A CHURCH ON THE MOVE
If you have a Bible, please open to Acts 8. We finished last week with the dramatic death of Stephen and considered the challenges of obeying God in a hostile world. And now in chapter 8, verse 1, we read, "On that day (when Stephen was killed) a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria..." "And thus ended the movement of Jesus followers..." Wait, that's not what your Bible says? Mine neither. But it is what the Jewish religious leaders were hoping for. An intense persecution, which the Jewish leaders intended to be the end of this community of Jesus followers, instead became the beginning of a worldwide movement.
We have entitled this series in the book of Acts "The Breakthrough." As we see how the early church was established and how God broke through into the lives of people and cities and nations. It is an early account of how God's people and God's Spirit set about to continue the completion of God's mission in the world. And do you remember what that mission is? Jesus stated it clearly in Luke 19:10, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost."
Remember when the angel broke through the darkness in the Christmas story and proclaimed to the shepherds in Luke 2:10, "Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people," As they announced the birth of Jesus. In fact, to understand the significance of what is happening in Acts 8, you really need to go back and review how, since the creation and fall of man into sin, God has been breaking through into the lives people who are lost, bringing them back to him. The Bible is a story of redemption over and over again.
When God broke through into the life of Abraham 4,000 years ago, he stated his plan and mission clearly. In Genesis 12:2-3 He said...
"I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you."
Later, God affirmed this plan and he told Abraham, "through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed." Gen 22:18
God's plan and God's heart from the very beginning was to bless and provide a way of salvation to people everywhere, not just to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Those people we call the Hebrews or the Jews). Much of the story of the Bible up to this point has centered around the Jewish people, but its not because God was only interested in the Jewish people.
God chose them, not because they were special or better or more powerful than any other people (Deut 7:7) . He simply chose them, and chose to love them, by his grace, to be the ones that he would bless, and use to work out his plan of blessing all the nations.
This was not a new idea that God had when he sent Jesus, or because the Jewish leaders rejected him as Messiah, so he decided to bless other people. No, this was always Plan A, and there is no other plan. He is simply working it out in his time and his way. The Apostle Paul spoke about this in Galatians 3:8, "Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you."
When Solomon dedicated the Temple he knew it was not just for Israel, it was meant to be a light for all the nations, 1 Kings 8:41-43, "As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name."
Isaiah declared it centuries before Jesus came, Isaiah 56:7, "For this is what the Lord says,... "My house will be a house of prayer for all nations."
But somehow, call it cultural pride, ethnocentrism, prejudice, bigotry, or perhaps just human nature... The people whom God had chosen to be a light to all the nations did not embrace this role of blessing all nations. They gravitated to the thought that they were special and that God's blessings were meant for them alone, or perhaps also for those who would become like them. But before we judge them too quickly, it sounds like an eerily similar tendency that we all struggle with. And as a result, much of the story of the Old Testament is a story of this tug of war between God working to fulfill his mission, and the Jewish people who resisted fulfilling this mission. But make no mistake, in many ways, God was accomplishing his mission in spite of their resistance.
I wonder how much of the history of the church also mirrors this struggle throughout history. The Jewish nation was not unique in being stubborn or self-centered.
The early followers of Jesus that we have been reading about in the book of Acts were not exempt from this "Jewish view of the world" They had a hard time understanding that the good news that Jesus gave them to preach was for all people, even though Jesus made it very clear to them in his commissioning passages after his resurrection. In Matt 28:18-20 he told them "Therefore, Go and make disciples of all nations". In Mark 16:15, He told them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." Luke 24:47, "and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem."
And then in Acts 1:8 at the beginning of this book we are studying, Jesus lays out the plan for his followers. They were to wait in Jerusalem until God filled them with His Holy Spirit, and then this was the plan, "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."
And this brings us to Acts 8. There's a lot in this chapter, and we won't touch on every subject, but I want us to look at it from the perspective of God breaking though to accomplish his mission, in spite of the myopic view, which we as people so often have. He doesn't do it out of frustration, "Oh, Why won't these people do what I want..." No, he does it out of love for the world, and he has chosen his church, his people, to be his hands and his feet to bring the good news of redemption to a world in need. Our comfort is not God's highest priority. But don't translate that into thinking "he doesn't care about you, all he cares about is his mission." That is a very human way of seeing it. God can do both and he does both perfectly, because he loves you enough to not let you become a slave to your comfort zones. He has a higher purpose for you.
So here in Acts 8, I want us to look at this chapter through the lens of how God is breaking through our comfort zones, not just to accomplish his mission, but to bring us to a better place of joy and purpose in Him. So let's walk through this passage. There are a number of comfort zones that we all struggle with that God breaks through in this passage.
The first is...
