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Sermon for Sunday 1 June 2014

FIRST READING Acts 1:12-26

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. 15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’;
‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.


PSALM Psalm 68:1–10

1 Let God arise, and let God’s enemies be scattered; let those who hate God flee. 2 As smoke is driven away, so you should drive them away; as the wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. 3 But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; let them also be merry and joyful. 4 Sing to God, sing praises to God’s name; exalt the one who rides the clouds; I AM is that name, rejoice before God! 5 In your holy habitation, O God, you are a father to orphans, defender of widows; 6 you give the solitary a home and bring forth prisoners into freedom; but the rebels shall live in desert places. 7 O God, when you went forth before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, 8 the earth quaked, and the skies poured down rain, at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel. 9 You sent a bountiful rain, O God; you restored your inheritance when it languished. 10 Your people found their home in it; in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.


SECOND READING 1 Peter 4:12–14; 5:6–11

Chapter 4 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
18 And
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”
19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.
Chapter 5 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
GOSPEL John 17:1–11

1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

There’s an old story about a young high school football star who was being recruited by a coach from a major college. The coach had never seen the young man play, so he asked him some direct questions. “Son,” he said, “I understand that you do the passing for your team. Are you a pretty good passer?” “Am I a good passer?” the boy answered. “Why, I threw the ball 100 times this season and only had one incompletion and that was because the receiver fell down before the ball got to him.” The coach was impressed, “I understand that you also played defense,” he said, “are you a good tackler?”
“Am I a good tackler?’ the boy answered. “Why I’ll have you know that in one game this year, I sacked the quarterback three times.” The coach rubbed his hands in excitement. “I understand that you also do the punting for your team. Can you kick the ball pretty well?” “Can I kick? I’ll have you know that I have to hold back on my punts to keep the ball from sailing into the stands.” The coach was thrilled. “Tell me, son,” he said, “do you have any weaknesses?” The boy thought for a moment and replied, “Well, I do have a tendency to exaggerate a little.”
That young man may have overstated his abilities more than a little. However, when we compare the young football star with many Christians today, the exaggeration is a refreshing change. For the most part, many of us have a tendency to understate just how much God means in our lives, and how much of a privilege it is to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus is the most thrilling business in the world. God has entrusted each of us with the work of bringing this beaten and battered world into a right relationship with God. He has called us to bring abundant life to hearts that are cold and uncaring. He has offered us the possibility of being part of the building of God’s kingdom in this world. When you stop and consider all that God has done for us and is doing each and every day in our lives, you can’t help but feel blessed. And anytime we come to that realization we can’t help but feel good inside. However, you might be like the guy who went into a hotel and asked for a bottle of Old Squirrel whiskey?
When the bartender replied that he didn’t have any Old Squirrel, but that he did have some Old Crow, the man said, “No, I don’t want to fly. I just want to jump around a little bit.” Bad story, but it makes my point: there’s a big difference between people who want to fly and people who just want to jump around a little. As children of God, our spirits ought to soar when we contemplate the great honor that God has bestowed upon us the honor of being called His own people and being entrusted by Him to share the good news with those around us.
In our reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for the church. He prays that they will be unified in the work to which we were called. But I wonder if any of those disciples could possibly have imagined that more than 2,000 years later, there would be people walking in their footsteps. And for more than two thousand years God has honored, and continues to honor Jesus’ prayer. Sure, there have been those Christians who have been more concerned with their agendas causing bickering and infighting over the centuries, and this fighting and division has caused some to sour and turn away. But, thanks be to God, despite our sinful nature, there are more Christians now than ever before. Twelve became seventy; the seventy became hundreds and as we’ll hear next week those hundreds became thousands on the Day of Pentecost. And now, thorough the power of the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of the saints, those thousands have become millions.
