Last week Luke told us how the infant Christian church was flourishing, it was growing in numbers, people were coming to salvation, they were together in worship and prayer, gifts were being used to the glory of God, people were being generous, loving, caring, the apostles were preaching with great power and authority, God was doing miracles every day, Christ was being proclaimed and exalted. It was a glorious season of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. But. That’s how our text begins. But. Why does it seem like in the midst of good times there has to be a but? Such is life on this side of heaven, life where there is an enemy of all that is good. Luke is an honest writer and an honest historian. He doesn’t just paint a rosy picture for his friend Theophilus. Luke’s history is filled with troubles, trials and prisons. In some ways the book of Acts reads like a police blotter of arrests, beatings, torture and harassment. There is a price to be paid for bearing witness to Jesus Christ, the price is suffering. The servant is not above the master. Jesus suffered for doing good, so will His followers. Everywhere the apostles and followers of Jesus went they stirred up trouble. Just their presence incited reactionary anger and protests from the ungodly. There will be reactions in an increasingly hostile and ungodly culture. Those with bad consciences will always try to silence whatever or whoever pricks their conscience. Luke isn’t just writing to Theophilus, he is writing to 21st century American Christians, preparing us for the trials and storms ahead. Luke wants to show us how to navigate those waters. Whether it’s baking cakes or selling flowers, whether it’s students wanting to host a Christian group on campus or sponsor a Christian speaker, whether it’s Bibles in hotel rooms, whether it’s churches wanting to worship in a country where there are hostile governments, whether it’s Christians protesting killing babies or exercising their freedom of speech, whether it’s Facebook and Twitter censoring Christians who post what Scripture teaches about certain ethical and moral issues, whether it’s subtle digs or discrimination from co-workers, relatives or friends.
Nine years ago Patrick and I went on a road trip to a church conference in Moscow, Idaho. Patrick drove using his GPS. When we got to Pullman the GPS sent us on a route that I knew was wrong and had to talk Patrick into turning around and going a different way. We have had GPS arguments ever since. On-line there are whole websites devoted to GPS disasters. A woman in England following her GPS drove her $175,000 Mercedes into a river. Three Japanese tourists in Australia drove their rental car down a gravel road into the Pacific Ocean. A retired couple in Germany followed their GPS off the road and literally right into a church. People have followed their GPS onto railroad tracks, down flights of stairs, and up such a narrow mountain path they had to be rescued by helicopter. And yes, there have been several deaths from blindly following GPS. You can end up going where you don’t want to go if you don’t pay attention to the signs. Paying attention to signs is important even when you have GPS. I John is a book of signs, three signs actually, that tell us if we are on the right path going the right direction. We will see all three signs in chapter two, but they reappear in later chapters as well. The first sign is the moral sign in 2:3-6. This sign is about obeying the commands of God. The second sign is the social sign in 2:7-11. This sign is about loving the people of God. The third sign is the doctrinal sign in 2:18-27. This sign is about having faith in God. So these three signs in John can be our GPS to help us be sure we are on the right path going the right direction, signs that we are a Christian and that we are on the path of Christ.
How many of you remember the Miracle on Ice in 1980 when the US men’s Olympic hockey team beat the four-time gold medalist Russians at the Lake Placid Winter games? In the final seconds of the game Al Michaels for ABC declared: “Do you believe in miracles?! How about the Miracle on the Hudson when Captain Sullenberger landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. Maybe you have watched the 1947 movie classic about a Macy’s Santa Claus, Miracle of 34th Street. We use the word miracle pretty loosely and broadly. Finding a parking place close to the door at Costco is no small miracle. How often do we call the birth of a baby a miracle, or being spared from a tragic accident? As we come to our text for this morning we come to miracles of a very different kind than we encountered last week in the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. These sign and wonders are more in keeping with the kind Jesus did in the Gospels
How many of you learned this story as kids back in Sunday School? Was it one of those flannelgraph stories along with Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath and Zacchaeus. “Kids, what did you learn in SS this morning?” “We learned this really cool story about this guy Ananias who told a lie and God zapped him, sort of like in Star Wars.” This is one of the scary, hard stories in the Bible. This highlights the pros and cons of preaching week after week through a book of the Bible. The pastor doesn’t get to cherry pick favorite passages, and we are forced to hear the whole counsel of God’s true and inspired Word. This story more than many in the Bible stirs up all kinds of questions. It is especially difficult for us modern readers. We get visions of Peter with super powers getting the Holy Spirit to zap people on the spot, without any chance to repent. Some commentators say this is a legend made up to explain a couple of sudden deaths in the church. Some people go so far as to say this is a tyrannical God having a temper tantrum.
