morning by the truth, O God. Your word is truth. Open our eyes to see what YOU want us to see. Open our ears to hear what YOU want us to hear. Open our hearts to believe what YOU would have us believe. Amen.
I. Is it Possible to Serve Two gods?
Maybe this seems a bit strange to you. Why is God so jealous? Shouldn’t he be content if people worship him sometimes? Think about it:
People have two dogs.
People have two cats.
People have two kids.
People have two Netflix series that they watch at the same time.
Why can’t people have two gods?
The answer lies within the definition of a god. A god is “whomever or whatever you love, fear, and trust the most.” Makes sense. God is who you view as most powerful. God is who you view as most protecting. God is the one to whom you are most thankful for things. God is the one to whom you turn when you are in trouble.
Notice. God is a superlative. He is MOST. If we think back to English class, do you remember what a superlative means? It means there is nothing that holds a higher content of whatever adjectival quality is attributed to it.
The spiciest chili pepper is the ghost pepper. Nothing is spicier.
The tallest mountain in North Carolina is Mt. Mitchell. No mountain is taller.
The best biscuits in Raleigh are at Rise Bakery. No biscuits are better.
When faced with a superlative, the reality is that there can only be one.
I’m a pastor. Pastors should be all things to all people. In other words, I want to enjoy the things people enjoy so that I can serve them with the message of God’s Word. That means I like coffee with the coffee drinkers and tea with the tea drinkers. It means I high five those who like high fives and shake hands with those who like to shake hands. It means I cheer for UNC with UNC fans and the Wolfpack with Wolfpack fans. I am neutral.
At least, in theory.
A couple of years ago the two teams were playing in a football showdown. I thought to myself, “I don’t know who I’m going to cheer for.” But as the game went on, I noticed something. There was definitely a team that was I was cheering for. There was definitely a team that I like better.
Now...I’m not telling which one. I don’t need to get mugged after this. But do you get the point? When pitted against one another, one team becomes more important than the other. You can’t have two superlatives.
And if that’s true for football teams, wouldn’t it be true with “god?”
Jesus said this, “You cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Mt. 6:24)
Because when Jesus says, “Serve me only” and Allah says, “Serve me only.” You can’t serve one without immediately breaking the command of the other.
You can’t serve two gods.
II. Society’s Household Idols
That was the problem that ancient Israel was facing. There were a bunch of different options that were suddenly available to them in their new land. Joshua mentions the “gods of your ancestors and the gods the Amorites.” Those were the ‘false gods’ that were a part of their society. There were a few:
There was Baal – a bronze god that was ½ human and ½ cow.
There was Dagon – a stone gold that was ½ human and ½ fish.
There was Asherah – a formless fertility goddess that you worshipped by having intercourse in front of the statue.
They were new.
They were interesting.
They seemed to allow more “fun.”
The only problem? None of them were real.
Baal was a bronze statue.
Dagon was a stone statue.
Asherah a piece of wood that had etchings, paint, and a bit of glitter tossed on it.
How could any of these things be “most” powerful if they didn’t even come into existence without the artistic hands of the human being?
How could any of them be “most” loving if they couldn’t even have emotions?
How could you put their trust in any of them, if you got into a bit of trouble and, “Oh no, I left my god in my other pair of pants?”
Baal, Dagon and Asherah are not as popular today. (You might not have even heard of them until today.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of false gods in our society. Here are a few:
Have you heard of this god before? He’s very popular in our society. Sometimes he’s green with one dead president on it. Sometimes he’s a little piece of metal that fits in your pocket. Sometimes he’s just a bunch of numbers that appear in that frequently used banking app on your phone.
Money is not bad. We need money. But the problem is society tells us to trust money to fix our lives. And when we believe that, we start trusting money more than God.
Yes. I know God is there, but things are going well, because I have money. Thanks be to you, O money.
Things aren’t going well. It’s because I don’t have enough money.
If I want things to be good for my kids and for them to have opportunities, I’d better work more, I’d better make more money, because money will fix us.
Money doesn’t care about you.
Money didn’t create you.
Money was created in some US Government mint machine.
