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Giving Thanks in Hard Places

Sermon by Brad Mercer on Nov 24, 2005

Acts 13:52

Thanksgiving Day
November 24, 2005
Acts 13:52; 14:27-28
“Giving Thanks in Hard Places”
Mr. Brad Mercer

If you would, turn in your Bibles to Acts, chapter 15....now I might have just said 15; I meant 13. I'm still shaken up. I received when I walked into the sanctuary this morning a challenge. A mother walked up to me and looked me in the eye and said, “This is the first time my toddler has ever been in a worship service at First Presbyterian Church. That's my challenge to you, Brad Mercer!” And so I'm being forced to give thanks for that as a...... But as you can see, the passage is Acts 13:52.

We will not read the entire account this morning of Paul's first missionary journey, but I do want to read one verse from the middle of this account, and two verses at the end. So we’ll be looking at chapter 13, verse 52, and then we’ll be looking at chapter 14, verses 27 and 28. Before we read the word together, let's pray.

Lord, we do thank You this day. We’re especially mindful this day of all Your good gifts. We thank You for the opportunity to come and gather with Your people at the outset of this day, this day that we look forward to being with friends and family members. And as Christians, those who know and walk with the Lord Jesus Christ, we know that we should be characterized by an ongoing daily thankfulness, but we aren't always characterized by an ongoing daily thankfulness. We need Your help. We pray that You would make Your presence known and felt to us at this time as Your word is read and proclaimed, and we pray that You would glorify Yourself in our midst. We pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Acts 13:52 - “And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”
[Now look at chapter 14:27, 28.]
“And when they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they spent a long time with the disciples.”

May God bless to us His word.

We would expect disciples to be characterized by joy — rejoicing, looking forward to fellowship with one another. We would expect disciples to overflow with enthusiasm about the Gentiles’ receiving the gospel, hearing the gospel, being converted to Christ. We would expect disciples to be characterized by a daily ongoing thanksgiving in their lives, like these disciples are.

But remember the context. Remember the context here. Paul and Barnabas are commissioned by the Holy Spirit through the church and sent to preach the gospel, and so they sail to Cyprus and they preach their way 90 miles across the island of Cyprus, preaching in synagogues. And the governor of Cyprus wants to know more — a Gentile, a man with no Jewish bloodline, a man with no connection with the synagogue wants to know more. And they (Barnabas and Paul and John Mark) meet with him, and he receives Christ. He's converted to Christ.

In this context there is a sorcerer, a magician, who finds out, who is very concerned and confronts Paul, Paul confronts him, Paul wins this battle and the sorcerer wanders away blind. They continue. They sail to Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. They find that upon landfall John Mark goes back to Jerusalem — why, we're not exactly sure, but he leaves. He's had enough. They travel 100 miles inland to Pisidian Antioch and they continue to preach the gospel in Jewish synagogues, and Paul proclaims loudly to all who will hear, ‘The Messiah has come! God has kept His covenant promises! We preach to you the good news, the promise made to our fathers.’

He stays and preaches on the next Sabbath in the synagogue, and the synagogue this Sabbath is mobbed. Many people respond. Many people come — the whole city, Luke tells us. But many Jews become jealous, resistant, and they stir up some Gentiles and Paul and Barnabas are driven out of town.

They move on to Iconium. They continue preaching in the Jewish synagogues. Many respond, many are converted, many believe; but once again we have resistance, confusion, persecution, and a mob with stones. So they flee again.

They flee to Lystra this time, but this time they’re preaching to illiterate pagans. They’re preaching the word of God, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, to illiterate pagans. And in the context of preaching, Paul heals a man who was lame from birth and this man walks, and these pagans declare, “The gods have come down and taken the form of men! Zeus and Hermes are in our midst!” and the priest of Zeus comes and brings an oxen and wants to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas and worship them. And of course they say, ‘We are men like you. Look to Christ. We are but men. Jesus Christ is your hope and salvation.’ But again, division, resistance: they’re being followed by Jews from Antioch and Iconium, and they bring stones. They stone Paul, drag him out of the city and leave him for dead.

They flee again to Derbe and retrace their steps back to Antioch. And what do they say when they get back? What do they say when they get back to report to the church that commissioned them? They say, “The Gentiles are coming in through the door of faith,” and they spent a long time there. But this door of faith has many tribulations.

This door of faith has many tribulations, but there's no complaining, no criticizing — only enthusiasm. The Gentiles are hearing the word of God, they’re responding, they’re coming to Christ! They’re being converted!

