The preacher’s headache in the book of Acts is not that of finding something to say but of deciding what to leave unsaid. Once a preacher has familiarized himself with the contents and continuity of the book by reading it straight through several times, preferably in a variety of translations, and after he has given adequate attention to such background materials as authorship, theme, organization, scope, purpose, structure, time frame, etc., he will discover that his problem is plenty, not paucity. While abundance may produce some frustration, it is preferable to scarcity. Sorting is better than searching.
Problem and Promise
Preachers have been advised of ten to pick up every biblical text by its preaching end. That is good advice. A critically important feature of any preacher’s task is that of finding the preaching angle or handle on whatever passage he proposes to use as a text. Simple as that may sound, it can be tormenting. But it is vital.
In order to “pick up a text by its preaching end,” one must take into account a number of things with respect to the nature of the passage in question, not the least of which is its literary character. Literature should be interpreted in the light of its own nature. This is especially true of the Bible with its variety of literary types. To do otherwise is to handle the Bible carelessly and runs the risk of making the Bible say what it doesn’t mean or mean what it doesn’t say or, worse, mean what it doesn’t mean!
Acts is history. It is history of a particular kind, to be sure, but it is history, nevertheless. It is a chronicle of the actions of specific people at certain places within a given time.
Biblical material which is historical in nature presents a special challenge to a preacher. For one thing, he must get the story straight. This means that he should give painstaking attention to the facts of the record. He must also adhere to sound hermeneutical and exegetical principles. For, after all, a preacher is not called upon to create a message but to deliver one that he has been given. He should be more of a transmitter than a generator. He declares this message in the confidence that the telling of the story is his chief, if not his only, function. He believes, too, that the story, properly told, will have its effect.
When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into ‘the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And . . . the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.Gershom G. Scholem, quoted in Martin E. Marty, The Fire We Can Light, (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1973), p. 15.
But telling the story means infinitely more than merely reciting the details of bygone events or touting the exploits of ancient heroes of the faith. The minister must not assume that modem men are eager to shape their lives by models that belong to antiquity. Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke with a high degree of insight when he observed that not many people come to church breathlessly awaiting news of the ancient Jebusites.H. E. Fosdick, “What Is the Matter with Preaching?,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1928, p. 157. Telling the story involves and requires a search for and declaration of truth and meaning. It deals in facts, assuredly, but the facts in which it deals point to truths larger than themselves. Truth and meaning, not prosaic and pedestrian facticity, constitute the controlling concern for the minister.
This is not to say that facts stand in opposition to truth and meaning or that they are mutually exclusive, but that facts are but the visible evidences, the observable outcroppings of truth and meaning. Facts stand in relationship to truth and meaning somewhat as a shadow stands in relationship to substance. The shadow is real in the sense that it reflects a more real substance and says in effect that there is more beyond. It is the “more beyond” with which preaching deals.
Nor is this to imply that the historical past is discontinuous with the existential present. It is to suggest, in fact, the exact opposite: that the past embraces truth and meaning which must be extrapolated into and made a part of the contemporary situation. Preaching is not so much concerned with bringing the past into the present as it is with bringing timeless truths to bear upon current problems and living people.
Preaching which contents itself with recalling and reciting minute details of history, even if it is sacred history, will not likely cause the morning stars to sing together or the sons of God to shout for joy, but will instead elicit a drowsy yawn from most audiences. Past tense preaching is notorious for being remote and therefore dull.
One clear advantage to preaching from Acts is that the book deals with almost disarming directness with a number of issues which are currently of urgent concern to a great many people in our churches. As every experienced minister knows, people’s attention is almost directly proportionate to their interest in the subject being discussed, although there are other important elements which determine attention level. Nothing is quite so disconcerting as talking to those who are not listening, and nothing guarantees that people will not listen quite so much as talking about something in which they have minimal interest.
Across the past several years there has been a growing, albeit at times unexpressed, feeling on the part of many that God is strangely absent from earth’s scenes, where men struggle to make sense out of their personal existence. The so-called radical theologians who spoke of the death of God touched upon a sensitive nerve because, although they meant one thing and the average person understood another, many sincere people have had the nagging feeling that God has deserted the earth, leaving the world as a kind of cosmic orphanage filled with children bereft of their father.