Money will not save you to eternity.
It will just get spent.
Don’t choose it for your household god.
Academics are a big deal in America. There’s all kinds of pressure to teach your kids lots of things and lots of stuff. The goal is so that they have a 5th grade education by the time they are five. We do it because we figure that they’ll get ahead. If they are only smart enough, then they get a job and life will be wonderful for them.
But what happens if we trust Academics as the key to a good life—more so than God?
Yes. Bible study is important, but if my girl gets a 4.0 then she’ll be set for life!
I’m sorry honey, there’s no time for devotion tonight; you need to be working on homework!
Yeah, I know…Sunday School and getting you ready for eternal life, but…this online course? It might get you to Harvard.
Academia is good, but Academia is also not god.
Don’t make it your household god.
I asked a mom what she had going on that weekend. She response that she was taking her kids to soccer in the morning, then get karate, then swim lessons, then chess club, and finally home for piano lessons. In other words – she was working for Uber.
But this is a common thing. The notion is that the only good parents are the ones that get their kids involved in at least seven extra curriculars. (And almost none of them are ever God related. Because God is the one extracurricular that society frowns on, but…I digress.) The point is that there’s this pressure to devote your life and your kids to extracurriculars. Because maybe they’ll be the next Lebron James…and then they’ll be set.
Extracurriculars aren’t bad. But when you start to devote more of your life to them than God then…there’s trouble.
School House Rock songs become more important than God songs.
Swimming lessons become more important than baptism.
Kids Cooking class becomes can’t miss while worship becomes…I suppose, if there’s time.
Extracurriculars are fine. They are also not god.
Don’t make them your household gods.
(4) Your Kids Themselves
That might be a bit strange. You might not label your kid as god, yet – we mentioned earlier a god is whoever you fear, love and trust most in your life.
Do you ever do something solely because you have a fear of not getting your daughter’s approval?
Have you ever not disciplined a kid for sin because you love their visible smile more than God’s invisible one?
Do you find yourself trusting that as long as my kid is happy (even if the happy is artificial flavoring induced) life will work out?
And suddenly we don’t feed God’s Word to our kids because – they really like it and I gotta keep them happy.
Here’s the truth: If you devote yourself to serving your kid’s desires instead of serving them the truth of God (and His Word), then you aren’t serving your kid.
Because happy people still die.
But people with faith in their Savior, live with eternal life.
And if you aren’t serving your kids a steady diet of their Lord, then…
You aren’t telling them about their Savior.
You aren’t telling them about his forgiveness.
You aren’t telling them about the peace he won for us.
You aren’t telling them about the One, the Only One who can get them into the promised Land!
III. The God who Serves You
Because he is the only option for household God – who has served you.
“I did not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom payment for many.” (Mt. 20:28)
Think about this. Jesus said that His purpose was not to be served. He didn’t come to earth so that his disciples could kiss his feet, set him up in a hammock, and start waving palm branches at him. He did come to earth because he needed us to sing songs to Him, give money to Him, and say prayers to Him.
He came to serve.
And not just a glass of Coca Cola – or a bowl of Tostitos.
He came to serve with his whole life.
Even giving up his life as a ransom payment.
Because there is probably nothing worse than having a part of your family kidnapped. Can you imagine that? If someone was kidnapped, one of your kids, and there was nothing but one of those notes with only newspaper cutout letters that said, “Bring me $1 million dollars by Wednesday or else, you’ll never see your loved one again,” that would be awful! You’d probably do anything to get that $1 million. Take out a loan. Call al your family and friends. Sell all of your stuff on Amazon. Whatever it takes to get back your family member.
That’s what happened to us.
We followed other gods.
We fell into sin.
We were trapped – ransomed away from God’s family!
Only the ransom payment wasn’t a million dollars.
It wasn’t a bag full of gold.
It wasn’t even a getaway chopper.
It was the death of God.
So that’s what God did.
He gave up his life to save you.
And as we were being released from our sins.
As we were being released from our imprisonment to guilt.
As we were getting ready to mourn our God who gave up his life for us…
…three days later? He rose! He came back to life! He not only set us free but defeated our captors once and for all with his life and death on the cross!
