Sunday, April 29, 2012

Acts 4:23-33 Easter 4

Introduction:  Like sheep hoping for help from their Shepherd, we see how the apostles looked to their Lord for protection.
The Sanhedrin had warned them with threats that they should not preach about the resurrection.  The apostles would be criminals.  Terrible things could happen to them if the continued to preach.  But on the other had, if they shut their mouths in fear, the Word of God would not be heard and would soon be forgotten.  What should they do…preserve their lives or preach God’s Word?  They did what Christians should always do in troubling times…they prayed.  They brought their troubles to God.  But their prayer was not what we might expect, and God’s answer was not what we might have hoped for, if we had been in their shoes.
Today, when enemies of Christ plot against the church, what should we pray for?  Should we pray that God would destroy them immediately, so that we will not be in danger of falling away from him?  The apostles did not.  Instead, they prayed the God would give them power to preach in spite of their fears.  Instead of destroying his enemies, God preserved his Church by giving power to those who preached his Word.
This story gives us an opportunity to see how God has cared for his Church in the past, and consider how he still cares for us now in our troubling times.   Since this is Good Shepherd Sunday, let’s use that metaphor from the Gospel, and consider how Jesus, our Good Shepherd, cared for the apostles after he ascended into heaven.  We see that he used his Word as a staff.  He comforts us with his staff, and he saves us with his staff. 

Theme: We learn to trust the Shepherd to guide us through trying times.

1. We are under attack.
We might feel like sheep sometimes, and we might wonder if our Good Shepherd knows how many of us are being lost.  We see Christians who we know and love falling away from their faith.  Our own children, whom we raised in the church, have wandered off on the wrong path.  They maybe don’t even know how far they have strayed from their Shepherd, but they are too far from Jesus for him to be able to comfort them in their troubles and guide them on the right path.   There are a thousand things to blame—Everybody thinks that you should be able to be lazy and sleep on your day off.  The devil uses that on Sunday.  He uses this “Emerging Church” idea that we don’t need to go to church anymore, because we have all the guidance we need from TV preachers and Christian bookstores—essentially, the lie that you can get everything you need while you are still in your pajamas.  He baits those church leaders and Christian authors with popularity, and they write on the popular topics of Christian life and self-improvement, but all too often they stay away from Christ.  They lead God’s sheep off on the wrong path, where the Shepherd can’t protect them anymore.
Then there are all those who pose as Christians but are not.  The Mormons say many things that sound Christian and they call themselves Christian, but they will drag you away into a religion that has no one to save you from your sins.  The Jehovah’s witnesses offer Christianity but they take away the Son of God.  When I was growing up, I saw the Jehovah’s Witnesses snatch a whole family away from Jesus.  The father was the last.  He wanted to stay, but he couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from his family.
You see all of this happening, probably even in your own families, but you are not permitted to ask God why he isn’t doing anything about it.  You are not allowed to wonder where your Good Shepherd is in all of this mess.  That would be sinful.  You would be breaking the 1st Commandment, where God commands us to hold him as our only God, love him, honor him, and trust that he knows what he is doing.  You would be breaking the 2nd Commandment, where God commands us to use his name to pray to him in our troubles, and thank and praise him for all that he does.
We need to be able to look beyond the appearances to see our Good Shepherd working.  See how he was caring for the apostles as they were attacked.  He does the same for us. 