The rise of technology, rendering God unnecessary in the minds of many, the ageless riddle of suffering, inclining many to think that God is either uncaring or impotent, the unbroken rush toward global catastrophe, and the like, have combined to create the need for a certain, sure word from beyond. Acts is that word; it is a ringing affirmation that God is not absent, but that he is present and active in his world, especially in the life of his family—the church.
Acts of God Through the Apostles
As a starting point for preaching from Acts, a minister might be well advised to preach a book sermon, giving in broad outline the general theme and scope of the book. Admittedly, book sermons are not easy to preach, but they are generally profitable to both the man in the pulpit and to those in the pews. By so doing, a preacher will not only give a clue to the contents of the book but he will also increase the interest of his hearers in what the book has to say to them in their own pilgrimage.
Obviously, in preaching a book sermon, a preacher must be more selective than exhaustive. In his excellent book, Preaching on the Books of the New Testament, Dwight E. Stevenson observes:
In the presentation of the actual contents of a biblical book the preacher must be selective. He needs to remind himself that his sermon is no substitute for the reading of the book by his hearers. Rather, it should sharpen appetites for it. He can do this by reporting what is on the menu and by allowing his congregation to taste every dish, but he must not take time to count all the beans and every slice of bread.Dwight E. Stevenson, Preaching on the Books of the New Testament (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), p. 13.
By far the most common approach to preaching a book sermon from Acts is to track the geographical expansion of the church. For those interested in developing such a sermon, the outline is suggested in chapter 1, verse 8. And, interestingly, the book itself is more or less an elaboration of that outline: Jerusalem, 1:1 to 6:7; Judea and Samaria, 6:8 to 9:31; the uttermost part of the earth, 9:31to 28:31. Care in a sermon of this nature should be exercised to guard against abstractness and the lack of relevance to people’s actual experience. “Like a Mighty Army” could serve as a title for such a sermon, or, in a more contemporary vein, “No Parking” could be used to set forth the truth that the church was intended to be a dynamic movement, not a static institution.
Perhaps “What in the World Is God Doing?” would be a fairly descriptive, if unoriginal, title for a book sermon based on Acts. By locating the central ideas and major events, one could speak of the things God has done in and through his people in times past and of what can be expected of him among his people now.
Luke’s account of the beginning of the church and its miraculous march from Jerusalem to Rome is traditionally called the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps a more accurate title would be the Acts of God in and Through the Apostles, for in reality the book traces the actions of God in his dealings, direct and powerful, with his people. Clearly, the point of the entire document is to assert that God is not passive and remote but is active in his world and particularly in his church. God is shown in Acts to be both transcendent—above and beyond us, and eminent—with and within us.
And what is God doing?
For one thing, he is at work in the Holy Spirit enlisting people to make up his chosen family, the church (2:41; 4:1; 8:26-38; 9:1-19; 16:25-34). The gospel is the story of God s downward reach to man, not man’s upward reach to God. While religion in general claims that man is in search of God, Christianity in particular affirms that God is in search of man. The church is constituted not so much by those who have found God as by those who have been found by God. God is not discovered by man; he reveals himself to man.
To illustrate how God takes the initiative to redeem and rescue lost mankind, Ralph Sockman has told of the time when, as a rather small boy, he was stunned by a fall from a horse on his way home from school during a storm as night began to close on him. Discovering that he had in the fall lost his sense of direction and therefore did not know which way to go to reach home, he was in a dilemma as to what he should do. After giving it some thought, he decided to wait in the darkness until his father found him; He reasoned that when the riderless horse reached home his father would go out into the night and search until daybreak if need be to find him. True to his nature as a father, that is what he did, and Ralph Sockman was taken safely home.
Salvation is an act of God.
Furthermore, Acts insists that God is not passive but is active in empowering his people through the Holy Spirit for ministry.