Which means he still serves us.
He serves us peace in His Words.
He serves us forgiveness with His Promise.
He serves us adoption papers with baptism.
He serves us daily – with his promise of protection!
Which leads to this important truth:
God wants us to serve him because then he is truly serving you!
If you don’t serve God – if you reject him – if you want nothing to do with him, all of his gifts mean nothing! You’ve thrown them away.
But when we serve God.
IV. What Now?
(1) Throw Away your False gods
That was what Joshua told the Israelites. Take those false gods. Pick up those stone statues. Take those wooden poles and…toss ‘em. Burn ‘em. Destroy ‘em. Have nothing to do with them ever again.
Today God is calling us to do exactly that. Take those false gods…take that false god love and throw it away. Throw it at the feet of the cross. That’s confession. Jesus will take it to the cross, beat it with a hammer, nail it to a few pieces of wood, then take it down and throw it away into a tomb.
And…here’s a thought. Is there something that is taking up all of your time? Is there something that is getting in the way of you and God? Cut it out. Maybe you think you can’t do that, well, then why not cut it back? Remove the false gods so there’s time for worshipping the real God. Because when you worship the real God – he will be serving you!
(2) Make the LORD Your ONLY Household God
Don’t just do this for you; do it for all of your house. In fact, make the LORD your only household God.
Because contrary to what society tells you today, God is all you need.
When there are family struggles, God is all your need.
When there is sickness, God is all you need.
When there is sadness, God is all you need.
When there is guilt, God is all you need.
When there is death, God is all you need.
That’s what Joshua knew.
It’s what got Joshua to the Promised Land.
It’s what got Joshua to THE Promised Land.
It’s what will get you and your family there as well. Amen.
Do you know what I really love? Couches. Couches are awesome.
And if I’m telling the truth – there are times throughout the week when I dream of my couch.
When I’m working out, can’t wait to go to the couch.
When I’m tired of typing things, can’t wait to go to the couch.
When I’m stressed out, can’t wait to go to the couch, grab a bag of Doritos and catch up on America’s Got Talent.
Rest is good.
Rest keeps us going.
The promise of rest keeps us working.
We’ve been spending all summer in the book of Joshua. We have heard about the hard work of the Israelites in conquering the Promised Land and following God’s commands. Today we are going to hear about why it was all worth it. Our goal is to look back at the historical listings and land ownership documents in order to learn some valuable lessons about God’s promises of rest.
Before we do that, let’s pray: Strengthen us this morning by the truth, O God. Your word is truth. Open our eyes to see what YOU want us to see. Open our ears to hear what YOU want us to hear. Open our hearts to believe what YOU would have us believe. Amen.
I. Caleb’s Reward
Start our exploration of inheritance by looking at a man named Caleb. If you’ve been following along with this series from the beginning, Caleb might be a familiar name.
But just in case you need review…backtrack about 45 years.
Caleb was a middle aged warrior. He must have been a skilled fighter and a trusted infantryman, because Moses gave him a very important task. Caleb was selected as one of the 12 men who would infiltrate the region of Canaan, spy on the land, and bring back a report on the best places to attack, the weaknesses of the men, and the condition of the terrain.
In short, the group was supposed to come up with a plan to defeat Canaan.
Ummmm…it’s nice and all, but…is milk and honey really worth getting squashed like a bug?
These guys are giants! We don’t stand a chance.
Here’s our proposal for military action: (1) Pack up (2) March in the opposite direction (3) Never return.
The majority of the spies gave up before they even started.
Caleb walked forward to Moses.
Um. Mr. Moses, sir. I know I’m only one man. But I have a different idea. Yes, the people are big and yes, the men are muscular and yes, they would squash us in a one on one battle.
But…we aren’t alone. God is with us. You say these men are giants. God is a giant to these giants. With him on our side, nothing can stop us.
But unfortunately, his idea was drowned out by the misery of the other spies.
And the people listened to the other spies.
And God rebuked the people.
And God said that none of those adults would enter the Promised Land.
None…except Joshua and Caleb.
