May 19, 2013 Sermon

Sermon

“If We’re Not Praising, We’re Perishing

May 19, 2013

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

Acts 2: 1–11; 44–47

2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

I recently watched a speech by Sheryl Sandberg, a prominent businesswoman.  She was lamenting that women’s workplace gains were holding steady – neither declining, nor improving.  She said, “If we’re not gaining, we’re going backwards.”

Then, in the daily mail, my bank sent me a flyer, warning, “When it comes to checking, if you’re not earning, you’re losing.”

My son texted me later that day, announcing his latest skate board injury with these words: “If you’re not falling, you’re failing.”

That night, before turning in, I clicked on the TV, and there, on the screen, a beautiful smile told me, “If you’re not whitening, you’re yellowing.”

Today’s scripture suggests another warning against standing still or holding back.

In the world of faith, if we’re not praising, we’re perishing.  If we’re not actively praising God each day, our church and our faith are in danger.

Our Scripture lesson from Acts revisits the beginning of the Christian church at Pentecost.  There are many miracles in this story: the rush of violent wind, tongues of fire descending, the eruption of speaking in foreign languages by the followers of Jesus.

But let’s not focus on the miracles in this story.  For the heart of the story is quite ordinary, even every-day and common.  It’s an event that we can initiate.  It’s an action within our power.  It’s people praising God.

The praise of God is the nexus of Pentecost, because without it, there’d be no church.  The praise of God is the heart of this story, because without it, we’d lose our faith.  That’s what I want to talk about.  First, praising God creates a church that flourishes.  And second, praising God builds a flourishing, personal faith.

If we’re not praising, we’re perishing.  Let’s pray. . .

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, and lead us to praise You, for the sake of Your church, for the sake of our faith in You.  Amen.

 ***

 Here is some context on this Pentecost story:  Thousands of devout Jews, from around the Mediterranean, are gathered in Jerusalem for an annual holiday.  It’s the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, a celebration of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Our Jewish sisters and brothers continue to celebrate this event, although it’s more commonly called by its Hebrew name, Shavuot.  It marks that moment when, as Deuteronomy writes, “the Lord gave (to Moses) the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken with (Moses) on the mountain out of the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 9:10).

Among these Jewish celebrants at Shavuot were the first followers of Jesus, who still, at this point, considered themselves Jews.  Our Bible says there were 120 of these Jesus followers, all From Galilee.  So they speak a Galilean dialect of the Aramaic language.  And this was, indeed, the language of Jesus.

Now there is an implicit subtext in this story, both an appreciation of Judaism and a push beyond it:  the Jewish Pentecost celebrates The Torah – the descent of the Word of God on a mountain covered with fire.  It celebrates the Word of God, recorded on Stone Tablets.  But the Christian Pentecost celebrates the descent of languages, coming down as tongues of fire.  And these languages speak of the wonders of God, written on human hearts.

Where you would want the wonders of God written?  In a book about someone else’s life?  In a text you can neglect and forget about?  Or would you want the wonders of God written on the human heart?  The wonders of God, written on your human heart – the wonders of God experienced by you?

And that’s what these Galilean speakers have – praise-worthy stories of God.  These Jesus followers are telling their foreign sisters and brothers about God moving powerfully in their lives.  That’s why the Holy Spirit comes and descends in the gift of languages – so that the Galileans can tell of the wonders of God to their Parthian, Medean and Mesopotamian friends; to their Elamitean and Egyptian and Roman sisters.  To their Asian, Cappadocian and Libyan brothers.

The power of Pentecost is not in these languages.  It’s in these praise-worthy stories of God!  I’d like to think that all those people Jesus met, people we read about in the Gospels, were there in Jerusalem, telling their stories.  And, they had more to say than simply, “Praise the Lord.”   They had more to say than simply, “God is good.”  They had more to proclaim than simply, “Jesus loved me.”  They had specific, detail-filled stories!  One of those could say, “Jesus loved me – when everyone else shunned me!”  One of them could say, “God is good, because He banished the demons destroying my life.” Another could say, “Praise the Lord, because Jesus healed my son;” or “Jesus called me out of adultery.”

The Galileans declared the wonders of God, not JUST in the language of foreigners, but in the language of familiarity – telling their stories with personal and relatable details, talking about Jesus in the context of everyday life, how Jesus changed their lives.

That’s why the church grows.  And this is my first point:  Without the praise of God, there’d be no church.  If we’re not praising, we’re perishing!  The praise of God lets the church ignite.  In Acts 2:41 we read that three thousand members were added that day, through the power of praising God.  A few chapters later Acts says that another five thousand were added shortly thereafter.  And, by the end of Acts, the church is burgeoning, expanding all the way to Rome.

Praising God, the church flourishes.  And this continues to be true today.  People will join, participate and stay if they hear how God has changed our lives.

