Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's In Our DNA

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.
Read Genesis 12:1-8 and Acts 1:1-8 here.


Did you know there’s a place in London called the Ministry of Stories?[1]  I am thoroughly fascinated by this place.  It’s a place that’s designed specifically to 
encourage creativity and imagination.  It’s especially created with kids in mind, to help them gain confidence in writing and communication skills by being free to write stories.  The environment encourages this.  The programs encourage this.  Because learning to write and express ourselves is an important part of our development and growth.

Do you like stories?

It’s fun to use our imaginations to come up with stories, and to hear stories that came out of someone else’s imagination. We read stories in books, watch them on television, listen to them on the radio, see them acted out on the stage, and watch them in movies. I particularly enjoy science fiction and fantasy stories that involve made up worlds where the laws of physics are a little different from our reality. 

For me, these stories work best when they involve people developing relationships and dealing with situations in which their thoughts and feelings are like what we also experience, so that the setting can be incredible and fantastic and mind-bending while still conveying profound truths about our lives.  Stories like these become classics that get read and reread because they ring true to us, even though they came from someone’s imagination.

Maybe the most powerful stories are the ones that are about real-life events and real people who have experienced incredible things or overcome tremendous obstacles to accomplish amazing things.  Stories about real life engage us and encourage us.  They give us hope.

I got to talk about one of these stories this past week when I was reading to the first graders at the grade school.  They’re learning about the Olympics, and one of the ideas in the book I was reading to be was “underdog.”  The example they gave was the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team.
How many of you remember this? The team wasn’t expected to win much of anything, but then they DID win and kept on winning, and despite all the predictions against this, won the gold medal. 
This was back before the Berlin Wall came down and we were still in the midst of the Cold War, when Russia was still feared as the power behind that wall.  The team that the U.S. beat to win that gold medal was Russia.  The Russians were the favorites, and the United States victory that day was called “the greatest upset in sports history.”[2]  Nobody thought the U.S. even had a chance to beat Russia at hockey, just like nobody at that time thought we would see an end to the Cold War.  But we did, and maybe the one victory gave us hope that there could be the other.

Stories about real life give us hope.
We may not think about the Bible story of Abraham from the book of Genesis quite that way.  Ancient history doesn’t sound like real-life history to us.  It’s lacking in detail.  The timeline is not strictly chronological.  But this ancient story still engages us and encourages us, and gives us hope.
Just before Abraham’s story in Genesis, in chapter 11, we read about the generations between Noah and Abraham, so-and-so begat so-and-so, and so on…and, by the way, the text goes on to say, Sarah was barren and had no children (11:30). Remembering all that begatting, and that Sarah is barren, we come to God’s promise to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you . . . and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).  Quite a promise to make to a man who has no children. 
In the midst of barrenness, there is hope. 
In the midst of barrenness, God brings a vision for the future.[3]

Q. Who was the smartest man in the Bible?
A. Abraham. He knew a Lot.[4]  (Ba-dum-pum)

We call this Abraham’s story, but really, this is God’s story.[5]  “God is not just a character in the story, rather God is the author who makes the story possible and whose nature and purposes are revealed in the telling of the story.”[6]

I particularly like reading this part of God’s story, because at a time in my life when I was asking, “Does God really call people to leave behind their childhood home and go to new places?” I read Abraham’s story and saw that God does call people that way.

God calls people to go to new places, and blesses them for their obedience and trust in him.

Abraham is remembered for this in the celebration of faith in Hebrews 11:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)
Abraham’s story has become part of my story, and helped me to understand how God is working in my life. Maybe the story of how God worked in the life of Abraham has also become a part of your story like it has mine?  Genesis 12 helped me and my family to follow God and leave California, and I have met others with similar stories.  In telling each other our Genesis 12 stories, we have been an encouragement to one another as we saw how God was speaking to us in similar ways.

There’s something else we learn in Genesis 12 about life in those times . . .  it was intense.  Literally.  They lived in tents. (Gen 12:8) (Sorry, couldn't resist...so I guess that means not sorry.)

We read in Acts how Jesus says something to the disciples that sounds a bit like what God said to Abraham.  Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s a call to go and tell their story.  A witness is one who tells what they have seen and heard.

