Category: Acts

Podcast: Living in the Power of Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday is the last big Sunday in the liturgical year, but often churches that celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter fail to give equal emphasis to Pentecost. Pentecost is the culmination of the Christian Calendar, and has been called the “birthday of the church.” Without Pentecost, the Christian Year is incomplete because it is at Pentecost that Jesus fulfills his promise to send the Holy Spirit to empower, equip, enthuse, and embolden the apostles. It is also on Pentecost that the church launches it mission of taking the Gospel to the whole world.

Pentecost carries great significance for those early followers of Christ, and for us today. Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, titled Living in the Power of Pentecost.

What is the Gospel?

I have resisted getting into this because I keep telling myself, “This is not what you do here at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.”  Normally, I don’t engage in theological discussions, particularly those that are the equivalent of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.  But, today I can’t help myself because some discussion is taking place around the interwebs about “what is the gospel?”

Continue reading “What is the Gospel?”

Pentecost Sermon: Babel Revisited

On Pentecost, the community that was divided by God at the Tower of Babel is recreated in the miracle of communication at the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Babel Revisited
Acts 2:1-21

1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Continue reading “Pentecost Sermon: Babel Revisited”

Sermon: Disturbing Our City

Paul and Silas disturbed the city of Philippi when the power of the gospel interfered with business.  Shouldn’t our gospel disturb the city today?

Sermon: Disturbing Our City — Acts 16:16-34 NRSV

16:16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.

16:17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

16:18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

16:19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.

16:20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews

16:21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

16:22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.

16:23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.

Continue reading “Sermon: Disturbing Our City”

Sermon – Entertaining Angels: The Messengers and Armies of God

Entertaining Angels:  The Messengers and Armies of God

1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.

5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”

12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

15“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

The Ministry of Angels


In the story we have just read today, we get a glimpse into the ministry of angels.  After the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost where 3,000 believed and were added that day, the church began to grow and spread.
At first this movement of Jesus followers was an insignificant number.  Even 3,000 who became Christ followers at Pentecost were a drop in the population bucket of Jerusalem, where it is estimated population of about 600,000, swelled to over 1-million for the Feasts of Passover followed 50-days later by the Feast of Pentecost.  So, even 3,000, while a large number, was less than one-half of one percent of the normal population, and even less if the population is double or triple that.

But, as the church grew, they attracted attention.  And, they attracted attention, not just because of the increasing numbers of people who were joining the early Christians, but because of the demonstrations of God’s power that accompanied them.

