2 May 99 Sermon
Text: Acts 1:6-9
The great theme of Acts is expressed in the word "witness," which, in its various forms, appears thirty-nine times in Lukeís account. This activist mandate to be witnesses about Jesus Christ, which is from Jesus Christ is the flame in the furnace of the earliest preaching. It is the dunamis behind the church growth then and now. The theme is also married to a plan: begin locally, in Jerusalem, and reach outwards. Or, in more personal terms, start with your own heart, move outward to your friends and family and then, take on the world.
But we just donít get it. Even in the phrase "my witnesses" is buried a clue to the tremendous clash of opposites, the raging conflict between Godís way and our ways. Let me make this as plain as I can. Our business, witnessing about Jesus Christ, is a gift with a three-fold promise: that of a person, a power and a program. This is Godís approach. When we not only tend to start with program, research the resources and set about finding someone to implement the program, but we also tend towards the impersonal, rely on our own resources and want God to bless our plans! And, to be honest, we do get results our way. However, the results we get are not Godís results . . . they are not faith producing because they were not produced by faith. They may represent a triumph of technique but instead of producing grateful worship, they produce prideful arrogance, even, practically speaking, atheism. Who needs God when we do it all ourselves?!
Well, does our text sustain this claim of tremendous clash and raging conflict? I think, yes. Jesus has just indicated that the Holy Spirit would visit them in a few days, and He has completed forty days of instruction about the kingdom of God. Do the disciples say, "Great, Lord, weíre excited about getting to know you so well that we are personally transformed into your bright and shining likeness?" Or, "Lord, make us so totally dependent upon your Holy Spirit that we can accomplish great things for God?" Or, even, "Thank you, Lord, for teaching us that every change in the world out there must begin first here, in my own heart?"
No. Hereís what they say, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" They exchange the political and impersonal for the spiritual and personal. And we, even we, have exactly the same tendency today. We also fail to see the hope contained in being right with God, and in staying right with God. While that is the longing of the whole, lost human race, once we, the redeemed, have attained it, we toss it aside for the latest political nostrumósuch as diversity, tolerance, inclusivity, globalism and eco-consciousness. We run from the personal. We avoid knowing Jesus and, even more, being known by Jesus. Are we so terrified of spiritual intimacy? I think, we are. Why? There may be many reasons I may not mention but surely high on the list is a profound sense of unworthiness, and insecurity about our acceptability to God. Itís as if we hear weíre forgiven, but we frightened to act like it. Every generation has to come to terms with the conflict between Godís program and mankindís diverse aspirations to make the world better, safer, purer, more just, equal, or free. God is most interested in making the world His, because if the world is restored to Him it will be all these things to the highest degree imaginable. Such as vision seems too high for most to believe. . . it is so far above and beyond all our solutions. We juggle truth, mercy and justice. We frequently drop the balls. But in Him these things are all met, and all perfected. Our dreams of social justice are pitiful in comparison to His plans for us!
Person, Power and Program. Letís review these three again. First, we come to the person Jesus Christ and to the elevation of the personal, or of intimacy in the spirit realm. Prayer, worship, seeking Him. . . these activities of the heart are the proper fountainhead of our mission, of our being His witnesses. Your witness is persuasive in proportion to your in-depth familiarity with Him. We love Him and that love is wearing on us, we are carved by our devotion into a spiritual likeness. His instructions become our responsesówe think His way instead of our own! We do not dare move beyond the center of things until we have this right.
Furthermore, it is because of our love relationship to Him that we are gifted, from on high and not so much from within, with power. The Holy Spirit reveals to us a spiritual realm which, though unseen with physical eyes, shapes our every moment. God is moving in and through us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring change. The changes I have in mind are decisions for Christ, recommitments and re-dedications, as well as lesser works such as the reconsideration of oneís world view, or a heart-felt re-examination of values and/or opinions. The active Christian witness moves in the midst of a great sea of ferment and purposeful things happen in that mix, things that advance the cause of Christ, or serve the kingdom of God, or augment the glorification of God in us, in our day and circumstance.
Finally, we have the program, Godís program. Our "programs" will never save the world, Godís will. Whatís disclosed here is a movement from the center out. Whether we are talking about the church beginning in Jerusalem, spreading to Judea and Samaria, and thence to the ends of the world. . .or, about our own mission fields which begin with our hearts, move to our family and friends and from there to the world, this movement is Godís way of getting the job done. We are not called to form a holy huddle and to remain in a spiritual Jerusalem. We are called to break the huddle out there on the field of play and get ourselves into the action of the game by playing. And to finish the analogy in that sports mode, we are to win games and get ourselves to the championship. We do that by focusing on what has been given to us to do: witnessing.
Witnessing first of our personal relationship with Jesus and our personal reality as a Christian. Then witnessing to the works achieved through divine empowerment. And, finally, by witnessing to the effectiveness of Godís program as revealed in scripture. In this way, we show ourselves to truly be His witnesses.
Witnessing is a gift with a promise. The last word we have from the Lord before His ascension concerns a person, a power and a program. The three "Pís" of practical piety. The person is obvious. It is Jesus Christ. He is both our authority and the object of our witness. Secondly, we have the power of the Holy Spirit who is working in, around and through us to achieve the objectives of God. Unseen forces are shaping every moment of our days, which if we are faithful to our mandate, bringing about changes: decisions for Christ, recommitments, reconsiderations of oneís values and world view. There is around the active witness a great sea of ferment, spiritual movement which can loosely be described as the furtherance of Godís purposes in us and in our circumstances.
The Holy Spirit is making a difference as we move along the grain of glorifying God. Thirdly, we have a program: to begin at the center, or locally, and then to work outwards. This is the exact opposite of what we observed in the closing months of Jesusí so-called Perean ministry. Jesus moved decisively inward, from the regions of Galilee and Samaria into Jerusalem, into the very heart and center of Jewish religion and practice.
In verse 6 we read the last expression of the disciplesí ambition for a political theocracy. "Lord, are you at this time to restore the kingdom to Israel?" This seems to be a lesson we are always relearning. Each generation has to come to terms, it would appear, with the balance between Godís program (the Christ would be exalted as the One in which everything and everyone finds their unity, and fulfills their purpose in worship) and the diverse aspirations of man to make this world better, more just, more equal, or free. Godís redemptive place transcends any and all political aspirations, and all cultures. There is something of God going on that the world must finally acknowledge!
Why the disciples ask this question is natural enough. They have learned from Scripture that the restoration of Israelís fortunes would occur in a season of renewed activity by the Holy Spirit. Jesus has just indicated that the Holy Spirit would visit them in a few days, and He has just completed forty days teaching them, among other things, about the kingdom of God. It is not necessary to infer that they were still obsessed with their positions of leadership in that coming kingdom. Furthermore we know, from Paul (Romans 9-11) that the nation Israel will still figure in Godís redemptive plans for this world. The Jews of that nation are to be "saved" in the last days. But we are not to be too concerned with speculation about such mattersóthey are appointed according to Godís plan and purposeówe are to focus on whatís been entrusted to us: namely, witnessing to the grace of God, the mercy of Christ, the reality of forgiveness, the hope of eternal life with our Lord, the Father and the Holy Spirit. Eventually these ages will come to a critical juncture, the consummation of the ages, and Godís plan which we learn about through scripture will be enacted!
What we need to learn from this passage can be summarized briefly: