"Welcoming the Message"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts September 25, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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So far in this preaching series on welcome, we've focused on how God welcomes us in Christ. In a nutshell, His welcome is, as we saw last week, lavish, extravagant, and even prodigal. God embraces us through Christ and welcomes us into His fellowship.
Though God is what we might call "the first welcomer," we get to respond to His welcome by reciprocating. Even as God welcomes us, so we welcome Him. Today we'll look at one aspect of our welcoming response to the Lord.
Our primary Scripture reading for today comes from the seventeenth chapter of Acts, beginning in verse 10. Listen to God's Word.
Scripture Reading: 17:10-12
That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.
Almost fifteen years ago I was "candidating" to become your pastor. Part of that process involves preaching what we Presbyterians call a "candidating" sermon in a "neutral pulpit," usually in a church somewhere near the searching church but never at that church. "Candidating sermon" is a euphemism, I might add. It's really just a "try out" or an "audition."
So, on a bright January morning in 1991, I was to preach my try-out sermon at the Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo. Members of the IPC search committee would attend one of the two services that morning, to check out how I did as a preacher.
Only a couple of the dozen committee members came to the first service. No doubt they were graciously giving me an unaudited practice sermon. I felt good about how things went in that service. The congregation was large and lively. They laughed at my jokes. They seemed engaged by my illustrations. I felt very encouraged. No doubt things would go even better during second service.
But as the next service began, I knew I was in deep trouble. Whereas the first service had more than 300 people in attendance, the second service began with around 50 people there, including my committee. These 50 people spread out throughout the sanctuary as if they really didn't like each other. Plus, there was no energy in the room. I felt as if I were going to be preaching my candidating sermon in a graveyard.
When I got up to preach, I did my best to connect with the people, which was really tough given how detached they were from each other. They seemed attentive, but were otherwise inexpressive. My jokes bombed. My illustrations fell flat. I could just imagine the members of the search committee thinking: Well, his content is decent, but his engagement with the congregation is pathetic. In the middle of my sermon I began to feel my chances of becoming your pastor slipping away. How I wished more of the committee had come to the first service, rather than waiting for the second!
But I couldn't alter the facts: same message, radically different responses.
Different Macedonian Responses to Paul
The Apostle Paul had a similar experience to this one as he preached his way across Macedonia (northern Greece). Things started well enough in Philippi. But soon Paul and his partner Silas got in trouble with the Philippians authorities. They were beaten and thrown into jail. (This, by the way, is not the sort of reception that a preacher covets. Just thought I'd mention that.) In the middle of the night an earthquake rattled the prison, unfastening the chains that had bound Paul and Silas. They didn't escape right away, and ended up leading the jailer and his family to Christ before they moved on to points west on the Via Egnatia, the major Roman road that spanned Macedonia.
The next big city Paul and Silas came to was Thessalonica. The first part of Acts 17 describes their short visit there. For three weeks Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue, finding a measure of success, especially among the Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism but hadn't converted and among some prominent women. But this angered many of the Thessalonian Jews, who managed to chase Paul and Silas out of town.
Continuing west along the Via Egnatia, Paul and Silas arrived at the small town of Berea. There, once again, they began their ministry in the Jewish synagogue. Paul preached the same message as he had done in Thessalonica, but in Berea the response was quite different. Let me read once again the way it's described in Acts 17:
This is how one enters Thessalonica today. It's doubtful that the sign was there when Paul came to town.
These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. (vv. 11-12)
No doubt you caught the way Acts describes the Berean response to Paul's preaching: "they welcomed the message very eagerly." They welcomed the message very eagerly.
Welcoming God by Welcoming His Word
So here's the main point of this sermon. One of the ways we welcome God into our lives is by welcoming His Word. Because God doesn't literally show up on our doorstep so we can invite Him in to share our lives, we need to find other ways to express our welcome. Here is one major one: We welcome God by welcoming His Word.
This leads to an obvious question: What does it mean to welcome God's Word? For the rest of this sermon I want to try and answer that question with specific reference to the example of the Bereans in Acts 17.
1. Attending with Open Minds
First, we welcome God's Word by attending to it with open minds. In our story, since the Word is being communicated through preaching, attending takes the form of listening. But in another context, attending could also be reading. No matter the exact form, however, welcoming God's Word begins with open-minded attention.
