(Below is the manuscript from yesterdays sermon based on Acts 5:27-42).
I think it is fair to say that we do not always make the best decisions in high stress situations. When we face pressure the voice of fear or anxiety often crowds out the voice of wisdom.
We have had a problem with bees and wasps at our house over the past couple of years. When I encounter them inside the house I often react in irrational ways. It doesn’t register, for example, that it is a bad idea to try and kill a bee while it sits on a fragile lamp, or that it is a bad idea to squash it with your wife’s library book. Fear can cause us to make bad decisions.
In our text today, the apostles are facing a highly stressful situation. Their very lives are at risk for disobeying the religious institution. In this high-pressure situation it would have been easy for them to sacrifice their convictions. Yet, with great courage they say, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Somehow they do not allow the voices of fear crowd out the voice of God.
What I want to explore this morning is how we might cultivate that type of courage in our lives as well. For, while we do not face the level of persecution they face , we need courage in our own way. We need courage to confront problems at work, to stand up to injustice, to speak truth to people in our lives, and to honestly face our own brokenness.
The apostles say, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” We are going to make this verse our focal point today and explore both sides of the statement. First, we are going to look at some of the voices of “human authority” that we may be tempted to listen to. Our text highlights what some of these voices of authority are. We’ll call them the voice of fear, the voice of avoidance, and the voice of skepticism. Then I want us to explore how we might follow in the apostle’s footsteps and courageously choose to obey the voice of God.
The Voice Of Fear
The first voice that the apostles would be tempted to listen to is the voice of fear. The apostles have gotten themselves into trouble for proclaiming Christ and demonstrating his love to marginalized and the sick. Back in verse 15 it says people are literally bringing the sick on cots so that they apostles can minister to them.
In verse 17 it says that the religious leaders are jealous. They see that the disciples are making an impact and gaining a following and they want to bring an end to it. This anger comes to a head in verse 33 where it says that “they were furious and wanted to put them to death.”
Fear has a way of causing us to compromise our values. Survival is a powerful motivation
During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. ‘You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?’
“Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, ‘Now you know why.’ (1)
It is easy to call others out on this issue. But it is important for us to own up to the ways we are tempted to obey the voice of fear. Perhaps this morning you might reflect on some of the fears that prevent you from courageously living out your calling as a disciple. It may be the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of burning out, fear of being taken advantage of. The voice of fear is a common voice that we listen to often. It can prevent us from following through with the plans God has for us.
The Voice Of Avoidance
Another powerful voice that would have been tempting for the apostles to listen to was the voice of avoidance. This is what the religious leaders have fallen victim to. You see the ministry of the apostles was very disruptive to the Pharisees. The apostles were calling into question the way things have always been done, they were challenging authority structures, and they were compromising the delicate balance of power the Pharisees were trying to hold on to under Roman occupation. One commentator writes that these religious leaders were trying to “keep their own people from causing too much trouble for the Roman occupation forces.” (2)
They wanted to avoid change. Change os too risky. Change os too disruptive. It is more convenient to keep up the status quo
I think the voice of avoidance is tempting for us to listen to as well. Last week I rented a thatcher and tore up the lawn so that I could deal with all of the moss and weeds that had taken over. As I did so I was reminded that things often have to get worse before they get better. When I was done with the thatcher there was almost no lawn left. In a moment of fear I wondered, “what have a I done.” Anyone who has done a home renovation can attest to this dynamic.
This same dynamic plays itself out in our lives. I encounter this when I do marriage counseling. Sometimes things have to get a bit worse before they can get better. Hurts need to be addressed and acknowledged before forgiveness can happen.
In the midst of that process it is tempting to avoid the problem. In doing this, though, we shortchange ourselves. We miss out on a better future. Whether it is a better lawn, a better relationship, or a deeper faith – we miss out if we avoid dealing with the obstacles and challenges in our way.
All you have to do is compare the lives of the apostles with these uptight religious leaders. Who do you want to be like? The apostles are taking the risk but they experiencing a vibrant faith and they are impacting the world in a powerful way. The religious leaders, by contrast, are stuck in bitterness, fear and jealously. Avoidance comes with a great cost.
The Voice Of Skepticism:
Another human voice that we may be tempted to listen to is the voice of skepticism. This is illustrated for us in the response of Gamaliel. In a lot of ways Gamaliel can be viewed in a positive way. He essentially saves the lives of the apostles. He also wisely states that it is futile to oppose God.
