Jerusalem Or Bust [Acts 21]
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Jerusalem Or Bust – 08.21.2022
Jean Nidetch was a 214 pound homemaker who was desperate to lose weight. She went to the New York City Department of Health, where she was given a diet devised by Dr Norman Jolliffe. Two months later, discouraged about the 50 plus pounds she still had to go, she invited six overweight friends home to share the diet and talk about how to stay on it. 28 years later, in the modern world, over a million members attend 250,000 weight watchers meetings in 24 countries every week. Why was Nidetch able to help people take control of their lives? To answer that, she would famously tell a story. When she was a teenager, she used to cross a park where she saw mothers gossiping while the toddlers sat on their swings, with no one to push them. “I’d give them a push,” she said, “and you know what happens when you push a kid on a swing? Pretty soon he’s pumping, doing it himself. That’s what my role in life is – I’m there to give others a push.” Now, don’t worry – I’m not going to do a sales pitch on a weight loss program or anything like that. But the story of the creation and the success of Weight watchers illustrates a key feature of the modern world – we are better together. We are stronger when we have someone to give us a push. This works in our spiritual lives too, to get going with what we need – sometimes it’s the people around us that become the most important factor in whether we succeed or fail.
Today we are jumping back in to the story of Acts. As most of you know, we’ve been reading through the book of Acts in four chapter chunks – mostly following around this fellow Paul and all the work that he has been doing. You might remember Paul’s system – he goes into a town, tells people about Jesus. Some people listen, some people don’t – but the people who don’t, eventually get really mad and usually they try to hurt Paul. He’s been dodging rocks and running away from mobs and riots all over the ancient middle eastern world. Last time we were in Acts we saw that Paul is determined to get to Jerusalem. And at the end of chapter 20, he gives tearful goodbyes, and he hops on a boat with a couple buddies bound for Jerusalem.
[read v.1-3] Well, he’s TRYING to get to Jerusalem. One thing we have to remember about travel in the ancient world is that there are no commercial options available. There’s no bus schedule or delayed flights. If you wanted to travel by boat, and you weren’t rich enough to OWN the boat – then you just sort of went wherever the boat was going. Personal travel back in the day was a lot more like hitchhiking than catching a train. Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Cyprus, Syria , Tyre – we’re bouncing all over, because most likely the boat was a merchant of some sort – trying to sell it’s cargo in different cities. [read v.4-6]. I want you to imagine this beautiful picture of community. He ends up in Tyre for a week, hangs out with the believers there. They warn him, “you don’t want to go to Jerusalem,” but then when it’s time for him to leave – they all walk down to the beach together. The men, but also their wives and children, all the way down to the docks, and then they all gathered and kneeled down on the beach and prayed together – saying goodbye. It’s just this weirdly beautiful, intimate moment for the church, and when I say church I mean the people – because we are the church.
So Paul gets on the boat, still headed for Jerusalem. He bounces around a few more cities and then he ends up at a buddies house, a guy by the name of Philip. Well, actually – he has a title, Philip The Evangelist. And he has four daughters who are all prophetesses. Do you remember prophets? These guys are such weirdos – their job is to bring God’s message to the people, they are the voice of God – but usually they are very dramatic. Do you remember Jeremiah wearing moldy underwear to make a point? Prophets are really fun to read about because they’re always doing some crazy big dramatic gesture to make a point about God’s message. So Paul is hanging out with his buddy Philip and all his prophetess daughters, and then [read v.10-11]. Prophet Agabus shows up, takes Paul’s belt and ties himself up. Paul’s probably standing there all awkward – come on man, give me back my belt. But the message is clear – Agabus says, “if you go to Jerusalem, they’re going to tie you up.” And then look at the way the people respond, [read v.12-14]. No, Paul – please don’t go! And then Paul says, “come on! Stop making me cry, you’re breaking my heart. There’s a warning, there’s people freaking out because they love him and they want good things, and then there’s acceptance. They see Paul’s going to Jerusalem no matter what, and so they accept it. “The will of the Lord be done.” Which is NOT an easy thing to do, when someone you love is doing something that you think might get them killed!
