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Sermon for 22 April 2012

FIRST READING Acts 3:12–19

12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. 17 And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

PSALM Psalm 4

1 Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I was in distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. 2 “You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you love illusions and seek after lies?” 3 Know that the LORD does wonders for the faithful; the LORD will hear me when I call. 4 Tremble, then, and do not sin; speak to your heart in silence upon your bed. 5 Offer the appointed sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD. 6 Many are saying, “Who will show us any good?” Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD. 7 You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine abound. 8 In peace, I will lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me rest secure.


1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

GOSPEL Luke 24:36b–48

36b Jesus himself stood among them and said to the them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.


There’s a small poem that’s sometimes quoted in Christian Bible studies that goes like this: How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews. And when you think about it, it makes sense. Why the Hebrew people and not the Amorites or Philistines or Arabs for that matter? In many ways the history of the Jewish people, when you consider their track record of faithfulness to God, isn’t all that different then many of their neighbors. But God did choose them as His people and in this world’s wisdom this seems odd. The Jews, who also have a sense of humor, often use the word Goyim to refer to non-Jews. And so an unknown Jew with a biting wit responded to this little poem, “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews” by writing these words: “Not odd/ Of God: Goyim/ Annoy Him.”
I cite these little bits of creative poetry strictly in fun of course. Our Jewish friends are generally delightful people, and they have contributed to the advancement of civilization far out of proportion to their numbers. In the Air Force we joked frequently; why spend billions of dollars on the testing and development of new aircraft and weapons systems when we could instead give it to the Israeli Air Force: they’ll test it in combat. For some this could be taken as a slam or anti-Semitic, but the truth is, it was always said with admiration. From a military perspective, the Israeli military is a force deserving of respect and our attitude was anything but anti-Semitic. But not everyone shares that respect, and some will errantly point to the Bible, to justify their anti-Jewish attitudes.
The New Testament is often called anti-Semitic, or anti-Jewish. While Paul and other Biblical writers did chastise the Hebrew people for inappropriate attitudes or actions, as they did many other New Testament communities, to say that the Bible is anti-Jewish, I believe is an error. There’s no question that it’s been used many times throughout history to justify persecution of the Jews. That’s unforgivable. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew as were all of the original Christians. One could say that to be anti-Jewish is to be anti-Christ. And a careful reading of the New Testament shows it to be anything but anti-Semitic. Take, for example, today’s lesson from Acts. It follows one of the most beautiful scenes in the scriptures.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer. A man, who was lame from birth, was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was placed every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. As with all those who attended the Temple, when he saw Peter and John about to enter, this lame man asked them for money. But the response he got from the disciples was a surprise. Instead of reaching into a bag for a coin, Peter looked straight at him and said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
Then taking him by the right hand, Peter helped the man up, and instantly his feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them.
When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus. This is the same Jesus that you handed over to be killed, and you disowned Him before Pilate, though He had decided to let Him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the Author of life, but God raised Him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.”
Now, if we were to stop right here, we could easily say, “Yes. Peter is calling the Jews, Christ-killers.” And indeed the Jewish religious leaders are guilty of that charge. But we must be careful here and listen to how the story ends. Peter continues his speech by saying, “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what He had foretold through all the prophets, saying that His Messiah would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord . . .”
In this short speech, directed at those there that day, Peter is saying: 1) You did wrong; 2) But you acted out of ignorance; 3) That God used what you did to fulfill the messianic prophecy; and 4) You need to repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. To me this doesn’t sound like a statement of hatred and condemnation from Peter toward the Jews. It sounds to me like, the advice of one good friend to another. His words could be directed, not toward the Jews, but toward everyone. In fact, we can take these thoughts and apply them to ourselves.
