Sermon, March 30, 2014 | Grace Reformed Church
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
For anyone whose work involves public speaking one sure sign of approval is to be asked back and invited to speak again. By this standard Paul and Barnabus have been quite successful in their first appearance in Antioch in Pisidia. We have heard over the past weeks how they were presenting the Gospel in the synagogue in terms that were pretty much drawn from their common Jewish heritage. God’s act of salvation was presented as the culminating moment of the long history of salvation that began with Abraham.
Jesus, the particular agent of that salvation, was connected to the much cherished covenant promises that God gave to David, the legendary king. Jesus was in fact heralded as the promised Messiah come to set God’s people free and to inaugurate God’s kingdom on the earth.
They had been presenting Jesus as the carrier of some of the covenant promises. And Paul presents Jesus as the one promised by God, the Messiah, the inheritor of the covenant promises especially made to David, Israel’s legendary king. And he has even preempted some of the objections that might have been by showing how Jesus could still be the Messiah even though he had been publically executed by the Romans.
So now, having spoken their piece in the synagogue, are leaving the synagogue with many people following them, and they are urged to come back next week to talk more about this.
As they return again next week it looks like this is going to broaden out into a stunning triumph. Apparently the grapevine worked just as well then as it does today. It appears that far more than just the same group of people gathered to hear from Paul and Barnabus. The next Sabbath day a lot more people gather to hear what Paul has to say. In fact, the text goes so far as to say that almost the whole city has turned out to hear.
It looks like another amazing victory for the Christian movement is just around the corner. But not so fast…..
It seems that not everyone is thrilled by the massive crowds that Paul and Barnabus are drawing. Some of the members of the synagogue, perhaps out of jealousy that these foreign preachers are stirring up so much interest, stand up to argue against them. We don’t get to hear the arguments themselves. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we did, though?
We can safely assume, I think, that at least some portion of the Jews has assembled found the arguments of Paul’s opponents to be convincing. How do we make this assumption? By what Paul and Barnabus say and do next.
You’ve got first dibs on this Good News, he says to the Jews, and that’s only right, since it is the news of the fulfillment of God’s promises that He made to our forefathers. But now, by your argument and by your opposition you have chosen to reject this gift so we are going to offer it to the Gentiles instead.
It seems that Barnabus and Paul are remembering the words of a declaration of God that they had not reported before but they had heard God telling them “I have set you to be a light to the Gentiles so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Predictably, the non-Jews in the crowd see this as a good thing. This Gospel is now being offered to them, bringing them the opportunity to become part of the covenant community that they had only seen from the outside before.
Just as predictably, some of the members of the Jewish community see things otherwise. Paul and Barnabus are eventually forced to skip town. On the way, Paul and Barnabus pause to ritually shake the dust off their feet in condemnation of those who wouldn’t accept what they had to say. They do this to show that they don’t want to take anything of that people with them.
So what do we have here? All in all, I’d have to say that, at best the visit to Antioch was kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand it is a triumph that the Gentiles are brought to Faith, as many as had been appointed to believe, Luke says in a phrase to warm a Presbyterian’s heart. On the other hand, the evangelists were chased out of town, by their own Jewish kinsmen to boot, and this rejection of both them and their message must have pained them deeply. As I say, a mixed bag.
And this is hardly the only time when doing what God calls one to do results in up and down results.
Consider the Prophet Jeremiah. One day out of the clear blue he found himself thrown into some sort of a trance where he found himself being addressed one to one by none other than the Lord God himself. And what God told him was extraordinary.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Well think of that! Whatever Jeremiah might have thought was his purpose in life; whatever he had dreamed of and prepared for, turns out to be entirely foreclosed by God’s pre-existing plan for him.
And what a plan: “You’re going to be my ambassador to the nations, Jeremiah,” the Lord is saying. And understandably Jeremiah is taken aback. He protested that he is hardly qualified to talk to kings and rulers on behalf of God. But God will have none of it. “You shall go to all whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you. In effect God is saying, “Because I said so.” And to seal this command he touches Jeremiah on the mouth, a promise that Jeremiah will not be speaking his own untrained and feeble words, but the very word of God.
That sounds pretty intimidating already, doesn’t it? Listen again to what comes next, as God describes for Jeremiah what his mission in life is going to be, and what it’s going to be like.
“See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t sound like a particularly enjoyable career path. I imagine kings and nations might be somewhat resistant to being plucked up and pulled down. Maybe even to be told what they are doing wrong, as the prophets are routinely called upon to do. And the subsequent course of Jeremiah’s career proves this point. He was persecuted, arrested, threatened with death, called a traitor, and forced into exile, all for doing what God told him to do.
Of course there would also be periods of satisfaction, maybe even triumph for Jeremiah. His words would be over and over again vindicated by events, and he did find people along the way who recognized that his words were from God and acted accordingly. But on balance the best that can be said about Jeremiah’s reception is that it was like Paul’s, a mixed bag. God certainly knew what he was calling Jeremiah to face, just as he knew what Paul and Barnabus would face. He knows that those whom he calls for particular service to his kingdom will sometimes face hard times and negative receptions because of it. Serving God sometimes is a dirty job. And it would not surprise me if Jeremiah, Paul or any other of God’s servants didn’t wish that someone else had been called to do it instead of them.
You know we installed elders and deacons last Sunday. It’s a good thing we did or some of them might be edging toward the door right about now. If you are an elder, you will be faced with difficult decisions, made more difficult because sometimes your natural inclination and wishes will be other than what you discern God’s will to be. If you are a deacon you may be faced with ministering to those in pain and in great need. If you are called by God to particular service in the Church, you will find yourself pushed way beyond your comfort zone.
But even as we face today the challenges that confront anyone who is called to a particular service for God and His kingdom, we should remember that, whether you realize it or not, you were born for this.