January 12, 2014 “Obeying our Heavenly Vision” (Acts 26:19-29)

The Text Says:

            There are certain defining moments that forever change the identity and destiny of an individual, a movement, a nation. The moment may be as commonplace as the birth of a child or as unique as the 9/11 terrorist attack. The defining moment for all of human history and for every individual is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Prisoner Paul boldly proclaims this before Festus, Agrippa and Bernice in the final missionary preaching recorded in the 26th Chapter of the Book of Acts. The text testifies to Paul’s obedience God’s visionary commission. His primary claim is his arrest is the result of his responsiveness to the Lord’s calling.

Hear the sermon.

The Preacher Says:

            In the 26th Chapter of Acts, Luke records a dialogue between the Apostle Paul and a King. The scene takes place in a great meeting room.  The King, is holding court, decked out in all his finery. Before him stands a Jewish tentmaker, bound in chains, armed only with his faith in God. But he’s the one who dominates the hall; brimming with confidence that the power of God is with him.  Paul has waited two years for this hearing to tell his story.  It was the same one he’d frequently told, like all people whose lives are defined by a singular event that totally changed them. Paul reverted again and again to whatever-it-was that happened to him on the Damascus Road, as the foundation of his calling.

            So it’s Paul before Agrippa…could the disparity between them be any more pronounced?  Both men were confronting the same event, the resurrection of Jesus.  For Agrippa, it’s too good to be true.  But for Paul, it was the absolute stackpole of his life.  Listen to him.  “Why is it incredible to you O King that God raises the dead?” And as the two men pondered that question, the dissimilarity between them is magnified. Paul and Agrippa were worlds apart.  Agrippa’s world was dying.  He was a Hellenized Jew, the last of the Herods, living at the end of an era.

            Paul was the key figure in bringing about a new world, that was just being born.  That made it an unsafe world for him personally. There are real risks and hazards when fomenting change.  He had minimum protection.  But it was a world in which Paul was vitally alive and totally energized, because he had God’s maximum support. 

            Agrippa’s world was lit by the dull glow of dying embers.  Paul’s world was illuminated by the same blazing light that blinded him and knocked him off his mount on a mission to persecute Christians.  Paul was looking forward to something being revealed, not looking backward at a glory passing away.  Each one’s world-view was world’s apart.

            So was their caring.  Paul cared.  Agrippa didn’t.  That always sets people apart.  It made such a difference to Paul whether God raised Jesus from the dead.  Everything he stood for hinged on that.  But not Agrippa. His moral compass was “get all you can while you can.” But Paul asked what can I give to this, what can I share. The Apostle and the king were the opposite in their ability to feel for others.

            They were worlds apart in their theology.  Paul’s God was not Agrippa’s god.  Paul viewed all that happened to him in light of God.  But God was of no concern to the king.  Paul believed God created all that is. God was the master of every law of the universe, which was why he could bring life out of death.  Agrippa believed no such God existed.  Big difference:  Paul knew Jesus and Agrippa didn’t.

            As the king listened to the preacher, he heard one who lived in a different world; one who cared about other people; whose God was alive, not just a pagan idol.  What else could Agrippa say in response to Paul’s theological question about the afterlife?  For in his mind, the dead were dead, period.  That was Agrippa’s world view.

            Then Paul says something striking, “Wherefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”  Standing before a powerful Monarch, talking about an unearthly vision and his commitment to it,  was his defense: dedicating himself to something bigger than himself that outlasted himself. And he would follow that impulse to the end. 

            What set Paul apart was his dedication to God’s claim on his life. To justify his actions, that’s what got him tossed into jail. He could’ve claimed Roman citizenship. That was the ultimate privilege in his day. He could match wits with the best of ‘em; schooled in the Hebrew scriptures. It wasn’t a matter of him being right and them being wrong, it was a matter of allegiance.  To explain himself, Paul’s only appeal was to his devotion in pursuit of his calling. “I was not disobedient…to the heavenly vision.” How could he get something that flimsy to stand up in court?

            Paul could be very persuasive. He “almost persuaded a king to be a Christian!” Agrippa was on the edge of wanting what Paul had. What kept him from crossing the line may have been those on either side of him. Bernice was a loose liver, so the King didn’t wanta lose her. Ol’ Festus was analytical and might think he’s crazy, because he thought Paul was.

            But Paul wouldn’t back down an inch. “I would to God that not only you, but all who are here today, might become such as I am, except for these chains.” He couldn’t resist a little light-hearted humor! “Except for these chains!” With a dramatic gesture, Paul showed that even though he was bound, he had more freedom in Jesus than any of the royalty before him.