Faced with the opportunity of preaching the gospel to men out of every nation on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were given the ability to speak languages other than their own and as a consequence three thousand people were added to the community of faith (2:1-41). Confronted by a lame man at the beautiful gate of the temple, Peter and John were enabled of the Spirit of God to give not what the poor man wanted, alms, but what he needed, life and health. They gave him something to live for, not merely something to live on. They became the conduits through which God’s healing help was channeled to a person in need (3:1-8). Threatened by both religious and civil authorities for their so-called radical religious activities, Peter and John were given boldness to speak in their own defense and were, miraculously, exonerated of any wrongdoing (4:1-22). Stephen, faced with the ultimate threat—death- gave a clear witness to the grace of God and died a hero’s death, and in the process influenced a bystander whose life would later turn the world upside down (Chapter 7). At Samaria Philip wrought miracles which arrested the attention of the people, causing them to “take heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did” (8:5-8).
Through the work of the Spirit, God enables his people to do things they could never dream of doing on their own. It is not a matter of their doing better the same things they’ve been doing all along, but of performing feats altogether beyond their natural gifts and native abilities.
Additionally, Acts affirms that God is present in his church in a truly unique sense, enabling his people to overcome every conceivable barrier in mission outreach. In his commentary on Acts Frank Stagg declares that the author’s major purpose is to “show a victory in Christianity—to show the expansion of a concept, the liberation of the gospel as it breaks through barriers that are religious, racial, and national.”Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts: The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1955), p. 8. The gospel will not, cannot be bound. God will see to that!
Geographical limitations cannot be imposed upon the work of grace. Christ’s final word to his disciples was that they were to start where they were, Jerusalem, and carry the good news of redemption to the “uttermost part of the earth.” The gospel was meant for the world.
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” in Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1956), stanza 1, lines 1-4.
Nor can the gospel be caught and kept in a religious container. Hard as it was for them to believe it, the Jerusalem Christians were forced to concede that God’s work could not be held captive forever in a particular brand of religious tradition, even their own. They were brought to see that God is larger than any and all religious systems and practices. They learned that no dogma could adequately formulate a statement to explain God and his work (Chapter 15).
Painful as the ordeal may prove to be, we too need to learn that God does not necessarily go by our name or accommodate himself to our special brand of religion.
Neither will God allow himself to be identified exclusively with any race. This Peter learned in his rooftop vision at Joppa and in his subsequent meeting with Cornelius. The gospel makes it clear that in God’s eyes there is but one race—the human race, and that men of every country and clan, land and language, color and class are within the purview of his caring love.
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” in Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1956), stanza 1, lines 1-4.
Acts of God Through the Church
Inasmuch as Acts is primarily the record of the performance of the early church, no homiletical treatment of the book would be complete without some reference to the several churches whose faults and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and tragedies are reported by Luke.
A study of the churches in Acts will disclose a number of interesting and significant things. To begin with, those first churches represent a new and different kind of incarnational act on the part of God. Luke’s first book, his gospel, informs us that God clothed himself uniquely and in flesh and blood form in the person of Jesus. His second book, Acts, infers and all but states that upon the ascension of Christ God chose to disclose and express himself in and through his churches in a way that isn’t true of either .individuals in isolation or of other institutions. This is an idea from which we have traditionally recoiled but it is one at which we need to take another long and careful look. The herculean accomplishments of the small and unpromising bands of believers whose exploits are recorded in Acts are witness to the way God indwells his churches and reveals himself decisively through them.
Moreover, the churches do not offer finished institutional, organizational or structural models to be slavishly copied by their contemporary counterparts. Instead, the records show them to have been essentially embryonic and somewhat formless fellowships composed of persons bound together by a common, dynamic experience. The form of those fledgling churches is unclear.
But there can be no doubt about their force: They changed the world. How the churches were structured is a question of minimal interest in Acts. Why they were brought into being constitutes a major concern of the book. In other words, purpose and function stand above method and form.
In developing sermons, then, about the church one would do well to focus major attention upon the large purposes for which the church was born and not upon organizational minutia. It is doubtful, for instance, that a case can be made for limiting the number of deacons in the church to seven simply because the church at Jerusalem chose seven men of “honest report, and full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” That is a fact, but it isn’t a truth-bearing one.
