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Sixth Sunday of Easter
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, May 10, 2015

God's Surprising Ways

TEXT: Acts 11:19-26

I’ve come to share some good news with you today. The good news is that there is hope for this world. The good news is that God, who created this world and holds its fate in His hands, is redeeming it. The good news is that because He loves this world so much, He sent His only Son, Jesus, into the world so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life.

As you look around you and listen to the news and read things that are going on, you wonder, how is this going to happen? How is it possible that God is going to save the world from sin and death when everywhere you look, people are ignoring God, ridiculing Him, or actively campaigning against Him?

That is what I want to talk about today. I am inspired to do so by the passage we read from the Book of Acts this morning. The Book of Acts is a history book. The story it tells is about the earliest days of the Church, from 33 AD to about 62 AD. It shows us that God had a plan. And His plan is a good one. In God’s plan, human beings like us are instrumental. We are put to work doing things God prescribes for us—things Jesus taught us and commanded us to do. And then God takes whatever we contribute and makes it productive in miraculous and glorious ways. That is what we see in the passage we read this morning from Acts Chapter 11.

You will recall that in the very first chapter of Acts, we heard Jesus tell the disciples to be His witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Well, in the first seven chapters of that book, the disciples were still in Jerusalem. That was their starting place, and we aren’t told of any plan they had for the expansion of their mission. Things became problematic in Jerusalem. In Chapter 7, we read about the death of Stephen, who was a man filled with the Holy Spirit and who preached the Word forcefully. The leaders were offended by Stephen’s preaching, and they stoned him to death.

There is an ominous sentence at the beginning of Chapter 8, telling us that Saul was there, giving approval to his death. Saul became a man on a mission. He was bent and determined to wipe out these followers of Jesus Christ. He spread terror among them. It tells us there that a great persecution broke out against the Church at Jerusalem, and the Christians scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. By the time we get to chapter 11, where we are this morning, we read that the dispersion of the Christians had gone as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. They were on their way to “the ends of the earth.”

As we consider this passage, I want to highlight two wonderful things about the God we know, love and serve. First, He is full of surprises. And second, He takes the bad things that happen and uses them for good.

First, God is full of surprises. The particular surprise we see in the Book of Acts is that the Church God was putting together was intended for all people, and not just the Jews. We see that in verses 20 through 24, where the church began to grow dramatically among the “Hellenists.” They were the Greek-speaking Gentiles. It is hard for us to grasp how big a surprise that was at the time. The Jewish people were God’s own people. He had chosen them and set them apart. He had groomed them and protected them and provided for them. So the first disciples naturally assumed that the Church would be a Jewish movement. They must have envisioned all the Jews becoming convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. All their early efforts to spread the Good News were in the synagogues, among their own people. But some funny things began to happen.

The first was when the Holy Spirit sent Philip out on the road to encounter an Ethiopian eunuch. (See Acts 8:26-40) The Ethiopian was sitting in his chariot reading the Bible, and he asked Philip if he could tell him what this meant. The man ended up becoming a convert to Christianity, and Philip baptized him. In fact, tradition has it that this eunuch, who was an official in the royal court of Ethiopia, went home and spread the Good News. And that was the genesis of Coptic Christianity, which is still alive in Africa today.

And then there was the odd dream Peter had, followed by a summons to the home of a Roman Centurion. (See Acts 10) Peter went obediently, and said, “I’m not sure why I’m here, but the Holy Spirit told me to come.” And the next thing he knew, he was preaching the Gospel to Cornelius the Centurion and his family, and every last one of them was baptized.

What God was doing was spreading the faith to the Gentiles. The Church, in spite of the disciples’ limited vision, was opening its doors to those who were not Jews. God is full of surprises. This was a big one. And so was the surprise when God took Saul, the terrifying angel of death for Christians, and converted him and turned him into the great evangelist and Apostle, Paul.

God is full of surprises. Why is that? He has told us His plan. He cannot lie. And He is the same yesterday today and forever. So why are we surprised by Him? Two major reasons. The first is given us eloquently in Isaiah 55:8-9, where it says:

“ thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

No matter how smart we may be, no matter how creative, no matter how forward looking we are, or how watertight our plans, we are not even in the ballpark with God. He is infinitely wise and infinitely creative. There are always things that confound us and things we can’t figure out. There is nothing God can’t figure out. God doesn’t have to figure anything out. He knows all things. So when every word that goes forth from God’s mouth achieves the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11), we are surprised again and again.

The other reason God so often surprises us is that we see only part of the picture, and God sees it all. It is like the old Indian fable about the six blind men feeling an elephant and trying to figure out what it is like. Each came up with a very different answer, depending on whether he was feeling its tail, its tusk, its trunk, its leg, its side or its ear. When we do that, we are very surprised when we take off our blindfold to see the elephant. God is not surprised. He sees the big picture—the whole picture. When the butterflies in Arizona flap their wings, God sees the effect in Khartoum. He knows in precise detail how every little thing in His plan fits together. We on the other hand, draw our conclusions based on what we see and how we piece it all together. It may be a discouraging picture. It may look to us like things are headed in the wrong direction. But God has an encouraging word for you.

