It’s like a movie plot, but more interesting because it happened. You can read about it in Acts 5. Evil men, “filled with jealousy” are plotting to stop good men who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Evil sometimes triumphs, at least for a season, and the good men are arrested for teaching about Jesus and thrown into prison. They don’t even get to try the free breakfast, though, because in the middle of the night, God sends an angel to bust them out. Not a drop of blood is spilled. The angel just opens the locked doors and leads the twelve men out, presumably while the prison guards are standing right there beside the doors. It reminded me of Brother Andrew smuggling Bibles into communist countries in the 1950’s. In his book, God’s Smuggler, Andrew says he would often pray, “Lord, when You were on earth, You made blind eyes see. Now, I pray, make seeing eyes blind. Do not let the guards see what’s in front of them.” He didn’t even try to hide the Bibles, and for 35 years, the guards never saw them. Whether it is locked prison doors or not-so-hidden Bibles, God reigns.
The religious leaders of Israel (Sanhedrin) gather the next morning, thinking they have their enemies in the jailhouse, and they send for them to be brought over. A prison officer reports that the doors are locked and the guards are posted beside them, but the cells are empty. He exits stage left and another man enters stage right and announces that the twelve apostles who are supposed to be in the jailhouse are in the temple. Again. And they are teaching the people. Again.
You have to wonder about the thick-headedness of the Sanhedrin at this point, don’t you? They have heard about Pentecost and what happened there, with people speaking in other languages that they had never learned, and three thousand people becoming followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They have heard about the lame beggar and see him every day, now very much healed and no longer a beggar, and they have heard about the two thousand people who became followers of Jesus that day. They have heard about the other miracles, and reports of many others believing in Jesus. Now they hear about a miraculous prison break where the men inside apparently just vaporized and then re-appeared in the temple. Why would the Sanhedrin gnash their teeth in rage and continue to plot against the followers of Jesus? You would think they would learn. But here’s the thing. It has to do with the Words of Life, and whether you believe them and live them…or not.
The Center for Bible Engagement found in a recent survey of more than 80,000 U.S. households that most people who identify themselves as Christians don’t read the Bible in an average week. Their only “engagement” with the Bible comes on Sunday morning. The study also revealed that there is a strong correlation between lack of Bible engagement and daily struggles with worry, gossip, fear, forgiving others, and even with failing marriages and addiction to pornography. The behavior and lifestyles of those who don’t engage the Bible four or more times per week is almost identical to those who don’t believe in God at all.
The difference in the book of Acts between the men and women who had the words of life and lived them, and those who did not have the words of life and rejected them could not be any more dramatic.
It is the same today.
How do you prepare for church on Sundays? I don’t mean laying your clothes out the night before, or making sure you have your Bible. I used to prepare on Sunday morning as a child by watching the cartoon, “Davey and Goliath.” Anybody old enough to remember that? I would sit on the sofa with my two brothers, all in our Sunday best with hair slicked down, or licked down, and we would watch TV and try not to fight during commercials, while Mom and Dad hustled around getting ready. That’s not what I mean, though, by getting prepared for church.
Rather, what’s your mindset about going to church? Two common mistakes are to come either as a spectator or as a worker. Jordan Kauflin writes, “We come with the expectation, spoken or assumed, that everyone else needs to make sure we have a good time. I need my kids to be taken care of. I need people to seek me out. I need the music to sound a certain way. I need the preacher to stop speaking on time so that I can get on with my life. As for Jesus? Hopefully he shows up by his Spirit so I can have a spiritual, emotional experience that carries me through my week. We come as spectators, expecting to be served. For some of us, we prepare for our Sunday gathering as workers. You might serve in your church as a children’s ministry worker, usher, setup team person, greeter, or hospitality person. We prepare much like we prepare for work (and for some, it really is work). We make a list of all the things we need to do. We make sure we leave on time. Our mind is filled with logistics and details. We remind ourselves how important our role is.”
I would suggest that both of those mindsets are me-centered. Instead, let’s tune our hearts to sing His praise, as the hymn writer said. Go to church to meet with God and to worship Him. “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise.” We go to receive from Him, so pray with expectation that you will not miss what He is saying that day through the songs, sermon, and sharing.
Expect also to be challenged to respond to what God says to you. The Creator doesn’t speak just to hear Himself talking. He communicates through the preaching of the Word in ways that will change your life and mine. Prepare to hear from Him and prepare to respond to what He says. Why do some Christians seem to stagnate and stay in the same place spiritually for years while others explode with growth in maturity and wisdom? It’s as simple as the math formula, “time times rate equals distance.” With what rate do you apply what you learn from God and obey it?
Finally, come to church with the expectation that the body needs you. The Bible says the body of Christ grows “when each part is working properly.” The lady sitting in front of you needs to hear you sing with all your might because she’s just not feeling it this morning. The young man in the parking lot who is questioning his faith may just tell you the truth if you ask how he’s doing. The family behind you has suffered a tremendous loss and they need to know you care.