2.  The Shepherd comforts us with his staff.
The Jewish Sanhedrin, which had crucified Jesus, now threatened his disciples.  The apostles were nervous.  They were like sheep who saw how dangerous the path was becoming.  Look how God’s Word was like the shepherd’s staff.  It assured them that their Shepherd was with them, they were on the right path, and everything would be alright—  They prayed together, “Sovereign Lord, you who made the heaven and earth and the sea, and everything in them.”  This is something we know from the Word of God—Genesis chapters 1 and 2.  Even if no one else could help them, God could.  Even if the kings and rulers who crucified Jesus now turned against them, God could help.  God’s authority is higher.  God created kings and rulers.
The Lord reached out his Word as a shepherd’s staff to assure them also that this was the right path.  He knew it well.   It’s always reassuring to be led by someone who knows the way.  I went spelunking in Tennessee once when I was in college.  I never would have crawled down into that dark wet cave if I had been by myself.  There would have been too much danger of getting lost or stuck.   But I was going with someone who knew the way, a guide.
Jesus had traveled this road already.  He knows how the devil and the sinful world fight against him and his people.  The apostles thought of how Jesus had faced all of this before, and they were reminded of Psalm 2—“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.”   When David wrote Psalm 2, about 1,000 years before Jesus was born, already God knew what was going to happen.  He was planning it.  He already had drawn up a blueprint of how the rulers and kings would rage and plot against Jesus, although he did not force them to do it.  He had planned that all of their raging would amount to nothing.  Actually, in wonderfully ironic twist, God would use their plot to crucify Jesus as his plan to rescue us.  Jesus’ crucifixion was the death penalty for our sins, and his death gave him the opportunity to conquer death for us. 
Jesus has already traveled that road and beaten the devil.  We can be sure that he can do it again when the devil attacks us with all the enemies of our faith.  The couple of you who play video games know that the game gets much easier after you have already beaten it.  You have confidence.   Now just think, the devil has already brought his worst against Jesus, and Jesus beat him.  Isn’t that a good reason to have confidence in Jesus, your Good Shepherd?
The apostles were comforted with the thought that Christ had already been down that road before.  He had been attacked, and he had come through victorious.  He could guide them safely down the path now, and bring them to victory too.
When God’s enemies attack us, we know that God has seen this before, and the Good Shepherd has already been through it.  He knows the path that will bring us through all Satan’s plots, and he will guide us safely to the other side.

3. The Shepherd saves us with his staff.
So you have confidence in your Good Shepherd.  Now, when the devil attacks our faith, and we see so many losing their faith, we naturally do like the apostles did.  We pray.
But what should we pray for?  If we pray that God would destroy his enemies, right now, we can be pretty sure that he will not do that.  Not unless it is time for Judgment Day.  But don’t get frustrated with God.  Don’t ask him why he isn’t doing anything.  Look again at what the Good Shepherd did for the apostles.
He did not open up the ground to swallow the Sanhedrin, like he did when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled against Moses.  He actually did nothing at all to the Church’s enemies.  In fact, he would soon let them rage a bit more against his Church.  The enemies pose no threat for the Good Shepherd, because they rage and plot in vain—they will accomplish nothing as long as we are with Christ our Shepherd.  So the apostles didn’t bother praying for their enemies to be destroyed.  They prayed that God would give them courage.  They needed courage to preach and write, so that the Word of God would not be destroyed.   And look what God did: “As they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”  
It was more important that God preserve their courage than preserve their lives.  If the apostles’ courage would have failed, then the Word of God might have been lost.  But they preached the resurrection of Jesus powerfully, and it filled their hearts so that it didn’t matter if they would live or die.    They knew that their enemies’ worst schemes would amount to nothing.  Even if they were executed it would be nothing, because Christ faced the same and he rose from the dead.  They knew that Christ, our Good Shepherd, would raise them from the dead too.  There was no great danger for them.
Because God filled them and others with resurrection courage, the Word of God has been written and passed down through the centuries to us.  You have this precious Word that tells you your Good Shepherd is risen from the dead.  In that same Word your Good Shepherd has promised you that because he lives, you also will live.  Now if your Shepherd has filled the apostles with the Holy Spirit so that this promise of resurrection would come to you, don’t you think that he will make sure no one takes it away from you?   As long he lives and his Word is with you, there is no real danger.  His enemies could not conquer him, not even by killing him.  Now that he is risen, he will not let them harm his people.  He will use his Word as a staff to guide and protect us, and our enemies will not be able to touch us.  Whether we live of die, we will always have the assurance that we will be with Jesus forever.
Now, what about those who do fall away?  If they have strayed too far from the Shepherd’s staff, sometimes he lets them be taken.  If they have forgotten his Word and wandered off down another path, and refused to be brought back, sometimes Jesus lets the enemy take away their faith.  It’s a warning for the rest of us to stay close, stay within his reach; stay where his Word can touch our hearts. 
So, what should we do when we feel the threats of God’s enemies coming against us?  They threaten to tear us away from our Good Shepherd.  We turn to him in prayer, but don’t expect him to destroy his enemies.  Expect him to preserve his Word in us.  He gives us confidence that he will keep us safe, because his Word has endured through all these centuries, and that eternal Word of God is written in our Bibles and on our hearts.  We have confidence that our Good Shepherd will keep us because he has faced these enemies before, and they were powerless against him.  Though we may be threatened, we have good reasons to trust the Shepherd to guide us through trying times.  Amen.