NextSunday Worship


May 6, 2018

“What God Wants from Us”

Dr. Mike Massar Acts 10 Year B - Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Witness of Scripture:

This morning we come to one of the most important texts

in all of the Bible.

It marks the turning point in the early church

and most certainly the book of Acts.

Interestingly enough, we are not

as familiar with this text

as we are others.

Perhaps it’s because this experience

comes immediately after

Paul’s conversion experience

on the Damascus Road.

And that experience was so powerful

that it would almost dwarf anything

that followed.

Nevertheless, we should pay close attention

to this story,

because it so much instructs and defines

our story

and the story of the church.

 

The setting for this text is most important.

In the narrative of the book of Acts itself

this story is sandwiched in between

several stories of conversion.

And you might note

that each of these conversion experiences

is different –

God deals with each of us

in different ways.

This story is a conversion story,

a most unique one at that.

 

The geographical setting is also important.

The story begins in a place called Caesarea.

Caesarea was a city built on the Phoenician seacoast

23 miles south of Mt. Carmel.

It was one of Herod the Great’s masterpieces.

As you will remember, Herod was an incredible builder.

This city reflects his genius.

Initially, the city did not have a natural harbor –

Herod had to construct it.

Along with it

he created a coliseum, amphitheater, and a temple

to adorn the city.

It was indeed

one of the wonders of that time.

Because of its exquisite beauty

and the practicality of its harbor,

Caesarea became the capital of Palestine,

the place where the Roman procurators

were stationed.

Along with them

were Roman troops.

Cornelius was a centurion,

an officer of these troops

stationed in Caesarea.

 

The other setting of the story

is the place where Simon Peter had journeyed –

Joppa.

A curious relationship in this story

is that Joppa is the city

where Jonah fled

trying to avoid God’s call

to Nineveh.

You will remember

that Jonah did not want to minister

to the Gentiles.

That piece of knowledge

has a peculiar link with this morning’s story.

 

The setting is important,

but even more so

are the characters involved.

And the two major characters

provide a study in contrasts.

 

Cornelius was a professional soldier,

professional in every way.

Being a centurion, he would have been

an officer of valued importance

in the Roman army.

Scholars have declared

that the centurion

was the “backbone”

of the Roman army,

dedicated to courage

and integrity

and valor.

Cornelius was a man of the world,

trained in the best tradition

of military leadership.

While Cornelius would have been looked up to

in every other part of the world,

in Israel he was looked down upon

because he was a Gentile,

and the Jews hated Gentiles.

Why, their prejudice was so great

that it is said

that Jewish help would not be given

to any Gentile woman in childbirth,

because that would only cause

another Gentile to be brought into the world.[i]

However, it does seem that this officer in the Roman Army

had a spiritual curiosity about him.

The phrase used in this Scripture,

“a devout man who feared God,”

is actually a description of Gentile people

who accepted the truth of the Jewish religion

and had become loose adherents

of the synagogue,

without going to the extent of

being circumcised and becoming full proselytes.

(Barclay, William; Acts; p. 79).

 

Simon Peter on the other hand

was a bit of a country boy,

never having ventured too far

out of Israel.

He was proficient in managing a fishing business,

but he gave that up to follow Jesus.

But even in following Jesus

Simon Peter was a devout Jew,

one we would call Orthodox.

That is,

he kept the Jewish law

and abstained from eating foods

prohibited in the Torah.

This is at the heart of his dream in Joppa,

because Simon Peter was taught in a dream

that it was all right to eat food

that had not been considered kosher.

This discovery and declaration

was monumental to any Jew,

because it was the Law

and kosher practice

that made the Jews Jews.

 

You can also see evidence of this

in verse “28″ when

Simon Peter declared that

“it was unlawful for a Jewish man

to associate with a foreigner.”

The Hebrew Scriptures have no direct command

forbidding Jews from “associating” with Gentiles,

but food prescriptions made dinners difficult.

What’s more, The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic oral teachings,

was much more limiting,

for it declared

that Gentiles who entered a home

rendered it ritually unclean.

