Preaching the Activity of God

Luke wants us to see a bigger picture. He finds events to be significant, but he does not consider all events equal. Luke is aware that things are taking place. He does not ignore them; he prefers to mention them as part of his historical monologue. Yet, he never makes them more important than they are intended to be. He desires that we acknowledge the content of what goes on around us, but does not wish for us to make it the main subject. Luke reminds us that we are participating in history. So he writes about this God who intervenes in history. He wants us to know that everything that occurs is part of this bigger story about God.

The Gospel reveals that Caesar decreed and the Acts that Herod gave a speech. But both Luke and Acts want us to know that political intervention is weak and short-lived in comparison to the intervention of God. In fact, these things appear to take place in order to halt the work of God in history. Instead, they become part of a series of events that are deemed powerless in comparison to the Gospel news.

The Gospel is a book that encourages the reader to pack for Jerusalem. The Acts is a book that tells the reader that what happens in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem. Jerusalem seems to be important for Luke on account of the significant events that happen there. The undeniable intervention of God that is evident at crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost.

In a sense, Gabriel’s words to Mary could be seen as a text for both volumes as we see them proven again and again. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” In Acts, this is evidenced by the structure as the word continues to move and spread and the church continues to grow despite the barriers presented along the way.

At 6.7; 9.31; 12.24; 16.5; 19.20; and 28.31 we find summaries that remind us that the Good News of God will not be stopped by barriers of any kind. Simply, we may suggest the following; we encounter a language barrier, apostles are jailed twice, there is evidence of an imperfect church, and neglect of the Greek widows. Still, “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

There is a death by stoning, murderous threats, ethnic barriers, even magic, yet “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” Then dietary restrictions, political power, death by sword, and an unbelieving church, but “the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”

The barriers continue as we find geographical barriers, lobbying, thrown in jail again, magic, economic barriers. Still we are told that “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.” Finally, we encounter yet another arrest, a dangerous voyage, shipwreck, snakebite, trial, and disagreement but the book ends with “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

It is important to see that all along the way, the content never becomes the story. The people never become the story. Luke wants us to be aware of things going on around us. Even more, he wants us to be aware of the bigger story that God invaded the planet in history and nothing can stop His news.

Acts sets a precedent that nothing is able to stand in the way of the good news that God has intervened in history. Acts does not list every potential barrier but does bring up a number of them. These include every major barrier of the first century; language, geography, ethnicity, politics, magic, other religions and philosophies, even imprisonment and death. These have not disappeared and other barriers have emerged. But our preaching can still reflect the bigger story that nothing is able to stop the activity of God.

The Activity of God in History

Acts is an account that insists on the activity of God in history. Acts is convinced that the Spirit is able to overcome any barrier, no matter how impossible. So whether we encounter a beggar at the temple gate or hungry widows, Stephen’s death or Peter’s imprisonment – none of these things are exempt from the Spirit’s activity. Whether the scene is an upper room in Jerusalem or a road in the desert, a prison in Caesarea Maritima or a ship sailing in dangerous waters – the Spirit is not absent from any of these places. Even catastrophe cannot limit the work of the Spirit or stop the spread of the good news.

I cannot read Acts without getting the impression that conflict, persecution, and catastrophe are opportunities. This is counter intuitive. We would like to believe that peace, comfort, and worry free moments are the times that we can best organize effectively and therefore prosper. Acts may suggest that times of comfort and prosperity bring with them a lack of urgency and intensity and priority. Without apology, Acts continues to present challenging situations. Without exception, Acts reports that the good news continued to spread. Acts leaves us with the impression that our writings, stories, and growth are strengthened during less fortunate situations.

There is a temptation for preachers to preach about a language miracle, or healing, or call to ministry, or prayer, or persecution or any other situation that arises in the narrative. We certainly do not want to ignore these contexts, but neither do we want to miss the message being pushed forward by the narrative. Why would we want to focus on the barrier and make it the main point of the story? I propose that it would be no different than preaching a sermon about surviving shipwreck or snakebite. In every chapter, rather than focusing on the barrier, our focus should be on the Holy Spirit who overcomes the barrier.

