Raven Cannon, Children's PastorAugust 19, 2019
Guest Speaker David Brickner encourages us to live boldly and humbly in times of struggle.
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Oh, thank you so much. I love my church. I love Cornerstone. It’s such a blessing to be a part of a real community. So whether you’re here, online, or at Riordan, I love you guys. I’m so glad that we can be a part of this community. I have really enjoyed and loved this serious rise. I’ve been asked to share several times where we are encountering and engaging with those first Jews for Jesus. Peter, James, and John, as they rose up in the face of lots of challenges to be what has now become the single greatest, most international, diverse community worldwide that has done good for our world, our planet.
I’m really glad that Cornerstone doesn’t publish in advance the titles of our talks because I’m afraid if they did, some of you may have chosen not to be here today. If you notice, it says rise up in suffering. I mean, who wants to sign up for that. It really is counterintuitive to consider the fact that rising up in suffering has really been one of the keys to the growth of the church. The second-century church leader, Father Tertullian wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
It’s what I call ‘the second law of spiritual thermodynamics.’ Namely, the greater the heat, the greater the opposition, the greater the suffering, the greater the expansion, the growth, and yes, the blessing of the church. It’s so counterintuitive to some of the things that we hear in our Western culture. Even from some Christian leaders in the west, that suffering is a part of God’s plan to expand and bless His people. Some people, when they see the suffering of others, are indignant. Most become indifferent and numb to it because it’s so pervasive. But I’ll tell you, there is some consistency across the board when it comes to the issue of suffering for us as individuals. That is, we’d like to avoid it at all costs. Isn’t that right? But you know what? That’s not what the scriptures teach. That’s not the voice of the Lord. It certainly wasn’t the experience of this early church. Or the church through the ages.
So what I want to do today is take a look at the story that we’re in, the Book of Acts chapter five. Let’s listen to the voices that are being heard in this story. I think we’ll find that the voices back then are similar, very similar, to what we hear today. We can learn from how those early Christ-followers responded to their situation as they rose up in the face of genuine suffering. The story today is a continuation of what we looked at last week. You might remember that Peter and John were arrested by the Sanhedrin. That’s the high council of the Jewish people. 70 of the leaders were given the power and authority over the entire community, the power of life and death. The apostles were arrested and roughly thrown into prison without any trial. They were brought out and warned: do not speak the name of Jesus ever, ever again. This was the second time in this whole account that they were warned. Peter amazingly stands up and says, “Hey, listen, not going to happen. You have to decide, but for us, we’re going to choose to serve God rather than people.” That’s the backdrop of how the response comes in our story today. I see basically three different voices that I want us to pay attention to in the story. The voice of mayhem, the voice of moderation, and the voice of Messiah. Mayhem, if not a common word, basically means little order or control, chaos, and sometimes destructive violence.
Let’s take a look and see what happens when the Sanhedrin hear this. The high council was furious and decided to kill them. But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. He said to his colleagues, “Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men. Some time ago, there was that fellow Theudas who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed and all his followers went their various ways. And the whole movement came to nothing. After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed too. All his followers were scattered. So my advice is to leave these men alone, let them go. If they’re planning and doing these things merely on their own, they will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.”
The others in the Sanhedrin accepted his advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged. They ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. Every day in the temple, from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: Jesus is the Messiah.
First, this voice of mayhem is clearly seen in the response of the Sanhedrin to Peter’s saying, we’re not going to do what you want us to do. We’re going to listen to God. What does it say in this first verse? They were furious over a religious dispute. This is not just annoyance. This is not even just anger. This is inflamed, impassioned, and furious. There’s an amazing sense in which this destructive violence would then lead to the next part of what they’re going to do, which is to kill the apostles. For just saying I want to obey God rather than men. Yes that’s it exactly. If they had done it, it would have actually been illegal in both Jewish and Roman law because you can’t put someone to death without a full trial. Yet, that was what the Sanhedrin had come to because of their emotional response to these words from the apostle Peter.