            Paul doggedly believed that suffering for Christ is to gain, and that the truest dignity rests in wearing chains on the arm, rather than endure the chains on the soul. “I can’t be disobedient.” Isn’t that the most that can be said of any of us; that we be true to the vision we’ve been given?

            And now I have to do something hard. For some time I have sensed “a heavenly vision that I cannot disobey, …”  And I’ve been keeping it to myself. But the time has come for me to resign as your pastor today. This can’t be a total surprise. Ya’ll can count. But “time is no respecter of persons,” and eventually catches up with all of us. Preachers come and go but the church remains. But we can stay too long or leave too soon. But I believe the time is right for me to step aside and let someone else occupy this special spot for the good of the church.  Time for a different voice, new blood, new ideas, new growth.

            It’s never easy to say goodbye to those you love. But all good things come to an end. For some time I’ve been asking myself  “how on earth can you just walk away from doing something you love? All the previous times I’ve done this, it was leaving one place to go to another place. This time, I’m just going home. I don’t call it “retirement.” I prefer to say I’m entering another “adventure” in life. And like all the others, I hope to make something positive out of it. For me, I’m not sure what that means yet.

            But for you this announcement means change is coming. As with all change, there is something to lose and something to gain. The latter will be my focus during the time we have left. In two weeks I will have begun my 9th year as your pastor. I never thought I’d be here that long. I will stay until March 1st. Be it known to one and all, I wouldn’t take anything for the time I’ve been among you. It has been the best experience I’ve had in any church anywhere. For in my opinion, this wonderful congregation isn’t just the “First Baptist Church in America,” it’s the “Best Church in America.” Who wouldn’t want to go out on top, but how can you go anywhere after leaving here? It will require a big adjustment.

            So Libby and I have loved you dearly, and will miss you greatly. Always there’s the pain of separation that comes from disconnecting. It seems surreal. But also the celebration of the end of 45 years preaching the gospel “in season and out of season,” telling the stories of Jesus and standing back and letting them do their work.

            I’d like to think I left the place better than I found it, as long as we realize the betterness is not because of me but because of you who have come into the church since we arrived. I have always considered myself fortunate to walk where not just Roger walked, but where Jesus walked! My deepest pride in you is  why this church will always occupy a special place in my heart. Because I’ll be leaving behind a huge part of me here. 

            As you prepare to select #37, I feel like Janus, the two-faced god of passages looking in opposite directions at once. For the next six weeks let us pray for light on our paths as we move in opposite directions together, into the unknown with God as our guide.

 Closing Prayer:

            God bless this wonderful church.  Thank you for calling it into being along time ago, and for the countless ways it has blessed so many people.  Thank you for keeping it alive and vital; and for its heavenly vision to make an earthly difference in the name of Jesus in the future.  May we honor it’s past and be trustful about the days ahead, and keep enabling each one of us to “obey our own heavenly visions” to make this earth a better place.  Through Christ our Lord.


Providence Prayers (1-12-14)

            Infinite and invisible God, beyond whom nothing is and without whom everything is not, we turn to you who not only created us but also called us and sustains us. Keep us restless until we find our peace within your everlasting arms.  Your ways are not our ways, nor your thoughts our thoughts, nor your sense of timing our timing.  You have all-wisdom and we walk by faith.  You have all the time in the world and we have just so much time, or little as the case may be.  All we can hope for is to use whatever we have wisely.

            We gather today, as distinct individuals but wholeheartedly together in worship with our friends who have in common, like St. Paul, our devotion to Jesus. And like him, we too are a people of mixtures, with both strengths and weaknesses. Yet our faith teaches us that we are begotten by your love, upheld by your grace, encouraged by your peace and inspired by your hope.

             Shine your light on our uncertain pathways.  May we continue to bless one another.  Let us be glad when our friends are glad and sad when they’re sad.  Where sorrow is weighing upon us heavily, lift our load. Where guilt intrudes, grant us forgiveness. Let us never deceive ourselves about the cost of doing what we believe you want us to do. We pray for all carrying the burden of loss and pain.  And for those about to face some unforeseen sorrow. Walk with us thru the “valley of the shadow.”  Broaden our vision in this worship and remind us of our calling to be like Jesus. 

            Deny us the selfishness of looking only at ourselves and our interests. But to have a vision of the larger picture and get a bead on your take on things.  We are your children, now let us act like it. Shape us all until we bear the marks of the One who called God Father, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.


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