Furthermore, all the churches reported upon in Acts were beset with and plagued by painful problems, none of them of easy solution. How they dealt with those problems could very well give us a clue as to how churches might cope with their problems today. A sermon series, therefore, under the general title, “How the Church Deals with Its Problems,” might have possibilities. Such a series could be approached in one of two ways. The church at Jerusalem, the original church, could be used as a depth study in church problem solving. That church had many and varied problems but managed somehow not only to find solutions to those problems but actually to use them to an advantage.
Or, each of the several churches of Acts might be considered as a case study in the resolving of specific problems. The procedure in such a study would be to isolate and identify the primary problem of a given church and then to proceed to discover the means by which a solution was found. Accordingly, sermons in such a series could be developed along the following lines:
Dealing with Self-centeredness: Jerusalem
Dealing with Prejudice: Samaria
Dealing with Close-Mindedness: Damascus
Dealing with Legalism: Caesarea
Dealing with Identity: Antioch
Dealing with Disbelief: Judea
Dealing with Unsound Doctrine: Syria and Cilicia
Dealing with Estrangement: Ephesus
Dealing with Loss of Leadership: Miletus
The unannounced, unexpected appearances of God could also form the basis for a series of sermons. Since we have grown accustomed to looking for God in such predictable places as church or in institutions which center in humanitarian concerns, perhaps there would be value in pointing up the fact that God does not restrict himself to appearing in such favorable settings altogether, but that he chooses often to intrude upon human events at very unlikely places and in unusual ways. “Meeting God in Unexpected Places” could serve as a cover title for a series. Jails, storms, ships, court trials, floggings, and the like, are shown in Acts to be places where God can and does choose to do his most telling work. Naturally, sermons in a series of this kind would be primarily supportive in nature and aimed at those people whose experience has been somewhat unlike that of the majority. Or would they not in reality be aimed at the majority? For most people’s experience of God is not as orthodox and stereotyped as we sometimes think.
These sudden, surprising appearances of God illustrate how God frequently “carves the rotten wood and rides the lame horse,” to borrow an expression from Martin Marty.Martin E. Marty, The Search for a Usable Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 146. We all need the reminder—and so do our people—that God is most often where the wound is; that he is with the unattractive little girl who could not begin to dream of even being nominated for the contest as well as with Miss Everything, and that his presence with a businessman forced into bankruptcy is no less real than it is with the most successful corporation president.
Acts of God in Many Settings
Miscellaneous Sermons and Starting Lines
Although they are voluminously produced and are probably widely used, printed sermons are of questionable value for a minister. It is a certainty that they are not true to their original and essential nature and purpose. Sermons, unlike small children, were meant to be heard, not seen. It is likely that a large number of bad pulpit offerings, to say nothing of multitudes of preachers whose wellsprings of sermonic imagination have run dry through disuse, are directly traceable to published sermons.
Still, it is true, very true, that most preachers experience no small difficulty in lighting their own fire, to recall the confession of Fredrick W. Robertson. Since there is no new homiletical thing under the sun, sermon starters or ideas, as opposed to sermons themselves, may be legitimately borrowed from all sorts of sources, including other men who also struggle to find some worthy word from the Lord for his people Sunday after Sunday. What is offered here, then, are not sermons in any definitive sense, but germinal ideas, sermonic threads, starting lines, or whatever they may be called. They are included merely to suggest ways of finding the preaching angle or handle referred to earlier. Following these examples is a list of possible titles drawn from a variety of texts.
Creative Waiting (Acts 1:4)
Nothing seems more wasteful to most of us than waiting. With our “don’t just stand there, do something” mindset, and worshiping as we do at the shrine of St. Vitus, as Halford Luccock put it, it is terribly hard for us to imagine that waiting can be productive of any real good. Waiting is viewed by modern man as nothing more than an intrusive, irritating interlude between events. “Getting with it” is a phrase which fairly summarizes our current disdain of waiting. To most, the celebrated pause that refreshes is an illusion despite the claims of certain advertisers to the contrary.
