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Monday, April 26, 2010

Ordinary People, Extraordinary God (Acts 3-4)

April 25, 2010 (30th Anniversary of Good Shepherd Sunday)
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Have you ever seen something extraordinary – I mean really out of the ordinary?

My mind first goes to expansive views in God’s creation – a certain panoramic view on top of the Blue Ridge Parkway or the endless horizon at the beach. I once stood on Mt. Sinai at sunrise – that was extraordinary.

But my experience of the extraordinary is not just of creation’s wonders. As I think back over my time at Good Shepherd, I have witnessed the extraordinary more than once. And hearing some of the extended stories of this place during the Sunday school hour this morning, I recognize that this is a very, very special place, and has been since its birth.

And yet, have you ever tried to describe Good Shepherd or explain this to someone?

You don’t say, “Drive through Old Providence until you see an amazing church building.”

You don’t say, “Come listen to the amazing (good looking) preacher.”

As good as the music is, I’ve realized you don’t even say, “Come hear our awesome choir or awesome band.” Each are, indeed, quite good, but some Sundays there’s a full choir or band and others it’s a much smaller ensemble or group. And never (I hope!) does one come in to find either group on display as some kind of showpiece.

No, there is something else going on here. And when I talk about “ordinary people” I am not saying that the people you’ll find here are not talented or kind or good people. Rather, we are normal people. Some are gifted, some are wealthy; some are struggling emotionally and some are financially struggling. Some have a lot of knowledge and some are new to faith. But it’s never, “Come look at us! Look what we can do! Look what we’ve built!”

To be honest, that is a temptation common to humanity: to build it bigger, longer, faster, stronger, and then show it off! That was what led to the Tower of Babel, the desire to make the human extraordinary. But what I think pleases God, describes our journey thus far, and hopefully charts our future, is the desire of ordinary men, women, and children to listen carefully and follow God through faith in Jesus Christ and attention to the Scripture.

Hall of Ordinary Fame

We think of biblical characters as “heroes of faith” – the stories are miraculous and extraordinary and bigger than life. But if you stop to look at many, maybe even most, of them, they really illustrate what an extraordinary God can do with an ordinary human being.

We’ve invited the children of the church to remain with us today. Anyone receiving a children’s bulletin should have also received an activities booklet, which highlights several of these ordinary men, women, and children. I want to remind you about each one and then if you want to, you can do the activities in there while I’m finishing the rest of the sermon.

DAVID was known for many things, but he was chosen precisely because he was ordinary. The first king, Saul, had been chosen because he was so big and strong and impressive. That didn’t work out well, so when God sent his prophet to find a new king, he looked for someone a little more ordinary. David was young, smaller, and was the baby brother of the family, left to take care of the animals while his brothers went to fight in the army. But you’ll remember the story of how he went to fight the champion, Goliath. David was not even wearing armor because it was too heavy for him. But he killed the mighty warrior with a slingshot and stone. God did extraordinary things through David because David trusted and obeyed Him.

MOSES first appears in the Bible as a baby. He couldn’t do anything yet! And Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, was trying to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Helpless as Moses was, God miraculous protected him and caused him to be found and raised in the household of the very person who was trying to kill him. Later, when he was a grown man, God used Moses to speak to and challenge Pharaoh and lead God’s people, the Israelites, out of slavery to freedom. You’d imagine Moses to be a great speaker, but he stuttered! But he did what God asked him to do and God did extraordinary things through him.

SAMUEL was a “miracle baby,” given by God to his mom when she couldn’t have children. He was raised in the Temple by the priest, Eli. Even at a young age, God spoke to him and Eli taught him to listen and obey. Samuel grew up to be a prophet, specifically the one who God would use to choose the first kings of Israel.

TIMOTHY was also a young boy when he first believed in God. His mother and grandmother (Eunice and Lois) told him about the faith and he believed in God. Later, God called this young man to travel with the Apostle Paul and eventually be one of the first pastors to the Greek-speaking world. He did not have worldly qualifications to be a great leader, but in 1 and 2 Timothy Paul encourages Timothy that he doesn’t need those things, but faith and obedience to serve the Lord.

In Matthew 14 we read about the miraculous – truly extraordinary – miracle of the “Feeding of the 5000.” Yet, even in that most amazing of miracles, Jesus was pleased to use the ordinary lunch of an ordinary boy to accomplish his miracle. Surely when he packed his lunch that morning, the boy didn’t think, “I’m going to pack the most spectacular lunch possible, for I may eat with royalty today.” He simply said, “Yes,” to God when asked to share his meal. And God did a truly extraordinary thing.

MARY was a young woman preparing to be married. She was not a Bible scholar, priest, wealthy woman, or anything other than an ordinary woman with faith in an extraordinary God. Again, don’t hear me calling Mary or you “ordinary” and hear me saying you don’t have worth or don’t have anything going for you. My point is that you don’t have to have special training or qualifications to be used by God; you only need to tune in and follow.

There are many others in the Bible. Some not only didn’t have special training, but were outcasts or outsiders. RAHAB was a prostitute; RUTH was a foreigner; JEREMIAH was also a young boy; PAUL had some significant hindrance – many think he was visually impaired.