The truth is, you and I have work to do at church that often makes our jobs pale in comparison. And I know for many reading this column, you have gotten out of the habit of going to church because of the pandemic. Hey, it’s simple to start a new habit. You just start going again. This Sunday, then the next, and the one after that. Keep it up for 8-10 weeks and your heart will be re-conditioned to the point that you are amazed you stayed away so long!
Going to church this week? I hope so, for all the right reasons.
Gary Thomas tells the story in his book, Sacred Marriage, about two brothers who worked together during the day in a field and in the evening at a mill. Each night they divided up the grain they had processed. One brother was single, and one was married with a large family. The single brother decided that his married brother, with all those kids, certainly needed more than he did, so at night he secretly crept over to his brother’s granary and gave him an extra portion. The married brother realized that his single brother didn’t have any children to care for him in his old age, so he went up each night and secretly deposited some grain in his brother’s granary. One night they met halfway between the two granaries, and each brother realized what the other was doing. They embraced and as the old rabbinical story goes, God witnessed what happened and said, “This is a holy place—a place of love—and it is here that my temple shall be built.”
That’s a picture of what was happening in the first church in Jerusalem. The people were saved from sin and to a new way of life, even to the point that, “No one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own.” That seems to be a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? If what belongs to me is not my own, then it doesn’t belong to me, does it? Well, no, it really doesn’t. It belongs to the Lord. But at the same time, He lets us choose what we are going to do with those things that belong to Him and are in our hands. He gives us stewardship over much. That’s what was going on in the new church. They were living out the reality of what Jesus had told them when He said, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the needy.” Because they believed this promise, that God would give them the kingdom, they were free to meet genuine needs in the church out of love.
I can imagine a conversation Peter might have had with an old friend he bumped into one day in Jerusalem. The friend says, “Hey, what’s this I hear about a…what do you call it, a church? What’s going on with all you people who are following this Galilean guy around? What’s his name, Jesus? The dead religious leader. I mean, he was crucified, right?”
“Yes,” Peter might say, “but haven’t you heard? God raised Him from the dead on the third day, and I saw Him. I talked to Him. I ate with Him. Jesus is alive! And do you know what He is doing now? He is changing lives. Thousands of them. He has given us salvation, the promise of eternal life, and He has given us peace with God and love for God’s people. In fact, just the other day, a believer named Barnabas sold a field, brought the money from the sale, and laid it at our feet. All of it. He did that so people in the church who need food and clothing and are just struggling with basic needs could be helped. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to.”
The radical love of Jesus Christ leads to radical giving. He loosens our grip on things and tightens our embrace on people. It doesn’t mean that His followers never own anything. It simply means that their things don’t own them.
In a family history that one of my uncles did several years ago, he found this story. My ancestors came from Germany and Switzerland. The Germans were Moravians and they left their homeland to come to America in the 1700’s. The trip on the sailing vessel “Sandwich” took fifteen weeks from Holland to New York. Along the way, one of my relatives gave birth to a little girl, who died a few days later and was buried at sea. The mother also died shortly after, and was also buried at sea.
But another story caught my eye as I read about my past. It stood out especially as we have just begun a series of sermons that will take us through the book of Ruth.
It happened in 1787, when one of my ancestors approached the elders of the Moravian church in what is now called Winston-Salem and expressed his desire to be married. The elders must have agreed that this young man was a worthy candidate, so they wrote the names of all the single women in the community who were also ready for marriage on separate slips of paper. They put the names in a half-coconut shell and the young man drew one out. That was the woman he was to marry. At first, the young woman declined. Then two days later, she agreed to the proposition. But then my ancestor declined. Perhaps he thought, “Hey, she wasn’t so thrilled about being married to me when she first heard this. Well, believe me, she’s not the only fish in the sea. Or, Moravian in the settlement!” I have no idea if he said that or not. The record does show, however, that the young man came back to the elders two days later and had changed his mind, saying, “I believe it is the will of God for me to marry Anna.” The wedding took place less than one month after my ancestor first made his desires known to the elders.
The book of Ruth, on one level, is a love story. When Ruth first catches the attention of a man by the name of Boaz, the reader starts to wonder if there is the possibility of romance in the air. Ruth is a young widow from Moab, who lost her husband after ten years and then moved from Moab to Bethlehem with Naomi, her mother-in-law. Boaz is a respected man in the community, a landowner, and a man of influence. He is also a generous and a kind man, and when he sees Ruth gleaning in his fields, he asks one of his employees who she is. His heart is captured by this young widow, and he tells her that she can glean in his fields every day, and there is no need to go to others. He also warns the young men who work for him to leave her alone.
You will have to read the rest of the story to see how the “courtship” process works between these two. I will tell you this. It doesn’t involve a coconut shell and names on slips of paper, but it may shock you even more.
Both events, the Moravian romance and the Ruth and Boaz love story, illustrate for me the truth that marriage is built on the solid rock of commitment, not on the shifting sand of emotion. Is God against emotion? Of course not, it was His idea in the first place! So we see Him adding emotion where there is commitment.
You fall in love with the one you give yourself to for life.