Even though the disciples have spent three years with Jesus, heard Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God and how different that is from earthly kingdoms, and they have watched him be crucified and die, and then be resurrected, and then had an additional 40 days of teaching, they are still asking, “Now are you going to take over the government?” (Acts 1:6)

I’m sure Luke must have forgotten to include Jesus’ giant sigh of frustration at the disciples’ question, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also rolled his eyes, and maybe even said a little prayer, “Lord, help us.”

Ok, so maybe Jesus didn’t really get frustrated, but he did tell them not to worry about that, and then told them this:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8).
And then Jesus was taken up to heaven, and, not surprisingly, the disciples are left standing there in shock, looking up into the sky.

Then two men dressed in white come talk to them.  This would be one of the few times angels appear to people in the Bible and don’t start off with the words, “Don’t be afraid.”  Why not?  Because what they have just seen makes the appearance of angels seem rather commonplace.

Those two men point out something else – don’t keep standing there looking up into the sky.  This isn’t the end of the story.  And as we see if we keep reading Acts, it’s just the beginning of the story – a new story, a story that continues today in each one of us.

What is your story?
What has God been doing in your life?
How has God given you hope?

We each have a unique story.  When we are trusting God and following Jesus and spending time with people, there will be times when people will ask us about our story, asking why we have hope.  With all that’s going on in the world today, with all the difficulties and problems we face, why do we have hope?

The Bible tells us to be prepared to answer that question:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 2 Peter 3:15
The church is a place where we have opportunities to tell our stories, and to work on being prepared to go out and tell our stories to people who don’t yet see that they’re also part of God’s story.  One of the wonderful things about small groups, like the ones we’re starting up next week, is that we get to talk about how God is working in our lives, and we get to help each other see how God working in each other.

Jesus tells us to go and be witnesses, to go and tell what we’ve seen and heard.  Jesus tells the disciples to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of earth.  They did literally over the course of the book of Acts tell the story in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and beyond, telling the story to those close to them, their families and friends, and in their churches, their synagogues.  And to people who they would normally avoid, the Samaritans. 

For us that means talking with people we know and who are like us, and also getting to know people who are not like us.  It means taking the time to get to know one another, and in the process of developing relationships, listening to their stories and telling our stories.

The disciples did what Jesus told them to do - they continued even beyond the Samaritans.  They went to the gentiles, which means they were telling everyone.  This story was for everyone.

We read in Paul’s letters and in some of the parts of the book of Acts that the disciples had major struggles over whether it was ok to include gentiles in their churches at first, and this gives us the impression that including all people in God’s gift of salvation was a new thing that came because of Jesus.  But really Jesus was reminding us all of what God had said way back in the beginning, in Genesis, to Abraham:
all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you”
This is a promise, and a prophecy.  It’s looking ahead to the children that Abraham didn’t yet know he would have, and their children, and their children’s children who would become the nation of Israel. 
And it’s looking ahead to the descendant of Abraham who would come centuries later and die on a cross and be resurrected for every single one of us, so that each one of us would know the blessing of God’s love and forgiveness. 

Each one of us is a descendant of that promise.  Each one of us is part of the blessing.  We have received it through our faith in Jesus.  It’s in our DNA.  And we pass it on by telling our stories.

Our stories are meant to be told.

How many of you have had clogged drains in your homes?  Think about what happens to the water in the sink or the bathtub when the drain is clogged.  It’s coming in from the faucet as clean, clear water, but as it collects in the tub or sink and as we wash in it, it gets cloudy and mucky.  The longer it sits there, the more yucky it gets.

The blessing of the gospel is like that.  The good news of the gospel is clean and clear water that refreshes our souls.  But if all we do is take it in, it gets cloudy and mucky like a stopped up sink.  It needs to keep on flowing.  We need to pass it on.  We need to tell our stories.

What is your story?  How has knowing Jesus affected you? 
Where have you seen God at work in your life?

Our stories might be big and dramatic, or simple and ordinary.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pretty story or a theologically correct story.  We just need to tell our stories, here at church, and to our families and friends, and to the people at work and school, and to people in new places.

Notice that before Jesus told the disciples about being witnesses, he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”  That needed to happen first. They didn’t go right out and start telling.  They went back to that place where they’d been hanging out and they prayed.  Then the Holy Spirit did come quite dramatically on Pentecost, and after that they started telling their story.

That’s the first step for us, too.  Pray.  Let’s ask God to send us the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and encourage us and help us to know when and where and how to tell our stories.

[3] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
[6] Willimon, William H.. Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (pp. 2-3). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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