Sunday, May 29, 2011

Six Easter
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Come, and hear, all ye that fear God, And I will declare what he hath done for my soul.

There is a commercial on television for a new product that looks absolutely fabulous. I was excited to try it, and thought that it would be something I would enjoy using on a regular basis. I found the product in the store the other day and bought it immediately despite a cost I thought was a little high. I thought it would be worthwhile. I have to admit that while the product was not bad, I was disappointed. I expected spectacular, but I got ok. Now, a friend had a completely different experience with the product, finding it to be every bit as amazing as expected and more so. When I mentioned that I was disappointed, my friend was shocked. Another friend jumped into the conversation with a similar point of view. Their posts made me feel like I should love this product because they do, that I’m missing out on something spectacular. Though they may not have meant to do so, they made me uncomfortable with my words. I thought to myself, “I should have just kept my thoughts to myself.”

Of course, my opinion about some new product is not really very important, but I have to admit that I often feel that way about other topics, like modern issues and even religion. Though I know I should be bold with my faith and willing to speak up, I find myself shy and uncertain, afraid that I can’t make myself clear. I might seem bold and courageous in this devotion, but I am less so when I am face to face with dissenters. I don’t want to get into a battle. I don’t want to hurt others with my passionate thoughts and I don’t want to be hurt by theirs. It is easy to be outspoken in the relative anonymity of this devotion, but much more difficult over dinner and conversation.

The opportunities to speak about God’s Word are great. A friend was just telling me how he was able to boldly tell a relative the harm he was causing by his foolish behavior. My friend hopes that it will make a difference for the wife and children. As he told me the story, it was obvious that it was his faith that gave him the courage to be strong and firm about the realities of the problems. I wondered, as I listened, if I could be so honest if the opportunity arose.

I don’t think I’m alone. I’m sure there are times when most of us, if not all, decide it is just better to remain silent than say something. We can even justify our silence with scripture; after all there are plenty of verses that tell us wise men keep their mouth shut while the foolish rant on and on. We all know that there are just some times when it is better to just keep our mouth shut. We decide that it is better to just live peacefully as we believe we are meant to live and allow others to live as they want to live. But there are times when we should not be silent, when a word from God is not only helpful, it is vital. There are times when God calls us to speak words we would rather not speak. We think, perhaps, that doing the right thing is enough.

But the scriptures are clear that actions are not enough. Jesus says over and over again, “Listen.” He tells His listeners to “hear the word.” He calls His followers to be witnesses, to testify, to say the words that bring forgiveness, salvation and hope to the world. It is good to do what is right, but I think we use actions as a cop-out. It isn’t enough to do what is good. People aren’t saved by good works. They don’t receive faith in a sandwich. Faith comes from hearing the Word.

Peter talks about the harm you might experience for doing good, but is he talking about good works? He’s talking about testimony, proclamation of the Good News. Who will harm us for sharing the message of Christ? We might hope no one, since His mercy is the only thing that will truly bring peace to the world. But we know differently. We know that being evangelists, acting as witnesses to the reality of Jesus Christ, is likely to bring persecution. Doing what is good, in this passage, is proclaiming that Christ is Lord and calling people to repentance. We are called not only to do good works for our neighbors but to take the saving WORD of Christ into the world, no matter what others think, say or do.

Peter gives us two tools to help us through this instruction: do not fear and be faithful. We are invited into the work of God’s kingdom on earth, to continue what Christ started. We need not fear what will come, just have faith that God is with us. Now, this doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or hostile to those to whom we have been sent. God’s Word will have enough affect on the heart and mind of a listener without our giving our own spin on the truth. What is the truth? The truth is that Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. He died so that we might be saved. He died so that your neighbor might be saved. He died so that your enemy might be saved. But no one can be saved without hearing that Word.

The Athenians had a lot to say about religion. As a matter of fact, it seems like they spent all their time just gathered around in discussions about all things religious. They had temples everywhere, honoring every type of god. They even had a place set aside where philosophers and theologians might gather to discuss the latest ideas. They were so open to ideas that they even had an altar honoring a god they could not identify. I can just see the city planners at that meeting. “Ok, so we have a temple for this god and that goddess and this other one. What if there is some god we’ve missed?” “We better put up another altar just in case.”

Paul was impressed by their devotion to religion and education. He went to the place where the discussions were happening and stood up before the other philosophers. This was a culture that accepted everyone’s ideas, tolerated any point of view, and welcomed all believers of every faith. To insist on one answer being right, or truth, was unacceptable. Paul didn’t care; he was there to speak the truth to the thinkers of the day. The God they did not know but worshipped was the very God that created everything. He is the God that doesn’t need human help or desire human sacrifice. He is the God that is not served by human hands because He is greater than even the gods of the Athenians. Everything they knew came from Him. They couldn’t give Him anything because it was already His. Paul says, “in him we live, and move, and have our being.” He created people to search for Him, to hear Him, to believe in Him. He told the people listening that it was fine that they were ignorant of this God they worshipped but did not know, until that day. “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent: inasmuch as he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”

They didn’t know, but now they know. Now they’ve heard the word and the rest is up to them. Will they believe? Will they agree? It is out of Paul’s hands. Some rejected the word outright, ridiculing Paul for believing in a resurrection of the dead, but some wanted to hear more. The Word was working through Paul’s confidence and bold proclamation.