Why do I say open-minded? Well, consider the case of the Berean Jews. We know from elsewhere in Acts that Paul would have been trying to persuade them that the Messiah had to die, and that Jesus was this dying Messiah. Now that would have been a long stretch for people who always had envisioned the Messiah as a victorious general and national ruler. The vast majority of Jews throughout history have rejected Jesus as Messiah precisely because He did not fulfill what they believed to be the messianic calling. For any Jew to consider that God's plan for Israel included a crucified Messiah would require an open mind, and this is exactly where the Bereans began.
This is also where we must begin if we're going to welcome God's Word. Most of us don't get stuck on the dying Messiah part anymore. Yet we may find elements of Christian theology hard to stomach. For us, it may be the particularity of Jesus. "I feel great about God," you might think, "but I'm just not so sure about believing in Jesus." For others the problem might be centered in Jesus's claim to be Lord of our lives. "That salvation stuff sounds great," you might say, "but submitting my life to Jesus? I'm not so sure."
I understand this reticence, because I've struggled at times with these very issues, and many more besides. At some point, however, we need to choose either to be open-minded, or to close-mindedly go about our business. Welcoming God through welcoming His Word begins with an open mind. We're not saying to God, "Okay, I believe all of this stuff," but rather, "I'll be open. Show me what's true."
2. Examining What's True
Second, we welcome God's Word by examining what's true. This might come as quite a surprise, because it seems almost contradictory to what we might imagine welcoming God's Word involves. If you've grown up in an authoritarian church, or if you've developed certain negative impressions of church, you may think that you're supposed to accept God's Word without the slightest doubt or hesitation. You're to take what I cast out in preaching and accept it hook, line, and sinker. You're to believe without asking questions.
Now that's what you might think, and I don't blame you if you do, because many Christians think exactly this way. But, in fact, if you believe welcoming God's Word is a matter of blind, reflex reaction, think again. Consider the example of the Bereans.
After listening with open minds to Paul, did they believe right away? No. Instead, they "examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so" (v. 11). The Greek verb translated as "examined" meant to check something out with great care. It was used in ancient Greece for the process by which potential city officials were checked out before they assumed authority. So, once the Berean Jews had listened to what Paul had to say, they went to the scriptures - which we know as the Old Testament - and determined for themselves whether or not Paul was telling the truth.
Welcoming God's Word isn't a matter of thoughtless acceptance. Rather, it involves carefully examining what's true and what is not. It means weighing what is said in the balance of Scripture.
Sometimes I get e-mails from some of you who aren't so sure about something I've said in a sermon. You may ask for clarification, or even suggest that I've made a mistake. Sure, in those cases I can feel a bit defensive. Even so, I honor and appreciate the seriousness with which you take the truth. I'm glad you feel the freedom to share your concerns with me, so that we might seek God's truth together.
Let me be very clear with you about a few basics. First, in this church we believe that God's written Word - the Bible -- is true. We'll sometimes speak of it with theological terms like "infallible" or "inerrant," meaning that what Scripture teaches is right. Period. Second, we who preach and teach in this church base our instruction upon the Bible, and make every effort to interpret it correctly. But, third, we are neither infallible nor inerrant. All the pastors connected with this church make mistakes. I make mistakes. Tim makes mistakes. Barbara Buck makes mistakes. Mike Regele makes mistakes. Even Kirk sometimes makes mistakes. The same could be said for our education directors, our Sunday School teachers, and so on.
So your job is to listen with open minds, and then to discover whether we've told the truth or not. Often, if our teaching is clearly based on Scripture, you can see the truthfulness of our message on the spot. At other times, a more thoroughgoing investigation is needed. It may turn out that we don't agree on everything in Scripture, and that's okay. Our unity in Christ doesn't require unity on every point of doctrine, once we get beyond the essentials of the faith.
My point here is simple, and, in this case, pretty clearly derived from Scripture itself. The second step in welcoming God's Word is examining what's true in light of Scripture.
Believing God's Word
The third step in welcoming God's Word is believing it. After the Berean Jews listened openly and examined carefully, Acts 17 says, "Many of them therefore believed" (v. 12).
Believing means accepting God's Word as true. It means affirming what the Word affirms. And, as always when you're talking about faith in biblical perspective, it involves a personal commitment as well as intellectual assent. It includes believing that and believing in, both affirming the truth and putting your trust in that truth. So, if you agree that Jesus is Lord and Savior, but haven't yet put your personal trust in Him to be Your Lord and Savior, then you haven't yet fully believed, in biblical perspective. You're halfway home, but not yet there.