So anyways, after all that crazy travelling – they finally make it to Jerusalem, staying at a buddy’s house. Guy named Mnason. I have no idea how to pronounce these names, but it’s M-N-and then ason. Mnason. And they meet with James and some of the other elders of the church in Jerusalem. Christians who live in Jerusalem, but it’s basically an underground church. Verse 19 [read v.19-20a]. Paul tells them about everything he’s up to and they are so excited and so supportive. You know what I don’t see? Competition. Oh man, that church is doing better than our church. Nope – just “praise God because people get to hear about Jesus.” But then the leaders of the church in Jerusalem sort of sit Paul down and get real with him. They say, “Look buddy – you’ve been kicking the hornet’s nest, and the Jewish folks are ticked off. They are accusing you of stuff and basically your name is mud right now in this city.” So they come up with a plan – we need to remind everyone that you grew up a good Jewish boy. You’re going to go to the temple, we’ve got some guys who can go with you – do the ritual purification, sacrifices that you’ve grown up with. It’ll take a week, but that will do a lot to release the pressure valve on this explosive situation. We’ve got to remind people that you’re not anti-Jewish. So Paul agrees, and he goes down and he starts doing the purification stuff, offering the sacrifices and whatever.
[read v.27]. Now, if you remember – Paul has been travelling all over Asia telling people about Jesus, so when it says these were Jews from Asia – there’s a pretty good chance these are the same people who have been chasing Paul out of town everywhere he goes. But this time, they actually grab him. [read v.30-31]. Took less than a week for the prophecy to come true, for the city to turn on him. So they make such a ruckus that the Romans get involved. [read v.32-33]. Romans come in, which is handy because he’s not going to get killed by the mob – but less handy because he’s still in chains. He’s still arrested. The crowd is still there shouting confusing things, and it gets so bad that the soldiers actually end up carrying Paul to the barracks. They can’t goose-step him out in handcuffs, because the crowd is so crazy.
And at the last second, Paul speaks to the commander. [read v.37]. Paul speaks to the Roman Commander, in Greek, and the commander was surprised that he could speak Greek. Now WE know Paul, he’s a Roman citizen who used to travel a lot, he used to be a Pharisee. He’s well educated and can hold his own – but that’s not the impression you give the police when you’re getting dragged out of church by the church leaders. He says, “wait, you speak Greek?” Verse 38, [read v.38] I must have skipped a chapter, Roman Commander has Paul mixed up with some military leader of assassins. – which honestly, would be way cooler on the resume. [read v.39-40]. And that’s the end of the chapter. They wind us all the way up and don’t even finish the story! Next week, we’ll see that Paul is about to give his testimony, to tell his story, try and defend himself.
Now, every time I read the bible – especially when I’m preparing to teach it to other people, I always ask myself, “okay, where is God in this story?” Because I have a conviction that every piece of scripture is designed to teach us about the character of God – I go looking, “what does this story tell us about God.” But I’ll be honest with you, it’s kind of hard to find today. This chapter feels more like a travel log for Paul, God is not super evident. Right? I mean, where is God in this chapter? But when I looked closer, and I asked God for guidance. I saw God in the relationships and the community. I saw God in the hospitality and the storytelling. I think about the way the people in Tyre, whole families, walked him to the beach, and they all prayed together in the sand before Paul got on the boat. And then when Paul gets to Philip’s house – Philip The Evangelist – and there’s all those prophets, his daughters and that guy Agabus. And when the community hears that Paul is headed for danger, the way they challenge him and beg him to stay safe, and then the way they encourage him. Then when Paul gets to Jerusalem, and the first thing they have to do is sit down and Paul just gushes with all the stories of what God has been doing in all the places that Paul travelled. There is incredible presence of God in the people Paul finds in his travels. The good news this morning is that God has given us community to challenge us and encourage us. God is found in the people next to you. The people who pray for you, lift you up, challenge you, hold you accountable. That is where you find God in the travel log of an apostle.
Back in the 80’s there was a man who got fired from his white collar office job. He did something wrong, got caught, got removed. After a bit he took up a construction job just to put bread on the table. But it was not something he was well trained at. He was suddenly plunged into a drastically different world. Instead of going to an office each day, he was hauling loads of congcrete block up to the fifth level of a construction site. Gone was the piped-in music in the corridors, now he had to endure blaring transistors. The foreman of the project – his leadership skills were limited to basically just yelling at people and trying to intimidate them. “For crying out loud, can’t you do anything right? I never worked with such a bunch _____ in all my life…” And you can sprinkle in the curse words. Three weeks in, the new guy felt like he couldn’t take it any more. He said to himself, “Alright I’ll work till break time this morning, and then that’s it – I’m quitting and going home. He’d already been the butt of several jokes because his inexperience caused him to mess up all the time. “I can’t handle it anymore” Break came around, he was doing okay – I’ll finish out the morning, and then leave at lunchtime.