Preaching Acts is proclamation of the ongoing activity of God. Acts sets a precedent. Our barriers may be different, but there is an implication that the Spirit may be at work in any conversation, in any location, and during any activity. Acts insists that despite a host of barriers, the result continued to be “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.” Acts insists on the activity of God in history. It is no different for us.

Our Story and the Jesus Story

Luke the historian lets us in on his plan from the start. He has compiled the results of his investigation and gives us an account about the things that were “accomplished among us.” Luke is a collector of stories and what he finds is that all other stories intersect with the Jesus story. Perhaps this is why he gives us a genealogy, a historical context, and quotes from Isaiah the prophet. Luke wants us to realize that his news is connected with everything else. It may be obvious that the cross is connected to the Jesus story, but Luke wants us to know that Isaiah’s songs and Caesar’s decrees are as well.

Perhaps this is why Luke went on to compose a second account, just to make sure we realize that the Jesus story isn’t over. In the book of Acts, the reader continues on adventures that began in the Gospel. At some points, Luke even appears to join in some of the travels. This may be evidenced by the “we” passages. As an investigative historian, he might have been an eyewitness of some of the events he records. Perhaps Luke is an itinerant doctor who sometimes traveled along as one of Paul’s companions.

This makes it at least a possibility that Luke was there when they encountered the fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi and when Eutychus fell out of the window during Paul’s midnight sermon. He may have experienced the warm reception from the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He may have been there for the shipwreck and when Paul was snake bit while on the voyage to Rome. Whether he was or not is not as important as the fact that he wants us to know that these stories are a part of the Jesus story.

Luke may be interested in the same questions that interest us. Is there reason to keep telling this story? What are some of the things that happened during the retelling of this story? Did these things have any influence beyond Jerusalem? Does this story have anything to do with beggars or widows? How about kings or Caesars? Does this story have any impact on the world scene? He spends the Gospel taking us to Jerusalem that we might discover events that were world-changing. He spends the Acts taking us out, into the uttermost parts of the earth.

Acts concludes by connecting both the Jewish story and the Gentile story with the Jesus story. This comes as no surprise as there is a strong implication throughout that no matter where the story leads and no matter what occurs, all stories join the Jesus story.

Implications for Teller, Story, and Listener

Luke is full of implications for preachers, the message, and the listener. Perhaps Luke is especially interested in such conversation since he seems to go out of his way to report on the spread of the Gospel no matter what gets in the way. With that in mind, we had a kind of short course this weekend to discuss some of these implications. As with any short course, there is risk of over simplification but at the very least, it served as a starter for our conversation.

For a look at the teller, we examined Luke chapter three and the preaching of John the Baptist as a text.

Implications for the Teller, Messenger, Preacher
1. the teller is part of a larger story; one bigger than here, bigger than now
2. the teller is not assigned to coddle or flatter, not to amuse or entertain
3. the teller emphasizes and highlights what God is initiating and is bringing to pass
4. the teller is a participant in the activity of God, the teller is a participant in God’s intervention
5. the teller calls the audience to change, it is time to act differently, the way things are is not enough
6. the teller points to One who is greater

We examined an episode from Luke chapter four and the preaching of Jesus in Nazareth as a text to explore the story.

Implications for the Story, Message, Gospel
1. the story is not new, it started long ago, we are not making this up
2. the story is presented into a real situation, one that is close and familiar
3. the story will disrupt lives, it may raise intensity, it may receive unexpected or unfavorable results
4. the story demands things to be different from this time forward, things can never be the same
5. the story will not make things easy on the teller, in fact the opposite may be true
6. the story is the battle plan for a new kingdom, this will undoubtedly draw resistance from adherents of the current kingdom

We examined a portion from Acts chapter eight and the preaching of Philip in Samaria as a text to explore the situation of the listener.