What keeps us from believing God's Word? All sorts of things. Much of it has to do with the ideas, the worldviews, and the emotional baggage we bring to the table. You might, for example, affirm the facts of the Christian gospel but hold back in believing because of negative experiences you've had of Christians. Sometimes people don't put their faith in Christ because they just aren't sure He is who He said He is. The problem is, you don't get intellectual certainty in this life. Though there are plenty of great arguments for believing in God, and lots of strong reasons why you should put your faith in Christ, I can't prove to you that there's a God or that the Christian message is true. And neither can anyone else. So, at some point, you decide to believe and you keep on believing, not because you've run out of doubts or questions, but because you sense that, when all is said and done, Christian faith makes the best sense of life. It satisfies your intellectual need for a comprehensive worldview. And it satisfies your heart's need to know the living God.
Another common barrier to belief is the realization that following God's Word will require us to change our lives in significant ways, perhaps even ways we're not so sure of. Take the obvious case of sex. The Bible teaches that sex is a wonderful gift from God, but to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. Now this is great if you happen to be in a healthy marriage. But if not, then you've got a problem. For singles, living according to God's plan for sex means, to use a good old fashioned word, abstinence. It means denying yourself certain physical and emotional pleasures until you're married. And if marriage isn't on the horizon, or if you're attracted to the same sex rather than to the opposite sex, then believing God's Word seems to have a significant downside.
What I've just said about sex could be said of many other specific issues as well. Though we want to run our own lives, believing God's Word means we let Him be our Lord. Though we want to store up treasures for ourselves on earth, believing God's Word means were called to generosity and sacrifice. Though we sometimes like holding grudges, believing God's Word means we're committed to forgiveness. Though we often try to avoid conflict by writing people off, believing God's Word means that we seek reconciliation. And so forth and so on. I think you get the point.
Therefore we all are challenged to believe God's Word, especially when it seems to limit our pleasure, or when it appears contrary to cultural assumptions. Yet this much is clear. Welcoming God involves welcoming His Word. And welcoming His Word means believing it, not only by affirming its truth, but also by trusting and living according to that truth.
There's one other crucial point I must mention before I finish. Here it is: We welcome God's Word together. We welcome the Word, not only in our individual lives, but as members of God's people together.
The Bereans didn't all scurry home after Paul finished preaching to check out whether he interpreted the Bible correctly or not. How do I know this? Because in this the first century A.D. scrolls were extraordinarily expensive and therefore very rare. A wealthy member of the Berean synagogue might have had a Torah scroll at home, but in all likelihood the only copies of the Bible in Berea were those that belonged to the whole synagogue. So when Acts 17 says that the Berean Jews "examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so," we should envision the ancient equivalent of a group Bible study.
My friends, we are to be like those Bereans. We are to welcome God's Word, not only through private study of Scripture, but also and necessarily through sharing in Bible study together. Remember what it says in Colossians 3:16: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom." God's Word belongs, not only in our individual hearts, but also in our corporate life. You're called, not only to receive teaching and admonishment, but also to give it.
Though I strongly and obviously believe in the value of having some of us in this church authorized and set free to study so that we might preach and teach God's Word faithfully, today I want to emphasize the importance of shared study of God's Word. This can happen in a wide variety of settings: in small groups, in Sunday School classes, in Women's Bible studies, in college, high school, and junior high groups, etc. I truly believe that each and every one of us needs regularly to be in some context where we study, discuss, and apply God's Word together.
I expect some of you are wondering, "But what about you, pastor? You do a lot of dishing out around here. Where are you engaged in mutual study? Where can you learn from others, or have your ideas tested by the community?" As a few of you know, I have a good answer: The Pastor's Study. I get together most Thursday mornings with a group of people and we study the Scripture together, usually the passage I'm going to be preaching the following weekend. In the Pastor's Study I float my ideas and interpretations. I find out what works and what doesn't, what's right and what's wrong. I also listen to others as they share their insights into the Scripture and talk about how it addresses their lives. This process of weekly conversation strengthens my insight into God's Word and helps me to communicate it more accurately and applicably. Without the Pastor's Study, I'd be a far less faithful and effective as your preacher. (Might I add, by the way, that you're more than welcome to join us on Thursday mornings from 6:45 to 7:45.)
As you know, this is our "Reach In" weekend. One of our goals for this weekend is to help every person in the IPC family find a Bible study. Today you might find a place to plug in, or at least a place to check out. As you survey the options for ministry, service, fellowship, and education, please remember the Bereans. You need a place to welcome God's Word with other people and we need you to join us in this process.
Dear friends, may we always be a Berean church, a church that welcomes God's Word by:
• Listening with open minds
• Examining what's true, and
• Believing the truth in mind, heart, and action.
May we do this both alone and together, for the glory of God! Amen