Tuesday, November 27, 2012

You've been elected to bless your neighbors: A Sermon

You can hear this sermon online by clicking here.

Please open your bibles to our text for today which is Acts 16:6-10. This is the third sermon in a series we’ve entitled “Visualize,  looking through a frame using your hands as in the picture to the left. The first week we “Visualized”, what it would look like to see our lives as influential lives, the second week, we visualized what it would mean to use our households as outposts for the kingdom of God, and this week we examine and visualize our impact on our neighbors. As we examine scripture and our lives, it becomes clear that we’ve been blessed. We are a blessed people to have a God like our God. We are blessed, not only to delight in what God has given us, but we are blessed to be a blessing to others. So this morning, we look at God’s call on us to preach the gospel in the most fullest sense, to have a specific focus as we are guided and directed by His Spirit, and how God calls us not only to visualize how wonderful it would be to bless our neighbors, but when we hear the call, to not delay, and immediately go as we have been sent!

Again, our text today is Acts 16:6-10, but before we read our passage let me lay a little groundwork here. Paul is on his secondary missionary journey and he’s going from place to place, preaching the gospel. This is, by the way, the primary function, the primary mission, of the Church. We, collectively speaking, are called to share the gospel, the “good news”, with the world.  God calls us to preach the gospel. 15 Chapters earlier in Acts, chapter 1 verse 8, we read that Jesus  tells the early Church this:

But 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.
Paul, and the early Church, took this call very seriously. The entire book of Acts, the history of the early Church, is about this: being witnesses, sharing the good news of what they had seen and experienced with the rest of the world. So when we read here in Acts 16:6-10, we see that this is exactly what Paul has dedicated his entire life to.

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. (Ephesus is the capital of the Roman province of Asia) 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia (This is the region to the North East), but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas (You can see Troas here on the map, it was an important seaport that was about 10 miles south of the ancient site of Troy which we’re familiar with from Homer’s The Iliad). 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia (Macedonia is basically this area to the west which is part of modern Greece) standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
God had called us to preach the gospel to them. We, as a community, as the body of Christ, as the Church, are called to preach the gospel. Now maybe when you hear that, you’re like me, you kind of get in your mind the idea of the street corner preacher, standing on a soapbox, proclaiming something with the bible his hand, but the gospel, the good news is much more encompassing than that simple image. In fact we preach the gospel, together as a community, as the Church, in essentially three ways, because everything great comes in threes.

The first is that we preach the gospel through Gospel Living. In fact, most of the New Testament, the letters that are written to the various gatherings of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, if we read those the dominant theme is not Paul instructing people how to share the gospel verbally with others. You would think if it’s just a verbal proclamation then that’s what Paul would be telling people. This is how you share the faith we others. #1. Point out that they are sinners #2 Point out that they need a savior. #3 etc… Now to be sure, Jesus tells the Church as a whole through His disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations” and in Acts 1:8 to be “witnesses to the ends of the earth” and again the books Acts, the book that recounts the history of the early Church is all about this, however, the letters in the New Testament over abundantly emphasize gospel living. What I mean by that, is that the first Christians are told, and I’ve said this before, live your life in a way that demands a gospel explanation. Ephesians 4:1-4 says:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 4 There is one body and one Spirit”…and it goes on.

We are elected, called, and chosen by God and if we really believe that. If we really believe the good news in our lives then in response our lives will look different. We live the gospel, we live the good news, we live as those who have been called out and blessed to be sons and daughters of God. We are humble and gentle, patient, and we bear with one another in love. The gospel communities that we form should be a witness to the power of the gospel in our lives.  We are not called alone  but as a community, as one body with many parts, as the Church. Gospel living is a physical embodiment of preaching the good news. This is, by the way, the reason that we so whole heartedly believe in life groups here at Trinity. It is not possible to live together in community the way described in the New Testament, without gathering in these smaller spiritual families, that we call life groups. It is not possible to bear with another and love each other as deeply and relationally as we’re called to in God’s word if we aren’t in spiritual households with one another. If you are here today to just worship with us and then go home, I’m glad you are here, but if we as the Church are to live the gospel in ways that the world notices, as the Roman empire noticed the early Church communities, then we have to be faithful to the call to live together the gospel. If you’re not in a life group or a close spiritual family of some kind just write “life group” on your communication card and Nina will get in touch with you.