(M. Tohoroth 7:6)

That is why the Jewish temple authorities

would not enter Pilate’s headquarters

during the trial of Jesus.

They wanted to avoid defilement

before Passover.

You see, this Jewish-Gentile conflict

was huge in first century Palestine

and a major issue for the church.

Simon Peter’s actions in this issue

were monumental in the work of the early church.

He, as much as Paul,

was an evangelist to the Gentiles,

it would seem,

eventually ending up

in the most Gentile of places,

Rome.

However, I would want to point out to you

that it wasn’t Simon Peter’s idea.

It was God’s.

You can catch that

by listening to Simon Peter

when he comes to Cornelius’s house:

“I ask you then,

why was I sent for?”

Simon Peter and Cornelius

had not had a prior relationship.

It was a divinely arranged encounter.

I think that is a monumental understanding of conversion.

As much as we are involved,

God is always there first.

(That should, by the way,

grant us so much more confidence

in our witnessing.

God is always there first!)

 

Well, two other intriguing items

caught my attention this week.

The first is that as courageous a man

as Cornelius was,

when encountered by God’s angel

in this vision

(which, by the way,

took place in broad daylight,

around 3 p.m.)

it says that Cornelius

stared in terror.

Like the angelic visits during Christmastime,

this one seems to have evoked fear and trembling.

Even Cornelius was terrified

by the sight of the angel.

 

The other is the phrase

where Simon Peter is described

as having grasped the reality

that “God is not partial.”

The Greek word here, “katalambano”

literally means to “grasp the prize.”

Here, Simon Peter grabs hold of the reality

that God loves the world.

In Hebrew, “to be partial,”

literally means to “have a face ” . . .

that is, to be a person.

It is true

that God does love the world,

and God wants us to do the same.

 

To that end,

I invite you in to a most revealing

passage of Scripture

as if found in the 10th chapter

of the book of Acts,

beginning with the verse

numbered “1.”

 

Would you please stand

and give reverent attention

to the reading of God’s Word?

 

The Introduction:

One of the most engaging ideas

that I have stumbled upon recently

is the realization

that the preaching in the early church

was preached in a secular setting.

Paul’s first congregations

were not people brought up

in the religious heritage of Judaism.

They were people

whose lives were driven

by secular values.

Therefore, Paul’s preaching

had to speak to their situations,

their struggles,

in hopes of yoking them up

with the ultimate reality

that comes in Jesus Christ.

With that understanding,

it would seem helpful for us

to listen to the early church

as they preached to the secular world

of their time

because it will help us

preach to the secular world

of our time.

And we do live in a secular society,

don’t you think?

 

Oh, there is a lot of God-talk in our country today,

but it is mostly white noise,

empty rhetoric.

Politicians talk about God,

televangelists talk about God,

people in football stadiums

wear shirts talking about God,

but how many people

really do listen?

Oh, people are generally well-mannered

when encountering such conversation.

They will listen to folks talk about God

and kindly nod their heads,

but go on about their business

as usual.

 

But there are those

who speak for God in this world,

who preach sermons to the world.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

who will be known as one of the great preachers

of the twentieth century.

He preached a lot in churches, sure enough,

but the sermons he will be remembered for

are the sermons he preached to America . . .

sermons about love overcoming hate,

sermons about being free . . .

sermons!

I also think the example of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

speaks to this.

As you may remember,

Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s

dreaded Gulag

for his spiritual and political beliefs.

In the mid-seventies

Solzhenitsyn defected from the Soviet Union

to America,

and there was great rejoicing

all over our country

about this man who needed freedom

for a platform to speak the truth.

In 1978, Harvard University invited Solzhenitsyn

to give the commencement address

at its graduation ceremonies.

Thousands gathered to hopefully hear

this intellectual and spiritual giant

extol the virtues of Christian America.

What he said was quite startling,

deeply religious,

deeply troubling.