1. The comfort zone of popularity.
Its part of the struggle Pastor Greg talked about last week. Doing what is right in God's eyes more than what is right in man's eyes. Now, we like it best when these two are in agreement. It makes life much easier. And we shouldn't go out of our way to try and make trouble in the world's eyes, God tells us that "as much as possible we should live at peace with all men."
But the reality is, that "the world" is in opposition to God's mission. And if we are faithful to his call and purpose for us, if we consistently obey God, we will find ourselves at odds with the world, and that will not be a comfortable place. The church in Acts 8 went through a drastic and sudden shift of popularity due to the obedience and faithful preaching of people like Stephen. Notice 6 chapters earlier in Acts 2:46-47, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
And in Acts 6:7, "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."
This group of Jesus followers was the hottest thing in town. That's a lot of fun being in that position. It almost seemed to good to be true, the church was faithfully meeting together in open public places, praising God, spreading the word of God, and they enjoyed the favor of all the people and they were growing like crazy. I think today, we often assume that's the way its supposed to work. It might for a season. But seasons change, because the "world" is opposed to God's mission and popularity is a comfort zone that will be challenged for anyone and for any church who faithfully follows Christ.
This is what happened to the early church at the beginning of Acts 8. After Stephen was killed for his preaching, a great persecution broke out against the church, and all of them, except the apostles (interestingly) were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria." Judea and Samaria, hmmm, that sounds bit like Acts 1:8, probably not a coincidence. And Saul began to destroy the church. This was a drastic turn of events for this group of Jesus followers. One day they were the hottest thing in town, the next day they were being put in prison.
What would you do? If you were one of those who somehow avoided prison, what would you do? Lay low; go to a town where nobody knows you, let things settle down, don't tell anyone why you were there and try to rebuild a new life. That would make a lot of sense to most people.
But what did they do, in Acts 8:4 we read, "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went." Obviously they forgot to hire a public relations damage control consultant! Maybe they didn't have those back then. Or maybe, they were just being faithful and obedient followers of Jesus. Popularity is fleeting but being a people of purpose is enduring. Don't let the comfort and the desire to be popular get in the way of fulfilling God's purpose for your life.
The second comfort zone is...
2. The comfort zone of cultural similarity
Remember, up until now, the church was primarily a Jewish cultural phenomenon. There were people of other Gentile nations included, but they were probably originally Jewish converts before they began following Jesus. But now these early disciples were scattered and many of them found themselves in distinctly non-Jewish communities. Many stories could have been recorded here, but the author, Luke, chooses one example. A guy named Phillip. Now this is not the first time we've heard of Phillip. He was one of the seven deacons appointed in Acts 6 to help take care of the Gentile widows in the fellowship. He was chosen along with Stephen (interestingly) whose preaching and death got this whole persecution started. These deacons didn't simply stick to serving widows in their communities, they apparently were passionate preachers as well.
So, in Acts 8:5 we read that, "Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there." Luke makes it sound very natural. But this would not have been natural for someone coming from a Jewish cultural background. Jews did not like the Gentiles, they were unclean and objects of God's wrath. But Jews hated the Samaritans. They viewed them as compromised and as people who were historically defiled because they came from Jews left behind in the Exile of Israel who had intermarried with Assyrian and other peoples who were brought in. In fact they avoided them whenever possible. You see, people who are different from you in a faraway land are often novel, perhaps a curiosity, and in some ways they may be easy to feel compassion for.
But people who are different from you and who are in your backyard can be seen as a threat. Especially when you have a checkered history with one another. That's what it was like between the Jews and the Samaritans. This kind of cultural tension was not unique to 1st century Palestine. In many ways it is part of the human dilemma. It is part of our story, our drama, and our struggle in the United States today. I hope you see that. If not we can arrange a remedial session for those of you who have been living in a closet. Surrounding ourselves with those we share some cultural similarity with is a significant human comfort zone. But it is one, which we must breakthrough if we are to see God's mission accomplished.
Look what happens in Acts 8:6-8, "When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city."
Romans 1:16 says, "The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." It is not our place to be discretionary about where we preach the gospel, we are to sow that seed everywhere we go, and to everyone who will listen. You never know where you will find good soil; sometimes it's in the most surprising places. Think what would have happened if Phillip had skirted around that Samaritan city because they were different from him. Think what joy he would have missed out on. Think what joy and freedom and healing those people would have missed out on. What's your Samaria today? Think about it, and why not go spend some time among those "Samaritans," get to know them, and don't forget to preach the word, you might be surprised what God will do. Don't let your desire for cultural comfort get in the way of fulfilling God's purpose for your life.
I want to share a modern day Phillip story. Many of you know we were missionaries in Hungary after the fall of communism. We went to launch a church planting movement and train Hungarians to plant churches, which would plant churches.
One of these young men was named Szolnoki Zoltan pictured here with me and the most prolific evangelist on our team Miklos Tibor, on the right.