Implications for Listeners, Audience, Congregation
1. listeners may include people that were never expected to receive an invitation to the new kingdom
2. listeners are looking for something greater than themselves
3. listeners hear competing stories and are invited to make a decision between other claims of greatness and the Good News of the Kingdom
4. listeners may be amazed by the Gospel yet not understand its implications
5. listeners may be tempted to use the Gospel for their own benefit, to their own advantage
6. listeners may not grasp the seriousness of the matter and be concerned only with their own well being

A Sermon Starter: The Power of Church and State

Herod Agrippa I had power. Acts chapter twelve describes how he used his power for an assault on the church. He believed that he had the power to limit or even stop the spread of the Gospel. Even during Passover, as the people celebrated the power of God to deliver. In fact, I find it interesting that he wanted to bring Peter out after Passover. Was he thinking that God could slip one past old Pharaoh, but he cannot deliver under the watch of powerful King Herod Agrippa? From the perspective of the young church, it appeared that he was right. Acts tells us that he killed James and had Peter arrested (12.2-3).

In a sense, this is Peter’s last “act.” For although he does make a brief appearance in chapter fifteen, we are not told anything else about Peter. In Acts, the fate of Herod is more important to the story than the fate of Peter. In light of his imprisonment, what can the church do? How can the church be taken seriously when Herod has all the power? Should they hire a lawyer with a reputation of representing minorities? Should they begin to leave propaganda in conspicuous places in the hope that others will join their side? Should they begin filling out petitions to protest Herod’s treatment of Christians? Should they join with other opponents of Herod to fight for proper social action? Should they re-package themselves so that government might see them as a benefit to the kingdom? What should the church do?

Acts wants us to know that the activity of the church during this time was prayer (12.5-12). This is important because prayer admits that we are unable to cause change on our own. This cannot be overemphasized. This episode in the life of the church cautions us from taking things in our own hands.

On the surface, prayer may appear to be an impotent force against the power of Herod. Yet, as the story continues, one begins to realize that there is a power greater than Herod. Peter is delivered from prison. The news is almost too good to be true. Peter arrives at the house of those who are celebrating the power of God to release slaves (that is what they do in Jerusalem during Passover) to find that they do not believe that he had escaped. This may remind us that God’s power is greater than the expectations of His people.

Throughout this entire episode, neither Herod (as we realize later at 12.23) nor Peter (after 12.17 he is gone) are the main player (or the main power). Acts wants us to understand that the main player throughout is the one who delivered a nation from slavery, the one who delivered Peter, and the one still able to deliver.

Acts loves to record speeches. Peter, Stephen, and Paul each give speeches that are recorded in Acts, some of them in detail. As Herod prepares to give a speech (12.21), one wonders what a government official like Herod will add to the speeches of Acts. The king must have performed well, for his audience declared that this was “the voice of a god, not of a man.” Surely such a speech is worthy of recording. But where is this power speech? Acts does not care. Herod gets a thumbs down, his words do not matter. Nevertheless, he receives much flattery and refuses to give the glory to God. At that point, Herod the king is eaten by worms. Chapter twelve is a reminder that while government officials are temporary (just ask Herod), the word of God continues to increase and spread (12.24).

What a complete reversal of the church’s situation in just one chapter. At the beginning, Herod is on the rampage, killing James and arresting Peter. At the end of the chapter, Herod is dead, Peter is free, and the word of God is increasing. Herod will not speak again, but God’s words will continue to be heard.

Barriers to Preaching: a Conversation with Luke/Acts

It is natural to face barriers. Some of them are rather large. Obstacles and distractions have always gotten in the way of things we are trying to accomplish. We can not overcome barriers on our own. This is true even in preaching. We could pretend that they do not exist but it is likely more helpful if we admit that they are real and engage in conversation about them. While we acknowledge that discussion will not eliminate these barriers, we can start a helpful dialogue with a text that does not think any barrier too large.

