Saturday, September 30, 2006

Advance to Go!

Preached tonight for Reading CU's pre-Freshers meeting. I gather an MP3 will be forthcoming. Whether this achieves its purpose will be seen in the rest of this week and beyond... God is sovereign and he speaks!

ADVANCE TO GO! Acts 4:23-33
It starts with a prayer meeting. But we're going to get this we need to rewind a bit. What was going on - we had Peter and John and the beautiful gate calling a man to be healed in Jesus' name. Peter then preached and was hauled up before the authorities.

Think for a moment, why would this happen? How could any of God's people end up in front of the authorities for their preaching? One way is by being stupid, rude, foolish. That happens. Christians are sometimes really dumb and it gets us, quite rightly, in trouble. But that wasn't what happened here.

This was different. The Saduccees had Peter and John arrested for preaching the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Everyone had heard about the man they'd healed (in Jesus' name). It was undeniable. The only hope for the authorities in stopping Peter and John was to ask them to be silent. What did they say? (4v20) We're just telling people what we witnessed... its undeniable! And they're released. What happens next? They return to their friends. What would you do? Hide? Leave town?

They prayed. What would you pray? For peace? For favour with the authorities? For protection? Its their priority in prayer that I want to consider here. Two key things. First who they prayed to, and second what they prayed for.

Why is this relevant to us today? This is about the church under persecution. We might say we don't get persecuted in the UK. But let me tell you a couple of stories. Let me tell you about Birmingham CU. They hit the BBC headlines in January when the students union seized their funds because they only made provision for two gender categories in their constitution, banning them from using students union facilities. Or another CU, this week, where protests fill the students union papers. Protests against what? Against the CU running Pure. The promotion of Spirit-filled Christian freedom in relationships being opposed as immoral.

Brother Andrew tells the story of a meeting with a Romanian pastor. The pastor asked him - "Are there any pastors in prison in Holland?", receiving an answer in the negative, he was asked why... Andrew replied: "I think it must be because we do not take advantage of the opportunities God gives us". Then the difficult question: What do you do with 2 Timothy 3:12. Andrew opened his Bible and read aloud "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". Closing his Bible he said, "Please forgive me. We do nothing with that verse". (Cited by John Piper in Future Grace)

Something is missing if we're not persecuted. What? The absence of “a godly life in Christ” - a life utterly wrapped up with Jesus. Now, I'm not saying "go looking for it". Nor generating opposition by being dumb. I'm saying God promises persecution if we're seeking godliness. That desire is supposed to yield in persecution. Pursue Christ, get persecution. And when the cost is flagged up that clearly at the start you better believe that getting Christ is worth it.
Paul doesn't write to Timothy to scare people away from godliness – he's telling them upfront what it'll cost and then saying go get it – gain Jesus because he is better than even the pain and struggle of persecution.

It should be happening. And if we pursue godliness then we better know how to deal with what God has promised will follow that. Which brings us to the way the church prayed in Acts 4:23-33. My title here is: ADVANCE TO GO! Two things we'll see – that we pray because God is sovereign, and we preach because God is speaking.

1. The Sovereign Lord.
They pray to the Sovereign Lord (v24). When your preaching is met by persecution that might not seem the obvious thing to remember about God. Wouldn't we often ask "aren't you sovereign?" rather than basing our prayer in the sovereignty of God. But they did. This is the Sovereign Lord who created the heaven, earth and sea and everything in them. The sovereign creator.

This sovereign Lord is the one who spoke ahead of time and then had his word fulfilled in the death of the Lord Jesus. The Lord who is sovereign over creation is also sovereign over the work that leads to new creation... headed by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Jesus, "anointed" by God. Killed at the hands of those (Pilate, Herod and the Gentiles and Israel) who did "whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place". Everything happened as God planned in creation, in new creation... in the life of the church.

The death of Christ was the plan of God. It was no accident. It was no plan-B. It was exactly what God intended. We need not be ashamed of the crucifixion of Jesus as if it were an embarrassing after thought to the greatness of his life. In God's terms the cross was the culmination of all that God planned to do in salvation. Martin Luther said that the cross is the standard by which we test everything. The cross is our theology.

Everything has reference to that. Its the basis on which God's people pray – the basis of our access to God in the first place. And it is the basis on which we pray because God is sovereign over all things – we appeal to the one who can take action. If we do not believe God is sovereign then there is no point praying. No point asking of a God who cannot do anything.

John Piper gives some examples of prayers that can't be prayed if we reject the sovereignty of God... “ They can't ask God to actually save anybody. They cannot pray, "God, take out their heart of stone and give them a new heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 11:19). They can't pray, "Lord, circumcise their heart so that they love you" (Deuteronomy 30:6). They can't pray, "Father, put your Spirit within them and cause them to walk in your statutes" (Ezekiel 36:27). They can't pray, "Lord, grant them repentance and a knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:25-26). They can't pray, "Open their eyes so that they believe to the Gospel" (Acts 16:14). The reason they can't is that all these prayers give God a right that they have reserved for man - namely the ultimate, decisive determination of his destiny.”

But the early church knows that God is sovereign. They've not invented God's sovereignty so they can pray. But because they know God is sovereign they can pray! They ask of the Lord who planned and worked the death of his Son, they appeal to the one who did this. And they ask of him to stretch out his hand (v30).

They ask for his power to be exercised. But not power to protect his people, nor power to prevent persecution. Their concern is elsewhere. Some want to undermine the Sovereignty of God. Thinking that things such as the relational aspect of prayer are lost if God is utterly sovereign. Piper concludes.... without the sovereignty of God... “what you have left is a kind of lifeless vestige that most people think of as "the prayer meeting" - weak, uninspired, small-minded. A heart of prayer and a movement of prayer for missions is sustained by focusing on something else first that life is war and that God is sovereign.”

