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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Witnesses (Acts 1.1-8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - May 18, 2014Text: Acts 1:1-8; Luke 24:46-49

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Aleluya! Cristo Resucito!" (Bedford)
Song of Praise: "Lion of Judah" (Robin Mark)
Song of Praise: "Build Your Kingdom Here" (Rend Collective Experiment)
The Word in Music: "Go Out into the World" (de Silva)
Hymn of Response: "Go to the World" (ENGLEBERG)
Our Song of Praise: "The Doxology"
Hymn of Sending: "Go Forth for God (v. 1)" (GENEVA12)
Postlude: "Go Out to the World" (reprise) (de Silva)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
1 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. 3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 4 Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:1-8)
This week I listened to Jason and Tiffany Hinton’s message from last Sunday. Both of them shared about their plans – exciting plans – to serve God in Greece. They have had this on their mind for many years and actively left Nicaragua to pursue this plan five years ago. But they have had to wait. “Lord, when are you going to send us to Greece?!” And they really expended all the human power and effort they had to make that happen and came to the end of themselves. And now, in God’s timing and definitely through God’s power, doors have opened that they could not open. The way that they could not press through is clearing. And there is no doubt in their mind; God is at work. It’s not exactly what they imagined; in fact, it is far more expansive than they imagined. God seems to be calling them to responsibility over many countries, of which Greece will be one. Who could have imagined that? Listening to their message I was reminded so strongly that God has the POWER and the PLAN.

Interestingly enough, while they were here sharing that story, I was worshiping at the Grove, where my friend, Kate, serves as pastor. Kate was appointed by the presbytery to serve as the pastor there because the Grove could no longer afford to call a pastor. They were aging out and dying, no longer able to attract people from a changed neighborhood. Presbytery offered to fund one last-ditch effort to turn things around and offered Kate as pastor through that process. It sounded crazy: introduce praise music, reach out to the surrounding neighborhood, change the layout of the sanctuary. Over half the dwindling congregation left. The choir director quit. After the initial support, the presbytery bowed out. Kate, as gifted a pastor as I’ve ever met, scrambled to get the support of some churches that might sponsor the work. Several stepped up, including Good Shepherd, who sent Chuck and Linda Jenkins as volunteer choir director and choir member to try to bolster the flagging choir. One large church even seemed poised to fund things for a while. But that fell through and shortly after the Jenkins left, the choir quit. Membership dropped significantly and worship attendance was something like 20-30 people. And financial support dropped so low that the church was within a month of closing, and Kate dropped to less than half-time. That was about a year ago.

I knew things had picked up from seeing some pictures on Facebook. And Kate had told me that they had re-instated some of her hours. But I was not prepared for what I experienced when I walked in on Sunday morning. I was a few minutes late, so the service was in progress. The door from the parking lot enters into the front of the sanctuary. I walked in to see a sanctuary full of white, black, and brown faces. I saw over 100 worshipers of every age and attire. I saw hands raised, voices in full song, and ‘alleluias’ being shouted as a full praise band led the congregation in “Blessed be Your Name.”  In fact, I walked in to “When I’m found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name.” The praise band had one of the oldest drummers I had ever seen, and there was an older lady singing on the end. I later found out she had been in the choir and a while after it disbanded she came to Kate and said she missed leading worship in song and wondered if she could sing with the praise team.

During the service I alternated between overwhelming joy and tearful gratitude for the new life in what had been a desert place. I couldn’t wait until after the service when I got to speak to Kate. I said, “Kate, this is… glorious! You know that, right?” And she shared with me for about half an hour about what God had done. And the bottom line was this: she and the Grove had come to the end of themselves. They had exhausted all human plans and strategies and funding streams and everything else. And then God had showed up. Kate said there was no confusing what had happened. It was like the four day dead body of Lazarus… no doubt that anything had happened other than the POWER of God in their midst.

The Best Plans… (vv. 6-7)

“Lord, NOW are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Now you’re going to wipe out the Romans, right?  You obviously have the power – their torture and soldiers couldn’t keep you down.  Now you’re going to bring it, right?  The insistence of the disciples in asking the next question would be laughable if I didn’t do the same thing all the time.