But, interestingly and for some good reason, Jesus told his disciples in his final words to wait before doing anything else. To him waiting came before working, before acting, before witnessing, before everything. Clearly, he believed waiting could be creative and useful. Inverting the usual order of things, he said, in effect, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Waiting is creative when it helps us sort out and make some kind of sense out of our past experiences. The disciples had passed through and endured many things which they frankly did not understand. A time of standing still to let the past catch up to the present, to let past events inform present experience, seemed a good and even necessary thing for somewhat confused pilgrims. They were hardly in a position to move on to things which lay before them until they had made peace with events which lay behind them. Such is ever the case. A person ignorant of the meanings of his past is impotent to take full advantage of .the present with its challenges and opportunities. To ignore the past is to be bound by it. To learn from the past is to be set free by its lessons. That learning process mandates waiting.
Waiting is creative when it prepares us for future ministry. Preparation is commonly given credit for being half the battle. It deserves more than that. Successful athletic teams win victory prior to the on test. Scholars make high marks before examination time. Performing artists achieve competence in the practice room, not on the stage. And worthwhile ministries are shaped in “tarrying times.” Jesus is our example.
Waiting is creative when it allows us to see God as he is and ourselves as we are. Even a cursory reading of Acts will reveal that Christ meant his disciples to wait until God gave them something, Someone -himself!
Technological man has increasingly become an aggressive achiever driven by a desire to make things happen. And he has made things happen, all right: He has made the sky black with the soot of his belching factories; he has made earth’s rivers running cesspools filled from bank to bank with garbage; he has mad highways lanes of human carnage; he has turned plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears making Isaiah’s dream a nightmare.
The drive for accomplishment has even spilled over into the church, where, unfortunately, well-intentioned people have become manipulators and programmers of other people’s lives and in the process have not only intruded upon the rights and feelings of others but have, in fact, violated the very command of Christ and contradicted the nature of the gospel.
How much better to strike a stance of the quiet receiver and let things happen through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Speaking Their Language (Acts 2:1-8)
Recently a veteran southern statesman lost his place in the Congress to a political novice. He was defeated not because of some character flaw—a malady current and rife among politicians—or because he had become an intellectual back number, but because, as one observer put it, he did not speak the people’s language. An analysis _ of his language will show that his actual words were not radically unlike those of his constituents or his opponent. Yet the people were quite right in feeling that he no longer spoke their language in any meaningful sense. The upshot was that communication was broken and the race lost. But the problem was not one of verbiage at all, but one of garbled communication due to the loss of identification. The people somehow sensed that the senator was no longer one of them, that he did not in fact identify with them.
On the day of Pentecost God performed a miracle of communication. Much time and energy have been wasted in a kind of feverish but vain attempt to discover and understand the nature of the “other tongues” the disciples used in their witness to men “out of every nation.” At issue is not language at all but communication, a large part of which involves identification between speaker and hearer. The disciples spoke “their” language and as a. consequence “every man heard in his own tongue.”
To be heard, a witness must have something in common with his hearer and it must be something transcendently important to both.
Keith Miller retells a story first told by Paul Reese about a priest who went to minister in a leper colony on an island in the Pacific. For months the man could not get to first base in communicating the gospel. Then one day it was discovered that he had contracted leprosy. The word spread through the colony. The following morning the chapel was filled with lepers, and a wave of conversions took place. When they knew he understood their dominant problem personally, they could hear the message of hope. Communication rested upon a shared concern.Keith Miller, The Becomers (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1973), p. 52.
To be heard, a witness must listen. I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a novel about Mark Brian, a young, terminally diseased Anglican vicar who was sent to the village of Kingcome in British Columbia. He was sent there because, the bishop reasoned, the hardest spots are the best places to learn about life, and those who are destined to die soon must learn fast. Kingcome was a hard spot.
In the church was an old lady named Marta Stephens. She had been there longer than anyone else and had seen a succession of ministers come and go. One day after worship, Mark said to the graying grandmother, “Mrs. Stephens, tell me something. Do you remember the first man who came here for the church?”