The LORD said, “No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors, except Caleb...He will see it and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the LORD wholeheartedly!” (Deut. 1:35-36)
Fast forward 45 years.
40 years in the wilderness.
5 years in battle.
45 years of following God.
And Caleb is ready for his inheritance.
Goodness. He’s 85 years old. It’s time for him to retire.
And there were plenty of places available that Israel already had in its possession.
You might expect him to choose a quiet farm.
A lazy valley.
A nice bungalow by the river.
“Now then give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.” (14:10-12)
Does this not seem a bit crazy?
Instead of taking the easy way.
Instead of choosing a simple plan.
Caleb wants a challenge.
Caleb wants to fight.
Caleb wants to head to the area that he had seen years ago and fight for his land…against giants…
…at 85 years old!?!
And the reason for his confidence?
It wasn’t his impeccable physical condition.
It wasn’t some secret serum of energy plucked from the honey of the land.
It wasn’t himself.
It was God.
“With the LORD helping I will drive them out just as He said.” (v.12)
Here’s the truth: Confidence in God leads to confidence in action.
And this confidence comes regardless of your age.
Whether you’re young and inexperienced.
Whether you’re older and tired.
Whether you’re middle aged and dealing with midlife crises –
Confidence in God leads to confidence in action.
That’s important to us as a church. Because God has given us a big task to do -- “Go and make disciples of all nations…” – And we might look at that statement and combine it with America’s perception on religion and decide: “I’m a believer now. I’m pretty content to take it easy, put my feet up on the pews and relax. Here. Here’s a buck or two for mission work. Enjoy.”
I’m not sure that’s serving God vigorously.
That’s serving God…while limping.
Be like Caleb.
Because you can be confident in God:
He kept Caleb safe for 45 years!
He provided bread from heaven.
He helped him cross the Jordan river.
He toppled the walls of Jericho.
He caused the sun to stand still and give Caleb and his friends an extra 24 hours to defeat their enemies!
That’s the God that you have on your side. A God that has shown similar power to your life.
He has kept you safe throughout your life.
He provides nourishment in his Word.
He helps you cross the challenges you face.
He toppled the wall of sin with his death on the cross.
And has extended your life into eternity through the resurrection of his Son!
Just imagine what it would be like if we stopped intimidating ourselves into not sharing the Gospel.
Or fighting amongst ourselves to distract us from sharing the Gospel.
Imagine if we were like Caleb and vigorously; confidently; boldly share Jesus!
There’d be evangelism going on in all of our homes.
There’d be evangelism at about 100 different workplaces.
There would be conversations about Jesus at Starbucks, Sheetz and Steak & Shake!
Take on this challenge. Back 2 Church Sunday is coming up in two weeks. I’ve got invites ready for you to pass out to others. I have email invitations for you to pass on. There will be social media blasts for you to like, forward, etc.
Don’t just send me an invite. I’m already coming.
Choose a friend who doesn’t know Jesus.
Even a friend who doesn’t like Jesus.
Even a friend who has denounced Jesus.
And invite them.
Tell them about Jesus.
And serve the LORD vigorously confident that the LORD is vigorously fighting for you.
II. The Temptation to Give Up
Enough about Caleb. Because God also has promises and inheritance for many people who didn’t follow God so whole heartedly. Chapters 14-19 chronicle the allotment of the land for all twelve tribes of Israel.
Perhaps what is most interesting is the relation of these sections to a bedside prophecy about 500 years earlier.
…the place is Egypt. Jacob, also known as Israel, is on his deathbed. Before he passes from the earth, he calls his twelve sons --- Yes, twelve sons – into his room. They crowd around the bed. They have tears in their eyes as they listen to his heavy breathing.
Yet in the midst of this sadness, God does something amazing. He works through Jacob to prophecy about the very land allotment that is reference in Joshua. Jacob speaks to his sons – and 500 years later the descendants of each of his sons is allotted land in accordance with these prophecies. Take a look:
Let’s start with Jacob’s most famous son – Joseph. He is the one with the multicolored coat. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers, thought to be dead, but ended up saving the land of Egypt from starvation. Jacob grants a double blessing to Joseph. He says, Joseph is a fruitful vine…a vine near a spring who climbs up over a wall. (v.22)
Immediately I get the picture of a one of those vines that you don’t plant. A weedy vine that you can’t quite control. What happens with those types of vines? You don’t plant them; but they end up taking up more of your garden and fence than anything else.
