It is amazing that what we consider a failure is often God’s idea of success.  For Paul, this was a common reality, and so Paul learned to see events through God’s eyes instead of his own.  Beatings became a way for him to better identify with Jesus’ suffering.  Shipwrecks became ways that God could show His power and grace through Paul.  And trials became opportunities to reach powerful people he would otherwise not have been able to reach.

Did you notice between yesterday and today how many people of power Paul reached because of his chains?  We would consider this a failure, a problem to be solved, and possibly a sign that God had abandoned us.  But for Paul, he knew that God works through just such things and so he watched and prayed.  And because of his arrest, he was able to witness before Ananias the high priest, Tertullus a lawyer of high repute, Felix the governor of the region, Lysias the commander, Drusilla, Felix’ wife who was Jewish, Porcius Festus Felix’ successor, Festus, King Agrippa and his wife Bernice his wife, and ultimately Caesar himself.  It’s like someone today being arrested and called to stand before the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the president himself.

When bad things happen, do you see it as a failure because it is hard on you, or do you see it as an opportunity for God to work for, in, and through you?

How often have you had a great meal with good friends or family and determined that the restaurant is five stars.  But the next time you go to that same restaurant and order the same dish but you’re having an argument with your spouse, the food is mediocre at best.  What happened?  Is it a bad day for the cook, or a different cook, or have your tastebuds changed?

‘The good taste of a meal is directly proportional to the attitude of the one eating it.”  In other words, the gladder the company at the table, the better the food tastes.  This has been proven a number of times in scientific studies, and the amount of attitude change that changes the taste of the food is surprisingly low.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist proclaims to us.  But what happens when our attitude is such that our taste is off?  What happens when our greed, or pessimism, or control issues keep us from truly tasting the goodness of God?

God’s goodness never changes.  Like a good steak, the flavor of God’s goodness is remarkable at all times.  But our ability to taste it, to recognize God’s goodness in the midst of our lives and this frightening world, can be limited.

The best way to be sure that we can recognize the work of God, taste His goodness as it were, is to live with an attitude of love, joy, peace, patience… the fruit of the Spirit in other words.  When we view reality through the lens of the Fruit of the Spirit, God’s goodness is evident and our spiritual taste buds are ready to taste all God has for us.

On Wed, July 25 at 5:30pm, we will be showing “I Can Only Imagine” at the church!  This is an easy way to invite friends to church for a meaningful movie presentation.  Tickets are… free, just bring your favorite movie snack and join us.  To view the trailer for the film, just click the pic.

I always prided myself on my lack of enemies.  I thought it wise to make friends with everyone, to alienate nobody, and to always avoid making an enemy.  This comes from a lifetime of modeling this method, fearing others (a bullying story for another day), and a misreading of scripture.  While I still think it wise not to unnecessarily turn anyone against me, I’ve come to learn that there are more important things than keeping the peace.

In both our Psalms and Acts readings today, we find Godly men speaking about their enemies.  Some seek to discourage with whispers of, “terror on every side” while others are the terror themselves, seeking to kill and destroy.  Paul’s enemies had plotted his death and made a pact not to eat until the deed was done.  The Psalmists seem to be less specific but no less deadly.  But how can such Godly men, following God’s ways, make such dire enemies?  Isn’t Jesus a teacher of “loving one another”?

I have learned that standing up for Jesus will alienate some people, even good people, even church people.  In fact, Jesus promised us this again and again.  He modeled the life of an outlaw (assuming we’re talking about the Jewish law) and promised that we would be persecuted, killed even.  We will make enemies if we stand for Jesus.  An empty “enemies list” is a sign of a people-pleaser, not a God follower.

Unfortunately, many take these teachings as permission to purposely antagonize or ignore opposition.  This promise of persecution is not license to shun correction, saying, “See, Jesus said you’d disagree with me” even though many use it for just that purpose.  Persecution will come, but many times it is not for Godly reasons but because we have an abrasive personality or controlling attitude toward others.

Do not avoid persecution at the cost of faithfulness, but do not welcome it at the cost of humble correction either.