In verse 40, we see what they ultimately did in their mayhem. They flogged Peter and John. Let’s not move past that too quickly because flogging was torture. Basically, you take a whip of calfskin that’s been dried and made hard. You expose the bare backs of the people you’re going to torture. Then you start hitting. In Jewish law, you couldn’t exceed 40, and so that’s what everybody got 40 lashes with this whip. You could begin to see that by the time you get to 10, 15, 20, the flesh starts to come off the back. By the time 40 is over many pass out. It’s a bloody mess. This is just flat-out torture. This is the mayhem that results from the Sanhedrin’s power encounter with the disciples that said, “no, we’re listening to God and not to you”. A remarkable thing. Ultimately they say, once again, don’t speak the name of Jesus again. We refuse to hear it and then they let them go.
No freedom of speech. Just shut up. This behavior from our day and age may at first appear to be a bit unusual, extreme. But I don’t think so. The Sanhedrin has totally lost its credibility as a deliberative religious body. They’re a bad example, but they’re not unique. All over the world we actually see this same kind of behavior happening even today. Where religious or political extremists resort to this kind of thing. Followers of Jesus today are being jailed and executed for their faith all around the world. According to Open Doors this year alone, in 2019, 4,136 Christians have been martyred for their faith just so far. 2,625 Christians have been detained without trial, sentenced, and imprisoned. 1,226 churches have been attacked, burned.
You can go to Open Door’s website and see for yourself. It’s not just out there, but even here. Even in our own city, we see this kind of mayhem, perhaps not quite in the way we see it elsewhere. Think about social media. What a hotbed of the voice of mayhem. If flogging and murder aren’t seen then, certainly not literally, that behavior, attitude, and furious reaction to opposing viewpoints. Particularly if somebody is holding a viewpoint that accepts Biblical views on morality. People who have that statement can be downright censored and stigmatized. Their employment is threatened even today. Yes, there are religious and political extremists alive and well on college campuses and social media platforms. People become enraged by opposing points of view. They get bullied. They get threatened by those who disagree with them. Most of all, they want to silence them. They want to shut them up just like in the early church. This is not just a condition of the community back then, no. It’s a condition of the human heart. It’s prevalent and becoming more so in our day. But Jesus called us who follow Him to a much higher standard. In the Sermon On The Mount, He said, “you have heard that our ancestors were told you must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment. But I say to you, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment.”
Wow. I mean, who hasn’t been angry? What an incredible standard. When we talk about anger, we’re not just talking about a monochrome thing. The Bible says “Be angry and sin not.” There is an anger that is out of control. Like what we see here in the voice of mayhem. It’s in the heart, folks. It comes out in the way we behave and live our lives. I have to confess, it’s been part of my life.
Growing up, I would get frustrated. There was a very fast on-ramp to real, out-of-control anger. Once, when I was in high school, I put my fist through my bedroom wall. Thankfully it was always directed towards inanimate objects. I had that much control, but it persisted throughout my life. Not all the time, but sometimes I would just lose it and punch something. Even to the point when I became the executive director of Jews for Jesus. I remember one particular day. It was a long day. It was a frustrating day and I got home late. I was so upset that I went into the living room and it was dark. I hauled off and I punched as hard as I could the side of this wingback chair there. Folks, I broke my hand. Ouch. Do you know what?
The very next day I had to take off for a trip to New York City, and then to Miami, where I was speaking. This created some problems for me because if you ever had a broken hand, it’s kind of hard to button your shirt. If you have to put on a tie, you need help. Of course, I was getting help from people, but every time they would ask me, so how did you hurt your hand? What do you say? I can still remember to this day, the night I was driving back from my last event to the hotel. I was going to fly back home. I heard the voice of the Lord saying, I know you feel humiliated, but I’m trying to humble you. I just broke down. I started weeping as I drove and I said “God, I’ve been dealing with this for too long. Please take this from me, please.” Do you know what? He did. Let me say that I still get angry. I still get frustrated, but I haven’t hit anything since then in anger. That’s been 20 years. Is it because I have such great willpower?