One portion of the speech read as follows:

On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our

            experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity

            which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have

            placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out

            that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our

            spiritual life. In the East, it is being destroyed by the dealings and

            machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend

            to suffocate it. This is the real crisis.

            (Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, “A World Split Apart,”    

            an address given at Harvard University, June 8, 1978.)

 

The speech was not well received,

because it was spiritual.

You see, it is one thing to toss the name of God about;

it is another thing to rely on God.

So that we might redirect our reliance

and better listen for God’s Word in our time together,

let us pray . . .

 

The Prayer:

O God forgive us

if we have promoted a time and place

where we talk about You

without talking to You.

Startle us with Your Presence

in such a way

that who we are comes into question

by considering Whose we are.

Speak to us,

so that we might speak Your truth to others.

Therefore, help us to be spiritually aware

in our time together,

and let the words of this mouth

and the meditations of these hearts

be acceptable in Thy Sight,

O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.

Amen.

 

The Sermon:

You just have to love Simon Peter.

He lived so close to the surface.

Why, he was one of the original people

who seemed to have never had

an unspoken thought.

He was impulsive,

at times unbearably brusque,

but also undeniably honest

in his beliefs and feelings.

Simon Peter is such a great model

for discipleship,

because we follow him through

the peaks and valleys of his life,

those spiritual highs and lows

that are part of the warp and woof

of human life.

From the first time we met him in Scripture,

Simon Peter captured our hearts

with his bumbling and fumbling devotion

to Jesus.

From that anguished confession on board his boat –

“Lord, depart from me,

because I am a sinful man” –

to his amazing pronouncement at Caesarea Philippi –

“You are the Christ,

the Son of the Living God” –

to, in the next minute his total misunderstanding

of Jesus and Jesus’ painful condemnation –

“Get thee behind me, Satan” –

to his worshipful gasp of praise

at the transfiguration,

to his humiliating betrayals

in the garden and then in Herod’s courtyard –

to his affirming repentance –

“Lord, You know I love You –

to his unbelievable courage at Pentecost

where he publicly declared

the reality of the Risen Christ

to his lifting up the lame man –

“Silver and gold have I none,

but I give you what I have:

in the name of Jesus of Nazareth

get up and walk” –

to this morning’s incredible statement –

“Today I perceive that God shows no partiality” –

Simon Peter has blessed us

with his example.

 

And this morning I would want us to note

that one of the amazing things

that Simon Peter teaches us

is that we don’t have to know everything;

we don’t have to have everything

organized and well crafted

to be a witness for Christ.

All we need is to trust God.

A common misunderstanding in thinking about witnessing

is that we have to have our belief system

all worked out in advance

before we open our mouths.

We think we need to know it up here –

that we need to have our beliefs formulated

in our minds and hearts,

and that we have to have just the right words

to capture what is established.

 

Tom Long reminds us

that we don’t have to have everything nailed down

to be a witness for Christ.

In fact, when we speak for Christ

we take our words,

and then our words take us.

You see, putting things into words

is one of the ways we acquire knowledge,

passion, and conviction.

For example, when two people love each other,

they naturally speak to each other of their love.

But it is in the speaking

that they are discovering more about love

and their willingness to love.

(Long, Tom; Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian; p.6.)

 

Any good preacher worth his or her salt

will tell you that there are times

after disciplined work in the study

and hours of preparation,

in the middle of a sermon

a sentence pops out that wasn’t theirs.

It was something that God needed said,

and the preacher was merely the conduit.

When those happen

the preacher stands in amazement

that God does, in fact, provide.

 

One of the things said to those in the early church

was to give your life to Christ,

be prayed up,

and then speak,

because the Lord will give you

what you need.

Isn’t that the truth about Simon Peter?

So often, he just started speaking,

and when he did,

he made incredible declarations of faith

for everyone, including himself.

Why, I think at Caesarea Philippi

he was startled to hear himself say,

“You are the Christ.”

And in a sense, he was also startled at Pentecost

to stand up and speak to a world

that threatened to kill him,

but the more he spoke,

the more confidence he seemed

to exude,

and the more profound

he became.