As a new year begins we must be a people who believe that God is utterly sovereign. If so, we'll pray. We'll be compelled to lay seige to the gates of heaven for God to act. God is sovereign so we must prioritise prayer. Too often prayer meetings are booked in small rooms, declaring that they're not for everyone. Let us book big rooms for prayer together. And let's pray.

There is no point praying if God is not sovereign. But since he is, then we can and must pray. Asking him to covert people. To save people. To turn atheists into lovers of Jesus. To renew hearsta nd minds. To open eyes to the gospel. God is sovereign, so we pray.

2. The Speaking Lord.
There is no point praying if God isn't sovereign. Furthermore, there is no point preaching if God isn't speaking. No point preaching if God isn't speaking. Who is this Sovereign Lord. He is the one who spoke through the mouth of David, by the Holy Spirit. What did he speak? Psalm 2. Before we consider what that Psalm says...

A brief aside... A reminder of what this book is. Do you see? v25. God speaks Scripture, through men by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is a human book – literature in various genres. But its also God speaking, through those writers... by the Holy Spirit! And when God speaks big things happen. Remember what happened when God said: let there be light. Bang. Universe. Let's be those who open God's word with people we meet this week. When God speaks universes get created. What might happen if we open God's word with people, even this week

What did God say in Psalm 2? He spoke to prophesy the death of Jesus (v27). David wrote about the nations opposition of his throne. More was going on! God was foretelling the day when the nations would kill Jesus. No accident. It was his salvation plan. God said that people would oppose Jesus. And now his people are likewise opposed. Christians thoroughly wrapped up in the story of Jesus. United with Christ in his resurrected life, and his sufferings...
What happens to Jesus, happens to his people. We are in union with him – united to him. We share in his sufferings, looking forward to a share in his resurrection.

What do they ask for? They ask, v29, "look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness". To continue to speak with boldness? Well they certainly have boldness, they stood up against the authorities. What help do they need to do that? And why not ask for escape from the situation. Remember how the book starts though. Jesus, whose Acts are told throughout the book of Acts, said in 1v8 that the Holy Spirit would empower his people to witness about Jesus. God's church would be clothed with the Holy Spirit to become witnesses.

And that happened 2000 years ago at Pentecost The Spirit is poured out in power, announcing the coming of the Day of the Lord... and empowering God's people to be witnesses of Christ.
The Holy Spirit through God's people. Any speaking they have done has been God speaking through them. And they may be opposed, as Jesus was, but God would have them continue - and they are compelled to request power to continue to be bold. They could hide away but God's word must be spoken... the word must increase.

What happened next? v31. The place was shaken, like Sinai - God speaking to his people. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (the power to witness) and continued to speak the word of God with boldness! The prayer was answered... what follows shows that the rest of their request for healings and signs and wonders was also completed in the name of Jesus. This was God's hand being stretched out. No-one saunters into the presence of God, you come with fear and trembling. When God speaks the most confident of people must be humbled. And, v33, "with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all" If we are to pursue a life of godliness, persecution should follow. Prayerfully let us be prepared.

Let us call upon the Sovereign Lord to Speak through his people by the power of the Holy Spirit... so that we would testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Acts 6 tells us that as the word increases, the number of disciples increases. God speaks and new life happens. God speaks through his people and more people become disciples. Prayer was an essential part of the apostolic ministry, as was the preaching of God's word. And Acts 4 tells us that a key focus of their prayer was seeking power for preaching the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. What will we give ourselves to? Not to seek persecution as an end in itself. Rather, let us also devote ourselves to prayer for power to preach Christ, and then to preaching Christ by the power of God.

This means that when we pray we need to pray for power to preach. That doesn't mean you can't pray about work, or for healing... but our priority should be for God's power to give us boldness to continue to speak his word. The Holy Spirit is given for this purpose... what will we be saying without his empowering?

And this means that we then need to devote ourselves to proclaiming the word of God to people. Verbally explaining the good news about the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, carefully explaining the meaning of it. Take note of American, Voddie Baucham's words: "‘Speakers come from Radio Shack; I come to Preach!’ I believe that our unwillingness to use the term ‘preacher’ today is due to the fact that preaching has fallen out of favor." God has determined that people will be saved through his word being preached. God is utterly sovereign, but God uses means. He uses men and women who will preach his gospel. Heralding the reign of God. Pleading with those we meet to “behold your God”. Announcing far and wide that “our God reigns!”

People will not guess. But the amazing news about Jesus can't be worked out. It's counter intuitive. When people invent religion they don't get the Christian Gospel. They don't get Trinity. They don't get the Cross. No-one guesses that God sent his son to die in our place. No-one guesses that he had to suffer and be raised. No-one guesses God's grace.

We must preach it. But how? Not cold or clinical. Not detached and derogatory. No. Passionate. Heart-felt. Joyful and weeping. Preaching the Lord Jesus Christ with delight and with tears.
And when that happens things will happen. God's word is like rain, it produces harvest. When God said: “let there is light” it wasn't that nothing happened. No God said, and light happened. God breathes out and things change.

The Bible is not dead, dry or out of date. It is God speaking today. We need to open it with us. Imagine what could happen! God's word created the Universe, it will re-create sinful hearts. If the word of God is silenced there will be no new disciples... when the word increases, the number of disciples increases. There is no point praying if God is not sovereign. But he is. There is no point preaching if God is not speaking. But he is. Let's be a Mission Team. Let's be a praying people. Let's be a preaching people. Our God is Sovereign. Our God is Speaking.


Further reading, by Fred Saunders: Agrippa on the Damascus Road.

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