One of the cultural challenges for us was reaching into the gypsy communities. Very different from the ethnic Hungarians and plenty of checkered history with one another. But Zoltan was a young Phillip who moved his wife and family into this Gypsy village in Zsambok, Hungary and he preached the word to them.
And the people responded to the gospel, one family after another came to faith in Christ and the whole community watched in amazement as these lives were changed. Here is Zoltan with some of the Gyspsy men who believed.
One of the families dug a small pool on an empty lot to serve as a baptismal and they invited the community to come witness and hear their testimonies.
Men, women and children came to hear and see what was going on in their community.
Realize this is a very dark culture in many ways, lots of alcoholism, physical abuse and spiritism. The woman in the blue shirt is the local witch. She came to the baptism! God moved powerfully because of the faithfulness of Zoltan and his family, but within 2 years of this someone had burned his house down and he and his family had to leave.
But there is now a local church in Zsambok Hungary, and there is great joy where there was once only darkness. Don't let your desire for cultural comfort get in the way of fulfilling God's purpose for your life.
The third comfort zone is...
3. The comfort zone of superficial religiosity
This story about Simon the Sorcerer is really a subset of the story of what happened when Phillip preached in this Samaritan city. Before Phillip showed up, Simon was the hottest thing in town. He was some sort of magician or sorcerer and it was working for him. The people followed him and called him the great power of God.
But when Phillip showed up with the gospel and the good news about Jesus, and the real power of God showed up, Simon knew he was beat. But he didn't just move on to the next town. You know how the saying goes, if you can't beat'em, join'em. That's what Simon did. But it was hard to tell at first. In verse 13 you'll see he was part of the first wave of those who believed and were baptized. So far so good.
But it seems that Simon was simply riding a cultural wave that felt to him like it was in his best interest. Perhaps this is better than sorcery, so why not give it a shot. But he wasn't quite as subtle as some and he got in trouble when he tried to buy from the Apostles the ability to lay his hands on people and transmit the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. That exposed his superficial faith and the fact that his heart was not right with God. He was really in this only to promote his own self-interest.
This kind of superficial religiosity is rampant in the world. Just enough religion to fit in and gain the cultural benefits, but not so much that it gets uncomfortable or starts to cost me something. As a family we used to live in the South, what some would call the Bible Belt. And there are lots of wonderful, devoted, sincere followers of Jesus in the south. But there are also lots of people who have a very superficial religiosity because it is culturally advantageous. But it is not a genuine experience of God's love and grace and salvation in their lives. Very few are conniving, power-grabbing, frauds like Simon. Usually they are not even really aware that they are missing something. They are just trying to find that place of cultural and religious equilibrium that feels comfortable.
Now a kind of superficiality can happen to genuine believers as well. We believe in Jesus, we start to grow closer to him, our lives change just enough so that we fit in well at church, and then we hit that magical place I call the orbit zone. The vector of my life which was burning through the atmosphere heading closer and closer to Jesus slowly turns until I find myself in this really comfortable place of orbiting Jesus. "I love Jesus, I can't imagine my life without him. I don't want to be any further from Jesus. But this is close enough, thank you."
Look at the diagram here on the screen or in your WF. See all those vectors. Some moving toward Christ, a few away, but some are orbiting Jesus.
Jesus said, "come follow-me", not come orbit me.
If you had to draw a vector that represents your life, what would it look like? Use that dot with no vector and draw one. If your vector is heading straight for Jesus then you might be preaching soon! Just kidding, praise God for that, that's what we want to see. Ask a few people who are close to you to draw your vector and see if they agree. But if your vector is not heading straight for Jesus, what would it take to nudge that vector in the direction of Jesus? That's kind of what discipleship is, helping one another get our lives moving closer and closer in the direction of Jesus. If you need help with that or want to do that in the lives of others and aren't sure how, please talk with someone, come talk to me sometime or one of the other pastors, we want to help you.
The final one is...
4. The comfort zone of ___________________________. (fill in the blank)
Now that's not a cop out. The reality is, this fourth point could be whatever kind of security blanket you are holding on to that is keeping you from fulfilling God's purpose for your life and holding you back from a fuller participation in his mission.
Starting in Acts 8:26, Phillip is told by an Angel to go to the desert road toward Gaza. And thankfully he goes and we have this wonderful story of how God uses him in the life of this Ethiopian eunuch who was an important official, in fact he was the Treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia. Phillip explains the word of God to him, he believes, is baptized, and goes on his way rejoicing...presumably to go on and spread the good news in Africa. It's a great story, especially the part about God beaming Phillip away to another location hours or days away, like some sort of Star Trek, "beam me up Scottie!" thing. That's a great trick, you'd think God would use that one a lot more with missionaries today, sure would save a lot of time & money. God knows best.