,


In Acts 3, only one chapter after the Pentecost chapter, Peter and John are going to the temple at the hour of afternoon prayer, which was about 3 o’clock.  They encounter a lame beggar who asks them for money.  In a famous exchange, Peter addresses the beggar:
“Look at us,” Peter commands the beggar.  The man looks at Peter and John.
“Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And with that the beggar was healed.
Peter goes on to preach in the courts of the Temple, and incurs the wrath of the Sadduccees, because they do not believe in the resurrection.
And on it goes, with the church coming under increasing persecution by the religious leaders.
— In Acts 5 the apostles heal many, are arrested, and put in prison.  An angel of God comes to them in prison, opens the prison doors, and tells them to go stand in the Temple and preach the message of Christ.
— In Acts 6, the forerunners of deacons are chosen, and Stephen is among them.  Not long after that, Stephen is arrested, brought before the Council of religious leaders.  Stephen gives an account of his faith, and the chief priest and religious leaders become enraged, drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death.  A young man named Saul approves of Stephen’s killing.
— In Acts 8, Saul takes a more direct and active role in persecuting Christians.
— In Acts 9, Saul is converted, he himself escapes from Jewish attempts to kill him.
— In Acts 10 thru 11, the gospel message is taken to a non-Jew, Cornelius, and Peter understands that the gospel is for all people.
— In Acts 12, King Herod, not the same King Herod who tried to kill Jesus, has James the brother of John killed.  Seeing that the people liked this, Herod had Peter arrested and imprisoned, and is obviously planning to kill him, too.
So, we’ve already seen an angel open prison doors once, but we are about to see it again.
As Peter languishes in prison, the church prays.  Peter is bound by two chains between two guards, so the possibility of escape is remote, if not altogether unthinkable.
But, Luke writes —
7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
Now, not only is Peter chained between two guards, but other guards are blocking the prison door.  But that door opens by itself, and the angel leads Peter one block down the street before disappearing.  Peter realizes that this is no dream, and finds his way to the house where the others wait, praying for him.
Talk about answers to prayer!  Peter is outside knocking on the door, while the band of believers is inside praying for his release.
The servant girl, named Rhoda, heard the knock, went to the outer court door to see who was there.  When she recognizes the voice of Peter, she rushes back in and tells everyone, “Peter is at the door!”
No remember, lots of folks are inside praying for Peter’s release.  But rather than believe her, they tell her,”It’s not Peter, maybe it’s his angel.”  Which provides an interesting insight into their idea that an angel might be able to assume the appearance and speech of a human being.
Nevertheless, Peter continues knocking, and finally the open the door and let him in.
Now, we could talk about expecting answers to prayer when we pray, because obviously these folks didn’t, but that’s not my point today.
My point is an angel of God came to Peter in his cell, make the chains fall from his wrists, led him past two sets of guards, miraculously opened the prison gate, led Peter down the street for a block, and then disappeared.  Even Peter wasn’t sure his experience was real, until the angel vanished.
I’ve told that long story to remind us that angels not only bring messages from God, but that they themselves are actively engaged in helping those messages get carried out.
In The Old Testament
Several Old Testament examples come to mind of this dual messenger and warrior role.
The first example is a rather sad one.  When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God places an angel — cherubim to be specific —  with a flaming sword that turned, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.  So, the first instance of the warrior angel was not to do battle on behalf of God’s people, but on behalf of God, keeping Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden.
There are examples of angels appearing to Abraham and Sarah, and even to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid.  But these appearances fit more the idea of messenger, and not warrior.
But by the time we get to the Exodus experience, God does use an angel as a warrior.  After Pharaoh and the Egyptians refuse to let God’s people go, God sends the angel of death to kill the firstborn of every household.  Only in the Hebrew homes, where the blood of the lamb is spread over the door, are the firstborn children spared.
As the nation of Israel leaves Egypt, God promises —
20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”
But there are other accounts of angels fighting for God’s people.
In 2 Kings 19:35, the angel of the Lord — one angel — puts to death 185,000 Assyrian warriors, making it possible for God’s army to be victorious.
In Psalms 34:7, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.”
In The New Testament

Next week, we’re going to look at accounts in both Old and New Testaments of how God uses angels to care for all of God’s creation, and people especially.
But, there are also instances in the New Testament of God’s angels acting in an adversarial role, a warrior role, to defend and advance the Kingdom of God.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, he says —

4Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.5All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.

The Book of Revelation is filled with the most descriptive imagery of angels as God’s warriors, but I want to leave that book for the week when we deal with angels and the end of time.

The book of Jude contains one very interesting, but mysterious event.  Jude is writing about the brazenness of those who do not believe in God, or who live their lives in open defiance of God’s word.  He contrasts that kind of arrogant attitude by saying —

9But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

Jude’s point is to speak of the humility and restraint of even an archangel, but of course, we are very curious about what this brief verse means.  You remember that Moses died in the presence of God, and God buried him.  In Deutoronomy 34, the death of Moses is presented.  The Bible only says that Moses died and was buried, and that no one knows where his tomb is.  But, there must have been some dispute, some struggle between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses before its burial, and undoubtedly Michael wins.

Paul reminds us that even that we are in a spiritual battle.  In Ephesians 6, Paul writes —

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

Paul suggests that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  That is a battle that started long before man was created, and continues to this day.


It is a battle for which we are ill-equipped, unless the scale is tipped in our behalf by the Holy Spirit, our own obedience, and God’s holy angels.