This story helps us see that it is good to be interested in the beliefs of others, to know what they think and why. We can understand other people’s points of view, but we should never be afraid to be confident in our own. Just because the God we worship was nothing more than an off-hand choice of someone in Athens doesn’t mean that He is less than the others. I’m sure the temple for Athena was absolutely fabulous, and that most of the people spent at least some time worshipping there. She was their goddess, and while it was fine to remember some other god, it was not good to put any of the other gods before her. Paul not only knocked her down a rung or two on the god-ladder, he told them that she was nothing compared to the God they worshipped but did not know.

It is good to gather for conversation with people of other faiths, to talk about our common ideas and share our differences with one another, but are we willing to be like Paul, to speak the truth about God to them? When we run into someone who is willing to leave room for the possibility of an unknown god, are we willing to tell them who He is? Are we willing to stand firm in the reality that without Christ, every other religious idea else is useless?

I know. People are not going to like it. We are supposed to be open to everyone’s ideas. Even in the church we are supposed to accept other world views for the sake of peace. We will be persecuted if we stand so firmly in the truth of Jesus Christ. We will be ridiculed. We will be called intolerant, bigoted, haters. We will be blamed for the violence and for the hatred. We will even be blamed for the wars. That’s why we remain silent. Sometimes it seems better to keep our mouth shut. But is it? Are we remaining faithful if we keep silent out of fear? Our words might bring persecution, but our goal is not acceptance by the world, but eternity in the arms of Christ.

Jesus says, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments.” The word here is often confused with the laws of the Old Testament. Should we live according to God’s Law? Yes, because God’s Law is best for people. It is best to honor our parents, to not steal, cheat or kill. It is good for us to want what we have and not envy our neighbors. It is wrong to lie or bear false witness. And it is right to live with God as our Lord.

But what is Jesus talking about in this passage. We heard the context of this lesson in our text last Sunday. Jesus is talking about believing in Him. His command is to believe in Him. He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Him, we will believe in Him. We will believe He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Him, we will stand so firmly in everything He has said that we will not be afraid to tell those who do not yet know Him about the reality of their unknown God. If we love Jesus, we will keep our eyes on Him and trust that He will be faithful to His promises. Even if we have to suffer for this faith, He will be ready to receive us with open arms.

Jesus told the disciples that He was about to go away. He will be invisible to the world. He will no longer be with them in the flesh. But He promises not to abandon them. He promises to send them the Spirit who will give them the knowledge, the faith and the courage to stand firm in Christ. If we believe in Him, we’ll not have to speak these words on our own. We’ll have His Spirit in our hearts and His voice in our mouths. And when we face the persecution, we’ll have the promise of eternity to keep us strong.

Do not fear and be faithful. These are probably the hardest words any Christian can hear and follow. We don’t even have anything tangible on which to hold to give us the confidence that we need. How much easier is it when we can hold someone’s hand through tough times? Or have someone literally standing beside us. Jesus said that He would no longer be seen. It is no wonder that the disciples were so afraid in those first days after His crucifixion. He could no longer be seen. Then, after the resurrection, they saw Him for forty days as He repeated the commands and promises. “Do not be afraid. Be faithful. The world won’t see me, but you will see me. You will have my Spirit and then you’ll know without a doubt that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

If we love Jesus, we will obey His commands. We will not be afraid. We will be faithful. We will speak the truth with the same love. We will not be intimidated by the world because we will know that there is something greater on which we stand.

Sometimes the words we speak will be difficult. We’ll have to tell people that they are wrong. We’ll have to correct people of their errors. We’ll have to call people to repentance, to turn away from the ways of the past and follow the light into the future. We will have to give our own testimony, admit our own sinfulness, and proclaim the forgiveness we have experienced through Jesus Christ our Lord. When we do, we’ll face times that cause us to look to God for help. We will cry out to Him, beg Him for relief from our troubles. We’ll remind Him of His promises. Will we trust Him enough to know that He will answer even before we call? Will we trust Him enough to do whatever it is He has called us to do?

I think the most important question to ask today is this: Do we bless God because He has blessed us? Or do we live in the blessing and respond without fear and with faithfulness? Are we willing to give to God even when we will risk everything to do so? Are we willing to speak the truth when you come across those altars to an unknown god? Do we even know how to answer? We are encouraged to know our defense, to be ready to give an answer whenever we have the opportunity to share our testimony. Are we ready to proclaim the Good News that Christ died and rose again so that we can be part of the work of God’s kingdom in the world?

Selah. This word is often used in the psalms, and has been understood to be a musical command to rest. In today’s Psalm this word is followed by something important that the Psalmist wants to tell the people. “Come, and hear, all ye that fear God, And I will declare what he hath done for my soul.” Come and hear and I will proclaim God’s grace to you. Jesus is the answer to all our problems.

My disappointment in new products doesn’t matter. My opinion about today’s issues is really not that important. Even my thoughts about religion are worthless if I don’t stand on the truth, which is Christ. Here I stand, I can do no other. He is the Savior of the world, and without Him, nothing else matters. May the Lord grant us all the strength and courage to be obedient to His commands, to stand firmly in His truth and proclaim the reality of His promises for the world so that all might hear the Word and be saved.

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