John has a pastor’s heart. He cares about us and our relationship with God. He starts out “my little children.” This is the tender heart of an older pastor who sees his flock through the eyes of a father. What matters most to John is our fellowship with our eternal heavenly Father. And that is why he has so much to say about sin, because sin is the one thing that breaks our fellowship with our Father. This is why he is so earnest, please don’t sin, it breaks the most important relationship you can ever have. John wants our fellowship with God and our joy to be complete and sin will keep us from that. And this is why John’s words are so powerful and so beautiful, so full of heart-warming truth and hope. When we sin, we have an advocate before the judge of all sin.
The book of Acts was written by Luke. Dr. Luke, a physician. There is the possibility he was the richest among the inner circle of apostles and those close to the apostles. Matthew was a tax collector but he gave that job up to follow Jesus. It’s interesting Dr. Luke includes many stories about rich people in his Gospel and Acts. The rich fool, the rich young ruler, Joseph of Arimathea, John Mark’s mother Mary who owned a big house, Lydia a dealer in purple. Remember the wonderful story about that wee little man Zacchaeus. Remember he was very rich, a much despised tax collector. Then Jesus came to his house and into his heart and there was a sudden and very noticeable transformation, a total change of heart. Suddenly he was giving half his possessions to the poor and he paid back four times whatever he had defrauded. That’s radical generosity. The heart that is transformed by Jesus loves people more than it loves stuff. The heart of a believer in the Gospel uses their stuff in order to love people. Faith toward God produces a freedom toward possessions, a lack of fear about our provisions. The story of Zacchaeus is the story of what happens when a person’s life is totally turned around by Jesus, when the love of Jesus takes over. The story in Acts 4 is a story of the transformation of a whole group of people, of the early church some 10,000 strong. It follows after what happened in the previous text.
Last week we heard John say: That which we have heard and seen with our eyes and touched with our hands we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with God and so that your joy may be complete. The point of the Christian life is to have fellowship with the one, true living God. Now John tells what they proclaimed. The message has two parts, what the world needs to know about God and what the world needs to know about sin (and ourselves). This is the foundational message of the Bible and of all of life. This is the Gospel message. This is the message we have received from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
We have before us a model of what to do and how to pray. This is the longest recorded prayer in the book of Acts, and it serves as a model, an example for us, to help us in how to pray, especially in times of trouble. Let’s consider how a prayer prayed two thousand years ago still speaks into our lives today in twenty-first century post-modern America.
Preachers and commentators alike tend to avoid I John. It’s hard to outline, it’s repetitive, ideas overlap, there doesn’t seem to be a clear flow or direction. It reads like a patchwork of favorite verses and memorable lines. There seems to be an over emphasis on God and love. But if you think about it, two things that people most often get wrong in this world are God and love, so maybe it needs some over emphasis. The bottom line is clear. The writer wants us to know the joy of intimate fellowship with God, the kind of fellowship there is between a child and his father. The opening three verses are enough to scare off many writers and preachers. It is a grammatical tangle of phrases piled on top of each other. I like the outline one commentary uses that captures this confusing opening paragraph. What is “which”, who is “we”, and what does “we” have to say about “which” to “you”?