It’s because I invited the Holy Spirit to come in and do His work in my heart. I’m so thankful for that because what He did was take the anger and replace it with the fruit of the spirit, which is patience. When you’re getting frustrated and angry, what do you need? You need patience with love and joy. So how are we doing folks in this world that are so quick to rage and anger? So quick to despise others who hold different viewpoints? Well, if we’re struggling with it, my advice is to let Jesus do a little surgery. A little heart surgery. Let Him replace the anger and frustration with joy, peace, patience, and long-suffering. Isn’t that so much better than the alternative? Voices of mayhem are all around us. How do we respond?
Well, look at the voice of moderation. We’ve got Gamaliel in this story, who is an amazing model of moderation as this proceeds. Now his name, Gamaliel, means “God is my reward.” He was a very important man in Jewish history. The Talmud talks about him as one of the greatest teachers in Jewish law. He was the grandson of Rabbi Hillel who was considered and is considered, the greatest rabbi in Jewish history. In fact, if you go to the University of California, Berkeley, or other campuses, and you’re looking for the Jewish fraternity, it’s called the Hillel house. Gamaliel was the direct descendant of this man. In fact, he was also the one who mentored and taught the apostle Paul. Paul talks about him in Acts, chapter 22. He says, “I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem, under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did”. That was the fruit of Gamaliel’s work in the life of the apostle.
One other fact about this man, according to an ancient second-century Christian tradition, Gamaliel ultimately became a follower of Jesus himself and was baptized by Peter and John. Today in the Greek Orthodox Church, he is revered as a Saint. But right here in this story, he’s not there yet. Not by any stretch. He’s the Nasi, “the prince” in Hebrew. In other words, he’s the real leader of the Sanhedrin. Look at what he does. He stands up and he’s willing to stand against the mayhem, the force of all of the other directions that everybody was going in with their opinion. He’s a man of great wisdom. He cautions them: “let’s slow down.” He’s not a follower of Jesus, but he’s not an enraged opponent either. He says, “let’s think about this. Let’s be patient.” He says, “let’s learn from history.”
Gamaliel mentions Judas and Theudas. Judas and Theudas, yeah, we all know about them, right? We don’t know a whole lot about them, except for this passage. Judas and Theudas actually had people who followed them into rebellion against the Sanhedrin. What Gamaliel is pointing out is, each one of them ultimately died and their followers dispersed. Gamaliel’s reasoning here is that Jesus died. He doesn’t know about the resurrection. He doesn’t know about the coming of the Holy Spirit. He says, Jesus died, so let’s take some time. Let’s give it some space. Probably the same thing’s going to happen to Jesus that happened to Judas and Theudus. He didn’t know. He gives room for God to speak in this whole situation. If for some reason, this is of God, don’t withstand it because you’re going to be fighting, not against these people, but against God.
What an amazing persuasive argument. They listened to him, the tolerance, the moderation. What a welcomed difference from the mayhem of the rest of his group. As I thought about this and the example of Gamaliel for our day, I imagined that there are perhaps a number of people here who could identify with Gamaliel. You may not yet be a follower of Jesus, but you’re not an opponent. You’re looking, you’re searching. You’re open to hearing from God about all this Jesus stuff and this community that you find yourself in today. That’s a good thing because remember what Gamaliel means. “God is my reward.” The Bible says, “if you seek Me, and you find, and search for Me with all your heart, you will be found by Me”. God wants to reward those who are willing to leave room for Him to show up. Let Him show up in your life. You may just be following in the footsteps of one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world. Voice of moderation.
Third, the voice of the Messiah. This is witnessed in how the apostles responded to all of this. The apostles in verse 41, “left the high council.” Remember how, in what state, they were leaving. They had just been flogged. They had been tortured. Blood is flowing down their backs. They’re weakened by the loss. It says, “They left rejoicing. Rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus.” What a remarkable response to that frightening and painful experience. But you know what, Cornerstone? If we’re going to rise like the early followers of Jesus, we need to be prepared to rise up in suffering.
