Witnesses - Week Five: "Come and Help Us"

This is what is known as the Season of Easter in the historic church calendar, and for the next several weeks we'll be continuing to celebrate Easter, and we'll also step further into our sermon series, "Witnesses."

Because where we are in respect to Easter Sunday is about the time that those first-century followers of Christ were asking a question--which is the same question you and I ought to be asking, too:    "Jesus rises.  Now what?"

It's a good thing that we are not alone in asking this very question.  Jesus' disciples wondered the same thing, and almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead.  We know this because of the book of Acts.

I love the arc that the story in the book of Acts takes.

It begins with a bunch of scared people in a room, wondering what is going to happen to them---disciples of Jesus, who are afraid to venture outside the door because they think they might be killed.

It ends---literally---with the word "unhindered" as the Apostle Paul sits imprisoned in Rome, which was widely known as the "very end of the Earth," preaching the Gospel, furthering the movement of Christ.

I'd call that a movement, wouldn't you?  But how did this happen, really?  It was because of witnesses.

That's what this sermon series is all about---a bunch of people living differently.  Living a Resurrection life because they witnessed something that changed them forever.

And we have a chance at this.  To bear witness to what has been raised to a new life in us--to live a Resurrection life.  That's what we're going to do for the next several weeks all the way through the season of Easter.

Today we're actually going to be talking about how we often miss the fact that God is at work in the world all around us, and we are constantly being given invitations to join God where God is at work.

And I would like to lead off our discussion today with a story of how I completely missed this very thing.

The story of when I totally didn't know the classmate I thought wasn't a Christian was a better Christian than me.  

If we are all being honest, we do these kinds of things all the time.  Or worse.

We assume that there are places in the world that need Jesus, and are stunned to realize that Jesus is not only already there, but there are people there who are more into Jesus than we are.

Or we assume that God couldn't possibly be at work in the lives of people we deem to be not-of-us because of their race, class, nationality, sexual orientation, or beliefs and then we are often astonished to find out that while we're standing around talking about our faith they are busy showing theirs by the way they live and love.

Why is it so hard for us to see God at work?

All of our assumptions about where God is, and who God is working God's will  through... what shapes them?

I think they are shaped by at least four things.

First, The Prosperity Gospel, which so many of us favor even though we may not even be aware of it.  This is the belief that if I am a good person, and do what God wants me to do that God will favor me and provide for me.  The flip side of this is that it becomes far too easy to equate poverty or hardship with God's disfavor.

Second, the Triumphant Gospel, which far too many Christians in America practice.  This is where we begin to believe the lie that somehow our status, class, nationality, etc. is a right and not a privilege. 

Third, the Exclusive Gospel, which essentially asserts that the Good News of Jesus is only really for a very few people and the rest--well, they're on the outside looking in.

Finally, the Western Gospel contains the underlying belief that God might love people from the developing world but that God prefers to work in and through the Western world to accomplish Gods goals.

I'm afraid that our assumptions about where God is at work in the world are all shaped in some way by one or more of these heretical and erroneous versions of the Good News.

But the Good News is bigger than that.  God is bigger than that.  And we finally figure that out, and our eyes begin to be opened to what God is up to all around us in the most unexpected places... it changes us, it transforms us and we can step more fully into living a Resurrection Life.  And we can join God in doing what God is doing wherever God is doing it.

In fact, that's what I want us to hold on to today:  We are living a Resurrection Life when we join God where God is at work in the world.  

Our conversation partner for today's sermon comes to us once again from the book of Acts--this time from chapter 16 verses 9-15:

9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
The backstory to this passage is kind of weird.  Paul and his entourage are traveling through cities that are now part of modern-day Turkey.   And they keep trying to go to particular places but are kept from doing so by the Holy Spirit, according to the text. In one instance it even says that they were blocked by the Spirit of Jesus.

If you are reading the whole thing by the time you get to our passage where Paul has a vision, you know something is about to happen.  There are all kinds of odd things going on here.

And then Paul has this vision of a man calling him to Macedonia, which Paul seems to interpret as a call to go to one of the most major cities in Macedonia--the city of Philippi.

Here's the thing.  If you're Paul, the last place on earth you would probably want to go and try to plant a church would be Philippi.  It's a major Roman city, populated by ex-military, and other assorted loyalists to Caesar. 

