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.

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Preaching a Grand Story

Preaching through the biblical narrative may be a daunting task.  But perhaps it becomes less daunting if we frame it as a grand story.  At the very least it would help lend a potential structure.  Eugene Peterson tells us that all stories have basic elements.  I like what he says and the questions he prompts enough that from this point on, I follow his lead.  In order to assist with the recognition of the narrative shape of Scripture, he punctuates the following elements.

First, there is a beginning and an ending.  “All stories take place in time and are bounded by a past and a future.”  Peterson proposes that the bible (as well as other good stories) has both an original and a final goodness.  Eden.  Heaven.

Second, Peterson says that there is a catastrophe.  The good beginning hits a bump.  There is a barrier.  Something stands in the way.  A disaster occurs.  And then, “we are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.”

Third, salvation enters the plot.  Peterson says that “some faint memory reminds us that we were made for something better than this .”  This creates a tension.  We find ourselves in between the original good and the present evil.  And a plan develops to get us out of our trouble – salvation.  I rather like the way that Peterson frames our situation.  He suggests that we are facing opposing forces while we fight “our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory to our true home.”

Fourth, characters develop.  The actions of people are important.  Personalities develop in the course of conflict and journey.  Character and circumstance are in dynamic interplay with each other.  Some people become better, some become worse.  Nobody stays the same.

And finally, “everything has significance.”  Peterson places emphasis on the fact that story implies an author.  Nothing happens by chance.  “Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs.”

He goes on to say that “all the world’s stories have these characteristics.”  Whether implied or explicit these elements are there.  And “they develop into tragedies, comedies, epics, confessions, murder mysteries, and gothic romances.  Poets, dramatists, novelists, children, and parents have developed millions of variations on these elements.”

Peterson calls the bible a “huge, sprawling account that contains subject matter from several cultures, languages, and centuries.”  He points out that Northrup Fry distinguishes the bible from other sacred books on account of its emphasis on narrative.  He highlights how the narrative even shows itself in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon.

The Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) gives us the basic story.  The Prophets (Joshua through Malachi) take the basic story and introduce it into new situations across centuries “insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present, not merely recited out of the past.”  The Writings reflect on the story, assimilating them into wisdom (Job and Proverbs) and worship (Psalms).

The New Testament then takes on a parallel shape.  The Gospels tell the basic story in a new Torah.  The Epistles serve similarly to the Prophets as the story is told in an expanding world, preached over multiple journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings.  Peterson even adds that Luke expands the four Gospels into a five-volume Torah (Acts) at the same time that he introduces the prophetical lives of Peter and Paul.  James and Revelation are equivalent to the Writings, summing up in wisdom and worship the response of a people whose lives are shaped by story.

While I think that Peterson might allow some difference of opinion in the details, I think he would insist that scripture be read in this narrative framework where all the parts (proverbs, commandments, letters, visions, law, songs, prayer, genealogies) are included into a unified story.  In fact, he goes so far as to say that “it is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost.”

Peterson becomes helpful for us as we attempt to preach through the bible.  He helps us to see that every word fits into the larger context.  This becomes especially important when we recognize that a great deal of context gets lost when words are written down.  We lose “the tone of voice, the smell in the air, the wind on the cheek.”  But the thing we do not lose is the basic narrative – language shaped into story.

Since this is the one part of context that we do have, it becomes important to be attentive to it.  The Genesis to Revelation context.  The basic story laid down in Torah and Gospel.  The intrusion of story into history by Prophets and Epistles.  The gathering response of Psalms and Revelation.

No matter when we preach, what text, or where, we want to remember  that “God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it.”