Our text is from Luke, both the Gospel and the Acts. We discover here a text that is all about breaking barriers. We find a long list (including virginity, barrenness, hometown crowd, ethnicity, gender, language, hecklers, executioners, government, snakebite, ship wreck, prison, wealth, poverty, illness, and geography) where Luke tries to get across to readers that there are no barriers too big for God. Not one of these is able to halt the announcement of Good News.

We hear this from the start as Gabriel shows up with the announcement “nothing will be impossible for God.” By the time we get to Acts, Luke wants us to realize that barriers are just a natural part of the journey. Yet, these barriers are unable to stop the announcement of Good News as he keeps repeating things like “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly.”

There is still a significant list that we could develop that spell out barriers to preaching effectively. Among others; the influence of culture, audience disinterest, or displaced priorities. We know what obstacles are like. We may not be able to overcome barriers on our own. But Luke wants us to be aware that we do not have to. God is an active participant in the conversation that we call preaching. Luke wants us to know that God has entered and is speaking.

Preaching Luke (and Acts)

It has been suggested that Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts as a historical monograph to one named Theophilus in the hopes that Theophilus may contribute to the spread of the Good News. This suggestion seems to have some merit, yet no matter what reason he wrote or to who, Luke’s writings must also be seen as material for preaching.

It is obvious that Luke wants us to know that these events took place at a certain time. This is evident by lines like “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” And gets even more specific “it is only the third hour of the day.” At the very least, our preaching of Luke should insist that God works in specific situations and to specific people. God has an interest in what we are doing at this time and in this place.

Yet, before it is anything else, preaching Luke is to preach about the activity of God. First, the activity of God through Jesus the Son of God. Later, the activity of God through the Holy Spirit. Luke wants us to know things that this Jesus did beginning with a sermon he preached in his hometown. Luke wants us to know the things that the Holy Spirit did beginning with an unexpected event that occurred during worship on Pentecost Sunday (and that resulted in a sermon that Peter preached).

The Gospel presents a Jesus on the move. Wherever He goes and whoever He meets Jesus is applying the truths of that first sermon. Then, in chapter nine, Luke gives us a new direction. Still on the move, but toward Jerusalem. Preaching Luke is to invite people on a journey. From that very first sermon we are aware that not everyone receives the news in the same way. Some are favorable to the Good News, others reject the same news. All the way to the cross we are faced with the question of how we will deal with this One that Luke claims is the Son of God.

Then in Luke’s Easter story we find the Risen Lord “traveling” with two disciples. Their situation is presented as very human, discussing details and expressing emotion. We get the feeling they are wondering how they will return to their old lives. How they will put this Jesus saga behind them. But then Jesus explains the scriptures and their hearts burn. He breaks bread and their eyes are opened. It is no coincidence that when they tell these things to others, He is again in the midst of them. Preaching Luke should result in the recognition of Jesus.

The Gospel may stop there, but things start back up again in the Acts. Because things have not stopped. Events keep occurring that Luke has to write down. Even after Jesus departs, God keeps coming back as the Holy Spirit. We are on the move again. And things continue to happen as He continues to do and teach. Whereas the Gospel spends significant time bringing us into Jerusalem, Acts spends significant time leaving it. We find ourselves headed for the remotest parts of the earth. Where God continues to show up when we tell.

Luke wants to take us somewhere. He wants to make sure that we know what transpired on the road to Jerusalem and on the way to the cross. Luke wants us to follow the crucified Christ. He wants the reader to come to the place where they are found by the Risen Lord. He wants us to come to a place where we are met by the Holy Spirit. He wants us to follow the spread of the Gospel to the remotest parts of the earth.

Preaching Luke reveals that God works in the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Preaching Luke reveals that God shows up in the synagogue but also along the road or at table. He works on behalf of widows and the wealthy. For priests and the poor. Economics, geography, language, vocation – these things are of no concern to Luke as he reports God working for all. These things are no barrier for the Good News that Luke tells.

Preaching Luke reminds us that God is at work on Easter morning and on Pentecost Sunday, but also on this particular day and at this particular time. God was active in first-century Jerusalem, but also in the twenty first century and in our zip code.