Down through the years, fantastic stories of angels fighting real battles have been told.  The most famous of these in modern history is the story of the Angels of Mons.  The story goes that during World War I, the British army was struggling, in retreat actually.  But somehow they blundered forward into the small mining town of Mons, France.  Two German army corps divisions attacked the British on August 23, 1914.  And here’s where the story gets interesting.  During the fight, either celestial bowmen led by St. George, or angels themselves, routed the Germans, allowing the British to safely retreat later.


The story had so much support that British historian, A. J. P. Taylor, included the account in his book titled, The First World War, published in 1963.  Although the story has been largely discounted, it remains a popular legend concerning angels.


But, Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is not of this world.  I am sure that implies that whatever battles he sends his angels to fight for us are battles that concern eternity, not politics.


Peter’s experience, and the experience of the early church, was that the power of God was evident in their preaching, their ministry, and their protection.  God will send his angels.

Sermon: I Believe In Jesus The Coming Judge

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed
I Believe in Christ The Coming Judge

Acts 10:34-42
34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Where We Are In The Apostles’ Creed

We now have arrived at the part of the Apostles’ Creed that states —

From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead…

This is the final statement about Jesus, after the statement about God, and the statements about Jesus, that precede it.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell. [See Calvin]

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Remember we are using The Apostles’ Creed as an outline to address the major doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian church.  And, while we as Baptists do not use a creed in our corporate gatherings, that does not mean that we do not believe in the statements contained in the Creed.

But, back to today’s topic — the return of Christ and the judgment of everything.  So far in our look at The Creed we have had an event to hang on to each statement about Jesus:

  • For “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” we have the angel’s announcement to Mary and Mary’s response; and, of course, we have the entire nativity story and the celebration of Christmas;
  • For “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” and including the phrase “He descended into hell” (which requires a whole discussion all to itself, but is nonetheless a part of the Passion of the Christ), we have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
  • For “The third day He arose again from the dead” we have the resurrection of Christ and Easter;
  • And for “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” we have the Ascension of Christ and the Sunday that celebrates that event.

All of those affirmations are statements of belief rooted in a past reality.  Jesus was born.  Jesus did suffer and die.  Jesus did rise from the dead.  Jesus did ascend back to the Father in heaven.

Each event was witnessed by real people and each were profoundly affected by the event they witnessed. From shepherds and wisemen, to disciples and followers, to those who saw Jesus alive, each event was verified by numerous eyewitnesses who continued throughout their lifetimes to speak of what, in the words of John,

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”  1 John 1:1-3a

But when we come to today’s affirmation — “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” — we have left the events of the past, and are now affirming one final event that will take place in some future time, unknown to any except God the Father.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

Okay, you’ve probably all heard this one, but it makes a point about this business of the second-coming of Christ and the judgment of everything.

One of the Pope’s assistants rushed into him and said, “Holy Father, I’ve got good news and bad news.”

The Pope said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”

The assistant replied, “The good news is that Jesus has returned and wants to talk to you on the phone.”

“Great,” the Pope responded.  “But what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is, he’s calling from Salt Lake City.”

Okay, that’s an old and silly joke, but it kind of captures our ambivalence about the return of Christ and the judgment of the world.  We’re not sure if we want to hear it or not.  Frankly, we’re not sure we even believe it anymore, although there it sits, in the middle of The Apostles’ Creed.  Of course, even if we abandon the Creed, there are longer versions affirming that we as Baptists believe that Jesus will return to the earth bodily and visibly, and that Christ will judge the earth as the final act in God’s great drama of creation and redemption.

Our scripture passage today is almost a word-for-word match to the words of The Creed, probably because early Christians took much of what they used to compose The Creed from the words of Scripture itself.

So, the good news is this is a belief of the Christian church from the first century and the original apostles.  The bad news is that after 2,000 years this statement has lost some of its practical punch.

Why This Statement in The Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed was a concise statement of the commonly held beliefs of all Christians.  It started in very simple form, in a version known as the Roman Creed.  Over the centuries as controversies arose, The Creed was amplified, tweaked, and clarified to address specific heresies, or false teachings.