Now, we could stop here and say this is the sum of the gospel. Gospel living. And some do stop here. They become some good at loving each other at being blessed through community and communion with God, that they forget that we’ve been blessed in order to be a blessing to others. We could focus so much on the fact that we’ve been elected by God, chosen by Him, that we simply bask in that alone.
Obviously we just had elections, and the winners of those elections, of course made victory speeches. Could you imagine if every speech given during their terms following was a victory speech?  “I want to thank you for electing me. It’s so wonderful to have been elected. Thank you for going to the polls and choosing me. I won’t let you down.” Then two weeks later, the same “I want to thank you for electing me. It’s so wonderful to have been elected. Thank you for going to the polls and choosing me. I won’t let you down.” A year later, the same, and so on and so forth throughout their entire term. How ridiculous would that be? Well, unfortunately sometimes that’s what we sound like to God. “God thank you so much for electing me, for choosing me, for saving me. It’s so wonderful.” And we never move past this to actually blessing others, blessing our neighbors, in response to having been blessed. So yes gospel living a key part of preaching the gospel, but we have 2 more perspectives.

The second is Gospel Proclamation. We, together as a community, must proclaim, we must speak and tell people about the gospel. Despite fear and anxiety, we are called to tell others, with words, what we have witnessed in our lives and know to be true about our Lord our Savior Jesus Christ. Now you as an individual might not be called to be an evangelist, or as a teacher who can explain things well, but that’s why your in a life group, or a spiritual family of significant relationship, so that each member of the body can work together to accomplish the mission of the Church. We are, as the Church, called to preach the kingdom of God. Luke 9:1-2 describes the instructions that Jesus gave when sending His disciples out:

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

You see bolded there, to preach the kingdom of God. They didn’t go town to town and never say anything. They didn’t gather in Jerusalem and love each other and never invite others in or go out and tell people with sincerity and conviction about the good news that we have in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead and offers peace with God.

They also, however, didn’t go with words alone. The third part of the gospel on your notes page is Gospel Demonstration. Wherever they went, what did they preach? They preached the kingdom of God. They spoke about a new reign, a new kingdom, a new reality and they demonstrated that through their actions, not just amongst themselves in gospel living, but among those who might believe. Here’s the same verse again:

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority [to do what?] to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to [to do what?] heal the sick.

The gospel has an outward component to it. Namely we seek to see God’s kingdom come. We seek to see the sick healed, the poor uplifted, the homeless housed, the oppressed set free, and the values of humility, service, and love being implemented in our communities beyond these walls as we not only pray Thy Kingdom Come, but act to be used and empowered by God in answer to our own prayers.

We as a church have been called, chosen, elected and we are blessed in our gospel community, our gospel living but we are blessed to be a blessing to others as we proclaim and demonstrate the gospel to be a blessing to our neighbors.

Now in case I lost you, that was all my first point from verse 10 in our Acts passage. Paul is called to preach the gospel, we, together, are called to preach the Gospel, and we do so through Gospel living, Gospel proclamation, and Gospel demonstration. I love triangles so I've put one here to illustrate that first point.

The second point is that God calls us to a specific focus.  Where is Paul, in our passage, called to go? He’s called specifically to Macedonia. Our text says that the Holy Spirit prevents Paul from heading west towards the province of Asia and Ephesus, and then again that the Spirit of Jesus (same guy, different title) prevents Paul from heading North/Northeast into Bithynia. He’s called specifically to Macedonia. We too, whether in your individual life, in your close spiritual family, your life group, or in Trinity as a whole are called to a specific focus.

You might be wondering what this picture to the right is all about. I emailed out the entire Trinity staff and asked if anyone had a bed of nails. Guess what the response was? No one had one. If one of you seriously has one, write “bed of nails” on your communication card and we’ll get together. I was going to walk across a bed of nails for you, but no one had one, or wanted to admit that they had one. I did, however, have a picture of me in the past walking on a bed of nails so you could see me doing it, so there it is, those are my feet. No, obviously those aren’t my feet, but the former science teacher in me couldn’t pass this up as an example of focus, really more technically of pressure. They actually have bed of nails demonstrations in a number of science centers because they illustrate perfectly what happens if you spread pressure out over a large area. You see, the more nails there are, the more area that your foot comes in contact, the less impact or pressure each individual nail can have. The less number of nails there are, the less area your foot has to rest upon, the more focus, the more pressure, the more impact that individual nail can have. The same is true for us, in our missional efforts, in our efforts to impact the world and our communities with the kingdom of God. Paul is a nail that God uses at a precise moment, in a precise place, and calls him directly to Macedonia. God uses Paul as a nail to pierce through the darkness and break the strongholds that oppose seeing God’s kingdom come. We can be a single focused nail that has an amazing impact or we can spread ourselves so thin that you ultimately have we have no impact whatsoever.