• He says that one day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

• He says that one day, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, and God will be so present in our midst that we won’t even need the sun to light our city.

• He says that one day, the lion will lie down with the lamb.

• He says that one day, there will be no more war, and the spears will be made into plowshares.

• He says that one day there will be no more tears and no more crying.

I said there are two wonderful things about God in this story in Acts 11. The first is that God is full of surprises. The second is closely related, and that is that God takes the bad things that happen and brings about good. We read in verse 19 that those who were scattered because of the persecution had traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch. The believers had run for their lives to these faraway places. And there, they preached to the Gentiles and the Church took off. God used the scandal of the dispersion to spread the Good News. He used something bad to bring about good.

This was nothing new. We see God doing this in the first book of the Bible. The Book of Genesis tells the story of Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob. (See Genesis Chapters 38-50) Joseph was the son whose jealous brothers sold him to a passing caravan bound for Egypt. It’s hard to imagine such a disaster in a family. But over the decades, Joseph came to be the one who rescued not only his family, but all Israel, from a terrible famine. It didn’t happen easily. Joseph got thrown in prison unfairly. But his imprisonment turned out to be the pathway for him to come to the attention of the Pharaoh. It happened through a series of things only God could orchestrate in His infinite imagination, taking something evil, and bringing good from it. Joseph’s wisdom, and the authority bestowed on him by Pharaoh, saved people of the whole eastern Mediterranean region from starving.

In the midst of all that, Joseph’s brothers came to him begging for grain. He gave it to them. But they realized that he was their long lost brother. they were afraid of this powerful man whom they had abused. They told him so; and Joseph’s answer, after a good deal of soul-searching, was this:

Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. [Genesis 50:19-20]

It’s an amazing story. But it is not an isolated one. The Bible is full of such stories, and so are our lives as the followers of this amazing God. For truly, all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. [Romans 8:28]

God’s plans cannot be defeated. Every Word that goes forth from His mouth accomplishes what He purposes. There are things that bedevil us and seem to defeat us and frustrate us and complicate our lives. We may wish for a quick fix, which often is not in the cards. But we can be reassured by the knowledge that God, who is infinitely wise and infinitely creative, will use those things to accomplish His will.

In this month’s newsletter from “Voice of the Martyrs,” there is an article by Hannelle Groenewald. She is a Christian medical doctor working in Afghanistan. She and her family were called to go to Afghanistan in 2002. Her husband, Werner, was a missionary, training Afghanis to carry the Gospel to their own people. On November 14 last year, a Taliban bomb attack destroyed their home. Hannelle was at work in the hospital when the attack occurred. She came home to find that Werner and both of their teenaged children had been killed.

Hannelle wrote, “I didn’t just lose my family, but everything that was dear to me in Afghanistan.” Nevertheless, she has remained in Afghanistan. She says,

Obviously God has another plan with me. It is an extremely great challenge and life test that I don’t want to fail. I want to make sense out of this, to process this, to find my new life and purpose and build on that.

She goes on to describe the peace that surpasses all understanding, which she has because God has kept His promise never to leave her or forsake her. And then she says, “My future from here is to carry on with Werner’s work. How and where, God will reveal.”

Hannelle Groenewald is a faithful Christian who has suffered an incalculable loss. But she knows that God will take that tragedy and carry out His wonderful plan of salvation, in whatever surprising ways He may choose. And from that she draws strength and the will to carry on.

Here at Light of Christ, we have made it our habit to look for God’s hand at work in the things that have happened to us over the years.

• The split of the congregation we once had in downtown Heathsville: it was painful and tragic. But what is God going to bring from that for His glory?

• The loss of the building where some of you had worshipped for many years. It was hard to leave. But already, God has turned that loss into a witness in our community. Race relations are tense around the country today. It is a critical time for our community to see black and white Christians embracing each other in love.

What else does God have in store? We don’t know, because He is full of surprises. And what looks like failure or loss becomes a miracle in God’s hands. It is tempting be perplexed and discouraged by what we see happening in our nation and in the world. But it is not our lot to look at the future through pessimistic eyes. It is our lot to look hopefully at the future, eager to see how God is going to take bad things and bring good from them.

• How will God use my diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver to bring about something good?

• How will the memory loss some of our loved ones are experiencing be the occasion for blessings?

• As ISIS and Al Qaeda and Boko Haram and Al Shabab carry out their evil programs, is the Holy Spirit going to bring good out of evil? Already Muslims all over the world are seeing the consequences of Muhammad’s teaching, and the Holy Spirit is drawing them away to be saved.

• The morals in this country are declining into relativism. Is the Holy Spirit going to use the resulting chaos to open people’s eyes to the beauty of God’s righteous law?

• As the atheists of the western world become more militant with their message, will the Holy Spirit show more people that such a view of the world could never adequately explain the rich reality God has created?

No matter what, Jesus has told us that, at an hour we cannot know, He is coming again. And on that great day, all will be set right. We know the end of the story. It is God’s story. And it is good. In the mean time, He is a God of surprises; and He works all things together for His good purposes. He is our strength, our hope and our salvation. There is no god like Him. Blessed be God for ever.

© Jeffrey O. Cerar 2015

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