And wasn’t that precisely what happened

in this morning’s text?

 

Simon Peter ambles into Caesarea

with a bit of a confused purpose,

one that he doesn’t exactly comprehend,

or at least fully.

But he gets up and speaks of what he knows,

and then he is amazed

as he hears himself say things

he didn’t know beforehand.

Brothers and sisters,

God has called us to be witnesses,

and we don’t need to memorize a prescribed formula

as much as we simply need to trust God.

In a world where there is so much God-talk,

or should I say talk about God,

our callings are simply to take our talks with God

and make them public

in personal ways.

 

I think if we would give God our courage

God will give us everything else we need

to be His witness.

 

Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun,

has a ministry of caring for death row prisoners

at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

Her work was featured in the movie

Dead Man Walking.

 

Sister Helen uses words, faithful words,

to perform her ministry.

She spends much of her life talking,

speaking to hardened criminals,

giving them encouragement

and spiritual counsel;

she prays with them,

she has heard their stories,

listened on occasion to their confession,

spoken to them of God’s compassion and love;

and she has accompanied at least five of them

to the place of execution.

 

However, it was not her eloquence,

her ability to speak,

that first got her involved

in this kind of ministry.

It was first of all her feet.

 

She felt God calling her to the prison,

and as a follower of “the Way”

she picked up her feet

and got moving.

“Energy comes to us,”

she says,

“because we get involved

in something bigger than ourselves . . .

and we can’t remain neutral.

We say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,

or what I am going to say,

but I’ve got to do and say something.’”

(Spencer, Aida Besacon; Lectionary Homiletics; January, 2005; p. 50.)

 

Sister Prejean has become a marvelous preacher of the Gospel

not so much because she was trained in rhetoric or homiletics,

but that she was willing to trust God

for the words to say.

This morning God is calling us,

Just as God called Simon Peter and Cornelius

to speak God’s word

to a world that needs the real thing.

If we would be faithful,

the Holy Spirit might bring a revival

to us and through us.

 

So then,

what do you have to say about that?

Really.

For, more than being a rhetorical question,

it is a spiritual command:

“What do you have to say about Jesus Christ?”

 

You may have heard about the Hasidic Jew

who showed up at a Christian book store

one morning before it even opened.

He knocked on the door,

and the woman who was working that morning

opened the door up

and asked:

“May I help you?”

“Yes.

I want to know about Jesus of Nazareth.”

“Well, let me show you to the section

on Christian theology.”

“I didn’t come here to read it in a book,

I want to hear about Jesus

from someone who is a Christian.

Who is Jesus

to you?”

So, then,

who is this Jesus . . .

to you?

 

About the writer: Dr. Mike Massar grew up in west Texas, attended Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansfield College at Oxford, the Graduate Theological Foundation and the Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. His ministerial journey has taken him from 7th and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas to Wildewood Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, to the First Baptist Church of Clemson, South Carolina, to the First Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas, to the University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

He and Lisa have three children — Matt and his wife, Meredith, Patrick and his wife, Kendall, and Meredith and her husband, Chris Munson as well as two grandchildren — Luke and Mae. After over forty years of pastoring churches in Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana, Mike is completing his ministry at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Gruene, Texas, where he and his wife, Lisa, will begin writing the next chapters in their life. Those chapters will include writing, traveling and enjoying their family, especially their grandchildren.

Scripture and Music:

Psalms 98

Acts 10:44-48

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

 

Hymns:

In Christ There Is No East or West

Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

For the Healing of the Nations

Help Us Accept Each Other

Blest Be the Tie That Binds

 

Anthems:

If Ye Love Me (Thomas Tallis)

Spirit of Faith, Come Down (Carlton Young)

O Sing Unto the Lord

No Greater Love

Sing A New Song Unto the Lord

Clap Your Hands (Allen Pote)

Here Is Water, Lord (Joseph Martin)

 

Solos:

Love in Any Language

Shout to the Lord

They ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

We Are Called Christians (David Danner)