The Focused Church
February 26, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor
This is my dog Zowe – the wonderhound. That’s her publicity headshot! This is Zowe, completing her daily mission. Every morning Zowe has the mission of bringing in the newspaper. When she does it right, it’s a beautiful thing. She’s so proud. We’re so proud. The problem is she doesn’t always do it right! Zowe is easily distracted. If a dog can have ADHD, Zowe has it. Every morning when Zowe goes out to get the paper, there is a veritable army – a swarm – a plethora of things just waiting to distract her from her mission. There are rabbit tracks that need to be smelled. There are joggers that need to be barked at. There are school buses. There are cars parked in unusual places. There are chirping birds – and insects – and fresh air. There’s the ever present possibility that Zowe might need to stop and go to the bathroom on her way to the paper or on her way back. And so it is that we have a ritual every morning. After showing Zowe the paper through the window, I take her head in my hands and I get her to look me in the eye and I say “Zowe, I want you to get the paper. Don’t goof around, don’t get distracted – just go straight out and get it – and come straight back – and if you do – you get two biscuits.” Because after ten years of working on it, we’ve learned to give her two biscuits if she stays on mission – and only one if she dawdles on the way back – and none if she doesn’t get the paper at all. I have to say, it’s working. This week she got two biscuits every day! So Kelley and I think: “Wow! It’s taken ten years and a lot of extra biscuits to get Zowe trained to where she’ll go straight out and get the paper and come straight back. It was tough, but it was worth it.” Zowe is probably thinking “Wow! It’s taken ten years to teach them to give me two biscuits instead of one for the paper. It was tough, but it’s worth it!”
So Zowe is easily distracted.
I was thinking about it this week – sometimes – I feel kind of like Zowe. Sometimes it just feels like there’s an army of things out there waiting to distract me from my mission – from God’s purpose for my life – and for our church – which is really to make disciples. We are here to invite people to the gospel – to invite them to drink deeply – and grow richly – and share freely because of the good news of Jesus. That’s what we’re all about. But sometimes it’s easy to get distracted with side agendas and things that clamor for our attention.
So what is it, that’s going to free us up from distraction? What is it that’s going to free us up to focus on God’s mission in our lives and as a church? I don’t know if I have the total answer to that question, but today I want us to look at a passage that shows us one factor – one concept – really one belief or doctrine – that can really free us up to focus on God’s mission. Let me ask you to turn in your Bibles to Acts 4:23-31.
We are continuing today in our sermon series called “Launch” where we look at the first seven chapters of the book of Acts and the Launch of the Church. Today we come to a piece of the story where like Zowe (and like me) the disciples have an opportunity to get distracted from the mission Jesus gave them of making disciples. Actually, this is the conclusion of the story that we have been looking at for the last two weeks where Peter and John heal a lame man at the temple. Today we are going to see how that story ends, when Peter and John tell the other disciples what happened at the Temple, and then the Bible is going to give us a kind of summary statement about the kind of community that the early church was experiencing as more and more people became followers of Jesus. As we look at this story, we’re going to see not only what this freeing belief or doctrine is, but we’re also going to see two results of the doctrine – how it freed the early church up with regards to:
* Focusing on their mission
* Radical generosity
Let’s read Acts 4:23-31. To set the table for you here, in the preceding chapters Peter and John healed a lame man by the temples gates. The Holy Spirit directed their attention to him and they healed him in Jesus’ name. The man leaped around through the temple courts, praising God. The temple worshippers were delighted! As Peter preached there, 5,000 believed in Jesus. They were ecstatic! But the temple authorities – the Chief Priests and Saducees – were not. Peter had healed this man in the name of Jesus. These were the men who rejected and crucified Jesus, so they were not happy. They arrested Peter and John and put them in jail. The next day they held a trial. In the end, they couldn’t punish Peter and John because of all the people who had seen the man healed. But they warned them sternly that there would be severe consequences if they taught or acted any more in Jesus’ name. That’s where we’re at when we start our story today.
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “ ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ – for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
– Acts 4:23-37 (English Standard Version)
The doctrine I am talking about this morning – that the early church believed – the doctrine that kept the early church from distraction – is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. This belief that God is the Creator – the Owner – the Ruler of all things. So that all things not only belong to him, but they are at his disposal. That he has control over everything that happens, so that he works in the details of our lives to accomplish his purposes. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty.
