A lot had happened to the church since where we left off in chapter four. Persecution of Christians broke out in Jerusalem (primarily at the hands of Saul), the Christians have become targets, so all but the Apostles flee Jerusalem. Doesn’t sound like a very good situation, people forced to leave their homes, families separated. House churches which had been going so well were now broken up and scattered. But the Book of Acts notes an amazing thing that happened; as the Christians fled in large numbers, the Bible says, “all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…and those who had been scattered went about proclaiming the Good News about Jesus (Acts 8:1, 4).”
Every time I read this I am reminded of Jesus words at the beginning of Acts, he told his disciples to be witnesses of all they had seen and heard of Jesus, that is, to tell others about their personal experiences with the resurrected Jesus to people in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And yet up until this point the only sharing going on was in Jerusalem. They never left Jerusalem. They were having such a great time in Jerusalem sharing Jesus, worshipping together, studying God’s word together, and having pot luck dinners together. In fact they were having such a good time that they forgot the whole mission Jesus had given them. They forgot Jesus’ mission extended beyond their homes, beyond the city limits, beyond their township borders, beyond people who looked, acted, and thought just like them. They were to share Jesus with the world. I believe God broke up this holy huddle by allowing persecution. Once the persecution came, Christians were forced way out of their comfort zones, away from their homes, away from their families, away from their house churches, and their church family. Yet what could have been a disastrous conclusion for the fledgling Christian movement turned into the greatest blessing because people went and shared the Good News of Jesus wherever they went. Two amazing things happened as a result: 1) Up until this point is was only the Apostles sharing the Good News of Jesus. But after the persecution it says everyone began sharing. It was no longer just the “professional’s” job anymore it was everyone’s job.
Here’s a question, can we get so comfortable with our life, even with our church, that we fail to accomplish the whole mission Jesus has given us (or even a part of it for that matter)? I don’t think it’s just possible, I think it’s likely. We can get so wrapped up in our own good activities, church, family, sports, Bible studies, and committee meetings that we forget the mission, to make disciples, or to help others know and follow Jesus. What I’ve learned through the story of Acts is that God’s mission is more important than our comfort. God will sometimes shake things up, put us out of our comfort zone, or else shut down his blessing in order to move us back on track with his mission of helping others know Jesus, experience life abundantly and eternally. After all we are talking eternal consequences here. Just like the disciples, it’s not that we are doing bad things, they may be good, perhaps even fruitful, but if we forget the mission we will eventually find ourselves outside of God’s will, and God may either force us into a course correction (early Christians faced persecution), or he will remove (part of) his blessing.
Some of you are aware that I was at our annual conference/meeting of the West Michigan UM churches a few weeks ago. This year we closed or shut down four UM churches in West Michigan, and we didn’t start a single new one. It is sad to see what happens when churches forget the mission and God removes his blessing and they do this (downward motion) until either the doors are shut for good, or they decide (or it is decided for them) to get out of their comfort zone and focus on the mission again.
As the Christians were scattered, one man, Philip, found himself in the neighboring nation of Samaria, in the capital city also called Samaria. The Book of Acts tells us he was performing miracles and telling others about Jesus. His ministry was incredibly successful, many people found physical healing and they trusted in Christ, including a powerful sorcerer/magician named Simon. Yet, in the midst of his success, and fruitful ministry, just when things were looking up for Philip (because he had fled Jerusalem for his life), God spoke to Philip through an angel and told him to go to the desert, or more specifically the desert road which leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. But God didn’t tell him why, nor did he tell him what he would do when he got there, just go.
At this point Philip could have argued with God, “but my ministry is going so well, people are healed, people are getting saved, it wouldn’t make sense for me to leave here, after all there aren’t many people in the desert, think how many people I can continue to reach here.”
It is possible for us to get caught in such a comfort zone that we tune God out. Life is good, I enjoy my job, family is healthy, I’m enjoying retirement, even from a church perspective we’re paying all the bills, we’re paying ministry shares to the conference, missions giving is up, and so we fail to listen to God’s call to go to a new place and try a new thing, to go to a place which is unfamiliar and perhaps even hostile.
Philip was obedient, even though his ministry was successful, he packed up his belongings, and went to the desert road.
Called into the Desert
Does God sometimes call us to walk the desert road? A road which is unfamiliar, something which is challenging, perhaps even hostile? In a recent conversation I had with someone they openly shared their struggle with believing there is a God because of the difficulties and struggles their family has gone through. Some people have drawn the conclusion that if God is loving and caring he won’t allow us to go through difficult times, or deserts roads. While God does make promises to give us life abundantly, to give us a future, and a hope, God doesn’t promise us we will avoid difficult times. In fact Jesus said we should expect it for being Christians (John 15:20). What he did promise us is that he would “never leave us or forsake us.” These early Christians were experiencing persecution, in fact God allowed the persecution to happen because he had bigger plans than the comfort of the believers. He wanted more people to know him.
God sometimes leads us to the desert because he has something for us to do there, someone to minister to, some way we need to grow spiritually (mature so our character would reflect God more), some way we need to trust God more rather just depend upon ourselves, our friends or family.
Some deserts are imposed upon us, we didn’t get to choose them, they just happened. A close loved one dies. A job is lost. We have unexpected financial loses. We experience unexpected health problems. We find ourselves in the desert perhaps through no fault of our own. It’s easy to blame God, shake our fist at him, how dare he do this to us, I thought you were a loving God. Yet have we stopped for a minute and asked why God has us here and now, does God have a plan in all of this?
