"Amazing, Perplexing and Provocative"
December 6, 1998
Second Sunday in Advent: Peace
These three words describe the healthy Christian, and the vital Christian Church. In what follows I want to draw out some connections between the season of Advent as a part of Christmas (the drawing near of Christ in the Incarnation) and another advent which is Pentecost (the drawing near of the Holy Spirit in inaugurating the age of the church).
The claim to be amazing, perplexing and provocative may be hard to deal with, when we experience ourselves as a church which is continually remaking itself where it seems as if we are always returning to the ground zero of spiritual ignorance, and, then, progressively reconstructing a healthy Christian life. And these dynamics tend to create a variety of frustrations in our midst: some wonder if we’re ever going to grow up, others wonder why they ever thought they knew so much! However, these dynamics are what make Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church so pertinent and accessible to us. Saddleback Valley Community Church began with all new Christians and continues to work with new converts regularly.
Chapter Two, "Myths About Growing Churches," is what brings us to Acts 2: 40-47. That passage depicts for us the earliest church, the church in its very first days which some refer to as the "primitive church." In those days there was a lot of power and content, but not much structure. This is true both institutionally and theologically—Peter’s first sermon is powerful, and, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, very effectual, but it surely bears the marks of newness. Peter has only had about seven weeks to begin developing his theology. And Peter’s theology remains distinctively his throughout the New Testament record. 1st and 2nd Peter record his more mature theology for those interested. What we should note here is that Peter has, in that same seven week period, undergone a profound personal transformation. He was a cringing, fearful man and yet now he is a bold prophet, apostle and evangelist. Through the in-dwelling Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit, he has become, by the grace of God, what he is: a quickened and powerful man of God.
Staying with Peter for the moment, let’s consider the advent of the Holy Spirit in his life. We may affirm that it is this promise of a bold and meaningful Christianity, the promise of personal transformation, is one of the most powerful draws of our faith. When people see weak, fearful, cringing men come to their spiritual senses and to authentic manhood, the result is just like Christmas, or as G. Campbell Morgan puts it, amazing, perplexing and provoking. Amazing, because people find it hard to believe that old Peter had it in him . . . perplexing because what they see runs completely contrary to their flesh-bound expectations. . . and provocative because when the wonders of God are worked in the church, the world becomes critically defensive. "This phase will pass. . . it will never last," they say, "Hey, you wouldn’t believe who’s got religion now." Laughing with scorn and even ridiculing the convert, they turn back to their self-destructive ways . . . unless God restrains them and they end up following their wonder into conversion. That is where the title of this sermon comes from. Wherever people see the positive, life-changing good news of Jesus Christ taking effect they will be amazed, perplexed and provoked to a response.
In Acts, the questions of the world focused around the recent events surrounding Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection. But if we journey back in the scriptures to the accounts of John’s and Jesus’ births, we will find the same dynamic at work. Zechariah sees an angel who announces that his prayers have been heard. For unbelief, he is stricken mute until the day his promised son is named. All very amazing and perplexing. Similarly, Mary is found to be with child of the Holy Ghost. Shepherds are told of this astounding new birth and when they tell Mary about what the angels said, she is amazed and perplexed—she ponders these things in her heart. King Herod is also amazed and perplexed. But he moves beyond perplexity and is provoked to destroy all the male children, two years and under, in the vicinity of Bethlehem. We don’t know whether Herod knew that Mary, Joseph and Jesus had escaped to Egypt or not. But a standard dynamic is set up in these events of the first Advent: persecution from the ruling elite, acceptance and welcome from the common people—if left to their own impulses and direction. Christmas proved a very disruptive event in the days of King Herod. And so it remains to this day, wherever the Son of God truly appears, there is amazement, perplexity and provocation. Perhaps that is why He declared that He had not come to bring peace, but a sword of division that would set us against each other, even within out families until we make our peace with Him! (Matt. 10:34-39)
Personal transformation, as we are reminded by Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," is part of the Christmas story. But change such as took place in Peter’s life is only a limited part of Advent. We also have transformation of homes, the whole life of the family changing under the influence of Advent, the coming of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit into a home. There is, or one might expect for there to be, an increase of peace, calm and good order! The Christian home is a safe haven in a turbulent world at the very least because there is faith that God is in control, life is purposeful and events that seem out of control are actually in a meaningful sequence bringing us from one place to another emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. Such homes are less fearful, less violent. . . hope and joy abound there. They are places of tender nurture because the Christian family absorbs from the wider community a pervasive sense of worship and from the individuals in that family a set of transformed dynamics. There is a closeness there because people of faith are closer to each other by virtue of their oneness in Christ than anyone could ever be in a natural, non-Christian relationship. Why? Because we love Him and by way of extension anyone begotten of Him. Furthermore people are closer there, in the Christian household, because they hold regular, godly conversations about the deeper matters of faith and practice. Family members pray with each other, and they pray for Christian friends when they come over—making matters of the faith more comfortable to discuss than to ignore!
And, finally, in addition to personal and familial transformation by the power of the Spirit, we have the worshipping community as a fellowship of the redeemed, the bought out and the loosed. Their glorious liberty expressed in hilarious, ecstatic, praising and singing enthusiasm; people who loved each other across barriers of social and ethnic distinctions and lifting up the Name of Jesus in perplexing, astounding and wonderful ways. The Christians of the first church were accused of being drunk with new wine when, in fact, they were enacting the prophecy of Joel, inaugurating the age of Pentecost in which we still live. Such exuberance of the Spirit is of God, but how many of us have had to suffer the charge of being drunk in church? Inebriated in the Spirit? Well, may we all enjoy this Christmas season with exultation and peace! And may our friends find us amazing, perplexing and provocation for Christ’s sake. Amen.
Rick Warren tells us that the church has a five-fold function. We are to:
What troubles me about this list is threefold: its lack of recognition of the dependence upon the Spirit of God. Anointed preaching and anointed listening is what brought the fruit of over three thousand souls. Secondly, the sense of urgency that those whom God is saving should come out from amongst a perverse generation seems to be neglected. One of the challenges of our day is that of convincing our generation that perversity is real, and is of real concern to God. And thirdly and finally, the categories of the five-fold function don’t line up very well with the scriptural categories.
According to the text, there were four activities for the new converts in the primitive church. They appear to be interrelated and may be derived from the earliest forms of worship. They are teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread and prayer. The ordinance of baptism is reserved as a rite of entrance to the body. And the work of service exceeds the limits of the four actions of early Christian religious practice outlined here as the essence of our spiritual practice.