Now, that doctrine is taught all over Scripture. It’s in just about every book of the Bible. You may have heard Providence, or Sovereignty, or Predestination – whatever you want to call it – discussed as sort of an abstract concept. Here in this passage we see how it plays out in real life. We see two applications – two areas where this affects the disciples thinking – and really frees them up. So let’s look at these one at a time. The first is found in 4:23-31 – the story of the disciples prayer – and it’s this:
Believing in God’s Sovereignty frees us up to focus on God’s mission
Now when we first read this passage, it might not be obvious to us that this is about sovereignty and focusing on our mission. There’s a lot of stuff in this passage. There’s talk about God creating, then there’s this lengthy quote from David, and a reference to Pilate, and then the place starts shaking. I don’t know about you but when I first read it, I’m like “OK – what is this all about?” I think it’s about God’s sovereignty freeing them up to focus on their mission. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s look at this verse by verse. Look at verse 23, Luke tells us:
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. – Acts 4:23
Peter and John have just been arrested – imprisoned – and tried by the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of Israel. They were released with the threat that if they taught or did anything else in the name of Jesus there would be consequences. We pointed out last week that there was real danger here. These were the same guys that got Jesus crucified. This is serious business. Then Peter and John go back and tell the other disciples.
Now think with me: At this point, they could have responded many different ways to these circumstances:
- They could have responded with fear and run away.
- They could have responded with aggression. There are about 8,000 Christians in Jerusalem at this point. That’s a pretty big riot!
- They could have responded by stirring up discontent. Start a twitter campaign with the #chiefpriestsarejerks or #baducees.
- They could have lawyered up: Gone through the Roman legal system.
- They could have turned on each other in the heat of the moment.
There’s any number of responses. But what do they do? They pray. Look at verse 24. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord.”
They exhibit the most powerful response they can to this threat – not fighting – not blame – but prayer. Notice that the very first place their prayer focuses is on the sovereignty of God. Look at the second half of verse 24: They lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” They remind themselves that at that moment they are speaking with the single most powerful being in the universe. The one who made everything – from the earth – to the heavens – to the ocean. He has limitless resources. He can provide everything they need. He alone is Ruler. He has the right to command the inhabitants of this earth. He is Sovereign. In fact, they go on to show us just how far God’s sovereignty goes. Look at verses 25-26:
Who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “ ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ – Acts 4:25-26
Now that is a quote from Psalm 2 – a Psalm where David talks about a time when ungodly pagan rulers would conspire together to work against God – and against his anointed, or literally – against his Messiah. That’s a beautiful, theologically rich Psalm, but the main idea is that through David, God is predicting that authorities will come together, they will conspire together against God and his Messiah, and it won’t work. It will be in vain.
As they pray, they remind themselves that that is exactly what happened:
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel – Acts 4:27
Sure enough – just like David said – just like God predicted – God had a plan. His Messiah was there, and ungodly rulers from Rome – from Idumea – even from Israel – conspired together to in their minds – thwart what God was doing. They thought they could resist God’s sovereignty. They thought they could rebel. They say: “How’s that working out for you?” In verse 28 Luke tells us: They had a plan to rebel, but, in reality, here is why they gathered together:
to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. – Acts 4:27
Luke tells us the net effect of all their scheming. The best and the brightest – the biggest authorities in the region gather together – they plot and scheme. They make a plan to destroy God’s work and his ruler, and they end up doing exactly what God needed them to do. What does God need someone to do to advance his plan of redemption and fulfill all the prophecies from the Old Testament? He needs someone to Crucify his Son on a Roman cross during Passover, pierce his hands and feet, cast lots for his clothes and not break a bone, because that’s what the Old Testament predicts. These guys get together, and they are like: “I know – let’s crucify him – nail his hands and feet to a cross, let the soldiers cast lots for his clothes – and flog him so he dies without having his legs broken!”
Despite their power – despite their scheming – despite their apparent success – all they accomplished was what God wanted them to accomplish in the first place. That’s how far God’s sovereignty goes. He’s amazing!
It’s like – I used to have one of those computer chess games and I kind of hated the thing! Because as soon as I moved out of the beginner level, no matter what move I made it always played directly into the hands of the computer! It’s like I was executing the computer’s plan! There was always that moment when I moved a piece to mount what I thought would be a ferocious attack, and the computer would say “checkmate!” I’d be like “Wait – what? Oh – Checkmate.”