However, Gamaliel is skeptical that God is in this. He reminds the Pharisees of previous movements that did not amount to anything. He suggests that the same thing will probably happen to the ministry of the apostles. “Let it run its course,” he says. In the meantime he is content to sit on the fence and wait and see what happens. He does not join the work of the apostles. He does not follow Christ. His skepticism causes him to passively observe from the sidelines
I think that skepticism gets in the way of courage for us as well. We aren’t able to courageously follow God if we are skeptical about whether God is at work in our world.
I’m reading a book right now by Dallas Willard called, Knowing Christ Today: Why we can trust spiritual knowledge. He suggests that, “In the context of modern life and thought, [Christians] are urged to treat their central beliefs as something other than knowledge— something, in fact, far short of knowledge. Those beliefs are to be relegated to the categories of sincere opinion, emotion, or blind commitment.” (3)
The consensus today is that religious belief is not rooted in reality. It is just blind faith, or it is our personal belief. “You can believe what you want to believe, it doesn’t really matter.”
What Willard argues in this book is that spiritual knowledge is actually grounded in more than just personal opinion. While there is a lot of mystery to God, and while we humble admit that we don’t have all the answers, our faith is grounded in more than just a blind commitment. There are very good reasons to believe in God. The presence of God is well supported by reason, scripture, experience, and natural revelation.
Willard argues that we need a dose of confidence in our faith. We need to reject the skepticism of our contemporary culture, which reduces faith to something that has no grounding in reality.
Perhaps, one of the ways we might cultivate courage is to pursue answers to some of the questions and doubts we have. Thomas Merton writes, “Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked.”(4)
What I appreciate about this quote is that Merton does not judge us for our questions. Instead he invites us to create space to get our doubts out in the open and work towards building a stronger foundation for our faith.
The Voice Of God:
In the face of pressure it is easy for us to submit to the voice of fear, the voice of avoidance and the voice of skepticism. Yet, the Apostles choose instead to submit to God. They courageously say, ““We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
So what enables them to listen to this voice over and above the other voices that they are hearing? Where do they get the courage to stand up for their convictions?
The answer lies in the followup speech by Peter. Peter says: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things.”
The Apostles courage is made possible because they have kept their eyes focused on Jesus. They are able to look beyond fear to the deeper hope that Jesus has overcome death and has provided the means of repentance of and forgiveness.
This is not just a theoretical kind of knowledge. The text says that have “witnessed” these things. Their encounter with Christ is not just based on second hand information. They have been transformed by a deep personal encounter with Christ. Christ is real to them.
Timothy Keller suggests that there are two ways to cultivate courage. We can try either defiance or hope (5). Defiance is what the self-help books teach us. One technique that is often promoted is to visualize yourself conquering your fear successfully so that you will build confidence. Courage is cultivated through the power of positive thinking. We overcome fear by saying, “these things aren’t going to happen.”
This works to some degree. But the problem with this approach to overcoming fear is that our fears often are based in reality. Keller asks, “Do I need to be delusional to be courageous?” (6) Do I need to filter out reality? What happens if reality is difficult? What happens to our courage when things don’t work out as we hoped?
A great example of this defiance model of overcoming fear is when you are driving your car down a really narrow street. I don’t know if you have every done this, but sometimes I when I’m driving through a tight space I just squint my eyes and hope I don’t hit anything. I trick myself into thinking that if I just squint hard enough I’ll be ok. It’s a really bad plan when you think about it! Here’s hoping you are right! That is the defiance approach to courage. Just think it will be o.k. (7)
The apostles, however, root their courage in something deeper. Their courage is shaped by focusing on the deeper hope that nothing can separate them from the love of God. They fix there eyes on Jesus who had the courage to face death on the cross knowing that even death could be redeemed by God. The apostle’s hope is not rooted in denial, it is rooted in the hope that God is with us even in suffering. It is rooted in their hope that God can redeem even the deepest hurts and the deepest pain. They are able to risk persecution and death because they have encountered the hope of Easter. In other words, obeying Jesus was worth the risk, for in Christ they had found a true and unshakeable hope.
We displace fear by keeping our eyes fixed on Christ and what we know to be true about him. Praise and thanksgiving chase away fear. Peter talks down the voice of fear, the voice of avoidance, and the voice of skepticism by proclaiming his hope in Christ. May we find the same type of courage as we do the same.
(2) William H. Willimon, “Acts,” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary For Teaching and Preaching
(3) Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why we can trust spiritual knowledge
(4) Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island
(5) Timothy Keller, The Hero Of Heroes
(7) I got this illustration idea from the blog of Paul Vanderklay