Some of you were here last week to hear Barb Whitley-Ruemenapp testimony about going to jail (do not pass go, do not collect $200). She was sentenced to 10 days in jail because of a car accident in which someone was injured. Now most of us would have spent the 10 days miserable, angry about the injustice of the situation, how unfair it was, who we were going to write to, what lawsuit we were going to file. But within the first day or two, Barb realized that this desert she inadvertently found herself in was part of God’s plan. God wanted to use her to minister and share Christ with some of the women in the jail. In fact, on her first day there a young woman said out loud while watching TV, “that’s my problem,” and when asked what the problem was she said, “I’ve lost my faith.” It turns out she was a PK (preachers kid) who had left the church and God at 13-14 and hadn’t returned. Now she found herself in her late 20’s with 7 children from different fathers. Obviously there is a void in her life, and she began to recognize that the void was God. She was trying to fill the God shaped hole in her heart with something other than God, and it hadn’t worked. It didn’t bring peace. Barb was able to share Jesus with her, remind her of the Father’s love, and she lived it before her. Some woman wondered why Barb was so caring, loving. They had never experienced anyone like her in their life. This wasn’t just turning lemons into lemonade, or positive thinking, turning her situation around to make something positive out of it. This was part of God’s plan.
Because of Barbs’ situation she now has a passion for people who are in jail, and for those who find themselves in dire straits for whatever reason. Didn’t Jesus say we are supposed to visit and look after those in prison as though we are doing it for Jesus himself (Mt. 25:36, 43)? She has more of God’s heart and a desire to serve him because of this desert experience.
Choosing the Desert
Like Philip, some desert roads God actually leads us to, if we listen to and follow him, but he leaves the decision up to us. Our life may be going great, thank you very much, but we sense God leading us in a direction, to a place, or to a person we may not choose have chosen for ourselves. In the Bible God asked some people to move (Abram go to a land I will show), for some it was the uncertainty of a job change or change of profession (Gideon from farmer to warrior, Nehemiah from cup bearer to the king to governor, Elisha from farmer to prophet), befriend a person you may not even like, ask forgiveness for someone who has wronged you. Maybe God will lead you out of your comfort zone to talk with a neighbor about him.
Many times we don’t like the desert, so we avoid it at all cost. The result is someone misses out on God’s blessing.
Philip was called into the desert and when he got there he noticed he wasn’t alone. There was an Ethiopian eunuch riding in a chariot. Turns out he was no ordinary Ethiopian he was the treasurer in charge of all the Queen of Ethiopia’s treasury. So Philip happens upon this Ethiopian and he senses the Spirit telling to him to run up to this chariot and stay near it. He overhears this guy reading from the book of Isaiah. He’s reading from Isaiah 53 which predicts the Servant of God who will take away the sins of the world through his suffering and death. Philip recognizes his opportunity and asks the question, “do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian invites him to help. Philip went on to share that Isaiah 53 was referring to Jesus, and he shared the Good News.
If Philip hadn’t followed the prompting of the Spirit he wouldn’t have been led to the desert, he wouldn’t have run next to the chariot, and he wouldn’t have shared Christ with the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Eunuch wouldn’t have come to faith in Christ, and the influential eunuch wouldn’t have returned to share Christ with the nation of Ethiopia.
Just because something has been successful in the past, or successful for another church doesn’t mean it is where God is leading and blessing now and in the future. God wants us to listen to him, to be lead by him.
Following the Prompting of the Spirit
This isn’t about going into the desert though, it’s about following the prompting of the Spirit, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time. Example: Bob Justice on the way to work, feeling led to turn down a street, at the end of the street was a house on fire, and people in the house were sleeping (unaware). Bob called people out. What would have happened if Bob decided to ignore the prompting because he really needed to get to work? People probably would have died. I realize this is an extreme case, but people are dying all the time without Christ. Is that any less serious?
Do you know when the Spirit is leading, guiding, prompting, nudging, pushing? Do we know how to tune in and listen?
There’s no secret formula for following the Spirit, it comes down to spending time with God.
Are you ready to get out of your comfort zone to follow the Spirit even if it means being on a desert road not knowing the exact destination or what exactly he wants you to do?
Are we listening to the world more than we are listening to God? When do we stop and listen?
Are you able to recognize when the Spirit is leading? Could you point to a time in your life when you were led by God, or by the Holy Spirit? When you just sensed him leading and prompting you to do something, go somewhere, talk to someone,
Col. 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart. 3 Don’t forget to pray for us, too, that God will give us many opportunities to preach about his secret plan-- that Christ is also for you Gentiles. That is why I am here in chains. 4 Pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should. 5 Live wisely among those who are not Christians, and make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be gracious and effective so that you will have the right answer for everyone.
Philip had learned how to tune in to God’s Spirit. And as a result the Ethiopian eunuch was able to hear the Good News of Jesus and receive it. When we were in Jerusalem about almost a year and a half ago, we were able to go listen to an Ethiopian church (part of the church of the Holy Sepulcher), and an Ethiopian priest [picture] shared with us that Christianity was brought to his country by the Ethiopian eunuch. He came back and shared Jesus with his people. If Philip hadn’t been obedient to the Spirit, the Ethiopian eunuch wouldn’t have received Christ, and the people of Ethiopia wouldn’t have received Christ.
What is the Spirit leading you to do?