By Whose Power? – June 19, 2016
Last week I talked about “Power Sermons.” “The Power of Love,” “The Power of Faith,” “The Power Within,” and just recently, “The Power Revealed.” That last one was about the story of Peter and John healing the lame man at the Temple gate.
Well, this is another “Power Sermon.” And it’s related to that last one. Because this is the story of the controversy – the “power struggle” – that ensued, following that miracle we read about two weeks ago. Peter and John (and the others) now had to face the religious authorities. Because they were preaching about Jesus. And as I reminded you then, those authorities, those priests, had just “dealt with” this Jesus, only weeks before. And that was a traumatic time for them! It was very difficult to deal with Jesus, without incurring the blame and the anger of the people. That was very tricky! Because Jesus was very popular with the people!
So, they thought they were done with all of that. But now, they were hearing that name once again. And in this story, in this miracle, Peter is very specific. He’s very careful to point out that it was “by the power of Jesus Christ” that the lame man was healed, and was now standing before them.
Can we even begin to imagine what they were thinking?! They thought this was over! But now, it seems like it wasn’t. And if they didn’t do something fast, it might only be the beginning! (Which we know it was!)
So, we pick up the story after the disciples had already been arrested and brought before the council. And remember, it was a religious and a civil council. There was no “separation of church and state!” Their religion was the state! Even though they were under the occupation of Rome, they still governed themselves – to a certain extent. And these men were the government!
At that time, The disciples were charged – legally – not to preach in the name of Jesus. But of course they did anyway. So the were arrested …again! And this time they were thrown into prison! But, as the story goes, an angel of the Lord came and released them. And what did they do? Right! They went back to the Temple, and preached to the people …again!
In the meantime, (follow this!) the High Priest had called together the council and all the other government officials. They were preparing to put the disciples on trial …again! And this time it was to be a major trial! But, when they sent for them in prison, it was discovered that they were missing. And then the report came that they were preaching in the Temple …again!
So they had them arrested …again! And they had them brought before the council. And that’s where we pick up our reading for today. When you get a chance, (no, make some time) and read this whole story, and you’ll see how it flows.
This then is the second time the disciples had appeared before the council. And it’s even more serious this time! They had been preaching what the priests told them not to preach. So they were in trouble for that. But they had also defied their official “injunction” – their “direct order” – not to do so. Which reminds me of my favorite definition of “sin.” It’s not so much a sin to jump on the couch, as much as it is to jump on the couch after daddy told you not to! Do you see? That’s what’s happening here!
So they remind “the boys” of what they had told them the first time. And Peter’s answer doesn’t make things any better. “You tell us,” he said, “who we should obey, you or God?” In other words, “by whose power” should we act? That’s a great answer. He didn’t just defy the priests. He didn’t just say, “Sorry, we refuse to obey you!” He said, “You tell us what we should do.” Should we obey God, or you?
Well, as I said, that didn’t make things any better. In fact, the next verse is incredible! It says, “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them!” Just let that sink in for a moment. Put that into your mental image of this scene! Again, put away the “Bible voice” in your head, the voice we use to read scriptures, the voice that often takes the emotions out of this. “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them!” This was a dramatic and a traumatic scene of the highest degree! There are huge emotions here! And probably lots of yelling!
Well, my favorite part of this story is the part the comes next. This man named Gamaliel addresses the council. We don’t know a lot about him, except that he was well respected by the others, and that he may have been the teacher of Saul, who would become Paul. We’re pretty sure about that.
So, Gamaliel quiets the council, which I’m sure was no small thing! And he gives them all these incredibly wise words. “Leave these men alone!” he says. “If what they are doing is of their own initiative – their own power – it will fail. But if what they are doing is by God’s power, you won’t be able to stop them. And you may even find yourselves fighting against God!”
Now, I think that’s amazing wisdom! It’s especially amazing coming right in the middle of all of this enormous anger and rage! “Be careful!” he said. “Be concerned about ‘by whose power’ these men are doing what they’re doing.” That’s very good advice, isn’t it? And isn’t that something we should be concerned about, too? By whose power do we do what we do?
The words of the prophet Zechariah come to mind for me. Perhaps Gamaliel was thinking about those words, too. In Zechariah 4:6, the prophet gives these words to Zerub’babel, who was the leader of Israel around the fifth century BC. Zerub’babel wanted to be the one to complete the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the people returned from exile in Babylon. He wanted the glory for himself. And these are Zechariah’s words to him. “Then he [the angel] said to me, This is the word of the Lord to Zerub′babel. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.”
Those are great words! “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord
of hosts! We might consider those words in our own lives of faith. We might consider them as we think about our roll in God’s kingdom. By whose power do we do what we do? Is it our own power? Or is it God’s power?
In our prayer of confession, I often have us confess that “we have tried to live our lives by our own power and wisdom.” Don’t we all do that? That’s the human thing to do, isn’t it? We want to be the final authority of our lives. It’s very hard to give up that authority, to give up our will, and seek to do God’s will. We pray every week, “Thy will be done…” But do we not struggle with that? I think we all do – including me! And we’re not alone in that struggle! Even Jesus in Gethsemane asked that the cup of suffering might pass from him! That was his will at the time.
We’ve been taught from a very early age – and it’s true – that it’s God’s power and his will that is best for us. Yet, still we struggle to have our own. I think that is the quintessential struggle of humanity. And it is the greatest temptation. The serpent didn’t just say to Eve, “Aaah, go ahead, take a bite!” “Don’t let God tell you what not to do!” No,
it was much more subtle, than that! It was, “Go ahead.” “Then you can be like God!” “You can be the final authority!” “You can have the power!”
So I think this is a very good thing to think about today. We’ve been talking about “power.” We’ve thought about the power of the Holy Spirit coming over God’s people and that power revealed in the beginning days of the Church. And as we think about all of that, I hope we will also think about “by whose power” we live. By whose power do we act in our lives? The disciples confronted the council with that thought. May we think about that ourselves.
And may we remember the words of Gamaliel, who said, “If the endeavor is of our own initiative, if it is by our own power, it will fail. But it is by God’s power, it will be unstoppable.”
So maybe let the words of Zechariah ring in your heads as you leave today. The prophet told the king, “’Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts!”
Eternal God, help us to live our lives by your power, and by your wisdom. It’s too easy to look only to ourselves as we go through life. Help us to rely on you more and more each day, and to live in the joy of your kingdom and your service. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.