The following is the sermon manuscript I used on September 3, 2017, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.
For more on this series, see our Introduction.
Sermon Text – Acts 14:19-23
“…Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
I doubt that’s anyone’s favorite Bible verse.
Derek and I are cynics at heart – that’s probably why we get along so well. We’d probably be full-blown cynics if not for the gospel. And part of that natural cynicism for us is a running joke about how people – including us, I don’t think Derek and I are exempt – pick their favorite Bible verses. We tend to pick the verses that only have aspects we can easily perceive as positive. We tend to pick the verses that we can easily take out of context and affirm what we already believe (or affirm what we already want to happen). We love Jeremiah 29:11, right? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Even though the “you” in that verse should be read as “y’all” – plural. And the y’all should be read as “the people of Israel.” And the “plans for welfare, future, and hope” should be read as “plans for welfare, future, and hope fulfilled by Christ!” – not “plans for wealth, a good career, and a loving spouse.”)
Of the 31,102 verses in the Bible, Acts 14:22 is definitely in bottom third when it comes to favorite verses. If the verses of the Bible were picked like the NFL draft, this is a seventh round pick right here. Don’t get me wrong in all of this – if you have a verse from God’s true and perfect word that reminds you of the peace you have in Christ and encourages you to live your life in obedience to him, do not let me take that away from you! But we need to be reminded, often, of the full scope of God’s word for us, the full counsel of the Bible. Indeed, we probably need to be reminded more often by the verses and parts of the Bible we don’t like than the ones we do. The verses we love and the verses that make us uncomfortable are both equally God’s true word written for us.
Because regardless of whatever verse you might have picked to be your “life verse” – Acts 14:22 is a pretty good candidate to be Paul’s life verse: “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” But not because he picked it! Remember, Paul was the one causing the tribulation! He approved of the stoning of Stephen; here we see Paul stoned himself. He traveled many miles to kill Christians; here we see others travel many miles to kill him. The victimizer has become the victim. The persecutor has become the refugee. The enemy of Christ has become his disciple and apostle. The reversal is as clear and as shocking as what Jesus said to Ananias at Paul’s conversion: “…he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Or as Paul puts it in his own words in 2 Corinthians:
“I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little….But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that….Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Paul’s life showcased his own weakness to demonstrate the power of Jesus Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit within him. It was not a prosperous life, as the world understands prosperity. It was not his “best life, now” as we normally think of it. It was not a first century version of the American dream. No, his life was a dream and a hope of the eternal Kingdom of God.
Acts 14 is the conclusion of Paul’s first missionary journey – the first intentional attempt by the apostles to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. And, as has been a characteristic of Acts all along, wherever the disciples of Jesus go they are met with two reactions: many come to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, and others violently reject the name of Jesus Christ. These are the two reactions that remain to this day.
Paul and Barnabas have sailed from Antioch in Syria – where the first church outside of Israel was founded and where the disciples were first called “Christians” – westward to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and up into what is now modern-day Turkey. From there they go into another city called Antioch, Antioch in Pisidia, and then they start going further Southeast.
Paul and Barnabas preach at Iconium, but the people are divided and they are forced to flee the city. So they go to a city called Lystra to preach. There, instead of being forced to flee, the people think they’re gods! As Paul is preaching, the Holy Spirit heals a crippled man after Paul sees the man’s faith and tells him to stand up. So, as any good pagan would do if he thought he just met Zeus and Hermes in person, the town priest gets some oxen and moseys them out to the city entrance to make a sacrifice. Now the last person in Acts who was thought to be a god was King Herod, and when Herod failed to correct the people, an angel of the Lord struck him down and he was eaten by worms. So – rather than go through that – Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes and explain to people, “Hey, pay attention to what we’ve been saying. We’re not the living God!”
(That always bring me comfort as a preacher, by the way. Because when I want to get frustrated or wonder why it seems like some people just won’t listen, no matter I hard you try, I know it happened to Paul and Barnabas, too!)
But even with the second explanation, they still have a time trying to convince the folks at Lystra to, you know, not make sacrifices to them. That is until some people come from Antioch in Pisidia and the place they just fled from – Iconium. The folks from Antioch walked about 100 miles to stone Paul. And apparently this convinced the folks at Lystra, because they go from wanting to worship Paul to wanting to kill him in an instant! They stone Paul, think he’s dead, and leave him for it.