Where or who might God be calling you to focus your missional efforts? What is your specific focus? What is your life group’s specific focus? What is Trinity’s specific focus? Maybe you are really into music and so perhaps a community of musicians is what God is calling you to. Maybe you are a veteran, whom we so proudly honor tomorrow on Veteran’s day, could it be that God is calling you to focus on the military in our area? Maybe it literally is your next door neighbor. Wherever, whatever it may be, find a specific focus to maximize your impact for the kingdom of God and make that focus a priority in your life as you seek to demonstrate and proclaim the gospel.

This brings up a crucial question, which is how do you determine your specific focus? The answer is that God calls and directs us by His Spirit in four ways. I know I said everything great comes in threes, but this one comes in fours. God speaks by His Spirit, or as our text says the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus.

The first is He speaks through current circumstances. God is God. He is the creator of the universe. He controls all things so it’s not beyond Him to be able to speak to you through circumstances. In our text it’s clear that something prevents Paul from going to Asia and something prevents him from going to Bithynia. We don’t know what it was. It could have been a feeling that he had. It could have been an illness. Some commentators make note that in verse 10 the language changes for they to us, indicating that Luke, the author of Acts joined them, who by profession was a doctor. So some commentators say perhaps Paul was driven the way he went to seek medical help from Luke, who was from Macedonia. Scripture doesn’t spell this out for us, but it’s clear that for one reason or another Paul is driven to not go to certain areas. Are there specific circumstances in your life right now, closed doors, that God might be using to drive you to a specific call He has for you? Are there specific gifts and abilities, circumstances, that your life group has that would seem to open a door for a specific missional focus?

The next is that the Spirit of God calls us through times of prayer. It’s usually in these quiet moments of spiritual intimacy with God, that we hear Him loudest. Yes, God can speak to us through visions, as he does Paul, but clearly in Scripture God promises to hear and respond to prayer. By the way, I encourage you that when you pray for guidance, that you allow moments of silence to listen. Sometimes we pray and say everything we need, dust off our pants and are on our way, but wait. Give God some space to speak to you through His Spirit which dwells within you.

The third is that God speaks to us by His Spirit through His Church . Just one more reason to be in a life group: God uses His people to speak to His people. Even in Paul’s vision, Paul doesn’t have a vision of God directly, or even of an angel, he has a vision of a man pleading for help. Maybe you have something coming to mind right now as I’m speaking to you. Write it down!  It amazes me but God uses even me, sinner though I am, to speak to others. And He uses others to speak to me. He uses His Church, His People, to speak to one another. It’s entirely possible that God is speaking through His Church to you right now and through His Word.

That’s the last one. God calls and directs us by His spirit through His Word. Sometimes I’ll hear people say, why doesn’t God ever speak to me? There is a reason that we call the bible God’s Word. This is one of the primary ways in which God speaks words to us. This is the reason we open God’ Word together every Sunday when we gather, but we as God’s people hear His word not only together right now, but also in our own times alone with Him, if we’re reading, if we’re listening, so to speak. God’s Word also serves as a guide by which we can evaluate what others are saying in the Church, what we are hearing in our Spirit in times of prayer, and witnessing in our current circumstances.

God never contradicts himself, so the more agreement you have between these four the more certain we can be of hearing God’s call and the more disagreement the more cautious we should be. How do we determine our specific focus? Look at your current circumstances, take times of prayer, listen to others who have God’s Spirit within them, go to Scripture and go at once!

The final point is that God call us to go at once!  Paul has a vision at night of a man urging him “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” The text says “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia.”

I remember a pastor once telling me a story about demon school, so I’ve stolen it for you. I think it was from a course called the Alpha course. There were once three demons in demon school learning about how to be demons and bother people. They had their final exam and they had to come up with a way in which to discourage or prevent people from coming to know God and have a relationship with Him. The first said, let’s whisper to people that there is no God. The other two said, that’ll never work: People can just look around at the beauty and the intricacy of creation and know that there’s a creator. The second one said, let’s try and convince people that there’s no such thing as evil, they won’t have a need for a savior or for God. The other two say, that’ll never work: People can just pick up the morning news and see the pain and suffering, the evil that exists in the world. The third one said, I’ve got it, we’ll tell them  put off believing and trusting God just one more day and that’s the one they felt had the most traction.

I can’t tell you how many times, my wife probably can, I’ve said tomorrow I’m going to start working out. Tomorrow I’m going to start waking up early in the morning. Tomorrow, just one more day, we can go. Monday, I’ll go and begin living the gospel and fulfilling the call to proclaim and demonstrate it. On Monday, I’ll spend time finding out where God is calling me to a specific focus. On Monday… Tomorrow…Friends, today is the Lord’s day. Let us rejoice and be glad in it, and let us go at once and preach the Gospel, in the fullest of senses, to our Macedonias where God is calling us today and visualize our blessed neighbors.

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