One of those was a Gnostic teaching that God was unconcerned with mankind’s actions.  The idea of Christ returning to judge the earth was a counterpoint to the teachings of the Gnostics that all matter is evil, that what we do in our physical bodies doesn’t matter, and that it is only the spiritual that is significant.

Other heresies denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, and his transformed body.  Others said that Jesus had already returned, and that now believers were left to their own devices.  So, this statement in The Creed, because it comes directly from scripture, pushes back at many of those false teachings.

But, rather than being just a reply, or a response, this statement in The Creed is a positive affirmation of a long-held belief known as The Blessed Hope — the confidence that Jesus would return to the earth, vindicate his followers, and judge the earth.

Here’s the importance of the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth — without this final chapter, without Christ’s return and judgment, God’s salvation history is incomplete.  The story of God must have an ending, and this is the beginning of that ending.

Let me say it this way — from the creation of the earth and mankind’s place on it, all the way through the events of the Old Testament, down to the coming of Jesus as the Christ, God has been on a mission to redeem his creation.  Theologians call this the “missio Dei” — the mission of God.

The story of God and His people is not complete unless and until God sets everything right.  Everything cannot be set right until Jesus returns as he rightfully deserves, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  And, everything cannot be set right until Jesus gives his opinion, his judgment, about the world, its systems, and its people.  In other words, the setting right of everything awaits the return of Jesus and his judgment.

So, its not enough to say, “Well, Jesus gave us a wonderful example to live by, and that’s all that we need.”  Nor is it enough to say, “We need to work for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven.”  That is true, and we do need to do just that, but the only reason we need to do so is because one day, God’s will is absolutely going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

What’s the Return of Jesus About?

First, Jesus will return.  The apostles believed that he would, because Jesus himself told them that he would.  In Matthew 25, Jesus says,

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” — Matthew 25:31-33 NIV

So, by Jesus’ own words, he states that he, the Son of Man, is coming again in glory, and to judge the nations.  Several times in the gospels Jesus speaks of his return, and so this idea that Jesus is coming back is not on the disciples made up, or the church invented to keep people in line.  Jesus himself spoke of his visible, bodily return.

But, we are skeptical.  Two thousand years have passed, and still no Jesus.  Maybe we don’t need to believe that Jesus really will return because it seems like a fading possibility.

Okay, let me ask you this:  Do you believe that Jesus came in the form of a tiny baby?  Most of us here today, if not 100% of us, would say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus came as a tiny baby.”  But what’s harder to believe — that God can limit himself, come down from heaven, enter the womb of an unmarried woman through some mystery of conception that we cannot understand, be born as a baby by totally natural means, and then grow up to save the world from its sin;

Or, that God comes with lightning, angels, and glory to the earth?

Frankly, I think it’s easier to believe God will come with lightning, angels and glory, than that God was born a baby.

Okay, but that’s not the only reason.  As I said earlier, if Jesus doesn’t return, the story is incomplete.  Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah; he returns the second time as the recognized Messiah, God’s Anointed One.  The first time many, most as a matter of fact, missed who he was.  The second time no one will miss who Jesus is.

Let’s look at my favorite passage about Jesus one more time:  Philippians 2:5-11.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what happens at the second coming of Jesus:  everybody and everything — every knee and every tongue — in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

So, the first time most don’t get it; the second time everyone gets it.

I’m Good on Jesus Return, But What About This Business of Judgment?

We’ll all be happy for Jesus to come back someday, I’m sure.  But the thing we really have trouble with is this business of God’s judgment, or more accurately, Jesus’ judgment of everything.  But let’s take a close look.

Our big problem with the “day of judgment” is we have a picture of wrath and destruction in our heads.  And to be sure there is that element of purging with fire that we’ll talk about in a moment.  But here’s the picture of judgment that we need to focus on.

Psalm 98:8-9 says —

8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist calls on nature, God’s creation, to rejoice, to clap and sing, because God comes to judge the earth.  God’s judgment is the final act of God’s salvation.