I have two girls driving home from CHIC, a triennial youth discipleship conference for my denomination, as I write this.  So reading today’s passage seemed a little more than coincidence.  You see, one of my favorite memories is my ride home from CHIC in 1988.  We were driving in a coach bus late at night across the plains of the Midwest.  It was so flat that I could see for miles and while everyone else slept, I prayed, heeding a call to prayer I’d received that last week.  And as I prayed, I watched a thunderstorm sweep across the sky.  There is little as majestic as a full-blown thunderstorm strolling across a Nebraska, filled with thunder and lightning.

Ps. 29 is a beautiful poem likening God to that thunderstorm.  And the word to which the Psalmist keeps returning is, “Glory!”  Four times he uses this word, the last on the lips of all of God’s people.  But he also uses words like, “powerful”, “majestic”, “splendor”.  Just like I couldn’t sit in my bus and not contemplate the might of God, so the Psalmist couldn’t watch the storm pass without words like these.  We worship a BIG God, and as incarnate and intimate as He may be through Jesus Christ, He is also a God of majesty.

And interestingly, after this Psalm-long description of God’s majesty, the call is not to fear, or to wish God’s powerful wrath upon our enemies, but it’s a call to remember that this God, this powerful, majestic, BIG God, is the source of our strength and peace.  We are not strong because we are right, or because we rage and protest the loudest, or because we are more “put together” than others.  We are strong because we follow a BIG God.  It is He who has our backs, “who’s got this situation covered”, whose majesty and splendor will work through us to accomplish His will.  And because of this, we can have peace.  This is the good news of following a BIG God.

“Be careful who you associate with, for they will drag you down with them.”  This axiom was regularly quoted by adults as I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Afraid of an increasingly dangerous and hostile world, our parents warned us again and again about our choices of friends.  And today with teens of my own, I find these words, or at least this sentiment, on my lips more than I’d like.  “If your friends get busted while you’re there, it doesn’t matter if you’ve partaken; you’re in the same trouble they are.”  The common phrase to describe this is “guilty by association”.

Today we see once again that this is also a biblical concept.  The Psalmist regularly proclaims himself righteous because he doesn’t “sit with mockers” or “associate with the ungodly”.  He proclaims himself someone who brings up the righteousness of a room, if you will.  And that’s an interesting question for us as Christians: do we bring up the righteousness of the room we enter?  Do we strive to live more righteous lives so that we are a good influence on those around us?  Or do we let others bring us down to their level?

The problem with the idea of “guilty by association” is that it was a charge leveled at Jesus time and time again (Luke 7:34 for one).  He was considered less godly because of the people with whom He associated – tax collectors, prostitutes, commoners all.  So if we are to be like Jesus, should we avoid sinners, seek out sinners, or live somewhere in between?

The reason Jesus was “a friend of sinners” was because He was ministering to them, because they were following Him, not because He liked a good beer now and then and those stuffy church people wouldn’t drink with him.  Yes, Jesus welcomed absolutely everyone (even Pharisees!) into His hospitality and ignored the “guilty by association” claim.  But He did so because every person He met was a potential follower, not because their sin was ok with Him.  After all, He did come “for the sick, not the well.”

Churches are famous for their complaining.  And not just in church circles.  In speaking with an atheist friend, they stated that church people complain more than any other they know.  And what’s more, they don’t just complain the most but they fight the dirtiest.  A person working at a local business told me once, “I would much rather argue with anyone in my office than with anyone at church.  Church people always fight dirty!”

Paul knows this well and faces it in today’s text.  The people are upset that he is breaking the law, so the church leaders suggest that he prove his righteousness by following a Jewish purification rite.  Paul agrees and does, which should appease the angry church people, right?  Wrong.  During his purification at the temple, he is grabbed and beaten for his “heresy” of bringing the gentiles into a saving faith in Jesus.  He is saved only by the Romans who just want to keep the peace and put down a riot.

How do we deal with complaints in the church?  Especially when there are so many?  Especially when appeasement is impossible?  How did Jesus suggest we deal with complaints?  First, they speak with the person about whom they are complaining.  To speak with anyone else about the issue is gossip, one of God’s most hated sins.  If the person refuses to even talk about it, then they verify with another person.  There must be 2 people agreeing with the complaint for it to even be taken seriously by the greater body.  This may be the genesis of the tendency to claim that “a group of us believe…” when the truth is that it is simply one person’s opinion.  If both are ignored, then the church leadership is brought in, and finally it goes to the church at large.