“Yes. He had a long white beard. · He had to learn our language so he could teach us his.”Mildred Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1973), p. 45.
To be heard, a Christian witness must depend upon the Holy Spirit, who alone can make clear a message which is always beyond mere words to express.
The gospel is surely not irrational but is more certainly supra-rational. That is, it stands above reason and informs reason. Therefore, to be heard, the message must be translated into the “other tongues” of the hearer, even if his language is the same as that of the witness. The gospel is the divine word which can never be captured in human words and for that reason it must be communicated by the Spirit who gives “utterance” to God’s messengers.
Better Than Silver, Finer Than Gold
Jess Lair of the University of Montana has written a book by the unlikely title I Ain’t Much, Baby, But I’m All That I’ve Got; His point is profoundly simple: You can’t give what you don t have, but what you have, given unconditionally, is somehow enough.
Peter and John had hardly begun their ministry when they encountered a man who had been lame all his life. Having no means of support, the cripple lay daily at the beautiful gate of the temple to beg alms of those who came to worship. The disciples had no money to give. Had they had it, they would have gladly given it. But what they had was of more value than alms. And, best of all, they were willing to share what they had. The poor man asked for something good—gold. The disciples gave him something better—God.
Thank God, we are not asked to give something we do not have.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales
(Acts 7:54-60; 22:20)
Influence cannot be terminated by death, nor can the grave contain it. Peter Marshall has probably spoken to more people from his grave than he ever did either from his pulpit or the chamber of the U.S. Senate.
Paul was not likely moved much by the life and work of Stephen. Stephen’s death, though, was pivotal in Paul’s dramatic conversion from persecutor to preacher.
Karl Menninger tells of the work of Elijah Lovejoy, editor, school teacher, and Presbyterian minister, who left the pulpit and returned to the press in order to be sure his words reached as many people as possible.
After observing one lynching, Lovejoy was committed forever to fighting uncompromisingly the sin of slavery. Mob action was brought against him time after time; either this nor many threats and attempts on his life deterred him. Repeated destruction of his press did not stop him. “If by compromise it is meant that I should cease from my duty, I cannot make it. I fear God more than I fear men. Crush me if you will, but I shall die at my post. . . .” And he did, four days later, at the hands of another mob. No one of the ruffians was prosecuted or indicted or punished in any way for this murder. (Some of Lovejoy’s defenders were prosecuted. One of the assassins was elected Mayor of Alton.) However, note this: One young man was around who was deeply moved by the Lovejoy martyrdom. He had just been elected to the Illinois legislature. His name was Abraham Lincoln.Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973), p. 210.
Every Man Matters
Constitutionally we appear to be incurable fixers of blame and givers of credit.
Regarding blame, fixing it on someone besides ourselves goes all the way back to the beginning: Adam blamed woman, and woman passed it on to the snake. Aaron kept the tradition going by telling Moses the people, then the “graving tools,” were the true culprits in producing the calf of gold. Freud updated the blaming game by informing us that we are the way we are because those before us were the way they were. And we are glad to get the word that some other, not ourselves, is responsible for our actions as well as for our genes.
With reference to credit, we accord that to the people with the highest visibility. “General Patton Wins the Battle of the Bulge,” announced the headlines some thirty years ago. Lately the sports pages carried a list of the ten “winningest” football coaches in the college ranks. It is common to read of the accomplishments of persons in medicine whose work is credited with safeguarding and promoting public health. No sane person would want to argue about the achievements of such heroic people.
But what about the nameless whose contribution is small and who, therefore, go mainly unnoticed? How would General Patton have fared without his foot soldiers who endured mud and snow to turn the tide of battle? And what football coach in his right mind would dare to take the field without unheralded but absolutely essential guards and tackles to man the trenches? As regards the guardians of the public health, it can be said of a truth that the anonymous garbage collectors whose work is done largely out of sight and surely without public notice are as essential to the health of the people in any community as are the doctors with their medicine and laboratory technicians with their test tubes.