First, we did wrong. Peter had no personal animosity toward the people he was addressing; after all, he wasn’t guilt-free in Christ’s passion and death either. He not only deserted his Master; he also denied knowing Him at the trial. What Peter was doing was simply speaking the truth. They had done wrong, just as you and I sometimes do wrong. As the politicians say, “Mistakes were made.” We all make mistakes, we all have sinned. It’s part of being a member of fallen humanity. We all sin and in last week’s epistle reading John tells us that, “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. Then in verse 10, John when further to say, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us”. Whether it’s anger, hatred, covetousness or any of the 10 Commandments we break, we all sin. But that’s not an excuse to keep on sinning. Paul asks, even though we are free from the law, does that mean we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. We need to recognize that we are sinful by nature and ask God to help us overcome our sinful nature.
There’s a scary story about a babysitter who made a call to the police. Someone was making continuous, but anonymous, calls to the home where she was sitting and it was beginning to frighten her. To her dismay the police told her to get out of the house immediately. The trace they had placed on the phone revealed that these frightening calls were coming from inside the house where she was sitting. “This reminds us,” says writer Phil Munsey, “that this can become our own horror story; sometimes the enemy is in the house.” And that’s true. The greatest enemy we have in this world is sometimes in our own hearts. It might be a simple thing like envy.
Richard Layard in his book titled Happiness tells about something that happened in East Germany when they were reunited with West Germany after 1990. The living standards of the East German people soared after reunification. However, their level of happiness fell. The reason was, that with reunification the East Germans began to compare themselves with their West German counterparts, who were doing even better still. Prior to reunification the East Germans had compared themselves with the other countries in the former Soviet bloc, and they felt pretty good about themselves. But in comparison with West Germans, they suddenly realized how far they had to go. And they became envious and depressed.
The same thing often happens in the business world in this country, says Layard. He gives the example of women, whose pay and opportunities have improved considerably in recent years relative to men. However, their level of happiness has not. Indeed, in the United States women’s happiness has fallen relative to men’s. Perhaps women now compare themselves more directly with men than they used to, and therefore focus more than before on the gaps that still exist. Erma Bombeck captured the heart of envy in this humorous prayer: “Lord, if You cannot make me thin, at least make my friends look fat.”
And Envy doesn’t limit itself to the secular world, I’ve seen envy raise its ugly head in church. I’ve seen people become indignant when they thought the pastor was spending more time with one group than another. I’ve seen soloists grow jealous when someone else was chosen for the choice part in the church cantata. Some might ask, what’s the problem with a little envy? Nothing unless it eats into our happiness. Nothing unless it leads to catty remarks about others. Nothing unless it leads to division in the body of Christ. Nothing unless it causes us to shun people we should be having fellowship with. Envy is a malignant growth that not only eats away at the person, but it can destroy relationships.
Our ancestors spoke of seven deadly sins: anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. It’s a pretty comprehensive list; one that touches every aspect of our nature and lives. How often do we find ourselves guilty of not just one, but several of these deadly sins? These sins are deadly because of the effect they can have on our soul, on our attitudes and on our relationships with others, even if they don’t lead to any overt actions. In many cases the real enemy is inside the house. John and Paul were right, we are sinners. And that’s the first thing Peter says to his fellow Jews. But it wasn’t just true of the Israelites. It’s true of every person who has ever lived. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But at times we’re unaware of our sin, until it’s pointed out to us.
And this is the second thing Peter tells his fellow Israelites: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” While a few of the Jewish leaders were acting out of envy, many in the crowd that condemned Jesus, were simply following their leadership; they were acting out of a lack of knowledge. That’s what makes Peter’s statement remarkable. It echoes Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) We know that at times, well-meaning people, sometimes, do some pretty awful things. For example, we get upset about Moslem extremists. However, they’re not the only religious group that has persecuted others for their faith. For example, throughout history, Christians have persecuted peoples of other persuasions.
If you believe that you’re the only true faith and you believe that all other religions are leading people to hell, then it’s easy to justify, in your mind, that these other people must be stopped by any means necessary. To see this we don’t have to even go outside our own faith community. Historically, Catholic and Protestant Christians have delighted in persecuting one another. People can be stirred up so easily to hate others who are not like themselves. Peter said to the Jews: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” And that’s what it is, blind ignorance. There are a lot of senseless people around who can easily be stirred up into a mob. That’s what they mean when we say mob mentality. There are a lot of ignorant people, even in positions of leadership, who would rather be right in their own minds, than be Christ-like.
