Making God Move – sermon from Acts 8:14-17

The movie Shadowlands tells the story of C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy. If you are not familiar with the story, Jack (as C.S. Lewis was affectionately called) marries Joy in order to help her and her sons stay in England. When Joy finds out that she is very ill with cancer, Lewis discovers that he truly loves her. And he becomes deeply pained as he watches her struggle with the disease in her body. At one point in the movie, in the midst of Joy’s treatments, Lewis has the following interaction with one of his friends and colleagues at the university where he teaches. His colleague says, “Christopher can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis responds, “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” Our passage this morning from Acts has been looked to by some to say that there is a pattern to faith in Christ. And, if we follow that pattern, then God will respond in certain ways. The pattern that is derived from this passage is: believing the gospel, being baptized by water, and receiving the laying on of hands. When we follow that pattern, then God will send the Holy Spirit upon us.

When I came to faith in Christ as a teenager in the 90s, the big focus in youth ministry and in the church in general was on a personal relationship with Jesus. And there was a pattern to that as well. You would believe in Jesus and then pray the believer’s prayer. When you did that, the Spirit would come upon you and you would be transformed. Then, baptism (or if you had already been baptized as a child, public profession of faith) was just a sign of that transformation by the Spirit. But in order to receive the Spirit, you had to follow those steps…or it didn’t work. Or so most of us believed. It was through those steps that were able to make God move in our lives. Now, perhaps the leaders at the time would not have described it that way, but that seemed to be the underlying principle. Somehow we could force God’s hand. No one at that time would have made the claim that we were changing God, yet that seemed the basic outcome of that theology. Our actions make God act.

This morning I would like to look at this passage from Acts in a different way though. I’d like to suggest that what it teaches us is quite the opposite. The four verses we read this morning come in the middle of a story about Philip’s ministry in Samaria. If you recall, there are two stories about Samaria from the gospels. The most familiar one is probably the story of the Good Samaritan. The other story is of the woman that Jesus encounters beside a well. In both stories we see that there is a bit of tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as heathens who did no good and could not be trusted. The Samaritans worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also, but they believed that their worship was right and true, while Jewish worship included some false teachings that came with them when they returned from the Babylonian exile. These differences in worship led to a deep divide between the two groups. The Samaritans would have been considered part of the Gentiles, even though their religion had deep connections to the Jewish religion.

Because of this tension between the two groups, it’s not surprising that it is Philip who goes to Samaria to preach the gospel rather than one of the twelve. Philip was a Hellenistic Jew. That means he was a Greek convert to Judaism who then found faith in Christ. This is not the same Philip that was counted among the twelve. This Philip was appointed as a deacon in Acts 6. And here he receives a calling to go to Samaria and preach the gospel. It makes sense that someone not originally of Jewish heritage would be the first to share the gospel in Samaria. Philip would not have had such a strong prejudice toward the Samaritans. So, Philip goes and preaches the gospel to the pagan Samaritans and they accept his teachings. But for some reason, the people don’t receive the Holy Spirit, despite believing and being baptized. Why would that happen?

Well, I think there may be two possible explanations. First, God moves when God chooses to move. There is no magic formula. We see later in Acts that when Peter comes to Cornelius’ home that Cornelius and his household have already come to believe in Jesus and the Holy Spirit has already come upon them…even though they have not yet been baptized. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon everyone there, whether they have been baptized, haven’t been baptized, or even those who didn’t yet believe. I think these stories exist to show us that God will move when God will move. We cannot make God move. There was a contemporary Christian song that was very popular a while back by a band called Switchfoot. The song was called “Dare You to Move.” And when that song first came out, I heard several discussions about the meaning of the song. Some Christians were upset that it made it sound like the band was daring God to move, as if God responded to the threats of humans. But when the video for the song was released, it showed a rather different interpretation of the song.

But before I talk about that, I want to jump back to Acts for a second.