“Lord, is this the year our church is going to grow? Is this building renovation going to help? What about our plans for small groups? What if we do a better job of connecting with our visitors?” Yep, right there with the disciples. I am struck – and convicted – by the disciples’ question that I still have much to learn about “Thy will be done” and putting God’s will ahead of my own.

Jesus’ answer is short and deep; and then he moves on.  His answer is verse 7, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…”  What in the world is an epoch?  We don’t get to know the day and time the end will come.  And we don’t get to know the timing, that is, God’s time.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s God’s business and we would do better to listen to what God IS saying then speculate about what God is not revealing.  Jesus is very clear in this passage that he would reorient us towards a present mission.

The message for the disciples – and often for us – is WAIT for God’s POWER and look for God’s PLAN.

The POWER (v. 8a)

Here’s the best part: the fuel, the POWER, for this work is not something we have to generate. It comes from God. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on those who trusted in Him, and that Spirit would energize, compel, protect, embolden, catalyze, and bless the words and actions of human witnesses. 

And God’s Holy Spirit is not something we have to earn a degree to figure out, or scale a mountain to discover, or have a special quality to deserve. God promises it! If you are a Christian, you believe and trust and follow Jesus Christ; and Jesus has promised his Spirit will live and work in you.

But here’s what we can do. We can ignore, tune out, dismiss, and otherwise miss out on that power. Or we can try to run on our own power. And that may even work for a while; but it won’t in the long run and it won’t when we hit that impossible wall, whatever it may be.

The PLAN (v. 8b)

Jesus spells out the PLAN in one sentence in verse 8, and it is clear that it is not our plan, but what God is doing.  Jesus said, “…you shall be My witnesses…”  What is it that we have witnessed?  Think about a witness in a courtroom.  The questions are, “What have you seen?  What have you heard?  What do you know?”

Luke summarized the Christian witness in verses 1-5.  That is what is referenced by “witnesses” in verse 8.  We are witnesses to four things:
  1. Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Luke – what he did and taught (v. 1)
  2. Jesus suffering and resurrection (v. 3)
  3. Specific teaching about the Kingdom of God (v. 3)
  4. The promise and reality of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life (and sign of the promised Kingdom of God) (vv. 4-5)
That’s the basic story we need to have under our belt, applied and experienced and explained through the filter of our own lives.  Said even more simply, we need to know God’s story in Christ, as witnessed through our own story and experience.

Then Jesus goes on to describe the scope of this PLAN – the where of it: “…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (v. 8).  We have talked about this phrase before.  In fact, it underlies the mission of this church as we attempt to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ within our walls, then in our near neighborhood, then in the larger community, and in the world. 

The POWER and the PLAN

Why do I share all that? It’s because I need to hear it (I think it no mistake that God queued it up twice for me to hear this past week!) and because we need to hear it.

We have had and do have some exciting plans at Good Shepherd. Our deep care for one another, our keen mission to our neighborhood, our creative arts ministries, our children and youth ministries, our Primetimer ministry, our teaching and preaching ministry, and so much more. It’s really good stuff. And these renovations to Norton Hall and our worship space are very exciting!

And I don’t mean by any of this that God wants us to stop doing those things. But what I do read in these scriptures is this caution: none of these things will save us. None of these things are the “answer” to why we are together here as a church. We do them because we think God has gifted and called us to them. They are neither the PLAN, in and of themselves, and they are certainly not the POWER behind the plan.

Let me boil this down to two statements which apply to us individually as Christians and collectively as the church:

We must not confuse our power – our gifts, interests, passions, and abilities – for God’s POWER, which is spiritual and infinite and effective.


We must continue, daily and always, to ask what God is doing in and around us and how we can be a part of that.

I pray we need not get to the end of our rope to wait on God’s power. That’s not the only way it happens. In wisdom and humility, we can even now wait on and ask for God’s POWER.

So, even more compactly, let me close with this. First I’ll read it; then I’ll pray it.

Lord: what are you doing in and around me, how can I be a part, and will you help me?

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