Jacob prophesies that Joseph will be like that. His land will be great and double in portion to anyone other tribes. Which seems strange. Because if you look over all of the book of Joshua, you will not find mention of a tribe named Joseph.
That’s because Joseph’s inheritance was double.
That’s because Josephs inheritance was given to his two sons – Manasseh and Ephraim.
God gives these people twice the land…and again God keeps his promises.
Jacob says to Zebulon: Zebulon will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships... (v.13) Which is exactly what happens. Joshua allots the Zebulonians (Zebulonites? Zebulonii? the people of Zebulon) an area that’s less than ten miles from the Mediterranean sea. These guys wore a lot of flip flops and got out their surfboards, because it happened exactly as God promised.
Jacob says to Asher: Asher’s food will be rich; delicacies fit for a king. (V.20) And 500 years later, Joshua grants them land near the northern border of the Mediterranean. Archaeologists indicate that that particular portion of land was filled with some of the country’s richest soil. It was perfect for growing pomegranates. God gave the Asherites wonderful farmland -- and God kept his promise.
Jacob says to Simeon: Simeon and Levi…will be scarce and dispersed in Israel. (v.5) This was a punishment on the brothers for a violent incident that God greatly disapproved of. And as a result, Levi doesn’t receive any inheritance at all. In fact, they are simply given places in cities to live in. And Simeon is given the smallest allotment of all. An allotment so small that it eventually gets swallowed up by one more tribe.
Jacob says to Judah: Judah, your brothers will praise you…because you are a lion’s cub. The scepter will not depart from Judah. (v.9-11) And like a lion – God gives Judah the lion’s share of the land. Look at how large it is! It’s huge. It’s the largest section of any tribe.
And above all else? It contains Jerusalem.
Jerusalem which would be home to many kings.
Jerusalem which would be home to many kings of Israel.
Jerusalem which would be home to THE king of Israel.
Here’s the point of all this. These land allotments are proof that God keeps his promises. Whether he’s promising lots of land, or a beach front, or even a tiny little bit…God gives exactly what he promises.
So, what about you? What has God promised you?
A beachfront like Zebulon?
A good gardening area like Asher?
Or just enough land for one of those tiny little houses like Levi?
God has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:12)
No matter what the devil says.
No matter how much he tells you that you don’t qualify.
No matter how much he tells you that you might forget.
God has not forgotten you.
He already paid for it.
He has a place reserved for you in heaven.
No matter how long it takes.
III. Joshua’s Inheritance
Which leads us to Joshua.
Because the very last inheritance that God passes out, isn’t given to some lonely orphan.
It isn’t given to some naysaying skeptic.
It’s given to their leader.
When they had finished dividing the land into its allotted portions, the Israelites gave Joshua son of Nun an inheritance among them, as the Lord had commanded. (Joshua 19:49)
Do you see the point?
Joshua followed God and God followed through.
When others didn’t want to, he stuck to God’s promises.
When he couldn’t get past a river, he stuck to God’s promises.
When he faced giant walls, he stuck to God’s promises.
When his people sinned and failed, he stuck to God’s promises.
When he fought an army of five kings, he stuck to God’s promises.
And God stuck to Joshua.
And Joshua had a home.
And Joshua had rest.
Do the same and God will do the same. Follow God and he’ll follow through for you.
If you’ve been abandoned, cling to God’s promises.
If you’ve been sick, cling to God’s promises.
If you have financial struggle, cling to God’s promises.
If you’re facing death, cling to God’s promises.
God will keep his promises and you will receive your inheritance…in heaven. Amen.
I. The Wall
As the soldiers peered at it through the thick foliage of the distance, they couldn’t help but feel a bit intimidated.