Now, you may remember one other time that Samaria is mentioned in Acts. In the very first chapter of Acts, Jesus is preparing to ascend to heaven and he tells his disciples, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus specifically mentioned Samaria as a place that he envisioned the disciples going to witness to the truth about him. And when we get to our passage from Acts 8, the twelve have yet to go to Samaria to share the gospel. There is no mention of why they had not yet gone there, but with the things we’ve already discussed about the tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, I think it is safe to guess that they simply did not WANT to go there. They were avoiding it. But God’s plans happen, even when we resist. So, God took a different tactic, not all that unlike the tactic used with Jonah when he tried to flee away from Nineveh. The twelve resisted, so God put a plan in place to force their hand. God called Philip to go to Samaria instead, which he did. And by normal standards, his mission there was successful. The people came to believe in Jesus…even Simon the sorcerer came to believe. And Philip baptized them all with water. But for some reason, word spread to Peter and John that though the Samaritans had believed in Jesus and been baptized, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this story is more about Peter and John than about the Samaritans.

Back to the Switchfoot video…when I first watched the video, I realized that the song was not about daring God to move. It was about daring the church to move…daring the people of God to take action in the world…daring Christians to help transform the world for Christ. The problem with the Samaritans was not that God fails to act when God was supposed to. We cannot make God move. The problem was that the church failed to act as it was supposed to. The church allowed its prejudice to get in the way of its mission. And it took a relative newcomer (Philip) to open their eyes. Where are our prejudices getting in the way of following Christ’s call? Where are we looking at our neighbor with suspicion rather than love? Where are we letting fear separate us from others? We cannot make God move. There are no specific steps we can follow that will somehow force God’s hand. God will move when and where God chooses to move. But often God is moving ahead of us and we are simply not seeing it…either because we are not paying attention or because we don’t want to see it. So, our challenge from Acts 8 is to look for where God is moving and be prepared to join in. Our challenge is not to mold God to our vision, but to be molded into God’s vision. And that will most certainly require putting aside some prejudices and seeking to love those whom we are more inclined to hate. May we all be shaped to God’s will and may the kingdom draw ever closer as the church dares to move along the way of Christ.

Melting – A Transfiguration Children’s Lesson

SUPPLIES NEEDED:
Opaque bag or box (I used an insulated lunch bag)
A cup or Ziploc bag of water (I used a Ziploc bag)

So, I brought something with me this morning to show you. And I was so excited to show it to you that I put it all together last night and set it on the counter at my house so it would be ready for this morning. Can you guess what it is?

In my bag here I put a bag of ice. Do you guys like ice? (get out the bag of water)

Wait a second. Where did my ice go? Did one of you guys sneak into my stuff and replace my ice with water?

But I had a bag just like this that was full of ice when I put it in this lunch bag last night and now all I have is this water. Someone must have switched it on me.
(At this point the kids will most likely be trying to tell you that the ice melted. If not, keep suggesting other ideas for how the bag of ice became a bag of water.)

Wait. Are you telling me that this water actually IS my ice? But it transformed? That’s amazing!

There is a story in the Bible about a time that Jesus and three of his disciples went up on a mountain. And when they got up the mountain, Jesus transformed. His clothes became bright white and two other people appeared next to him. The three disciples were amazed and rather scared. They knew that something amazing was happening. And they wanted to hang onto that moment, so they offered to build three tents for Jesus and the two other people to stay in. But the moment was temporary. And as soon as it had happened it was over. But it was a moment that changed the life of those disciples.

God gives each of us moments like that, too. Maybe they are not quite so obvious, but they are there. Times when we really see God working in our lives. And we might be tempted to cling to those moments and try to relive them over and over. But God wants us to share God’s glory with the world.

Let us pray and thank God for those moments! Please pray after me…

Jesus, thank you for showing us your goodness and glory. Remind us daily that you are love and grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Feel free to use this idea and modify it however you want. I hope that it will be of help. Also, please chime in with any questions, comments, or suggestions you might have for me in the comments section below, on the FB page, or via Twitter.

How to Build a Better Bully…in 5 easy steps

When I was in middle school and high school, I was scrawny and timid and a bit awkward. So, as you might imagine, I was quite popular amongst the school bullies. As a 6th grader, I was tackled into a shrub, got my head rammed into a basketball pole, and called home sick nearly every time we had to swim for P.E. class because of the kids who were constantly threatening to hold me under the water. In 7th grade, things calmed a little. Then in 8th grade, believe it or not, I was bullied by some 6th graders who happened to have gotten their growth spurts before me. I was pushed down into a mud puddle and punched in the face, not to mention the name-calling and mocking. I don’t list these things in order to gain sympathy (I’m well past that) but merely to say that I’ve been a victim of bullying, so I can usually recognize it when I see it.