A quick personal story:  I traveled to Mexico several times on business before tourists had to show American passports.  To cross the US-Mexico border a tourist only had to show some type of US identification to go over and back.  Of course, all that has changed now, but even in the late 1990s and early in this decade, business travelers to Mexico had to have a business visa.

This visa was a separate green booklet that had to be stamped on your entry into Mexico, and then stamped on your exit from Mexico.  Well, the first time I crossed over into Mexico after receiving my visa, I had it appropriately stamped upon entry.  We went in, met with our customers, and then made our way back across the border.  The rep I was with forgot to have us stop and get our exit stamp, which neither of us thought was a big deal.

But, six months later when I tried to re-enter Mexico, the immigration official pointed out that I never “closed” my last visit. I did not have the stamp that said, “Salida”  with the appropriate date of my exit.  He refused to let me enter the country again.  And, he pointed out that the fine for failure to obtain an exit stamp was close to $800 US dollars, because several months had passed.

I was stunned.  First, I didn’t have $800 US dollars on me, so that was out of the question.  Second, my customer was expecting me, so I had to make my appointment.  So, I asked very politely, “Is there some other way we can solve this problem?”

The immigration official looked at me, and smiled.  “Well, of course, if you could pay some small fee, say $25, we could stamp your visa.”  Of course, this small fee was paid in cash, and I received no receipt for it, but the official took his “Salida” stamp from the drawer and properly stamped by visa.  Then, he took his “Entrada” stamp, and stamped it again with the current date to give me legal entry into Mexico.

My point in telling that story is this — we have to have an exit, an ending to God’s story.  And that ending is the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth.

But, judgment isn’t in itself destructive or vengeful.  Judgment is God’s opinion.  So, when Jesus returns, he returns to give his opinion of all the world’s systems, nations, and people.  Matthew calls it “separating the sheep from the goats.”

Other gospel writers use similar analogies as in “separating the wheat from the weeds.”  The point is, Jesus is going to give us his opinion of what is useful to the Kingdom of God, what is faithful to the Kingdom of God, and what will endure within the full-arrived Kingdom of God.

Things like “sheep” and “wheat” represent those things and people that are useful to, faithful to, compatible with, and obedient to the Kingdom of God.  Remember in Jesus’ early ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news.”  Well, the good news is judgment made plain.  The good news is Jesus opinion of the world.

Judgment is both good and bad.  The good is some are sheep, some are wheat, some are received with a “well-done good and faithful servant.” The bad news is some people and things are judged to be “goats, weeds, and bad servants.”

And the criteria for Jesus’ judgment is Jesus himself.  Jesus is the incarnation of God, and how people, nations, and systems received Jesus is judgment in itself.

In John 3:16-17, Jesus said,

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” — John 3:16-18 NIV

Okay, but here’s the disclaimer:  Jesus is the righteous judge.  In other words, he doesn’t judge like we would.  Our job is not to figure out how Jesus is going to judge, our job is to live in light of Jesus love for the world.  To live as he lived. To see the world as he saw it, as sheep without a shepherd.  To love God and love others.

Jesus’ judgment is not just about going to heaven when we die, it’s about God’s opinion of everything here on earth, including us.  Whether we are among the living or the dead when Jesus returns does not matter.  What does matter is whether we are among the faithful.

Toward a Theology of Economics

I am presenting this message tonight at a meeting of pastors and lay leaders who are concerned about the economy.  I’d be interested in your comments.

Toward A Theology of Economics

Acts 5:1-11

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Thinking About The Economy

We don’t have time today to review the almost countless articles, books, interviews, YouTube videos, podcasts, newscasts, newspaper reports, and other media all saying pretty much the same thing — the economy is in big trouble.

Unemployment is approaching 10%, and the government has promised us that, “Yep, before this is over it will hit 10%,” or more.  And that’s just the latest bad news.

I’ve been following the economy with more interest than understanding for months.  I bought several books, read Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times, subscribed to Nouriel Roubini’s economics website, and engaged in long conversations about the economy with a member of my church who is a former international banker, responsible for financing international business deals in South and Central America.

