Witnesses of God’s love & grace

Witnesses of God’s love & grace

Reading – Acts 13:13-44

From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”

Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years.

“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

“From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’

“Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:

“‘You are my son;
    today I have become your father.’

God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said,

“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’

So it is also stated elsewhere:

“‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’

“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:

“‘Look, you scoffers,
    wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
    that you would never believe,
    even if someone told you.’”

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.

Sermon

As we continue our journey through Acts, today’s passage gives us an opportunity to reset or rethink our outreach and witness to a fallen and needy world and to think about the great commission Matt.28:29 “Go and make disciples of all nations.” During lock-down, this has been on my mind and in particular the example the martyr Stephen sets us. Remember Acts 6, Stephen was one of 7 elected to look after several hundred hungry widows. Quite a task. But Stephen made time to witness as well. Acts 6:10. “ When men began to argue with Stephen they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” So, I ask myself, have I become too comfortable doing bits and pieces within the church that I’ve neglected witnessing outside it? Before we look at today’s passage about witnessing, I want to say a wee bit about outreach because I believe there is a difference. Before retirement, I was often called as an expert witness in industrial injury claims. But before I submitted my evidence, I was required to establish my credibility, by providing details of my qualifications, membership of relevant professional bodies, work experience etc. The world is no different. It wont listen to or, accept our witness until we’ve established our credentials. It wants to see our love in action, our sacrificial giving, our compassion – how authentic we are. Now the Rev. Jonny and Diane have worked very hard to put outreach programmes in place to express our love for our community. For example, the foodbank and Baby basics; during lock-down with “Ballyclare Together” delivering food parcels, micro-wave-able meals, shopping for those shielding, packed lunches for kids missing out on hot school meals and school uniform exchange. Many in our churches have been actively involved in these programmes. Great work has been done. There is now a window of opportunity to go beyond outreach to witnessing about our faith. Now many secular charities and folk from different religious backgrounds have been involved in this type of outreach. But only the Christian church can witness to and share the Jesus who declares in Jn. 6:35 “ I am the bread of life. He that believes in me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” We are all called to be witnesses. Dean John Bond talks about gossiping the Gospel with family, friends, over the garden fence to neighbours and in chance meetings. If you have a chance to visit the Moravian church in Gracehill ( I went with MU), look above the vestibule door as you leave the church. It says, “ the mission field starts here.” We are not all called to go to the ends of the earth and witness like Paul. So, what does this passage teach us about witnessing in our neighbourhood in the 21st century. There are 4 points. (1) The role of the Holy Spirit, v4 and 52. (2) Paul starts his sermon with God and not Jesus, v17. (3) Paul does not mention Jesus’ birth, teaching or miracles: astounding and amazing as they are. He gets straight to the point and starts with His death and resurrection and what it means for all believers, v38 and 39. Lastly and surprisingly, Paul closes with a warning, v80. Rejection of God’s Messiah leads to death, spiritual death. Let’s go through these points in a bit more detail. (1) The role of the Holy Spirit. Put simply; we cannot do God’s work in our own strength; we cannot live God’s way in our own strength. I’m socially awkward at best. I find social gatherings and meeting new folk daunting. I can speak at people when teaching but speaking to people can be very challenging. In human terms I would never choose to witness. But when convicted to, I have found from past experience, the Holy Spirit will empower me and help me overcome my human frailties. As He did when I did door-to-door with Wilson Beare in 2006, on missions with George on Walk of 1000 Men and overseas with SoMA. If you are serious about witnessing, pray for opportunities, pray for the Holy Spirit to grant you the gift of discernment to recognise those opportunities, ray for the Holy Spirit to give you boldness to take those opportunities. (2) Paul begins his sermon with God and not Jesus. Why? The service in the synagogue always begins with the Shema. Deut.6:4 “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. If Paul had begun with Jesus as the Son of God, he would have been stoned to death for blasphemy. Paul looked for common ground. He knew every pious Jew believed in God, God’s word, God’s promises to send a Messiah: a descendant of king David and that a prophet would announce His Coming. Therefore, he starts