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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why Do the Nations Rage? (Acts 4.23-31)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - July 20, 201
Text: Acts 4:23-31

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Hosanna" (Brooke Ligertwood)
Song of Praise: "O For a Thousand Tongues/One Great Love" (David Crowder)
Song of Praise: "Hosanna" (Brooke Ligertwood)
Offering of Music: "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" (Hopson)
Song of Praise: "The Doxology"
Hymn of Sending: "Praise to the Lord/Hallelujah" (LOBE DEN HERREN; Nockels/Passion)
Postlude: "Praise to the Lord!" (Craig Phillips)

:: 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.
23 When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them, 25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise futile things? 26 ‘The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.’ 27 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. 29 “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, 30 while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:13-22)
For several weeks we have been tracking a scene that began in Acts 3, with the healing of a lame man in the area outside the Temple in Jerusalem. Peter and John, two of Jesus' disciples, encountered the man and offered him all they had: Jesus. Essentially praying for him in Jesus' name, he was healed and began following them around the Temple courts as they talked about Jesus and all he had said and done. That got them in trouble with the religious leaders of the Temple and they were put in prison overnight, then put on trial. Though the religious court did not find anything worthy of their conviction (or feared the large crowd's response if they did), they did threaten and warn them to stop their teaching and move on. By that point, we read, 5000 men had heard and believed Peter's preaching.

Today's text continues that story, with Peter and John set free and reporting back to their friends. That report led to celebration, specifically praise to God. And that praise led into specific petition for the future. I want to look with you at the content of both the praise and the petition, but more broadly at the spiritual tools that informed both of those responses.

And I won't keep that a secret. It connects with what we talked about last week in terms of "talking about Jesus." Talking about Jesus, as demonstrated by Peter, is talking about what we have seen and heard God do and say. To do that requires a kind of "spiritual attention" to what is going on around us. It is the necessary complement to the prayer, "God, what are you doing in and around me and how can I be a part?" To hear and participate in God's answer to that prayer, we must be spiritually attentive. It is only then that we will "see and hear" and be able to personally talk about Jesus.

So, let's look at today's praise and petition, offered by Peter and John's friends following their release from the religious authorities. But also know that these responses were fueled by the kind of spiritual attentiveness that looks for God's activity in this world.

Praise (vv. 24-26)

When they had been released, Peter and John went back to their friends and “reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” (v. 23) That report prompted what sounds like a spontaneous exclamation of praise to God, specifically for God’s power in this world. First, the friends declare, “O Lord, it is you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” (v. 24) Having praised God’s work in creation, they quote from Psalm 2, “Why did the Gentiles rage…?” (vv. 25-26), which describes the sovereignty and power of God, even over the so-called powers of this world.

I am challenged and instructed by these words of praise. This is not just generic “God is good; God is great” praise, but is specific to the situation at hand. Peter and John have run up against the earthly powers of their time and place – the religious leaders in the Jerusalem Temple. They have been imprisoned and put on trial, threatened and told to stop talking about Jesus. And God has brought them through all of that. Rather than view this as a lucky break they were emboldened all the more to trust in God to talk about Jesus.

I am also reminded of how ably scripture teaches us what God is like, giving us words and thoughts with which to pray and praise our God!

Open Eyes (vv. 27-28)

These next verses relate specifically to what we talked about last week in talking about Jesus. We noted that Peter simply shared what he had seen and heard and I challenged you to do the same. In order to do that, we have to have our eyes and ears open to what God is doing in and around us. That’s just what is demonstrated here in verses 27-28. In fact, this is just the kind of paying attention that enabled Peter, John, and friends to offer the specific praises we just looked at.  They knew just what had happened:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your purpose predestined to occur. (vv. 27-28)
Why did Psalm 2 come to mind? Why were the praises about the sovereignty and power of God over earthly powers? It is precisely because these same people had seen the earthly power that had set itself against Jesus and now was set against them. Specific names and scenes came to mind: Jesus before Herod and Pilate; the crowds shouting, ‘Crucify!’

One of the critical pieces to being able to talk about Jesus is to pay attention to what is happening around you. I reminded you last week of this important question/prayer: God, what are you doing in and around me and how can I be a part? Open eyes and ears not only help us see God at work, but also fuels our prayers of praise as well as petition.

Petition (vv. 29-30)

And that’s just what happens next in verse 29. John and Peter’s friends continue in prayer, now moving from praise to petition, asking God to CONTINUE the kind of sovereign protection God described in Psalm 2 and that God has already shown to Peter and John. So they pray:
And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that your bond-servants may speak your word with all confidence, while you extend your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (vv. 29-30)
Again, this is not a generic prayer, “Lord, help my friends out”; it is specific, mentioning the threats, the preaching, and the healing that were all a part of Peter and John’s experience over the past few days. And it rests on the assurance of God’s sovereignty and power, already named through praise and also seen in the past few days.

Already present as they prayed, the Holy Spirit filled the whole group and they all began to talk about Jesus with boldness. So the ministry and message of Peter and John spread among the followers of Jesus in this very manner.

Talk, Pray, Ask

Last week we talked about talking about Jesus. And one of the key pieces of that was paying spiritual attention day by day so that we would be able to talk about what we have seen and heard.

Today we see that spiritual discipline of paying spiritual attention as essential not only to our witness or testimony, but also to our prayer life. As we see what God is doing in and around us, we become more and more at ease declaring God’s worth through praise and seeking God’s help through petition.

And what we see at the very end of this passage is also the important connection of paying spiritual attention with mission – not only do we see and hear what God is doing in and around us, but like the group that began to participate in God’s work in v. 31, God invites us to participate in what He is doing near us.

How important, then, it is to pay spiritual attention: to look and listen for what God is doing in the world and to read and study scripture to be reminded of what God has done and promises to do. That spiritual attention then fuels our witness, our prayer, and our mission.

Would you be willing to commit to praying this prayer with me this week: God, what are you doing in and around me, and how can I be a part?

Several of you have let me know you would be willing to share what you have seen and heard. You’ll be hearing from them in the weeks to come. I’m still looking for others who might be willing to share in the newsletter, on video, or in worship. You know where to find me! I’d love to also hear how God’s answer to that prayer influences your own prayers or work. May the Spirit give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to follow! Amen.

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