My conclusion from all of this reading, listening, and talking is this — the economy is in big trouble.

So let’s see what sense we can make of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, securitized assets, and the like.  Actually, we’re not going to make any sense of any of those things, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what those terms, and the other 1,000 terms like them, really mean.  I’ll leave that to our other guests this evening.

But what I do want us to do is this — I want us to think about the economy.  But not in the ways that all of us, pundits and non-pundits alike, have been trying to think about it.  I want us to think about the economy differently tonight.  I want us to think about it theologically.

Of course, we can’t think about every facet, nuance, and detail of the economy, even theologically-speaking, so I have titled our time together, “Toward a Theology of Economics.”  The idea being that the word “Toward” means we’re heading in the right direction, but we probably are not going to get there, at least not in the 20-minutes or so we have to think together.

Moving Toward a Theology of Economics Means Thinking Differently

One of my favorite books of the last 5 years is the book, Freakonomics, subtitled, A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. Apparently, Steven Levitt was a rogue before Sarah Palin took the title.  Anyway, Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, and is a wunderkind of sorts among economists.  Levitt’s particular gift is looking at things in society differently.

His co-author of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner, writes,

“As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.”

So, Levitt asks interesting questions, such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”  Now that’s a pretty interesting question, and as you can imagine the story that provides the answer is both fascinating and too long for me to tell completely, so get the book.

But, the short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, began interviewing members of the Black Disciples gang for a research project.  In the course of those interviews, one of the gang members, their bookkeeper actually, gave Sudhir several spiral-bound notebooks containing the gang chapter’s accounts — income, expenses, salaries, overhead, cost of weapons, and so on — things all respectable gang businesses had to keep records of.

Sudhir talked to Levitt, and together they analyzed the contents of the gang’s books.  What they found was that first, the gang was organized pretty much like a McDonald’s franchise — owners, bosses, workers, and wanna-be workers.  Income came from the sale of drugs, club dues, and protection money paid to the gang by businesses.   The head of that unit, or that particular gang franchise, made about $100,000 per year.  But the guys next on the gang organizational chart made about $7/hour, and the street dealers made even less — about $3.30/hour.  Thus answering the question, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”

So, the first lesson of our theology of economics is — Things aren’t always what they seem. That is especially true when you’re developing a theology of economics.

What Do We Mean By ‘Economy?’

Okay, let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves, “What do we mean by economics?”  Because if we’re moving toward a theology of economics, we might mean something different than what a Steven Levitt or a Paul Krugman or a Nouriel Roubini might mean when they use that word.

I am sure you all know this, but for the record, our English word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which meant “the management of the household.”  But, it also had the implication that the manager was managing the household for another, meaning the master of the household.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?  Economics is more than money.  Economics encompasses everything about managing the household, including, but not limited to money.  And a theology of economics has to be more than “how can we get our members to give more?”

Okay, in the interest of time, let’s go ahead and define what we mean by “household.”  Since we’re headed toward a theology of economics, let’s assume that the household, the enterprise being managed is God’s created order.  Everything God made, over which God gave humankind dominion.

So, this is God’s household, this creation of God’s.  And, we are the managers.  We’re God’s economists.

So, the second lesson is — economics is the management of God’s household, and we’re God’s economists.

What Are We Supposed To Do?

So far, we’re making good progress.  We’ve determined that things are not always what they seem, and that economics is really the management of God’s household.

But, it’s right here that we have to ask, “What are we supposed to do?”  How do we manage God’s household exactly, and where do we find some guidance for doing it?

Well, we could get some help from financiers and global economists who tell us that economic growth is the goal of all economies.  This year the US economy is expected to grow by about 2%, but China’s by about 9%.  And so on down the roll-call of nations and growth rates.  But, aren’t these the same guys who got us into this mess?  The-growth-is-the-goal crowd, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, taught us that “greed is good.”  And so, they gave us the greatest economic crisis since World War II, and a near-miss at another world-wide depression.  Maybe we need to look elsewhere for guidance.