To recall the beginnings of the church is naturally to be reminded of illustrious names of persons whose labors are credited with giving the church its start in the world. Peter and Paul come to mind first. History, properly, has accorded them a place of honor which appears safe for all time to come.
Still there were others whose service, though unspectacular, was altogether necessary to the beginning and the preservation of the church. We have all but forgotten (but God hasn’t, surely) those nameless men who manned the basket at night to enable Paul to escape death and return to Jerusalem to get started on his missionary travels.
Let us remember that in the kingdom every man matters and there is no such thing as service which has no meaning. Start where you are, give what you have, and trust God to make more of it than you ever can.
On Blooming Where You’re Planted
Home for a brief visit after being gone a good while, an acquaintance, who will be identified here only as Brother X, was driving his mother to town to do a little shopping. Pressed for time before leaving, he forgot to stop at the service station and did not notice that the gasoline gauge was flirting with the empty mark. Halfway to town the car sputtered, then stopped. Snapping his fingers in disgust and biting his tongue in a grand show of self-control, Brother X announced, “We’re out of gas!” “For goodness sake,” his mother demanded, “don’t stop here.”
Don’t stop here. Indeed. Anywhere but here. But life doesn’t always make scheduled stops there and yonder, but unplanned ones here. Right here!
“Here” for Paul was Caesar’s household in Rome, where by the grace of God a prison was transformed into a pulpit; for Job it was an ash heap of suffering; for Moses it was the back side of a desert, where a bush blazed but wasn’t consumed; for Jeremiah it was a deserted city, where gainsaying passers through wagged their heads and asked, “Is this the city that men call the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth?”; for Joseph it was Egypt and Potiphar’s house; for Daniel it was Babylon with its full tables and empty people; for John it was Patmos and a “sea of glass mingled with fire.” And for Jesus? “Here” was “a green hill far away, without a city wall.”
What do you do when life stops here? You bloom where you’re planted.
Additional Texts and Titles
Space does not allow even limited development of the following passages in this brief article. However, allow me simply to suggest the following texts and titles; put your own homiletical mind to work on them: The Old Story That Is New Every Day (Acts 2:22-40); Baptism and Bread (2:41-42); See What Sin Can Do (3:11-16); Your Secret Sins Are Not Secret (5:3-11); Obedience Whatever the Cost (5:29); Like the Face of an Angel (6-15); Dying at Its Best (7:54-60); Religion at Its Worst (7:54-8:1); Joy in the Inner City (8:4-8); Spirituality or Superstition (8:9-24); The Best Things in Life Are Free (8:14-20); Never the Same Again (9:1-22); Failure Can Be Fruitful (13:1-13) ; On Affirming Your Humanity (14:8-18); Love That Goes Back Again (15:36) ; Songs in the Night (16:25-33) ; The Quest for Something New (17:21); How Distant Is God? (17:27); The Highest Call (18:18-21); Law and Order (19:35-41); The Farewell Address (20:17-38); Grace Which Is Able (20-35); On Getting Out of God’s Way (21:12-14); When Culture Drowns Out the Voice of God (22:21-22); Alone in the Barracks (23:11); Hope on Trial (26:6-8); Who’s Crazy? (26:24-25).
In conclusion, let me wish you well in your preaching pilgrimage through the book of Acts. My own hope is that these brief suggestions have stimulated your own creative thinking.
|↑1||Gershom G. Scholem, quoted in Martin E. Marty, The Fire We Can Light, (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1973), p. 15.|
|↑2||H. E. Fosdick, “What Is the Matter with Preaching?,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1928, p. 157.|
|↑3||Dwight E. Stevenson, Preaching on the Books of the New Testament (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), p. 13.|
|↑4||Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts: The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1955), p. 8.|
|↑5||Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” in Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1956), stanza 1, lines 1-4.|
|↑6||John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” in Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1956), stanza 1, lines 1-4.|
|↑7||Martin E. Marty, The Search for a Usable Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 146.|
|↑8||Keith Miller, The Becomers (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1973), p. 52.|
|↑9||Mildred Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1973), p. 45.|
|↑10||Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973), p. 210.|