In the past two centuries, we have seen the greatest explosion of Christian outreach since the days of the early church. There are more Christians in the world today than there were people in the entire world just a century ago. In spite of how anemic the church is becoming in the United States and Europe, around the world thousands of new people are coming to Christ every day. We should be excited to be part of the church of Jesus Christ. And where do we, as the church, get the power that sustains us through the ages? The strength comes from God, as Paul said in Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And the motivation to fulfill our commission, “to go into all the world”, comes from three sources.
Our first source of motivation comes from the world’s need. All we have to do is look around to see that the world desperately needs what you and I have to offer. Whether it’s in far off places or here at home, the world still needs to know the good news of Jesus Christ. The devil prowls like a lion finding ways to distract us and convince us that things are going well, that we have no need to share the gospel because no one wants to listen anyway. St John records the words of Jesus, in chapter 8 verse 44, that satan is the father of lies. The world needs to hear the truth, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, which is the hope of the gospel that we have to offer.
Years ago, in one of his books, evangelist Billy Graham spelled out the world’s need in very graphic terms. The world has changed much since he wrote these words, but it was the way things were only one generation ago. He writes: “In China when my wife was growing up, frequently babies who died before cutting their teeth were thrown out to be eaten by feral dogs. The people feared, that if evil spirits thought they cared too much for the children, they would come and take another one. They tried to prove their indifference in this crude way.
“In India,” Graham continues, “a missionary who passed the banks of the Ganges noticed a mother sitting by the river bank with two of her children. On her lap was a beautiful new baby and whimpering beside her was a painfully [mentally challenged] child of about three. On her return home that night, the missionary saw the young mother still sitting at the river bank, but the baby was gone and the mother was trying to comfort her little mentally challenged child. Horrified at what she thought might be true, the missionary hesitated a moment and then walked over to the mother and asked her what had happened. With tears streaming down her cheeks, the mother looked up and said, ‘I don’t know about the god in your country, but the god in mine demands the best.’ She had given her perfect baby to the god of the Ganges.”
There are people who have been tricked by the devil into thinking all sorts of wild untrue things and these people need to be liberated by the good news that God is not a God of darkness but of light, not a God of cruelty but compassion, not a God who demands fear but one who creates faith. No wonder that in the developing countries, so many people today are turning to Christ. And don’t be fooled by the devil’s argument that it’s only the people overseas who need the gospel delivered to them.
There are people right here in this community who are lonely and heartbroken. There are people with physical needs, emotional needs, and spiritual needs. And we are the people whom God has called to meet those needs. When we acknowledge that truth, and live out our lives in service to our brothers and sisters in Christ, then the church really becomes the church, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. We have been so blessed; therefore, we have so much to give!
A visitor from an undeveloped country traveled across the United States. He saw many natural and man made wonders like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Empire State Building. But he said that, of all the wonders of America, what impressed him most was the large size of America’s garbage cans. We have so many things, that we have difficulty disposing of our leftovers. When will we learn that the measure of our lives isn’t how much we have, but how much we give? The love of God must flow through us to others. As long as it’s flowing, we are fresh and alive. If we ever seek to dam up the flow and keep God’s blessings to ourselves, we’ll become like a stagnant pond. The church gets its power by meeting the world’s need. Second, we receive strength from the fellowship we have together.
Author and pastor Charles Swindoll tells a powerful story about an old Marine Corps buddy of his who, to Chuck’s surprise, came to know Christ after he was discharged. Chuck was surprised because his buddy cursed loudly, fought hard, chased women, drank heavily, loved war and weapons, and hated chapel services. Sometime later Chuck ran into this fellow, and after they had talked awhile, his buddy put his hand on Chuck’s shoulder and said, “You know, Chuck, the only thing I still miss is that old fellowship I used to have with all the guys down at the tavern. I remember how we used to sit around and let our hair down. I can’t find anything like that for Christians. I no longer have a place to admit my faults and talk about my battles where somebody won’t preach at me and frown and quote me a verse.”
