June 25, 2017
If you remember, at the end of the Second chapter of Acts, the author was describing the community of new believers after Pentecost. It says “They broke bread together in their homes, and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God, and enjoying the favor of all the people.” As one version put it, “Everybody liked them.”
But not everybody! Unfortunately one of the ongoing stories in the book of Acts is the attempt on the part of certain people to silence the followers of Jesus Christ, and to stamp out his movement.
The first people trying to do that were the people who had fought to eliminate Jesus in the first place. Now these same people were trying once again. Two of them were the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. They were still the major players in the Jewish leadership. They and the council would have these Apostle’s arrested numerous times.
As we begin this reading for today, the disciples had been arrested – again! And the council was reminding them that they had “strictly charged them” not to continue the ministry of Jesus. That meant that they gave them an official legal statement! Remember, the religious council was also the civil government! There was no “Separation of Church and State.” So this was their equivalent of a “court order.”
Well, this time Peter said, “We must obey God rather than man!” Before, he had put back it on them. The first time, he had said these famous words. “Whether we should listen to you or to God, you be the judge.” But this time he just said it flat out. “Sorry! We can’t obey you. We have to obey God!” And then it got worse! Because they accused the disciples of preaching in such a way as to “bring the blood of this Jesus on them.” Well, Peter gave them this little “explanation” here – an answer – which pretty much said, “Yep. That’s right!
So, the next words in verse 33 were, “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them!” And I say, “Really?” Does that whole “religious leaders wanting to kill people” thing seem incongruous to you, too? But that’s what it says. Well that brings us to this next part, which I love. One of the Pharisees, named Gamaliel, stands up to speak.
Now, we don’t know much about this man, except that he was very likely the teacher of Paul – or Saul, as he was previously known. But we get the impression from this passage that he is one of the oldest and most respected of leaders on the council. So they listen. And Gamaliel gives them some “sage” advice. He reminds them of several other people who had tried to start similar “followings,” and how they had failed. And then he said this about the disciples. If what they are doing is their own idea, if they are working by their own power, it will fail.” “But!” he said, “If what they are doing is by the power of God, you will not be able to stop them. “And, you may even find yourself fighting against God!”
I’m glad Luke included this part of the story. Because I’ve always loved those words! And apparently what Gamaliel said was accepted by the others. Well… they “sort of” accepted it! They called the disciples back in, beat them, gave them another “cease and desist order,” then let them go. And the disciples went out rejoicing that they had the privilege of suffering for the sake of their savior! (Wow! Do we ever think of it that way?)
For me, this has always a good story to use, to remind us where our plans and our power come from. Is what we are doing – even in the Church – only our plans? Are we doing what we are doing by our own strength? Or are we doing what God wants us to do, relying on his strength?
I think we should ask ourselves that – a lot! Because that is the operative question! And it’s not an easy one! As individuals, and as a church, are we seeking God’s direction? Are we seeking his will? It’s much too easy for “us people” to go with our own will. It’s much too “comfortable” for us just to be the “masters of our own domain.” To give up that power, to “let go and let God,” as Robert Schuller used to say… that’s hard!
It’s hard for two reasons. It’s hard because we have to step aside ourselves. But it’s also hard in the sense of having to be diligent, and intentional, about finding the will of God. It takes patience and listening if we are going to hear his voice.
Now, please understand that I have the same struggles as you on this. You’ve probably heard me talk about the “engineer father” in me. That part of me wants to figure things out for myself. I makes me want to be the one in charge of my life. I know that. And I recognize my personal struggle between self-will and finding God’s will. I know I need to pause – daily – and listen for God’s voice, seeking his peace, and looking for his guidance. And I’m not always good at that. I’m so glad God is so patient with me!
How about you? Do you feel that struggle in your own life? Because many people don’t. They see no struggle at all. They just plow through their lives, not knowing anything other than their own self will. Maybe that’s you.
Or maybe you’re like those who are so excited about God’s kingdom, that they’re always doing something for God. And yet… they don’t take time to hear his voice, they don’t seek to know for sure that what they’re doing actually is God’s will!
As a minister mentor of mine used to say, some people are so “gung-ho” about serving in God’s kingdom that they rush ahead of God, and they do things without really consulting him. Their intentions are good. But they miss out on God’s actual plans! Either that, or they make plans, and then they say, “O God, please bless what we’ve already planned.” Or they say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. May it be your will, O Lord!”
At Kirkwood we were talking about our connection with God. And at one point we were talking about “listening” in prayer. Because sometimes even our prayer life is “self driven.” We do all the talking. We don’t let God get in a word “edgewise.” We are glad we prayed! We even feel better. But we never really heard from God. So, I’ll say to you what I said to them. Take time in prayer and just listen. That’s harder than you think. But it’s the only way we’re going to learn to hear from God!
The last thing I want to say, is that a big part of this has to do with trust. We know in our heads that God knows what he’s doing. We know that about God. But, we have to grow in our ability to trust that knowledge! It takes that trust to move ahead looking for his leading. We go where we think God is leading us, trusting that he will guide us as we do. But, we have to move! As we used to say, “You can’t steer a boat unless it’s moving!”
So then, in the words of Gamaliel, “If what these men are doing is of their own power, it will fail. But if what they are doing is by the power of God, nothing will stop them!” Let us seek that power. Let us seek that guidance. Let us trust that God knows what he’s doing. Let us listen to his still, small voice, and follow.
Eternal God, help us to know you are speaking to us. Teach us to listen. Help us to be more “in tune” with your voice. Help us to be people who seek your will, who hear you, and who follow. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.