Now, how is it — here's the question: How is it that Paul can go on? How is it that Paul can go on and continue to be characterized by joy, praise, thanksgiving in the midst of this resistance and division and persecution and violence, and fleeing from one city to the next? How? Obviously he was struck down on the Damascus road, called to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and there are many events, circumstances in Paul's life we could possibly look to for answer. But I would submit that Paul's experience several years earlier when he went home after his conversion to Jesus Christ is key.

Paul went back to Tarsus after his conversion to Christ. During the silent years, what we call the silent years, what would have happened to Paul when he went back home after his conversion? He would have been disowned, disinherited, rejected by friends and former teachers, and it's at this time, this period of the silent years when he goes back home, probably that he has an experience that is intimate, that is profound, that he hesitates to talk about, that he can't fully explain. But I would agree with Philip Hughes here who says that this experience is the summit from which to view the entire mountain range of Paul's life and ministry — the summit from which to see, to view, to understand Paul's life and his ministry.

It involves his highest exaltation, his deepest humiliation; but he is compelled in defense (in II Corinthians 12:1-10) of his apostolic authority to reveal it to us. What happened? He's taken up into the third heaven, as Calvin says “the heaven of heavens.” He's caught up into the third heaven and sees and hears and experiences words and sights that he can't put into words. He can't explain. And at the same time, he's given a thorn. He's given a thorn in the flesh, he says, “to keep me from being exalted above measure.”

Now, we don't know what the thorn is — whether it's an eye ailment or a fever or epilepsy, spiritual warfare, some other kind of sickness — but Paul's response, just like the Lord Jesus Christ's - three times, “take it away.” Take the thorn away, Paul prays to Christ. Christ prays to His own Father, “If it's possible...if it's possible...to remove this cup,” and the answer of course both times, with Paul and with the Savior, is No, there's a better way. There's a better way. And the response again of Christ to Paul's request: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

How does Paul respond? “Therefore...” — one of the most amazing passages to me in the Scriptures, and sometimes we overlook it because of Christ's emphasis on His grace being sufficient and powerful, perfected in weakness — Paul responds to this “No” by saying, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties....” Why? ...for Christ's sake. For Christ's sake — “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When I am weak, I am strong. Paul, in context of this weakness, this thorn, this ‘No, there's a better way; power is perfected in weakness,’ boasts about his weaknesses and sufferings.

How? Why? Because he's seeking to be what Martin Luther called “a little Christ.” Not that he's seeking to be divine, but he understands the purpose of a believer's life, and that purpose is to in all circumstances unveil, display, proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ...in all circumstances. He's not suffering from some kind of unhealthy martyr complex here; he is leading from weakness. He is leading from weakness. He understands that [you've experienced this] it is just at those times when we're most disappointed, vulnerable, fearful, hurt, that Christ's glory and goodness and mercy and power are made most manifest. It is just at those times God's very saving plan is most clearly revealed, when — what? Jesus Christ empties Himself, takes on the form of a servant, even unto death. The power of salvation comes through the weakness of the incarnation; triumph through failure; salvation through destruction. The supreme expression of Jesus’ saving power is revealed at the precisely same place where we see the supreme expression of His weakness. As Dorothy Sayers says, “He will be victor and victim in all His wars, and He will triumph in defeat.”

Think of it. Paul does not say ‘Power is perfected in anticipating every possible contingency. Power is perfected in carefully measured and appropriate responses. Power is perfected in strategic networking relationships. Power is perfected in self-centered martyrdom. Power is perfected in fear, or cowardice or lack of faith.’ No. Power is perfected in weakness. Power is perfected in Christ-likeness: being “little Christ.”

But think of it. No more valiantly trying to sort of tip the heavenly scales of merit in our direction; no more posturing to gain worldly attention; no more trying to merit self-worth; no more pretending that I have all the answers; no more being surprised when I realize I'm not in control. I can just say, “Jesus Christ, I am here for You. I trust You. I don't understand, but You don't have to explain, and I give thanks for everything You have done, You are doing, and will do. And You don't have to explain.”It's almost as if He Himself says, ‘Peace, child; you don't understand. I trust you.’

My son and I have had several long, marathon sessions of watching — we've never done it in one day, I don't know that it's possible, but we've done it in the week — watching the film series The Band of Brothers. I don't know if you've seen that. It's rough, but it has given me a respect that I never had for the World War II generation. There's a scene in that film, a low point in the battle, where a soldier is paralyzed with fear in a foxhole. He can't move. He's had enough of the shelling, he's had enough of the shooting, and he can't get out of his foxhole. And another soldier walks over, leans down, looks him in the eye, and he says, “You know what your problem is? You haven't realized that in order to be a good soldier you must come to terms with the fact that you’re already dead. Your life is not your own.”