I have just four things I want us to consider as we apply this to our lives. The first is that we need to learn to rejoice in suffering. That’s what they did. By this, I don’t mean some sort of bizarre spiritual masochism. Suffering is not good in and of itself. It’s not, it never is. We know from the Bible that God can and often does work through suffering to accomplish His purpose, which is good. Because of this, we can rejoice in the midst of suffering. You say, ‘well, David, I’m not suffering much right now.’ Be patient. It’s on its way. It’s not something to be avoided at all costs. That’s what we hear from our culture. That’s not what we hear in the voice of the Lord. Often when we experience suffering, what’s the first question we ask? “Why? Why is this happening to me?” This may not be very comforting, but in one sense, an answer to that question is why not? Why should we, you or me, be exempt from what is part of the human condition? The experience that every one of us has to go through. We can thank God that we aren’t suffering as much as we might be. We can thank God that we aren’t suffering as much as some other people in the world. But the greatest observers of the human condition have all said, this is to be expected. Job said, “people are born to trouble as readily as sparks fly upward from a fire.”
When suffering comes on us, instead of asking ‘why?’, perhaps a better question for us to ask is ‘what?’ What’s God up to in all of this? What, God, do you want to do in and through me as a result of what I’m going through right now? Let’s not be so quick to dismiss the possibility that suffering is very much an integral part of that. What does CS Lewis write in his book ‘The Problem of Pain’? He says, “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures. He speaks in our consciences but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
The Psalmist said “my suffering was good for me. For it taught me to pay attention to your, to God’s, decrees.” Have you found that somehow when you’re going through something really tough that the scriptures actually become more alive to you? You read the Psalms and you realize what real life is, and how people can respond to it through the power of God. Through His word.
I remember once seeing my mentor, the founder of Jews for Jesus organization Moishe Rosen, coming back to the office after lunch. He looked really bewildered and was rubbing his jaw, which was bright red. I said, “what’s the matter Moishe?” He said, “this homeless guy just up and hauled off and punched me in the chin right out of the blue and knocked me down.” If you know Moishe Rosen, he was over 320 pounds. So this was a hard punch. I said, “I’m sorry, Moishe.” AHe says, “You know what the worst part of it was? He didn’t even know I was a Christian. What a waste!” He was depressed. But Moishe was expressing something that I think a lot of us have thought. That is that somehow it’s only the suffering that comes as a result of our faith in Jesus that counts.
I’ve come to see things a bit differently, frankly. I believe that in Jesus, there is no such thing as meaningless suffering. If we belong to Him, then all our suffering is shared by Him. We serve a God who suffered. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Lutheran pastor who was murdered by the Nazis, says “only a suffering God can help.” That’s the amazing thing about our faith. Putting our faith in Jesus, we have entered into His suffering and death. This is so we can share in His resurrection and in His glory. Because Jesus knows our suffering, He enters into it with us. An option available only to those who follow after Him. When He enters into it, He lifts us up and helps us to bear it. Cornerstone, people are watching us all the time and they see us all the time. When things are going well, but perhaps even more so, they’ll look at us when things are not going so well. What will they see?
Will they see Jesus? Will they see that we’ve entered in, and therefore share with Him, in that suffering and see us rejoice? Paul said, “I’m glad when I suffer for you in my body.” In his letter to the Colossians. “For I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for His body, the church.” When we bring our suffering to Jesus, it will always have meaning to a suffering God. It’s how we can rejoice. Even today, even now, even in the midst of suffering.
Second, we need to learn in rising up to trust in a sovereign God. That means a God who has it all together even if we don’t. We need to ask and answer the same question that Abraham asked when he was negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He said, “should not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” Do we believe that He will? Or do we think, ah, God, we have a better idea? No. Faith means trusting God, regardless of the circumstances, including suffering. We have to trust that He knows what is best for us, That He wants what is best for us. He will do what is best for us. When we can stretch ourselves out on that kind of a God, we will experience the power of God to rejoice even in the midst of suffering.
