As you already know, Wayne and I go back a long way to St Paul's Carlingford
and have known each other for over ten years.
We're not the best of friends
- we don't hold hands or go on windy walks together
- but we do like each other
... sort of.
As some of you may already know,
before Wayne came here to Bossley Park he was in South Australia,
where the Anglicans there gave a really hard time.
Around the same time I was in Newcastle having a hard time as well
- not with Anglicans but with a school that treated its teaching staff really badly.
For at least 9 months after that event I suffered the effects of depression.
I won't go into all the gory details,
but 2001 was my annus horribilis
- the worst year of my life.
Perhaps the worst thing that occurred during that dark period of my life
was a belief that God was no longer looking after me or caring for me.
I am sure that some of you here today have been through similar situations.
That we are still here is in some ways a miracle.
But the question needs to be asked
- what on earth is God doing?
Obviously a little pun in the sermon title, but a vital question.
What is God doing today?
How is he working on this earth?
My period of depression was unpleasant,
but I'm happy that at least I was not in a concentration camp,
or a passenger in an airliner about to crash,
or being prepared to be executed by another tribal group in Rwanda.
God is a God who controls all history
- whether we like it or not.
He decided that we would all turn up here today a
nd he decided what the morning tea is that we will enjoy afterwards.
But it was also he who decided that thousands would die in the World Trade Center,
and it was he who decided that Wayne and I needed to go through some very dark times in our lives.
He was the one who decided all these things,
but he is not to blame for them
- the sin was with other people.
But God was in control,
and will continue to be in control.
This is a hard teaching to understand.
Even I find it hard to deal with,
but I am convinced that the Bible teaches this to us about God.
Moreover, I am also convinced that the passage we are examining today shows that God is totally in control.
The growth of the early church and the opposition it faced and overcame was all part of God's divine plan
- a plan that continues today.
A brief overview of events
The first thing I want to do this morning is just explain the passage briefly to you.
When large slabs of the Bible are read out in church I find it hard to sometimes concentrate.
The events recorded in this part of Acts occurred somewhere around 44 AD
- about ten years after Jesus was crucified.
The church had grown and spread,
but the Jews were still suspicious of their activities
and persecution of believers continued.
Jesus' apostles had, by and large, remained in Jerusalem.
Jesus' brother, James, had been accepted as an important leader in the church
despite not having been an apostle.
Our story opens not in Jerusalem
but with Jewish Christians who had migrated due to the persecution started by Saul,
but continued by others.
Luke records for us the growth of the church in Antioch as Jewish Christians crossed the racial divide
and began telling the gospel to Gentiles.
Remember that the church at this time consisted mainly of converted Jews.
Hopefully if you were here last week you would have heard the story of Peter
and how he was involved in the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius.
Well, things got better for Gentiles,
and what we see here in verses 19-30 is the growth of the church in Antioch
as more and more non-Jews embraced the Christian faith.
To cut a long story short,
Barnabas was sent from the Church in Jerusalem to check out the Antioch church.
He was a great help to them and was able to provide an important teaching ministry there for this young church.
Realising he needed help he called upon Saul in Tarsus to help him.
Both of them together began to teach the church about the Christian faith.
As a result, the church grew in its maturity and in its number.
Barnabas and Saul then receive word from a prophet that a famine was about to hit Jerusalem,
so they got some gifts together and left the church in Antioch to return there.
Then the story shifts back to Jerusalem in chapter 12.
But instead of focusing on Barnabas and Saul,
Luke instead describes a rather tense time for the church.
not the same Herod who killed John the Baptist during Jesus' ministry,
but another bloke whose name was Agrippa,
King Herod had decided to curry favour with the Jewish leaders
and had the Apostle James executed.
James was the brother of John,
whom Jesus had nicknamed "Sons of Thunder",
and had predicted that they would have to suffer for their faith.
Well, James was put to death with the sword,
and the church was terrified.
Their terror increased when Peter was caught and imprisoned and sentenced to death as well.
With little else to do, the church in Jerusalem turned to God in prayer.
Peter was heavily guarded while in prison.
But on the night before his execution day an Angel turned up and rescued him.
He woke Peter up,
took his chains off,
opened the doors of the prison for him
and led him out onto the streets of Jerusalem
- all without waking the guards up.
So strange was this experience for Peter
that when the Angel left him alone in the streets he suddenly realised that what was happening was actually real
- he had thought he was dreaming.
Peter seems to feature in a number of amusing episodes in the Bible
and this is one of them.
Miraculously free, he turns up at the doorstep of the church that was praying for him.
He knocks on the door, and the servant girl is so excited that she doesn't even open the door
but tells the people inside that Peter is there.
At first they think she's crazy,
but then they decide that, since people have angels looking over them,
that the man at the door was actually Peter's guardian angel
- which indicates that Peter had been executed.