It wasn’t one month later, that while reading, Chuck came across this profound paragraph: “The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit that there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give His church. It’s an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape, rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It’s unshockable. It’s democratic. You can tell people secrets, and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers. With all my heart,” this writer concludes, “I believe that Christ wants His church to be unshockable, a fellowship where people can come in and say, ‘I’m sunk, I’m beat, I’ve had it.’ Alcoholics Anonymous has this quality and our churches too often miss it.”
“Now before you take up arms to shoot some wag that would compare your church to the corner bar,” Chuck Swindoll continues, “stop and ask yourself some tough questions, like I had to do. Make a list of some possible embarrassing situations people may not know how to handle.
A spouse discovers their partner is living in sin by having an affair with another. Where in the church can they find help where they’re secure with their secret? Your mate talks about separation or divorce. To whom do you tell it? Your daughter is pregnant and she’s run away for the third time. She’s no longer listening to you. Who do you tell that to? “You lost your job, and it was your fault. You blew it, so there’s shame mixed with unemployment. Who do you tell that to? Financially, you were unwise, and you’re in deep trouble. Or a person’s spouse is an alcoholic. Or something as horrible as getting back the biopsy from the surgeon, and it reveals cancer, and the prognosis isn’t good. Or you had an emotional breakdown. To whom do you tell it?
“We’re the only outfit I know that shoots its wounded,” Chuck concludes. “We can become the most severe, condemning, judgmental, guilt-giving people on the face of planet Earth, and we claim it’s in the name of Jesus Christ. And all the while, we don’t even know we’re doing it. That’s the pathetic part of it all.” It’s a scathing accusation, but is there any truth to the allegation? Now I know that Bethel is a safe place where we can share our burdens with others. But can the same be said of every church?
Again, it’s a pretty powerful indictment of the church at its worse. Gossip, backbiting and infighting isn’t the kind of fellowship we’re seeking. And it’s not the kind of fellowship Christ blesses. We want and we need to be a fellowship that lifts up one another and then seeks to lift up those outside our doors. We want to be a fellowship that draws people with real problems into its fellowship and surrounds them with Christ’s love. That’s the second place the church gets its power, from our fellowship in Christ. Finally, the church gets its power from the knowledge that God is with us through the power of His Holy Spirit.
I was reading about a pastor who says that he was totally unprepared when he was assigned to his first church. He says, “I will never forget my first shut in. She was a dear lady who had been a member of that church for eighty years, but now she was in the declining years of her life. For all practical purposes this dear lady was deaf. She could hear you if you cupped your hands around her ear and shouted, ‘Good morning! How are you?’ She would nod in reply, because she had Parkinson’s disease and her speech was garbled. For all practical purposes she was also blind; and she was bedfast.
“I wasn’t used to being with older people,” said this pastor. “I wanted so badly to minister to her but I felt so awkward. What kind of small talk could we make, even if, with all her handicapping conditions, we could talk? What did we have in common? I was totally incompetent, but I was faithful. I visited her regularly though each time I felt like a complete fool. I had a prayer to close each visit but how can you shout a prayer into someone’s ear? It was a totally frustrating experience.
“Eighteen months after my first visit with her, this dear lady passed, and I conducted her funeral. Can you imagine my surprise when at that funeral the two daughters of this poor lady handed me a note? On it was scrawled, almost illegibly, the last message this lady ever communicated to anyone. On it were these words: ‘Please tell my young pastor how much his visits meant to me.’ “I have often looked back on this experience with wonderment and awe. I have come to this conclusion: As I sought to minister to this dear lady, it was not I who was giving comfort to her. It was Christ.”
That’s Christ’s promise to us, isn’t it? “Lo, I am with you, even unto the end of the age.” It’s not easy ministering to others, but He’ll give us the power to overcome our weaknesses and to accomplish the task to which He has assigned us. Where does the church get its power and motivation? From being faithful to our call and sharing the gospel with the world, from our fellowship together as we gather here at church or in other smaller groups and from the presence of the One who goes with us.
Jesus prayed that God would secure and unify His church. That prayer has been answered in a great and marvelous way even though the church today is certainly not all that He means for it to be. But we’re still meeting the world’s need. And He’s still with us, as He promised.

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