We’ve now entered into this new technological age where kids grow up not knowing a world without computers and smartphones and tablets. With these advances in technology, we can build almost anything. There are even printers that can print in 3D. But with the building of all this new technology, we’ve also found ways to build a better bully. So, I’ve put together a list of how we done that. Here is how to build a better bully…in 5 easy steps: Continue reading

Empathy vs. Assimilation

My wife recently directed me to a wonderful blog post by Juan Lopez entitled Tortillas and Theology. In this post, Juan speaks of his recent discovery that tortillas originally had a different name but the conquistadors couldn’t pronounce it so they called them tortillas instead. Then he concludes the piece saying this:

We must learn from the mistakes of the European Church and not attempt to conquer and destroy those different from us. Instead we must see that Christ is all and is in all. We must not rename the bread and attempt to call it something we can pronounce. Let it remain a mystery. This is what makes us the Church, the body of Christ.

On the same day that my wife shared this with me, I had led a Bible study from Hebrews 13. Verse 3 of Hebrews 13 reads, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who were being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” As I held these two things up to one another, it led me to believe that empathy is a better approach to diversity than assimilation. Continue reading

A Monocle Rather Than A Looking Glass

Yesterday afternoon, a group of pastors and church leaders gathered in my church and discussed the purpose of a long-range strategic plan/vision statement for our denomination. Now, we did not discuss the specifics of this plan per se, but rather we discussed the necessity and reasons behind such a vision. Most times, when we think about this sort of long-range planning, we think of the vision statement as a looking glass. Continue reading

#BadGod and the Conquest of Canaan

This week’s hashtag game for my favorite podcast “The Moonshine Jesus Show” is #BadGod (with extra points if you can double hashtag it with #BadDog). As I’ve been contemplating possible entries for the game, I felt inspired to talk a little bit about one of my biggest struggles with the Bible, in particular with the Old Testament. I think primarily (though certainly not exclusively) about the book of Joshua and the descriptions of the conquest of Canaan. Since the very first time I read those ancient words, I felt conflicted. How could the God that I’ve come to know in Jesus Christ be a God who, not only allows, but orders his people to slaughter thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children for the sheer purpose of gaining land for themselves? I don’t know how to reconcile that. Continue reading

10 Things I Learned Teaching Preschoolers at VBS

I have spent this week as the preschool leader at our community-wide Vacation Bible School program. Our curriculum was entitled Workshop of Wonders, produced by Cokesbury. This is now my third year leading the preschoolers and I learn so much from the experience every year. So, this year I thought I would share some of those learnings with others. Here are 10 things I learned teaching preschoolers at VBS this year: Continue reading

Unpacking from #WildGoose14: Reclaiming the Parish

At Wild Goose Festival 2014, I attended four seminars. Over the next several weeks I hope to unpack what I learned from some of them. The first one I wanted to explore was a talk by Tim Soerens entitled “Reclaiming the Parish.” Tim is a dynamic and passionate speaker, so it was not hard to be drawn into what he was saying. It was clear that he had done quite a bit of research on his topic and, even more so, he had seen the principles lived out in real life situations. The basic idea, from my perspective, was that the American church has gone away from the idea of living in fellowship and helping those geographically closest to us (i.e. our neighbors and community). His talk, along with the book he, Paul Sparks, and Dwight Friesen wrote entitled The New Parish, encouraged/encourages the church in America to reclaim the idea of a parish. I love the idea of this, but I have been reflecting on how to apply the principles to the rural setting where I find myself. In reflecting on this, I have three concerns: Continue reading

The Measure of a Church

“Whenever a man can get hold of numbers, they are invaluable: if correct, they assist in informing his own mind, but they are still more useful in deluding the minds of others. Numbers are the masters of the weak, but the slaves of the strong.”
― Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher

As a math major in college, I have a deep love for numbers. Manipulating them always came easily to me. I always believed that a great deal could be discovered from looking at numbers. As a sports fan, I always loved statistics…batting average, earned run average, etc. It was fun to compare my favorite players with the greats of the game. Continue reading