The city was named after the “moon god.” One could see why. It had an abundance of water and a pleasant year-round climate. Everything was impressive. Impressive gardens. Impressive marketplaces. Impressive culture and night life. From the distance, one could see ancient skyscraper-like apartments.
But the thing that was most noticeable about Jericho?
A double wall.
A thick double wall.
A wall of solid stone.
A wall of solid stone wrapping completely around the city.
And because of the impending invasion, the city gate was closed.
There was no way in.
There was no way out.
There was no way under – without having the guards at the top of the wall pin you to the ground with spears.
There was no way over – without taking an arrow to the chest.
For some reason…
They were planning on going through it.
The LORD said to Joshua, “March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have the priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven time with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them around a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse.” (6:2-5)
In other words: March around the city and make some music.
The 6-foot-deep, 15-foot-high double wall will be no match for some jazz.
This had to be one of the greatest faith tests that the Israelites had ever faced. Yes, they had just seen God’s Almighty power as he split the Jordan river in half, but there’s a couple of reasons that this faith test was more challenging.
(1) The Composition
Because this wall isn’t made of liquid. It wasn’t easily transported like the Jordan River might have been. It wasn’t able to be manipulated by the simple touch of a hand. This was a solid wall of stone.
Just to give us a better understanding of what that wall was, archaeology in the 1950 has uncovered remains of a wall around the area where Jericho would have been. Based on their finding, the mound of the city was surrounded by a great earth rampart with a stone retaining wall at its base. The retaining wall was some 12-15 feet high. On top of that was a mudbrick wall of about 6 feet thick and 20-26 feet high.
The third little pig would have been proud of the people of Jericho. How in the world would you get past that wall? This task was humanly impossible. There was no technology of any kind that would allow them to destroy it.
So… God’s plan.
(2) The Tools
A bomb? Didn’t exist yet.
A battering ram? That allows the defenders to attack the single spot – for the hours you’d be at work.
A ladder? You’ll take an arrow to the chest before you get very high.
God says that they should walk.
I was playing BIG JENGA last week with Julianna. Have you ever played BIG JENGA? It’s the board game where you remove one brick from the tower at a time without having it fall over – only it’s a giant version of it.
I remember as I started to get nervous that I might lose. I started marching around, stomping my feet, jumping up and down in hopes that the vibrations might cause the tower to fall during Julianna’s turn.
If marching around a toy the whole point of which is to make it fall doesn’t make that toy fall down, how likely do you think marching around a giant 6-foot-deep, 15-foot-high double wall until it falls down will be?
Because in order to split the Jordan River all that had to happen was the priests touching the river with their feet. Then – instant miracle. This miracle was going to take days. It was going to repetition. It was going to take repetition of the same thing without any visible results.
And the people of Jericho would have noticed:
You idiots. What are you doing?
Oh no, Bob! They’re walking again! Duck!
I’m cowering in fear at the sight of those deadly, deadly trumpets!
In fact, if you’ve ever seen Veggie Tales, this is where the people of Jericho – played by a bunch of peas – come up with this doozy of a song: “Keep walking, but you won’t knock down our wall. Keep walking. But it isn’t going to fall. It’s plain to see that your brains are very small, so keep walking, but you won’t knock down our wall.”
Question – how likely are you to keep doing something if you don’t see any results?
God says, “Pray to me and I will hear it.” But…what if you don’t get what you’re praying for?
God says, “Study my Word and I will grow your faith.” When it feels like that isn’t doing anything, do you keep it up?
God says, “Trust in me.” When finances are tight, you’re behind on your mortgage, your ant’s in the hospital and there’s all kinds of stress at work – it sure seems a lot easier to just give up?
When it seems impossible, when it seems like there’s nothing going on, when it seems like God’s not doing anything…
God is at work.
And God specializes in demolishing walls.
II. The Demolition
At least, Joshua thought so.
And he was the commander.
So, no matter how foolish it sounds or how impossible it seemed, the soldiers obeyed.
They obeyed for six days.
They endured ridicule.
They endured doubt.
They endured sore calves.
Then, the seventh day.
They walked again.
They walked a third time and heard the ridicule from the soldiers at the wall.
They walked a fourth time and heard the doubting from the soldiers behind them.