That’s what the cross was for God. They conspired together. They had a trial. They murdered his Son. They celebrated their religious holiday. And three days later, God quietly said “Thanks for that. Checkmate.” That’s how far God’s sovereignty goes. His plan covers even the rebellion of those who work against him.
Now knowing that, meditating on God’s sovereignty – knowing that they serve a God that is that big, and that clever and that in control – take a close look at the disciple’s prayer in verses 29-30. Here’s the only thing they ask:
And now, Lord, look upon their threats – and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” – Acts 4:29-30
That’s their request. Boldness. They are 100% focused on their mission. Of all the things they might have chosen to ask for in that moment, Protection from the danger – or for God to remove them from the situation – or for God to deal out a little vengeance – they choose instead to ask that they be able to speak the word with boldness, so that the church’s mission of making disciples can continue.
Because they meditated on God’s sovereignty, they know he’s big enough to have their back – that he has all the resources they need – and that he can use even these threats to advance his purposes and benefit his people. So they are free to focus on God’s mission of making disciples. Their belief in God’s sovereignty frees them up to focus on their mission. So that’s how God’s sovereignty and his mission connect in this story.
Now how does that relate to us and to our day-to-day lives? I’m going to express it this way and I hope I’m clear here. But I think this passage is all about what we would call Spiritual Warfare and the mission focus of the Church.
Think about it with me. We have a real enemy. In this passage, the enemy has attacked not just Peter and John, but really the whole movement of Christianity – the mission of the church. He has unjustly imprisoned Peter and John. He’s threatened them through the religious authorities. The church is under attack.
Now here’s what I really, really want you to understand about Satan and his attacks – whether it’s an attack on you personally – or your family – or our church: Our enemy has one goal, and it’s this: To take you out of the game. That’s it. That’s what he really, really wants.
I first discovered that a few years ago when I was doing a series on the Armor of God from Ephesians 6 – this armor God gives us to protect us. When I studied that, it changed my perspective on things completely because I really realized for the first time that we really are in a war. In this war, God has given each of us a mission to take and hold ground for his kingdom. Anything that the enemy can do – anything to neutralize you – anything to shut your mouth – anything to remove your godly influence from your family – anything to keep you quiet in your neighborhood – anything to sideline you – to make you sit on the bench. That’s his goal! He wants to take you out of the game. If he can destroy you in the process, so much the better. But what he really wants is for you to be out of the fight. Not to influence people for Jesus.
He has a million ways of getting that done:
- If he can distract you – if he can get you to pay more attention to your hobbies and your bank account – than you do to God’s purpose for your life, he’s won! He’s taken you out of the game.
- If he can deceive you and get you to fall into false teaching, he’s won!
- If he can disqualify you and make you fall into sin, he’s won!
- If he can entangle you in conflict – if he can get the church to where we spend all our time criticizing each other and tearing each other down, he’s won! We’re out of the game.
Our enemy has a giant arsenal. In this story, he has launched against the church two of his greatest weapons:
- Fear that can suppress us and silence us from talking about Jesus. Fear that tells us the consequences of obeying God are more painful than the consequences of disobeying him.
- Injustice that can sidetrack us and dominate our attention and send us on a great quest for vengeance and justice instead of sharing Jesus and focusing on God’s priorities.
The enemy launches fear and injustice here. The enemy often aims fear and injustice at God’s people. I’ve seen it again and again in my ministry – both in Africa – and here in America.
God’s sovereignty sets us free from that – free from the distractions of fear and injustice.
- Acknowledging in prayer that though we can’t control the circumstances in our lives, we serve a God who can.
- Meditating in prayer – like the church does here on the fact that God works in our circumstances – no matter how difficult – no matter how unjust – to bring about a greater good. That he fulfill his purposes and brings about good in our lives.
- Meditating on that can set us free from the bondage of fear and injustice and it can help us joyfully pursue God’s mission in our lives.
Can I just speak a word to some of you? Some of you here today have suffered hurt or threat – maybe a circumstance came out of the blue, and you have suffered something really hard – an illness, or a diagnosis (I know that’s the case for some of you) – or maybe you were hurt when you lost a job – or a loved one. You’ve suffered great pain.