But what I want us to think about is how many comfort zones, that are familiar to us, could have prevented Phillip from obeying God in this story.
Here's a few...
The comfort zone of minding my own business...
"I'm not going to go over to that chariot and stick my nose into whatever he's doing. I don't feel comfortable starting a conversation with a complete stranger, besides, that's a rich government official from another country, do you think the security around that guy is going to let me get close to him. How about this God, I wait right here and if you want me to talk to him, you bring him over to me. I don't like to get into other people's business, its uncomfortable and unpredictable."
Which leads me to this one...
The comfort zone of being in control
(or doing things on my terms)...
"You want me to go where God? The road to Gaza? Well, what do you want me to do there? What can I expect? How can I prepare? You can't really expect me to go if you don't tell me why I'm going, and what's going on?
It's like what we tell our kids, "I need all the details, where you'll be, who you'll be with, what you'll be doing, how you're getting there, and when you'll be home. And then maybe we will let you go, but be sure to take your phone and text me if you have any problems." If God can give us the assurance that all the bases are covered and all my questions are answered then I will consider going. If I don't have all the information, I'm uncomfortable.
The comfort zone of filling my life with noise and activity...
This is an insidious problem in our culture today. We hear these stories in the Bible, and we wonder, why doesn't God do that with me? I mean if God would just tell me to go do this or that, I would do it?
But, perhaps, in order to avoid the awkwardness of silence, the insecurity of being still enough that we might become aware of the pain and loneliness in our lives, we fill our lives with noise and activity. The TV is always on, we can't sleep unless there's music playing, I have to check my email every 5 minutes, my 3 kids have to be in 6 sports, music lessons and get tutoring so they can get in the best schools or teams. We numb the pain by drowning out any opportunity for the thoughts or loneliness or insecurities to creep in, we do it with a lot of noise and activity. But when we do this we also drown out our ability to hear the voice of God. The Psalmist says, "Be still, and know that I am God." But stillness is uncomfortable. What if I turned everything off and just listened. I might hear the voice of God, but what if he asks me to do something uncomfortable?
Don't let your desire for comfort get in the way of fulfilling God's purpose for your life. There's something better than comfort, it's joy. The joy that comes when you know you're doing the right thing, even if it's not natural, even if it's uncomfortable. The joy that comes when God breaks through like he did in Samaria, or with the Ethiopian official.
Now as God accomplishes his mission of blessing all peoples, we tend to focus on the responsibility of his chosen people to voluntarily go and preach the good news to the ends of the earth. And that is totally legitimate. It's the way Jesus framed the great commission, "go into all the world and preach the good news..."
For us today, we view this as the sending of some of our own as missionaries. And so we seek to be faithful by identifying those among us that God has called us to send. And for the better part of 117 years Lake Avenue Church has sent many of our own to the far corners of the planet. Praise God for that. Voluntary going is an important way God fulfills his mission. Other voluntary goers include... military, business, education in other countries.
But God, throughout history has also used other means. Sometimes it is by involuntary going. Acts 8:1 is an example. The followers of Jesus went out preaching the word throughout Judea and Samaria, not because they wanted to, but because they were forced out by persecution.
Another means is by involuntary coming. Sometimes people in un-evangelized areas are forced out of their homelands by war or famine and find themselves as refugees in lands where there is a gospel presence and they come to faith.
And a final means is by voluntary coming. Those who come from peoples and nations where the gospel is less known, to those places where the gospel is present in the culture. We see this today in the significant mission field of reaching out to those who are immigrating by choice to live in the United States.
You may not be called to go as a missionary, but some of you will. Hopefully you will not be involuntarily sent as a result of a persecution or disaster...
But one very accessible option for everyone here today is the result of a massive voluntary coming of international students from all over the planet right to our backyard. I want to talk more about this in just a minute.
There are a lot of applications and next steps you can take to respond to this message from God's Word. But let me give you three...
1. Do the Bible Study called "Experiencing God" by Henry Blackaby. How many of you have done it? Raise a hand. It's been around 20+ years and its great stuff.
2. Take the Perspectives Course here at Lake. Its 18 weeks long, every Tuesday night and starts every January. We did this as a family this past spring, my wife and I, and our two daughters. It's a lot of work! But it was life changing in helping us understand God's mission in the world and how we can be a part of it.
3. Break through some comfort zones and reach out to someone from another culture, and consider doing that with an international student.
I want to invite one of our own who is doing this so well and who invites all of us to join the adventure... Andy Pearce. Andy leads the ministry of Friends of International Students. You will find an invitation printed inside the Worship Folder so you can take home more detailed information on this wonderful opportunity.
But share with us Andy why this is such a great way to participate in God's mission...
Table in the worship Center Lobby after service.
Break through our comfort zones.
To His glory,
Associate Pastor of Adult Ministries
Greg Waybright • Copyright 2013, Lake Avenue Church