The Jews of Paul’s day did not follow this method commanded by Jesus in Matt. 18.  Neither do church people today.  And that is one of the reasons we have such a bad reputation in the community, not known as people of love and grace but as people of criticism and judgement.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” – Ps. 20:7

Charles Blondin was famous for his tightrope walk across Niagara Falls.  He crossed with a camera, backwards, doing somersaults, and drew crowds from all over the world.  One day he came to the rope with a wheelbarrow.  The crowd cheered at this newest of feats.  “Cross with a wheelbarrow?  Nobody could do that, except for Blondin!”  Knowing their minds, Charles called to the crowd.

“How many of you have seen what I can do?”  The crowd roared.  “How many believe I can cross with this wheelbarrow?”  Again roaring and screaming.  “Do you truly believe I can do it?”  The loudest roar yet.  “Ok, then who will sit in the wheelbarrow while I push you across?”

Silence.

If I rang your doorbell and told you your roof was about to collapse, your next action would be determined by whether you trusted me or not.  Would you roll your eyes and go back into your house?  Would you run back in and rouse the family to get them all out quickly?  It would depend on whether you trusted me.

In what do you put your trust these days?  Whom do you believe?  Doctors?  Lawyers?  Politicians?  Pastors?  Do you believe in the power of money, or reputation, or strength?  How you behave reveals what you truly believe, just as surely as it did for Blondin’s crowd.  So look at your actions in the last week and the next one.  Who do you trust, according to your actions?

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

“I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me…”

Paul uses a lot of sporting metaphors, and this one in particular, the image of running a race, is very common to his understanding of ministry.  It takes endurance, training, strength, and experience to run it well.

When you consider your own “race of ministry”, what kind of race do you picture?  Ministry can be very different for different people and in different contexts – what is your particular race?

Marathon – the long haul race, marathon ministry is usually a lifetime of struggle.  There are patches that are dull, and the runner is seldom idolized for her long-term commitment to either the ministry or a church.  There are times when he is tempted to give up his ministry because the work is just too hard.  The pace is slow but constant, there are no breaks, and for most of one’s career, the ending is nowhere in sight.  This is the race of the career pastor who takes long pastorates and intends to retire a servant of the church (the reality is that only 10% of pastors retire as pastors!)

Sprint – sprint ministry is a short burst of powerful ministry which begins and ends quickly.  The work is intense and fast paced, and the minister usually runs out of energy, passion, vision, or drive quickly.  Frustration at an opportunity lost (because in the sprint, every opportunity matters deeply), a partner not keeping pace, or another faster sprinter are par for this course.  This is the race of the church planter who intends to plant a church and then move on and do it again.

There are also Obstacle Course ministries, Relay ministries, and Hurdle ministries.  Whatever your particular race looks like, take Paul’s advice and run it to the end, come what may.  Give up your thoughts of fame or comfort or ease and take the hard, boring, thirsty parts of the race as proof that you are following in the footsteps of the great Racers of history.

And I thought my sermons were boring!  The Apostle Paul preaches a sermon that goes so long and so late that a young man sitting in a third floor window falls asleep and falls to his death.  But Paul won’t allow that, so he goes down and holds the young man in his arms as the young man rises from the dead.  Paul then goes back up, grabs a bite to eat, and resumes preaching until morning.

Death is nothing to God.  It was not a part of His original creation and has no part in His plan.  God’s plan is about life, not death.  And so when death comes along, God reminds us that His son Jesus defeated death, made it inconsequential, and even gave us power over it.  Today, when we face death, we face it with the hope of Jesus and His resurrection, a resurrection that is not just His but ours as well.

“I am the resurrection and the life.  Anyone who believes in me, even if they die yet they will live.  And anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  This is perhaps the boldest claim in all of scripture, and is the foundation for our faith.  Jesus states this truth and then asks Martha if she believes it.  And in John’s style of writing, the question is ours as well.  Do you believe this?  When you hear of a death, do you grieve for the person or those the person leaves behind?  And as you face your own death, do you fear or try to stop it, or do you welcome it as the doorway to an eternal life with Christ?

It is hard to live counter to our culture, but here in our view of death we must if we are to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.