A pastor tells of visiting the Holy Land recently. He visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Church is the traditional site of the hill of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. It was built during the time of Constantine, roughly 326 A. D.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has gone through many different owners in its life and now there are at least six faith groups with claims on it. The three main ones are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. Three other communities, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox, also possess certain rights and small properties in or about the building. And get this, the key to the church is owned by a Muslim family.
While there, this pastor saw a ladder resting on the church’s ledge. The story goes that in 1860, a member of one of the factions, claiming rights to the church, noticed a broken window pane. The members of this faction then put a ladder up in order to fix the window, but before they could do so, another faction pointed out that the window belonged to them. So since the broken window pane belonged to one faction and the ladder belonged to another, the end result was that the ladder was left leaning against the wall under the window pane. It’s been there since1860; it remains there today.
Sometimes people do things that simply make no sense. Peter said to the people of Israel, you were wrong in crucifying Jesus, but that they acted out of ignorance. Then he makes a statement that’s breathtaking: “But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.” In other words, what they intended for evil, God used for good.
Peter was addressing the Jews. They had crucified God’s own Son. On a scale of 1-10 where would you put that on a sliding scale of misdeeds? I’d say that’s pretty near to the top. But Peter points out that God had taken this terrible event and used it to save humanity. Now, where would we rank it? This is why we should never give up, no matter how badly we’ve messed up. God is in control of this universe, and God can take even our sins and bring something good out of them.
Peter’s words echo similar statements found in the Old Testament. You’ll remember that Joseph, the Old Testament patriarch, was sold into slavery by his envious brothers. To cover their sin they told their father that he was killed by a wild animal. The slave traders took Joseph to Egypt where, through God’s blessing and the force of his character, he rises from slavery to being the second most powerful man in the empire. Later, in the midst of a great famine, Joseph’s brothers come searching for food. They end up in an audience with their brother Joseph, whom they do not recognize. Why should they? Who would expect the brother they sold into slavery to be in the royal palace? When Joseph reveals himself to them, they react in fear. What will Joseph do to avenge their great act of treachery? And the answer is, he forgave them. And then Joseph speaks words that could only come from one of God’s very special people: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). Those are words very similar to what Christ could have said to His persecutors following His resurrection: what you intended for evil, God used for good.
When we sin, we should never make light of it. Sin is more serious than we realize. Being sinful from birth doesn’t mean we give up or give in; it means we turn to God for help in overcoming the beast within. Being aware of our sin can cause us to become better people. Awareness means we’re no longer ignorant of your own weakness. It can help us to be more compassionate of others who have given into their weaknesses, so that we might help them back up. When we sin, give that sin to God and ask, “Lord, I have done this terrible thing. I pray that You will redeem it and use it somehow to Your glory.”
You’ve done wrong, Peter says to the Israelites. But God has taken that wrong and used it to save fallen humanity. Then Peter speaks these final words, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” In other words, recognize that you have done wrong and ask God to help you turn your life around and God will wipe away your sins and refresh your spirit. This, pure and simple, is what grace is all about. Even when we’ve been our worst, God can give us His best, if we’re willing to receive it. We must be willing to hand over to God even the smallest of sins, for they are seeds of deep destruction if they’re not eliminated from our hearts. Envy, anger, greed, lust, sloth, pride, gluttony, or any other sin, turn them over to God and He will lift the burden from our souls.
Dr. Jacob Chamberlain, an early missionary to India, tells of preaching to a group of people who had come to bathe in the “sacred stream” of the Ganges. Among them was a man who had crawled many agonizing miles on his knees and elbows. He was trying to atone for his sins and to win the favor of the god of the Ganges. Exhausted, he breathed a prayer to his god, and then slipped into the water. When he came out of the water, says Chamberlain, he felt no better. He still felt the weight of his sins. The fear of death still tugged at his heart. Then he heard Chamberlain tell the wonderful story of God’s grace and how Christ died on the cross to cleanse needy sinners. With new hope the man staggered to his feet, clasped his hands together, and cried, “Oh, that’s what I need! Cleansing and peace!” The missionary soon led him to Jesus.
Here’s the Good News for the day. Anytime we do wrong, whether a small infraction or a major sin, there’s no reason to give up or give in. Outside of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, there is no sin that God will not forgive, no wrong that God cannot redeem. God will forgive our sin and refresh our spirits. I began the message this morning by quoting that refrain, “How odd of God to choose the Jews . . .” In reality it should read like this: “How odd of God to choose any of us.” But He has, and for some reason that only God knows, He never gives up on us no matter what we’ve done. It’s a wonderful promise. It’s a gift of hope that assures us that God chose all of us, and in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven; we have been redeemed.

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