They walked a fifth time and started to doubt themselves.
They walked a sixth time and heard Joshua’s command, “Keep going. God is with us. This will happen. Trust him.”
Then, they walked a seventh time. And as they made their way around to the same rock that they had seen so many times this past week – the priests stopped.
They lifted up their trumpets.
They pressed them to their lips.
They blew with all of their might.
And Joshua commanded them, “Shout! For the LORD has given you this city!”
The soldiers looked at one another.
They shrugged their soldiers.
And as they shouted, suddenly, they heard a bass added to their music.
It wasn’t coming from the trumpet.
It wasn’t coming from a fellow soldier.
It was coming from the wall.
The rocks began to tremble.
The fortification began to give way.
And the men shouted even louder.
When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet the wall collapsed. (v.20)
And they took the city. (v.21)
III. What Now?
1. Hire the Same Demolitionist
Nobody has the power to knock down walls like our God.
Not Home Builders, Inc.
Not Demolitions ‘R Us.
Not even the U.S. Army with all its fire power.
No one is an expert demolitionist like our God.
And the greatest wall torn down isn’t even this one from Joshua 6. Take a look at what Isaiah 30 says: Sin is like a high wall. That’s because sin does what walls do: It separates. Us from God. It makes it so that God’s on one side and we’re on the other side.
There is a disconnect.
There is a barrier.
There is a barrier of sin between us and God!
Maybe you’ve done sins and you’ve felt that.
Apart from God.
And there’s nothing we can do about it. No dynamite of doing good has any effect. The TNT of trying hard doesn’t make a dent. Even the hard-swung wrecking ball of “I’m really doing my best God,” will fail to tear that wall of sin down.
No one human can tear that wall down.
You can’t tear that wall down.
Only God can.
And He did.
Ephesians 2 says this, “Formerly you…were separate from Christ…without hope and without God in the world. But…in Christ you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace! Jesus has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility!” (v.10-14)
Understand what it’s saying:
Jesus is the spiritual TNT.
Jesus is the spiritual dynamite.
Jesus is the wrecking ball to knock down the wall of sin and leave us barrier-less…connected to God!
And finally….it means God is the one to turn to no matter what kind of wall your facing.
God destroyed the wall of sin. God destroyed the wall of Jericho.
Whatever wall you got? It’s no problem for him.
Hire him for all of your problems.
2. Appeal to His Grace
But…what if you’re part of the wall?
Do you remember Rahab? She was not an Israelite. She had a job that was not remotely God honoring – she was a prostitute. Yet when she heard that God was going to take back the Promised Land – she didn’t fight.
She appealed to God’s mercy.
Look what happens in verse 22 - Joshua said, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all that belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” So…the young men went in and brought out Rahab and all who belong to her.”
And here’s what’s most interesting. Her house – had been built into the wall. Yet it was the wall that was destroyed! How did Rahab make it out?
Even though she was a part of the wall (and by her sins against God was a part of the spiritual wall), God had mercy on her. God kept her alive. God brought her out. God spared her.
Have you built your own wall of sin between you and God?
Do you feel like you are a part of that wall?
Do you figure – there’s no way he’ll spare me?
Appeal to his grace.
Because while God is powerful – knocking down walls, our God is merciful to spare those who built the wall.
Without Jesus, you aren’t getting to God.
With Jesus, you are.
Call on his mercy.
Believe in Jesus.
You will not be destroyed with the wall.
You will be saved.
You will be a recipient of God’s incredible mercy.
Because those battle cries must have turned into cries of praise! God had done the impossible. God had knocked a wall down. God had kept his promises.
God had done the same for you:
He did the impossible.
Jesus knocked down the wall of sin.
Jesus kept his promise.
Shout for joy!
Don’t just do it here – but do it out there.
Do it when you go home to see the rest of your family.
Do it when you’re around your friends.
Do it on Facebook.
DO it on Instagram.
Do it at work, at the coffee shop and at the workout club.
Wherever you are – shout God’s praise! Tell others about the GREAT Things he has done.
Tell others about our God – and the walls he has brought down.