When I was going through my own dark night of the soul, I remember somebody one day, it was about 10 years ago now, saying to me, David, how are you feeling right now? These words came out. I said, “I feel powerless in the palm of Providence.” Think about that. No one likes to feel powerless, but sometimes we just are. Is there any better place to be when that comes about than in the palm of Providence, the sovereign God? We trust Him. We are suffering and can’t seem to do anything about it. So we are there. We’re there and we can look to Him. We can ask Him for help. He will often send it in the form of others who can support us in the midst of the suffering.
Third, we need to be willing to accept disgrace. Disgrace means experiencing a loss of reputation, a loss of respect. Why were the apostles rejoicing? Because God, they said, had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. We’re so worried about what other people will think about us when we should be more concerned about what God thinks about us. He smiles on us when we’re willing to forgo reputation for His name’s sake. The author of Hebrews said, “so Jesus also suffered and died outside the city gates to make His people holy by means of His own blood. So let us go out to Him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace He bore”.
What was that disgrace? What did it look like? It was the cross. He died outside the city gates and we are to go out to Him out there as well. Outside the camp as a throwback, to an older Testament reference that everything that was seen as defiled was put outside the camp. Many people today like to wear a cross around their neck as a beautiful piece of jewelry. But I want to remind us that Jesus didn’t wear a cross. The cross wore Him and it was a symbol of disgrace and judgment. Jesus said, “if you’re going to come after Me, take up your cross and follow Me daily.” Do we look at that as a burden to be borne? We should view it as a badge of honor. A badge of honor.
Finally, we should remain eager to share Christ. The text says “they continued to teach and preach this message: Jesus is the Messiah.” It’s a simple message. What did it mean to them? It meant that all of the promises that they had been waiting to see fulfilled over hundreds of years through the prophets, had now come to fruition. It had now been fulfilled in the person of Jesus. God had come into our own experience. That meant, even though we were still under the thumb of Roman domination, life was going to get better and better. For us today, similarly, this is good news. God intends human flourishing because of Jesus.
In First Peter, three, it says “you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks you about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it, but do this in a gentle and respectful way.” That’s the call to all of us, to live out our faith in Him and invite others to do likewise. So Cornerstone, as we rise up as a community of faith here in this area, let’s do so recognizing that sometimes it will be rising up in the midst of suffering. Let’s stop asking the why and start asking the what question. What is God doing in our midst? How is He going to use this to glorify Himself? Let’s trust Him. Let’s rejoice in Him. Let’s identify with Him in the sight of all the people around us. If we experience disgrace or scorn, it’s not a burden. Let’s wear it as a badge of honor.
During the Holocaust, there was a Lutheran pastor named Ernst Lohmeyer. He opposed the Nazis and so he was imprisoned and sentenced to death but miraculously was freed by the incoming Russian army. Who let him out of prison only to rearrest him and ultimately kill him in the Russian prison. His story is recorded in the book ‘Between the Swastika and the Sickle.’ The pressure, those two anti-God voices he lived in, and he said this: “If God were to snatch us out of trials, we would then be tried in ways that would be endlessly deeper and greater than all the trials that we must endure inhuman circumstances. But dear friends”, he said, “even in the deepest trials, the sound of His voice is perceptible. Blowing over us like incense.”
What are we hearing today? What voices are we listening to? Let’s listen for the voice of the Lord. In a world full of suffering may it be that precious, sweet-smelling incense that in the midst of every circumstance allows us to rise, allows us to rise even in the midst of suffering. There’s this phrase that says, “yes, I will.” I encourage you to consider the words, consider what God has been saying to you today, and to respond in faith, maybe under your breath, but say it to the Lord. “Yes, I will. Yes, I will.”
Let’s pray. Lord, we would not choose the path of humiliation. We would not choose the path of humility. We would not choose the path of suffering, but sometimes you choose it for us so that you might be glorified and our lives might be made richer. We trust you, Lord. We say, come what may we will rise. We will rejoice. We will embrace Your good word so that we can enter into what Jesus experienced for us, that we might share in the glory that is to come. It’s in His name we pray. Amen.