Now right before noon, the foreman came around with paychecks. As he handed the man his envelope he said, “Hey, there’s a woman working in the front office who knows you. Says she takes care of your kids sometimes.” “Who?” The foreman gave the name, and it was a lady who sometimes helped in the nursery of the church where the man and his family worshipped. The foreman kept going on the rest of his rounds. The guy opened up his paycheck, and he found right next to the actual check, a little handwritten note from payroll. It said, “When one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer with it. Just wanted you to know that I’m praying for you these days.” The man stared at the note, astonished at God’s timing. He hadn’t even known the woman worked for this company. Here he was at his lowest hour, and she had given the courage to go one more day, to push one more wheelbarrow of mortar up that ramp.
The good news this morning is that God has given us community to challenge us and encourage us. The function of the church is to gather believers for worship and for growth. That’s what we do in this place. The measure of a good church is not size or music or even how good the children’s programs are. The measure of a good church is whether or not they are people who will love you when you are down, encourage you. And are they people who will challenge you when you need to be challenged? If you have that, just a couple people in a community who push you closer to Jesus? If you have that, you have everything you need. God has given us community to challenge us and encourage us.
I have two challenges for each of us coming from this teaching. First – I want you to find someone who loves you enough to disagree with you. Disagreeing with someone can be an act of love. Find someone who loves you enough to disagree with you, when you need that. Someone who is willing to say “no” to your face, because they care about your growth. Now, I know that every single husband just got an elbow to the ribs – and there’s some truth to that – husband and wife is sort of a built in accountability - but let me push it beyond that. It is also helpful for us to have someone in our corner from the same gender, who is invested in our growth. For example, we all have people who call us friend and they’ll stand by us no matter what. When you’re going through something, you can go to them and whine, and they’ll say – man that’s terrible. They are automatically on your side. Those are wonderful friends to have, people who are constantly rooting for you. But then there are other friends, you can always go to them, and they love you so much – but they are also willing to slap you upside the head and tell you when you’re being an idiot. Now friend number 1, it’s always nice to have a few of those in your corner. Rooting for you, cheering for you, encouraging you. But friend number 2? Those are the true treasures. Find someone who loves you enough to disagree with you – that’s the first challenge.
The second challenge I have for you this morning is to BE someone who loves people enough to disagree with your friend. Be friend number two. And I know, I can already see it, some of you are like, “loves to disagree? I’m perfect for that job. Sign me up!” But that’s not what I said. I said I want you to love people enough to disagree, and what I mean by that is I want you to challenge and encourage your neighbor. In most churches, and this church is no exception – we don’t talk to people about their issues, we talk ABOUT people’s issues to someone else. If someone is doing something wrong, or living their life in a way that is counter to God’s way – we need to love them enough to disagree. But let me put this condition on it. If you cannot do it from a foundation of love, you should not be out there disagreeing with people. Does that make sense? We don’t need more people who are willing to disagree, we need more people who are willing to love so much, to want what’s best for someone so much that they are willing to disagree. This is the heart of community, this is basic disciple-making. I love you so much, I want what’s best for you so bad – I am willing to disagree with you and talk directly to you about it. Not because I’m right and you’re wrong, not because I win and you lose – but because I genuinely, lovingly want you to grow closer to Jesus. Find someone who loves you enough to disagree with you, and then be that for someone else. Basically my big application for this sermon is for each of us and all of us to dive deeper into community with one another, because God gave us this community to challenge us and encourage us to grow.
John Wesley was so obsessed with building authentic, encouraging and challenging community that he came up with a series of questions for people to ask one another every single week. For a lot of people it was too intense, it was too rigorous, too real. Today I think the very idea of it would shock a lot of people. Chuck Swindoll adapted it. Wesley had 22 questions, Chuck got it down to 7. Every time he got together with his men’s group he would ask these seven questions. 1. Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising? 2.) Have any of your financial dealings lacked integrity? 3.) Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material? 4. Have you spent adequate time in Bible study and prayer? 5. Have you given priority time to your family? 6. Have you fulfilled the mandates of your calling (as a Christian)? And my personal favorite, question number 7. (In any of the previous questions) - Have you just lied to me? He would ask these guys those seven questions every week. And they would ask him. There was this mutual accountability. And it’s not about the specific questions, you can swap out what makes sense for you in your situation. A true friend is not just a friend who is going to blindly agree with you on whatever’s going on – a true friend knows you better than that. I love you all very much, but there’s not a person in this room that I would just blindly agree with on all things forever. I know you sinners too well for that. Find someone who loves you enough to disagree with you, and then be that person for someone else.
Decades ago, Jean Nidetch wanted to lose some weight. She couldn’t do it without a support system, and when she gathered some friends around – she founded Weight Watchers, which was one of the most successful programs for years and years. She said, “you give a kid a push on the swings, and pretty soon he’s pumping – doing it himself.” God has given us community to challenge and encourage us. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that the function of church is to gather believers for worship and growth. And may your life become equal parts challenge and encouragement for the people around you. Amen.