with God, where his audience are spiritually and leads them to where he is spiritually. That’s a good model to follow. You may find yourself witnessing to a person who doesn’t believe in God – never mind the Son of God, Jesus. They may have little or no biblical knowledge and think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. So, don’t be too keen to blurt out what you want to share. Like Paul the whole point of witnessing is to find out where the person is spiritually and guide them gently to where you are. Ask questions and listen. Ask how the person feels, what’s worrying them, what they think and what they believe. Show compassion. Look for the common ground and build on that. (3) When Paul talks about Jesus. Again, Paul knew his audience and that they would understand the concept of sin, forgiveness and justification. But your audience may not! Keep things simple. Ask do you want to make a fresh start? If yes, then tell them Jesus is the one you need. Maybe give a brief word of testimony ( no more than 3 minutes) about your journey of faith. How you’ve experienced God’s love through faith in Jesus. This love is not based on your looks, personality, wealth or moral goodness. A love that guarantees His acceptance when all others have rejected you; His forgiveness when all others have judged you and His mercy when all others have condemned you. Sometimes you feel out of your depth! Then, just tell the person that Jesus is Lord of your life, you would like them to hear more about Jesus and ask would they like to go to church with you. A lady was witnessing to an elderly gentleman and got stuck for words. She asked him would he like to go to church with her. He said he would love to, but he didn’t have a decent suit. The lady said, if I get you a new suit will you come? Yes. The lady persuaded vestry to fund the purchase. So, when the man received the suit, he agreed he would go to church next Sunday. The lady agreed to meet him outside the church, go in with him and sit with him. Well 11.30,11.45,noon came and no sign of the old man. The lady thought maybe he has been sick. She visited next day. “ I thought you were going to church.” “I did. I put on my new suit, looked in the mirror. I looked so sharp I went to the Presbyterians.” Lastly, Paul closes with a warning: reject God’s offer of salvation in Christ and you face spiritual death – eternal separation from God and Hid love. Many critics will say always accentuate the positive and never, never, never be negative. Love people into the kingdom and do not frighten them with the fires of hell. I grew up in the 1950s with a lot of hellfire isHis acceptanceHisHHHHih    preachers. A friend tells the story about Church Army. When you start you are given a soap box and told to go Speaker’s corner in Hyde Park and preach.  Well one preacher “ there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.” One heckler shouted, “I have no teeth!” The preacher never skipped a beat, “teeth will be provided” and carried on. But seriously, you can’t badger or frighten or, the other hand, coax or cajole folk into the kingdom. All you can do is present the Gospel message plainly, gently, faithfully and honestly lay out the options and their consequences. If the message is accepted, then pray for the person and lead them to the Lord. If refused, then sadly your work is done, and you must move on. But the joy of leading one person to faith, outweighs by far the disappointment of many refusals. To sum up there is no set formula to witnessing. Just follow the Spirit’s lead and you will not go wrong. However, there are many wrong ways to witness. Let me finish with a personal example.  Sophie and I like to walk every day. We either go to the park in Ballyclare or along the promenade in Carrick. Before lock-down we noticed Jehovah’s Witnesses where standing near the duck pond in the park or at the castle in Carrick. They weren’t shouting out but simply standing by their stands of Watchtower publications and quietly spoke to folk that showed an interest. I thought about going over but we went home. I prayed about it. Should I have gone over? What would I say? Lord please give me an opportunity. Within 10 days, 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared at our door. Tesco and Asda aren’t the only ones doing home deliveries!  Sadly, I didn’t practise what I’ve just been preaching. I didn’t offer up a quick prayer for divine guidance. I didn’t invite the 2 men in. I immediately went on the offensive. I attacked their teachings on God’s name, the trinity, their New World Translation of the Bible, the lack of credibility of their translation panel. I asked if they thought they would be in the 144,000 destined for heaven. Finally, the coup de gras, I expressed surprise that they were actually at my door at all; hadn’t they predicted the end of the world in 1975.  One said, “ I knew that would come back to bite us.” They left.  I’d won the intellectual battle but missed the God-given opportunity to witness to His love, grace and mercy offered through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve prayed a lot since then, seeking God’s forgiveness  and asking for another opportunity.  I’ll finish by reminding you of the words in 1 Peter 3:15 “ Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But always remember the second part of this verse. “ But do this with gentleness and respect.” Amen.

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