You know, many of our new members join because they want to see their children in our programs and choirs.  They’re joining for their children’s sake – and then we like to surprise them.  On the Saturday before New Members Sunday, we gather in the parlor to share faith stories – our stories of praises to God.  The deacons and the pastors share stories of how God has cared for and lifted our lives.  And then, those new members see something they need, something that they may not even have realized they were seeking.  Is this Bait and Switch?  Come for your kids, but stay for yourself.  Because, if we’re not praising, we’re perishing.

I took a long walk the other day with a couple who had been lay-leaders in another church.  Their church had gone through three minister changes in a short period of time, and each change squeezed some life out of the congregation.  Denominational experts were called in to analyze and mediate, self-assessments piled high, committees proliferated, sides were drawn and fingers pointed.  And today that church is dying.

What went wrong?  What was missing?  Certainly not human activity!  Busyness abounded – committees, studies, meetings, retreats – people were burning out.  But, where was the fire of praise?  Where was the sense of God’s hand in their lives and church and giving God the praise?  If we’re not praising, we’re perishing.

In Acts we read that the early church increased not only in numbers, but in faith.  This is our second point.  Praising God grows faith.  The more we see the presence of God in good times – and in bad – the more our faith will grow.

Charles Stanley tells a story of praising God, and how it grew his faith.  Charles Stanley is the long-time minister of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, a church of thousands of members with an international broadcast ministry.  But in the late 1990’s, Stanley’s marriage was in trouble; his wife left and then divorced him.  Prominent Christians who had been his supporters now insisted he resign, that he could no longer be an example to his church.  Reflecting back on those terrible days, Charles Stanley said this, last November:  “I remember one of the greatest lessons of my life came during those times when I was fighting a big battle, and people wanted to get rid of me… In the middle of that, one day the Lord said (to me), “If you want to win this battle, remember this:  See everything that comes at you as coming from me. What they say, what they do, no matter what you see, it’s coming from me, not from them. Then you can sit there with forgiveness, and it won’t be a distraction. You won’t defend yourself. See it as all coming from me.”[1]

See God in the battle and praise Him.  See God in the struggles, and trust Him.  Praise God and your faith will grow.  If we’re not praising, we’re perishing.

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that’s easy for you, Charles Stanley – you had a mystical message from God!  The only messages I get are on my cell phone!   How can I praise a God I can’t see, whose actions are invisible?

But, the New Testament teaches us to see the invisible God in the visible person of Jesus.  Colossians says: “the Son is the image of the invisible God… For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Christ.”  As one theologian put it, “The…Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God.  It is far more radical than that.  It means that God is like Jesus.”[2]  God is like Jesus.

That’s how we can see God in our lives.  God’s action and presence will be like Jesus.  Jesus healed, He reconciled, and even rebuked – when needed.  He called for repentance and facing ourselves.  So, God works in our lives – just like he did for Charles Stanley – bearing the personality of Jesus.

It’s Pentecost, so let’s also think about the Holy Spirit.  And here the point is exactly the same:  The Holy Spirit acts just like Jesus.  That’s our doctrine of the Trinity:  The Creator, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are one – One Unified Personality.  So, not only the Creator is like Jesus.  But the Holy Spirit is also like Jesus – each an aspect of God that enriches the other.

There is a story told in Luke 9, that the disciples wanted to call down fire on some Samaritans who have rejected their message.  Luke reads: “The disciples said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume (these Samaritans)?”  But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

If we’re not praising, we’re perishing.  If we’re not praising The Spirit of Jesus, and letting THAT Spirit shape our lives — we’re perishing.

The Holy Spirit comes not to destroy with fire, but to save with fire.  To bring people together, to live generously, to redeem, to reconcile, and rebuke the wrong.  That Spirit acts just like Jesus.

 ***

You know, when Charles Stanley listened to God, he knew it was God’s voice, because that voice told him to act like Jesus:  forgive his accusers; trust in God.  When those first Christians received the Holy Spirit, they knew it was from God, because it was guiding them to act like Jesus: living in fellowship, sharing possessions.

Pentecost is the Word of God, come down and written on our hearts.  God speaks to us and helps us.  And we know this guidance is from God because Jesus’s personality is in it.  That’s something we can trust, we can talk about with confidence.  That’s something we can praise and must:  that is our Pentecost!   The Word of God, written on our hearts, erupting with stories of praise.

For the sake of our flourishing church, for the sake of our personal faith, let’s tell our stories of praise this Pentecost.  For, if we’re not praising, we’re perishing. Amen.

[1] Mark Galli, “The Mystic Baptist,” Christianity Today November 2012 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/november/mystic-baptist.html

[2] Elton Trueblood, quoted by Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperCollins 2010), 114.

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