That pain has caused you to live in fear. Instead of reaching out – and living on mission – and boldly pursuing God’s purpose for you – maybe your focus has become “How can I keep that from happening again? How can I protect myself? How can I not get hurt?” I don’t blame you. If I had suffered the losses some of you have suffered, I’d be all about self-protection too!
Can I just ask you: “What would it be like to believe that God is truly sovereign?” – to believe that your life – and the details of it were truly in the hands of a loving Creator – who could bring good out of anything – and was working in your life toward that end. How would that change your life?
Some of you here today have received a great injustice in your life. Maybe you had a parent or spouse that wasn’t there for you like they should have been. Maybe they taught you that you were unlovable. Or maybe you were the victim of an evil, terrible deed.
On the outside, it looks like everything is OK. your life looks great. But truth be told, on the inside – that event owns you. You’re still angry, and you can’t let it go. That resentment is a default setting in your mind. On a human level, it’s completely understandable. It was injustice! But it has sidelined you. It takes so much of your energy. It keeps you from fully living out your mission and being all that God made you to be.
Can I ask you a question? What would it be like to believe that God was really sovereign? What would it be like to believe that you could truly leave justice to him – to believe that he was big enough and wise enough to mete out justice in his own time? What would it be like to believe that he can use that injustice to accomplish his purposes and for your good, so that you could focus on God’s mission?
I think for many here today it would change your life. It would free you from the snares of the enemy and focus you in a new way. Because the first truth we see in this passage is that belief in the sovereignty of God frees us up to focus on God’s mission.
The second truth – we’re not going to spend nearly as long on and that’s by design – because the second part of this passages isn’t a story. It’s really just an update. It’s a summary that Luke, the writer, gives us of the progress of the church. But I think it relates to what we’re talking about today, because I think it shows us that:
Belief in God’s Sovereignty Frees Us Up To Be Generous With God’s Resources
When we read the passage at the beginning of the sermon, did you notice the radical generosity that was occurring in the church in Acts? It was incredible! Look at what the writer says in verse 32
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
– Acts 4:32
Wow! And by the way, that’s not communism. It wasn’t forced community property. If you keep reading, some people actually still owned their homes. But any time they saw a need in the body, they responded with radical generosity.
In fact, look down at verses 34-35:
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. – Acts 4:34-35
That’s incredible! But here’s what you need to know: That little phrase – “There was not a needy person among them” – is actually a reference to Deuteronomy 15 in the Old Testament. That’s a passage where God called Israel to radical generosity. Not only was every Israelite supposed to give 1/10th of everything to God, but every seventh year they were to forgive all debts. They were to release all Hebrew servants, and they were not to send them away empty handed. They were to give those servants sheep, and cattle, and produce as they left their employ. God says there in Deuteronomy: “If you will just do this – and be generous like I am telling you to be generous – there’s won’t be a needy person among you.”
Sadly, Israel never did practice that. They never observed a seventh year. But by quoting that little phrase – “There wasn’t a needy person among them” – Luke is telling us that that piece of God’s heart that wanted Israel to be radically generous was actually fulfilled as the early church lived out its mission.
That’s our heart for the Church at Perry Creek:
- We want to be radically generous with what God has given us.
- We want to be that way with our money – that’s why we set aside 25% of everything we take in and give it to missions.
- We want to be that way with our time.
- We want to serve generously and make a difference here at River Bend Elementary.
- We want to be that way with our people.
- We want to send our best and brightest out with the gospel.
- We want to be radically generous with God’s resources.
So how are we going to get there? What will free us up to be that generous? More than anything else – a belief in God’s sovereignty:
- If we truly believe that all of Creation belongs to God that he owns it all –
- If we truly believe that he can share his resources however he wants –
- If we truly believe that he is active in our lives –
then we will believe that we can trust God enough to be radically generous with his resources. After all, he’s been radically generous to us in the gospel.
Like I said, that’s really just another example of what we gain by believing in God’s sovereignty, because there’s so much. If we really believe in God’s sovereignty:
- It will free us up to be generous with his resources.
- It will free us up to obey him in our day to day lives.
- It will free us up to persevere in difficult circumstances.
- It will free us up to have joy when circumstances aren’t joyful because we know good will come out of it.
- It will free us up to say no to distractions and focus on our mission.
That’s what we need to be about. We need to focus on our mission. After all, if we do – we get two biscuits.