I want to challenge the children with the programs to look at some of these people I’ve named and do the activities in the booklet. Or finish those later and listen while I talk about one more example of ordinary people and an extraordinary God.

Peter and John

The disciples are probably right up there with any other “heroes of the Bible.” We read the stories and talk about how human they were, but I think we nonetheless idolize them a bit. Sure they started off pretty ragtag, but they became Apostles, right?

The text we heard this morning takes place after they have become Apostles. It is after Pentecost – or right in the midst of it really. The Holy Spirit is blowing around and doing some pretty amazing things, including miracles of healing. And that’s precisely what you read about in Acts 3. Peter and John were going up to the temple and saw a lame man begging for money. Peter said to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene – walk!” And the man was healed and strengthened and leaped up – walking and leaping (it says ‘leap’ twice… lots of leaping!) and praising God. And people recognized him as the one who had been the lame beggar. And those that saw him in the Temple were filled with wonder and amazement.

It would have been so easy for Peter and John to focus in on that miracle and even try to start making a name for themselves. But they remained focused on Jesus and the story of his life, death, and resurrection. Peter is clear about who did the extraordinary thing in Acts 3:12, “Men of Israel, why are you amazed at this, or why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” He went on to say, “It’s all God…” and from there told the Good News about Jesus.

In chapter four, Peter and John are arrested for teaching and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, but not before the number of those who heard and believed numbered about 5000 (Acts 4:4)! The next day, Peter and John stand trial and boldly proclaim Jesus, even though they face those who arrested and killed Jesus. These were the same authorities Peter and John had hidden from around the time of the crucifixion!

That’s three really extraordinary things described in these chapters. A lame man was healed so he could walk (and leap!), 5000 men (and perhaps then their households) came to believe in Jesus, and formerly frightened disciples now boldly faced their accusers and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus.

Ordinary People

Were Peter and John extraordinary men? Were they doing things you or I could never do? Let’s notice some of the other detail given here. First, they weren’t even equipped to help the beggar in the way he wanted. In Acts 3 he was asking for money and they had neither silver nor gold. It was in fact out of that lack of material wealth that Peter prayed in faith for God’s healing. If you have wealth, it is a wonderful thing to give of that to help the truly needy. But not having wealth does not mean you have nothing to offer those in need in this world! You can be financially strapped, physically homebound, or have little education, and pray for another person and God’s intervention in their life. I realize we don’t normally see healings of this nature; but we do pray for the sick and see God’s healing physically and in many other ways. God was the extraordinary worker of miracles that day; Peter and John simply prayed in faith to the one who could do what they could not.

What about the bold preaching? 5,000 believed and then Peter and John bravely testified in front of their enemies. I’m trained to speak and share the Gospel and 5,000 conversions boggles my mind. Surely they were extraordinary expositors of God’s Word and we can’t measure up. But did you catch what the religious leaders said about them during the trial? When they listened to Peter and John speak, they realized that they were “uneducated and untrained (or ‘ordinary’) men.” (Acts 4:13) Fancy preaching didn’t convert the crowd or confront the accusers; the Holy Spirit worked through two ordinary men – blue collar guys, for both were fisherman who grew up working with their hands.

Ordinary People Like You and Me

Where am I going with all this? The point I hope you won’t miss is that each of you is ordinary – not like, “Hey, you’re average,” but in the same way that David, Moses, Samuel, Timothy, a small boy who shared lunch, Mary, Rahab, Ruth, Jeremiah, Paul, and yes, Peter and John, were ordinary. What makes the biblical story so amazing is that the extraordinary God chooses to work through and with ordinary people like you and me to accomplish His will in the world.

I could give you many examples, but I think what has been happening on Wednesday nights this year is a perfect and recent one. With no special evangelism training, no extra Bible courses, less leadership from me rather than more, God has accomplished more Gospel-sharing and changed lives in the community through this simple “Wednesday night experiment” than I’ve seen in scores of other programs and projects of which I’ve been a part. Ordinary people like you – well it is many of you – just show up on Wednesday night and then go out into the community where God is at work. You go spend an hour intentionally mingling with our neighbors. And without really trying, that act of missional obedience has resulted in significant fruit in terms of sharing Christ, praying for former strangers, and even movement toward answered prayer and emotional/spiritual healing in some cases. It is as exciting a thing as I’ve ever witnessed – and it is so significantly not about us and all about God. It’s that core question we’ve returned to for some time now: “What is God doing and how can I/we be a part of it?”

God has been so faithful – and so extraordinary – in the life of our congregation over the past thirty years. I can’t wait to see where He leads us next!

When people ask me about Good Shepherd, I have learned to invite them, but say that they won’t (and shouldn’t) come to be dazzled by us. But, if they hang out for a few weeks or months, I think they will be significantly impacted by God’s presence in this place.

As I look to the future, that’s at the forefront of my mind. In tennis, my Dad used to tell me to keep my eye on the ball. If I start looking at the stands or thinking about my victory leap over the net, then I’ve already lost. But keep my eye on the ball. That’s my goal for us; that’s my goal for myself – keep our eyes on Jesus and keep asking what God is doing and how we can faithfully and obediently be a part of that… ordinary people following an extraordinary God. Amen.

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