But Paul is not alone. Barnabas and other disciples – not the Twelve, but the new ones there in the town gather around him. And just as miraculously as the crippled man Paul healed in that same town, by the power of the Holy Spirit Paul stands up!
He enters the town again – because, you know, after you’ve been stoned almost to death you need a little bit of rest, right? But the very next day, he gets up and starts walking to the town of Derbe that’s about fifty miles away! My physical therapist wife would be proud. He and Barnabas continue to preach the gospel, and many are made disciples.
Now at this point in the story, it would be easy for Paul to keep traveling southeast to Tarsus, his home town. It also would have been easy for them to call it a day, keep going southeast by land and get to Antioch in Syria where this whole trip started. Not a bad first trip.
But the work is not done. The persecution they faced in these cities is the same persecution the new disciples face. When Jesus gave the apostles the command to evangelize, he said, “Make disciples.” He did not say, “Make converts.” Paul and Barnabas knew that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ meant a life-long commitment. It was something that required consistent day-to-day faithfulness – not just a one-time decision!
So, they go back. It was perfectly acceptable for them to flee as refugees from the persecution they were facing in those cities. Indeed, as we’ve seen earlier in Acts, this flight from persecution is how the gospel started to spread to the Gentiles in the first place! But now the Spirit is calling them back, back to the places where they almost died to preach to those who almost killed them. They comfort and encourage the new disciples – not by denying the harsh realities to which their new faith calls them – but by saying that the Kingdom of God is worth it. Christ is worth it for them to endure any kind of tribulation. Paul and Barnabas appoint elders to lead these new churches; they fast and pray over them. Then, they take the long, back-tracking route to where their missionary journey started.
“…Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.”
Those are true words of encouragement and peace. They may not seem like it – oh how we desire our creaturely comforts! We fail to see those words as encouraging because we often fail to see how many tribulations Christ himself endured. And more than that, we fail to see the Christian life as a call to enter into the tribulations of Christ so that we might also enter into the Kingdom of Christ.
“I have been crucified with Christ! It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” Paul would go on to tell us. The old self must be put off for the new to be put on. We must be buried with Christ in order to rise with him to newness of life.
This does not mean seeking out tribulations. Whenever they can, Paul and Barnabas flee when persecution comes so that the work might continue. But what it certainly does not mean is that we abandon our faith, reject our hope, or hide the light of Christ within us. Life is frustrating enough. Ask the people in Houston! Ask one of our brothers and sisters in this congregation who is agonizing over poor health, or estranged family members, or mourning or preparing the loss of a dear friend. Calamity and disaster and disease and death will continue to strike in a world that remains in rebellion against the one true God.
The tribulations we face in the world are not signs that God is not sovereign – that God remains aloof or distant or not in control. Nor are they signs that God is a sadist – that God delights in killing people or sending natural disasters or is constantly trying to tempt us. God does not tempt us, as James tells us, and God does not delight even in the death of the wicked but desires that all should turn and worship him! No, these tribulations are signs that the world – though still under God’s sovereign control – opposes God because of the Fall and because of sin. “The servant is not above the Master,” Jesus tells us. If the world opposes God, and we are for God, then we can expect the world to oppose us. We can expect to face many tribulations. This is the reality for us who follow Christ. But Christ tells us, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Notice how Paul, by the power of the Holy Spirit, handles these tribulations. He is wounded! But he does not hide himself in his wounds. He does not deny they exist – he takes rest when he needs it – and he does not suffer his wounds alone. He turns to the community, and the community surrounds him. He neither wallows in self-pity nor does he just “suck it up” and move on. He lives in recognition of his wounded-ness within the community, and by the power of God’s own Spirit, he continues moving forward in faith obedient to the command of God. He is weakened by his stoning, but his weakness is not something that stops him. Instead, it is the very thing that forces him to rely less and less on himself and more and more on God’s Holy Spirit so that he can proclaim that in his weakness the power of God is demonstrated! In his weakness, in his insufficiency, in his suffering through tribulation, in the scars he bears from the tribulations of his life he walks onward in faith – even back to places of danger.
As Paul would later tell the Philippians, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Everything that he was, everything that he had, everything that he wanted to be was stoned with Paul at Lystra. And so should it be for us. For the Kingdom of Christ is worth it. Thy Kingdom come. Amen.