We could also look at the global business managers who continue to move production from developed countries to developing countries, looking for the lowest labor costs in places like China, Viet Nam, and other developing nations.  I used to be one of those — I ran a small manufacturing company that produced goods in China.  I told myself that low wages were better than the subsistence farm life Chinese workers endured.

I told myself that until I toured some of the factories and saw the horrific working conditions that existed.  OSHA would close those plants in a nano-second because workers’ lives and health are endangered every day.  And some of those workers are involuntary or underage workers.

Do you know what the big deal about Chinese New Year is?  Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year as they call it in China, is a period of two-to-four weeks just before spring when all the factories close and production stops.  But, do you know why this is so important?  Because hundreds of thousands of workers from the rural areas of China will travel from their factory dormitories in Guangdong or Wuxi or Nantong, back home to visit their families.

This is the only time of the entire year that most have to see their loved ones, who include wives, parents, and even their children.  The dorms in which they live crowd dozens of workers together in barracks-like settings that are usually under-equipped with restrooms, showers, drinking water, and the simple comforts of home.  I am no longer a globalist, as you can imagine.  So, maybe we need to look elsewhere for our model to manage God’s household.

An Example From Nature

Of course, both Scripture and nature give us ample examples.  Actually, Jesus used nature as the example of God’s economy.  Jesus said,

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[a]?

28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So, this is God’s household, but God also provides everything we need, including food, drink, and clothing.  And, to worry about this stuff is to act like a pagan — one who doesn’t believe in the One True God.

A Characteristic of Economics: Extravagant Abundance

Debbie and I have had a vegetable garden for the last two years.  And the words of Jesus we have just read were illustrated in our garden.  We planted about 25 or so tomato seeds, and set out about that many tomato plants this year.  But, on each plant, dozens of tomatoes grew.  And when we cut those tomatoes open, thousands of seeds came gushing out.  As a matter of fact, we had about a dozen volunteer tomato plants from last year because tomatoes fell on the ground, and rotted, but the seeds fell onto good soil and sprouted.  (That’s another parable, by the way.)

God’s household, the natural part of it anyway, exhibits an extravagant abundance.

And that’s the first characteristic of our theology of economics — extravagant abundance.  God did not plan for shortages.  We have more than enough oxygen to breathe, more than enough water to drink, more than enough sunshine to fall of the earth.

We do not have a shortage in God’s household, we have a problem with distribution.  Some of us have more that the rest of us.  Now I realize that capitalism is based on just that idea — some people get rich, and some don’t.  But remember, we’re moving toward a theology of economics, not a politics of economics.

God’s economy is not a giant, finite pie with only so many pieces to go around.  There is an extravagant abundance, if we manage it correctly.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we are not managing it correctly.  Climate change, global warming, poverty, disease, and so on.  But, let me give you an example a little closer to home, from the Lowe’s store in Danville.

Every spring we make the trek to Lowe’s to buy plants — flowers, mostly, because we grow our vegetables from seed.

Lowe’s has a great variety of both annuals and perennials, and it’s convenient for us to shop there.  But this spring, I picked up a pot containing a plant which read — “Unlawful to propogate this plant.  Copyrighted by….” whatever the name of the company was.

Some bio-geneticists have figured out how to produce a strain that has some unique characteristics.  And, they’ve decided that they want to keep all the profits from that discovery for themselves.  They want to sell you a new plant every year.  You can’t share a clipping with a friend or fellow-gardener, or even root another for yourself.

That isn’t extravagant abundance, that’s greed.

Another Characteristic: Exceptional Generosity

Okay, we’re making progress.  The second characteristic of our theology of economics is exceptional generosity.

Not only does God provide the food, the drink, and the clothes we need, in other words, our necessities, God provides it to everyone.

Jesus said, “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  So, if you’re a bad, wicked person, it will probably still rain on your garden.  The sun will still shine on your tomato plants.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus healed all their sick. (Matt 12:15)  Not just some, or even many, but all.  Everyone who was sick got healed that day.  Exceptional generosity.

Of course, the cross stands at the center of our theology of economics.  The cross is God’s best example of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity.

