April 17, 2016        Acts 17:1-9

Today’s sermon was preached by Pastor Tim Wheatley who is Pastor at Cokato Lutheran Church, another ELCA church in our area defined as the Crow River Conference. All the pastors switched pulpits and led worship with sister congregations. Thank you, Pastor Tim!

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,

So today’s text is not one of those uplifting texts where anyone is healed or things are miraculously made better by the intervention of God.  In fact it is a story all about people talking about God, and even disagreeing about God.  After reading it for the first time I said, “Really?  I have to preach on that?”  Because you know what is going on right?  It is a church fight.  Well technically a synagogue fight, but at the point in history when most of the Christians were also Jews, it is pretty much the same thing.  Paul comes into the Synagogue one day and starts telling them that the messiah had to die be raised from the dead.  This position is one that is made in the Old Testament, but it is unclear enough that most people would miss it if they did not know that it was true (because God proved it to be true in the person of Jesus—oh and Jesus explains why it has to be true).  Remember Paul himself disagreed with this view until he met Jesus, then once God explained the scriptures to him…well then he was a new changed man.  However not everyone is going through the Damascus road experience.  So as Paul goes about the Roman world in Acts, again and again he has to introduce the people in the synagogue to a new way of thinking about the Old Testament—and God’s prophecies in it.  And when Paul preaches is not a said and done deal, people don’t just say, “oh your right that makes total sense” and jump on board.  People think on it and the pray on it and then many of them do agree, but definitely not everybody decides Paul is right.  Many of these dissenters get together to kick Paul out of Synagogues wherever he is getting a following!

Now I don’t like church fights at all, and at times they seem to be the Devil’s favorite tool, but what amazed me about this text is I have never had to have an argument in the church about whether or not Jesus had to die and rise again?  Have you?  Have any of you ever been sitting in a church where that was even an issue?  No, quite frankly all of us, (even between all the Christian denominations) agree that the Old Testament clearly told us that Jesus had to die for the salvation of our sins.  This is no longer controversial!  We have moved on to bigger and better fights so to speak.

To be a Christian is to have a very specific view of history: that God, the Eternal Creator of all things, is active within it.  And not just as a constant force that pushes it along a particular direction, but in a way that changes who we are, what we are supposed to do, and how God relates to us.  In a way that changes literally everything about history.

You see, most religions teach that there is an ancient tradition that is lost and corrupted, and the god or the gods act in order to bring it back.  Pan demands a return to the blood sacrifices of ancient Greece.  Mohammed receives a book that he claims is what the Bible was supposed to be.  Krishna gives instruction that he claims to be the original wisdom of humanity.  Joseph Smith rediscovers golden tablets from ancient times.  The Ghost Dance reunites the dead and the living so that the nation can return to the way it once was.

In all of these, the idea is that God is trying to restore something, to bring us back to the way that things should have always been.  God’s action points to God’s original action, in the past.

Now compare this to God as present in Jesus Christ.  “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But now I tell you to resist not evil.  If a man strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him your left as well.”  “You have heard it said never to swear falsely…Now I tell you not to swear at all.”  “You have heard it said that you shall not murder…Now I tell you that if you are even angry with your brother or sister, you will be under the same judgment.”

Please notice that Jesus in every case is quoting the Law of Moses.  And is he saying that Moses got it wrong?  No.  That we got Moses wrong?  No.  The Law of Moses was God’s commands to Israel, holy and sovereign, and now Jesus is changing it.

It happens over and over again throughout the Bible.  Peter receives a vision that says that no food is forbidden, despite centuries of kosher law to the contrary.  Ezekiel tells us that God will no longer hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, a direct change to the Ten Commandments.

If that’s not shocking to you, it’s probably because you’re a Christian.  It’s the heart of our understanding of God and the world.  After all, 1,984 years ago, we were a doomed people struggling under the weight of our sin and deserved judgment.  And then 1,983 years ago, everyone who called on the name of Jesus was saved, declared perfect even in the midst of our sin, and adopted as God’s holy children.

Because when God enters human history, everything changes.  And one of the constant promises we have about the future is that those changes will continue.  “Behold, I am making all things new.”  “No longer will they say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me.”  “I will write my law in their hearts.”  “I will wipe every tear from their eyes…and the former things shall pass away.”

Why?  Because God is still working among us.  Our Lord is still entering our history.  The Living God is still active in and through our lives.  When we look at the newspapers, we should not wonder whether God is watching, but what God is doing.

Yet so often we still like to spend our time looking into the past, a golden age when we can clearly see God’s actions in the world.  It is easy to say, when the pioneers got here, and set up some of these churches, we can see God’s actions.  We know how hard they worked and how difficult it was, but winter after winter they survived and they grew.  Even in tough times they planted seeds and they planted their churches.  They were vocal about their faith and built these towns for the glory of God.

(*) And of course God was acting when this country was formed 240 years ago, patriots and saints came together to make a land where religious freedom would be granted to all and people could choose their faith and disagree without fear of being an outcast.  Even earlier, 500 years ago Martin Luther started the reformation, and we see example after example of how that changed not only the church but all of Western Culture.  You can continue back further into the past and pick so many other times when you see God at work.   You may point out the council of Nicea when we first put forth a creed.  Or you may go earlier to the 200’s when the desert father’s left civilization to know God more fully.  You may go back all the way to the time of the apostles and think that is the true golden age.  It is easy to see from our position, after all of those events have been blessed and we know the outcomes.  If you study any of those great events you hear about the way God shaped the people and places.

I actually think that is one of the reasons we have to read today’s text.  If you were Paul, wouldn’t you have wanted an angelic messenger to just stop down for a bit and tell you that the people who arrested Jason were a bunch of jerks?  Wouldn’t it have been better if God had just let them all know that Paul was right by opening up the clouds and letting a dove loose saying, “This is my messenger—listen to him?”  But none of those happen, instead Paul is chased away and Jason and company end up paying fines for their beliefs.  Yet the Lord is active in their lives and in that poor church in Thessalonica and it thrives.  Those believers even though they go through a scary period that is uncomfortable for them, they move forwards set up a church and preach the Gospel!  Later that church is even the recipient of two letters that now make up part of the New Testament.  Jason and his company may not have known it but their experience enriches the church until this very day.  When you read and learn about God’s will for you in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians it is because of what Jason and company did!

Don’t sit back and let yesterday’s confessions be the end of your faith because that is not the Christian way.  Tomorrow what we do today will be the history of what God has done for his people.  Whatever God has in mind for us, it’s not done yet.  Christ is your cornerstone, you are his priesthood, and the world still needs to hear the mighty acts of the One who calls you out of darkness into light.  Amen.

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