For a Christian, yes, we're already dead; but we have been raised with Christ in glory. We know how the story ends, and as C.S. Lewis so wonderfully says, “We've only lived in this life on the cover page. The book hasn't been opened yet.” You’re already dead in Christ, raised with Christ.

Now, I would be remiss on this day if I didn't mention — some of you know this — my mother named me after the second governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, and so I've been interested in this man for a number of years. He was a separatist Puritan from Yorkshire in England, traveled over on the Mayflower with 102 people, helped plant this colony in Plymouth.

What you may not realize is when the Mayflower came over, it didn't land at Plymouth. It landed at the very tip of Cape Cod. And William Bradford and William Brewster and Miles Standish and all those names we know went off on an exploring party for six weeks in order to find a place where they might make a permanent settlement, and they encountered all kinds of trials along the way. But when William Bradford came back to the Mayflower after they had found Plymouth where they would permanently settle, his wife had died. She had fallen off the boat and drowned. And after all that he had been through — bad food, sickness, a crew dying, passengers dying - later they would go through a brutal winter, and of course the first Thanksgiving, and families would die. This was only the beginning, his wife dying. But toward the end of his life he gives a challenge to future generations, and he does it in poetry, and here's what he says. This is, again, toward the end of his life, long after he’d written Of Plymouth Plantation and lived his long life there of 30 years there as governor:

“But keep the truth in purity,

Walk in all humility;

Take heed of pride and contention,

For that will bring destruction.

Seek love and peace and purity,

And preserve faith and sanctity,

And God will bless you

With His grace,

And bring you to His resting place.”

This is a challenge to remember God's continuing thankfulness, in light of all the suffering that he had been through.

One other man that landed at Massachusetts Bay ten years later ended up being governor there: John Winthrop, and he wasn't able to bring his wife, but on the passage over his son fell out of the Arabella and drowned. But before he left, he made a commitment to his wife, and she with him, that every Monday and every Friday between 5 and 6 in the evening, they would think about and pray for each other. And after he had landed and his son had died and they’d been through many trials and difficulties, in his first letter home...his first letter home to his wife...he says this:

“Yet for all these things, I praise God. I am not discouraged, nor do I see cause to despair of those good days here, which will make amends for all.”

Two men in our past we often think of who understand what it means to be “a little Christ”; that grace is sufficient and power is perfected in weakness.

Finally, do you know how the Book of Acts ends? Do you remember how the Book of Acts ends? More specifically, do you know what the very last word of the Book of Acts is? anempodistos - unhindered.” The very last Greek word in the Book of Acts - “unhindered,” in reference to Paul:

“And he stayed there two full years in his own rented quarters, and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the Lord Jesus with all openness, unhindered.”

Paul is in house arrest; he's chained to a Roman soldier, but the kingdom advances, the proclamation goes on unhindered even with Nero rampaging and Paul shortly paying for his faith with his life. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

Finally, I would also be remiss if I didn't say something about this. It's right around the corner, what may be my favorite scene. (No, it's not in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!) It's in Prince Caspian, and things are looking bad for Narnia. Narnia has been conquered; great deceit, suffering, death is everywhere; and Lucy one night out in the moonlight looks up on the hill and sees the large imposing presence of a Lion in the moonlight. She walks up to him and gazes at him, and he gazes down [pick up on this as you read the book] this gaze...he gazes at her with his large, wise face, and says this:

“Welcome, child.”

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “You’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one.”

“Not because you are bigger?” said Lucy.

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

As we grow in Christ, as we come to know Him, as we walk with Him, as we understand what it is to be a little Christ, and know and experience power perfected in weakness, every year we grow we will find Him bigger. Let's pray.

Lord God, we have the opportunity to live lives of thankfulness, and we live in a world that is fallen. We live in a world that is racked by sin. We have sin, indwelling sin, remaining sin; we're not enslaved to it, but it nips at our heels. We pray that we would remember this day Paul and his convictions about what it is to be and to live the life of a Christian; and more importantly, we remember this day the Lord Jesus Christ, who emptied Himself, became poor, took on the form of man, a bondservant, a slave even unto death, and conquered that death; and in Him we have a great hope. Give us this day our daily bread, and enable us to be happy with that and to trust You, and to not look for every answer and every explanation, but to trust and obey. We pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

If you’ll turn now to Hymn No. 715, Come, Ye Thankful People, Come! and we’ll stand as we sing. [Congregational hymn.]

Now receive the Lord's benediction.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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