Well they open the door and pandemonium ensues
- Peter is alive.
The next day Herod decides that the guards who had let Peter escape need to learn a lesson
so he gives them the chop.
Herod then goes on a business trip to the coast to settle some trade negotiations,
and, after making a speech, was cheered by the crowd.
The crowd loved him so much that they called him a god.
Herod would not have said this himself,
but he nevertheless enjoyed the accolades of the crowd.
God was not impressed,
and an angel of God came down and struck him down with abdominal pains.
and an ancient autopsy revealed that he had some form of intestinal worms.
The chapter ends with Herod dead,
the gospel being spread
and the church growing.
So what is God teaching us about himself in this passage?
What on earth is God doing?
1. God is growing his church
The first thing that he teaches us that he is growing his church.
We need to recognise that in God's way of dealing with us,
it is God that initiates and completes the work.
In chapter 11 verse 21 we see that the reason why the church in Antioch grows is because "the Lord's hand was with them".
It is God who grows his church
and it is God who provides the means by which his church grows -
namely the message of the gospel preached by members of the church.
It is no accident that in Antioch the name "Christian" was first invented.
Obviously the church was having an impact on the city,
and unbelievers gave them a nickname.
What this indicates more than anything else is that the early believers spoke and believed in Jesus Christ.
Christ was the centre of their faith and their message, s
o much so that it became their public identity.
Isn't it an irony that the name of our faith
- was named not by followers of Christ but by those who did not?
How else does God grow his church?
He grows his church by the work of the Holy Spirit.
In 11 verse 24 we see that Barnabas was "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit".
The result of Barnabas' ministry was an increase in the amount of people who chose to follow Christ.
We cannot forget that the work of the Gospel is a supernatural ministry.
While we preach Christ crucified we need to remember that our words cannot change the hearts of anyone,
it is the work of the Holy Spirit to use the words of the gospel we speak
so that people are brought to faith.
Another thing we see is that God's word will continue to spread.
In Chapter 12 verse 24 we see that despite all the persecution instigated by the Jews and by King Herod,
that "the Word of God continued to increase and spread".
It is no accident that these verses were written directly after king Herod breathes his last.
Herod may have made a great speech,
but he was now dead and speaking no more.
In contrast, God's word had not been silenced,
and continued to live and grow.
So what we see here is that God's work on earth is grow his church.
The work of the Gospel of Christ,
the Work of the Holy Spirit
and the Work of the Word of God act together to do this.
If you can imagine a rope made from three strands
you will get an idea of what I'm talking about.
Each strand is separate from the other,
but all three work together to bring people to God.
One thing I haven't yet mentioned much is that God uses people to do this.
God uses his church to build up the church.
God has appointed Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers
to be preachers of the Gospel of Christ,
preachers of the Word of God,
and vessels used by the Holy Spirit,
so that people may come to faith and repentance
and grow in their love for God and one another.
Also notice that the power resides not in us, but in God.
Some people in the modern church today will argue that God will not work unless our prayers are faithful and powerful enough.
That the reason why bad things happen,
or the reason why you are sad and suffering,
is because you have not yet learned to pray powerfully,
or pray special prayers (Jabez?)
If there's any passage in the Bible which takes away this sort of teaching it is this one.
With the death of the Apostle James and continual persecution,
the church knew that the chances of Peter getting out alive were slim.
But they prayed anyway.
Peter himself knew that he might be killed.
But God rescued Peter
- and Peter didn't even believe it was real until he suddenly realised he was standing in the street.
He thought it was a dream.
Is this the same Peter who was rescued from Prison by an angel some ten years previously?
Is this the same Peter who had witnessed and even performed miracles himself?
Yes it was.
But even he couldn't believe his eyes.
The church's response to his escape is telling.
Despite their prayers they had given up hope.
When Rhoda told them that Peter was at the door they could not believe her.
And then they changed their minds to think that perhaps Peter had already been executed
and his angel was standing at the door.
Their faith that God would rescue Peter was as tiny as you can get
mustard seed sized you could say
- yet God worked these feeble prayers into his sovereign plan.
God does not base his actions on our praying,
God acts and causes us to pray.
It is not up to the faith of the pray-er,
nor the person being prayed for.
Instead it is up to God.
God chose to let James die and be with Christ,
but he chose to let Peter live for a while longer
to complete the work he had planned for him to do.
So what on earth is God doing?
We may not think that people becoming Christians is terribly important,
especially when compared to world peace,
human rights violations,
and economic recession.
But for God it is the most important thing.
Jesus came to the earth not as a social worker,
not as an economist,
not as a champion of human rights,
not as a nobel peace prize candidate.
He came as our saviour.
He died on the cross so that the sin that was ours could be transferred onto him.