Little children learn a verse that captures both the idea of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity — John 3:16.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

God gave all God had — his only Son — that is exceptional generosity. God gave God’s only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Extravagant abundance is all the salvation we could ever need, made available to anyone, everyone, all who believe — without limit, without qualification, without hesitation.  There is enough for all, and it is available to all.

The cross is God’s comment about economics.  The cross is God’s object lesson to the world about giving.  The cross is God’s acceptance of all who will stand in its shadow.

The same Jesus who died on the cross, God raised from the dead and has made him both Christ and Lord.  Now, we have no problem believing that Jesus is Lord of the first century, or that Jesus is the Lord of heaven.  But, we need to realize that Jesus is also Lord of the economy, the real world in which we live.

Which brings us to our final theological characteristic.

A Third Characteristic:  Eternal Consequences

A third theological characteristic of managing God’s household is this — our management of God’s household, God’s economy, has eternal consequences.  Listen to Jesus in Matthew 25 —

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

The interesting thing in this passage is that both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous were totally surprised that their managing of God’s household had eternal consequences.

I wrote about this passage last week in my blog under the title, “Foolproof Evangelism Needs No Training or Budget.”  My point was, this is something every person knows how to do, and can do immediately.  I got some amazing responses.  One respondent said,

You call this EVANGELISM!? No wonder America sinks in its depravation and sin! How about: …faith comes from H-E-A-R-I-N-G THE MESSAGE, and the message is heard through THE WORD of God.

My reply was, “These aren’t my words, take this up with Jesus.”

But, my point is this — how we manage the economy, God’s household, has eternal consequences.

Back To Ananias and Sapphira

Which brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira.  I really like this story.

In the brand new church of the book of Acts, believers were practicing this theology of economics that we have been discussing.  They realized that while some had more than others, that all would have enough if they pooled their resources.  They recognized the extravagant abundance of God’s blessings.  They just had to solve the distribution problem.

So, they sold what they had, and pooled the money.  Those who sold property brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  Everybody had plenty, an abundance, because they were generous with those who needed it most.  From abundance to generosity the early church experienced God’s favor and blessing.

But, Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted the same recognition others had enjoyed.  So they sold their property, but they decided not to give all the money to the church.  They would keep back some.  Rather than see abundance, they saw limit.  “This is our only piece of property,” they must have said.  “We deserve some of the money for ourselves.”

So, when Ananias brought the money to the apostles’ he said the same thing everyone else had said — “We sold our property, and we are giving the proceeds to the church.”

Peter knew Ananias was lying.  So, Peter said,

“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.

At that, Ananias fell down dead.  They carried him out.

Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira arrived at church.  She probably expected to be greeted with cheers and hugs for their generosity, but instead Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter rebuked her just as he had rebuked Ananias, and she falls down dead.

An amazing story, that’s also a little scary, but what does it have to do with a theology of economics?

Just this — Ananias and Sapphira believed in one economy, but lived their lives in another economy.  They wanted the benefits and blessings of believing the right thing, without really having to do it.

And that’s where we find ourselves today.  Living one economy, but wanting the benefits of God’s economy.  Especially when the economy we live in is in big trouble.  Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit.  Their theology of economics had eternal consequences for Ananias and Sapphira.  What about ours?

It is not enough for us to figure out what to do in this economic crisis.  It’s not enough that we find something that works.  Our understanding of economics begins with God.

For if we understand that God provides all we need, we can live our lives out of God’s extravagant abundance.

And, when we realize that there is plenty to go around if we share with one another, then we are practicing exceptional generosity.

Our actions will not only have immediate effect, but more importantly, our actions will have eternal consequences.

But, the protest is always, “But in the real world, things don’t work like that.”  “No one else will act like this.”  But isn’t that the point, that we, the followers of Christ are different?  That our confidence is God, the God who made heaven and earth.  So, even if no one else manages God’s household like we do, we can still do it. After all, we’re reading about first century Christians in the book of Acts, not because they failed to change the world, but precisely because they did change the world.  But remember, in economics things aren’t always what they seem.