Isaiah 49:1-6, Acts 10:1-23
July 26, 2015
“God has a great flair for the dramatic.” You’ve heard me say that before. As I read the stories in the Bible, particularly the ones from Acts, I try to see that drama. I’ve also been known to say that, “When God starts something, he really starts something!” When God begins a new thing, he often makes liberal use of the exclamation point!!! Just think about the Exodus, the birth of Jesus, the miracles of his ministry, the story of Easter, and more recently, the story of Pentecost!
There’s a lot of drama here in Acts! And we need to see that drama! Not only that, but I think we also need to see how God was changing things for his people. And this is not the first time. Our God can often be seen as a God who changes things. I know that’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. And I suppose it has always been uncomfortable for God’s people. But think about it. Listen to what he said through the Prophet Isaiah. In chapter 43, verse 19 it says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” I’m sure that bothered a lot of people at the time! Jesus pointed out how the people loved their prophets, but they often dealt harshly with them! “Which of the prophets have you not stoned?” he asked.
Well, things were changing dramatically in the early days of the Church. And they were changing fast. I sometimes wonder how we Presbyterians would have fared in those days. Two weeks ago, we had the story of Philip, and how he reached out to the Samaritans! (Egad!) Then last week, we saw God himself reaching out to the biggest enemy the church had – this man named Saul. Now we have this wonderful story of Peter and his vision, and how he was called by God to go to the household of Cornelius – a Gentile.
This is the story within a story. Here we have Peter on the rooftop, struggling with a disturbing vision, a vision where God tells him to give up his Kosher dietary laws. That was tough enough for a good Jewish boy like him to deal with. But then God sent to him this group of Gentiles. And of course Peter made the connection. He realized that the two things were interrelated. That which was once thought of as “unclean” was not so any more. And that meant food, and that meant people!
I don’t think we can really imagine how disconcerting that would have been! The changeover to a belief in Jesus would have been hard enough. Again, we think nothing of it, because it is the faith for us. But it was all new to them! They didn’t just say, “Hey Wow! The Messiah has come! Let’s follow him!” No! That was very hard! And now they were being persecuted by very people they respected all their lives, leaders who believed that following this Jesus was wrong! And now, those they had shunned for many years, were now being included in this “Jesus faith.” It’s hard for us even to imagine what all of that was like!
That’s what Peter was going through in this story. He saw the hand of God working in a new way – in a dramatic way! And how did he react? What did he say? Did he say, “No God, I’m not going along with that.”? Actually he did! He refused the vision on the housetop – until he saw it three times! And even then, I don’t think it made sense until he saw the “live version” unfold before his eyes! Here, these men came to him, and they were Gentiles! And they didn’t ask just him to speak to them. They asked him to come with them and speak! That was a little more involved, wasn’t it? It involved going into the house of a Gentile. And a good Jew wouldn’t do that! And yet, it was God’s idea!
Amazing things took place, though And in the end, Peter realized he had to go along with what God was telling him. He realized that it’s hard to argue with the Almighty! As it says in the title of the old play, “Your arms are too short to box with God!” I’ve always loved that title! So Peter went with it. And he told the others about it, too. And as they were all struggling with it, Peter is the one who “went to bat” for the Gentiles. He told the others how he had witnessed these Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit – just like they had! That became Peter’s new mission!
So, what about us? When we see changes in our world, they can be hard for us, too. Can’t they? And change is particularly hard if it involves something very important to us. If it involves something “near and dear to our hearts.” – like our religion is to us – like their religion was to them! But if we think God cannot change, and does not change his way of dealing with things, we might need to ask the people of the Old Testament. We might need to ask Isaiah. We might need to ask Peter.
Now, I have to tell you, that change is hard for me. I’ll admit that. And I’ll bet I’m not alone. And there seem to be a lot of changes going on these days. There have been changes recently in things the church has been struggling with for many years – things like family, marriage, and ordination. And I suppose you’ve all been expecting me to say something about it at some point. And frankly, when I started this message this week, I didn’t think I would be delving into this. But that’s the way the Holy Spirit works sometimes! And my arms are too short to box with God!!
Well, let me just say that this is a hard sermon for me to preach. And let me tell you that I haven’t talked about any of this so far because I’m still struggling with it all. And I’ve struggled with it for a long time. I’ve watched the Church debate these things for over 30 years! And the thing is, I’m still struggling with it. And I encourage you to struggle with it, too. Pray about it. Do what I often do. Ask God to help you know what to think.
Remember that when it comes to “WWJD” – “What Would Jesus Do?” I’m more convinced it should be “WWJT” – “What Would Jesus Think.” And let me caution you on that one. A lot of people thought they knew what the Messiah would think and say about certain things. And they were surprised when they found out what he really thought.
So, I have to tell you, that I don’t have answers. But my “advice” to you today is threefold. Love, pray, listen. You can’t go wrong with those three things! Be a person who loves and respects all people – even those with whom you might disagree – maybe even strongly! And then, Pray. Pray for yourself and your own understanding. Pray for wisdom for yourself, for your church, for me! And then be sure to listen. Listen to God in prayer.
Sometimes prayer is us doing all the talking. That’s an easy mode to fall into, isn’t it? But listening is another thing. The kids at camp were very interested in how God speaks to us in prayer. And that’s a good thing to think about. Is there actually a voice? Or is there just some kind of impression we get, or maybe a vision? Do we get feelings about something? Is there a peace or a change in our outlook? I said, “Yes.” In other words, it could be any or all of the above. So listen!
Think about this, though. There are times we aren’t really sure we want to hear the voice of God. Because we aren’t sure we’re going to like what he might say to us! Peter certainly didn’t want to hear God telling him to give up his Kosher food! He told God, “No.” – Twice! What might we hear from God that could make us uncomfortable?
Strive to be closer to God. Be open to what he might be saying to you. Ask him to show you what to think. Be determined to be his people, wherever, and however he calls you!
Eternal God, you are more ready to hear than we are to pray. You know our thoughts even before we express them to you. Help us to know your thoughts. They are far above ours, but still we seek to know. Help us to know what to think about things in our world. Help us to have the wisdom and discernment we need to face the difficulties around us with peace. And help us to be close to you, that we may know the joy of your kingdom. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.