And, being now clean and blameless in God's sight,
we become his chosen people.
It is that simple message that was preached by the church in Antioch,
and it is that message which continued to grow and spread.
It is the message we preach today,
and it is the means by which God, through his Spirit, grows our churches.
But there is something else on earth that God is doing.
God is also bringing evil to judgement.
2. God is bringing evil to judgement
When Chapter 12 opens we see the church having a hard time.
Herod has killed the Apostle James and has Peter awaiting execution.
Herod, also named King Agrippa,
was a Roman pawn ruling over Palestine,
and used his power to execute James and arrest Peter
in order to curry favour with the Jewish leaders.
Peter was arrested during the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread
- this festival was instituted by Moses in Exodus 12,
and forms an immediate prelude to the Passover festival.
The Jews were to prepare for their exodus by cooking for themselves enough food quickly
so they can leave immediately after the angel of the Lord went through Egypt
and killed the firstborn.
That night, of course, they ate the passover meal and smeared lamb's blood on their doors.
This is important for us to understand
because I believe that Luke has this biblical event deliberately in his mind.
Instead of Israel in captivity,
we have the Apostle Peter,
the top Apostle and representative of the church, in captivity.
Instead of being captive by Pharaoh,
he is captive by Herod.
The Angel of the Lord appeared over Egypt and killed the firstborn and set Israel free.
In Acts 12 the Angel of the Lord appears in the prison and sets Peter free.
In Exodus we see the Angel of the Lord protecting Israel from the Egyptian army,
who eventually drown in the Red sea.
In Acts 12 we see the Angel of the Lord strike Herod down for blasphemy.
What we see here is a figure that runs through the entire Bible
- the Angel of the Lord.
This figure is not merely an angel,
he is a special figure that God uses to rescue his people and destroy his enemies.
In some parts of the Old Testament he is even equated with God himself,
and some experts believe that,
in the Old Testament only,
he is the pre-incarnate Christ.
What this passage teaches us is that
while God will build his church,
he will also bring evil to judgement
- especially those evil forces which are deliberately trying to destroy the church.
But we need to remember that,
just as it is God's decision to build his church however he chooses to build it,
so it is God's decision to bring judgement upon those who oppose him.
We cannot assume that God will automatically save us from persecution or suffering
- the deaths of Stephen and the Apostle James should teach us that.
In the end, however, we will be saved when we enter the new heavens and the new earth.
At the same time we cannot assume that God will automatically punish those who oppose him -
Herod died at the hand of the angel
because he opposed God,
but the same cannot be said for countless people around the world
who actively persecute the church and kill Christians.
In the end, however,
all those who oppose God will perish and be judged.
On a day that he has appointed,
God will send his Son back to earth.
But when Jesus returns he will do two things
- he will bring to himself the church that his Father has created,
and he will bring those outside the church to judgement.
Who are those inside the church?
Those who trust in Jesus as their saviour and have bowed to him as Lord.
Who are those outside the church?
Those who have either actively or passively resisted Christ's kingship.
Those outside the church include people like Herod who tried to destroy God's work,
and those who simply want nothing to do with Christ.
They will not be saved unless they submit to Christ and trust in him.
Just the other day we found out that the Uniting Church has decided to allow openly gay people as ministers in the church.
A few months ago we saw a war waged in the Middle East with questionable motives.
A few years ago I was having the worst year of my life.
Sixty years ago Hitler was sending millions of people into gas chambers and ovens.
We look at this world and we weep for the sin and suffering it goes through,
and we ask the question - what on earth is God doing?
What on earth is God doing?
He is building his church
and he is bringing evil to judgement,
and he does this in his own time.
Through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ,
through the preaching of the Word of God
and through the work of the Holy Spirit
in those who speak and hear this message,
God creates a people for himself
- the church.
We look around at one another and laugh
- what a motley lot we are!
We all have our foibles and sins and shortcomings
- yet we are a miracle.
God has worked salvation in us and made us part of the church.
When all is said and done,
when we have come to the close of our lives,
Our financial security?
Or is it our trust in God?
Christians believe that there is a better place than the world we live in.
The church is simply an earthly expression of a glorious heavenly reality.
We may seem pathetic and motley and sinful,
but our time here on earth is nothing
compared to the eterity we will have with Christ.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are working in us today. Thank you that you have brought us to faith and obedience through the work of the gospel, the word and your Holy Spirit. Thank you that you use all of us in our limited ways to bring about your purpose, to build your church and strengthen it. Give us the wisdom and motivation to speak your message of salvation to those who do not know you, as well as to encourage and love one another. Heavenly Father, we know that in your good time you will bring to judgement all who resist you, and we thank you that your justice is perfect and impartial. We ask that you send your Son back to us soon, that we may leave behind this terrible world and spend eternity with you. Amen.
From the Kerygmatic Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.