These are people who don't look kindly on a bunch of Jewish guys coming into their city and telling everybody that Caesar isn't Lord, this guy named Jesus is Lord, and not only that but this guy Jesus was executed by Rome and then was raised from the dead, which started a new kind of religion that is spreading all over the world. 

Romans didn't mind so much if your religion was an old one that had been around a while, but new religions made them nervous.

So Philippi was kind of the last place you would think God would be at work.  If your Paul, you're thinking that you have to bring God to Philippi. 

When Paul arrives at Philippi, he goes looking for a synagogue on the Sabbath--only there wasn't a synagogue in the city.  In the ancient Jewish world, however, in the absence of a synagogue, Jews would most likely to find a place by a river to pray and worship. 

They expected to find Jewish men praying there.  In Jewish tradition, there needs to be ten Jewish adults for there to be a minyan or a quorum for community prayer.  In the ancient world that quorum would need to be made up of men. 

So that's what Paul is expecting.  Only that's not what Paul finds. 

Instead of the men he was expecting, Paul finds a group of women who are gathered there praying.  They are led by a woman named Lydia, who has become what is referred to in the text as a worshipper of God, which means she has been exploring the Jewish faith even though she is a Gentile. 

Lydia was not only a leader of her religious community, but she was also a businesswoman of means.  She is also referred to as the first European convert to Christianity, and became a loyal supporter of Paul and of the church in Philippi. 

Without Lydia there may have never been a church in Philippi. 

All of this must have been surprising to Paul--to find God already at work in a godless city like Philippi, and at work with unexpected people. 

This passage helps teach us something very important: God loves busting up our assumptions about the people and places where God chooses to do work.  

I am pretty sure God delights in this. 

And this thing that God does when God surprises us in this way leaves us with a choice in that moment of surprise--to join God in what God is already doing, or not. 

Paul stepped into that moment. He defied his own traditions, set aside his own preconceived notions and expectations and stepped into it.  He joined God in what God was doing and it literally changed the world. 

So how do you and I step into this?  What can we do to see where God is at work in the world around us in all of God's surprising ways?

First, I believe we need to be open to a new vision.  

I think what happens for most of us is that we get complacent in the way we view the world around us.  It's almost like we have blinders on at times. 

We go through our lives, going to work, to school, to the grocery store, the gym, to kids sporting events...  and we miss all of the ways that God is at work in those places and spaces. 

The key to this is being open and watchful.  To have your head lifted up.  To be paying attention enough to know when that conversation you are having with your co-worker is something more and deeper--that God may have been working on them to speak to you. 

To "look for the helpers" to coin a Mr. Rogers phrase.  To see where God might be moving people to change your neighborhood, offer help after a tragedy, to right wrongs and seek justice.  

How are you being called to join God where God is at work in the world?

Second, I believe we need to be available for a role in a bigger story.  

I led mission trips with youth groups for many years--including about a dozen trips to Tijuana, MX.  Every single time I would prepare my groups for the trip by telling them that they were not saviors.  They were not the ones bringing the story of Jesus to the people they would be working alongside. 

In fact, I wanted them to know that most likely they would be the ones who would be saved.  They would be the ones who would see the story of Jesus more clearly through the community that we were being welcomed into.  

This is the temptation that we face when we are too arrogant in our role.  We are not story-bringers.  The story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the story of Resurrection and Restoration is being told already, and it is our privilege to be a part of it.  

And when you get this, it's liberating.  It frees you to simply be and do.  It frees you to let go of all of your pride, your own way of doing things, the burden of believing it's all on you to make things work.  To simply join God in what God is doing... to be carried along by the story.  

Third, I believe we need to be ready for holy surprises.  

God loves to mess with us.  To turn our world upside down.  To destroy our expectations and surprise us.  Like the moment when I discovered my classmate who I had turned my nose up at was a better Christian than me.  

Or this moment that sticks with me---story of the young woman who missed Jesus on the mission trip.  

Or the lady who brought me a Prayer Changes Things placard...  

When we figure this out--it has the potential to change the world.  Imagine a whole bunch of people woke to the notion that God is at work everywhere and potentially through everyone.  Imagine what that might look like.  

It might look like Christians being willing to do God's work with whoever is doing God's work regardless of their faith.  

It might look like an open and honest welcome to every person because they not only bear God's image, and doing God's work in the world, but they also could be the surprise we so desperately needed.  

So open your eyes.  Open your heart.  Be ready to be a witness.  

Because we are living a Resurrection Life when we join God where God is at work in the world.  


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