Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 30, 2020

Text: Acts 14:21-28

Watch Service Video

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Those thoughts probably crossed the minds of Barnabas and others as they gathered around the battered body of the apostle Paul. A city that had welcomed Paul and Barnabas with open arms had turned hostile. Enemies who had been there every step of the journey had now arrived in Lystra, and stirred up the crowd against Paul. A joyful crowd had turned into a vicious mob just like that. Shouts of adoration and praise turned to threats and mockery, and a peaceful assembly soon became a riot. As tensions increased, Barnabas and others had been shoved side and then the rock started flying. Unable to dodge them all, Paul eventually went down and his motionless body was dragged triumphantly out of the city where he was left for dead. As the crowd dispersed, his little group of followers gathered around. Some had to be thinking: this isn’t how it was supposed to go. After a little while, the apostle started to stir – the stoning had been brutal, but not brutal enough. God’s protecting hand had preserved the life of his missionary, because he had many more things planned for Paul. Just before the words of today’s sermon text, Luke wrote: “after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day, he and Barnabas left for Derbe.” (Acts 14:20 – NIV84).

What do you think the little fledgling group of gentile Christians in the city of Lystra thought of all this? As gentiles they had no background in Old Testament worship of God, and they had no history of being a persecuted minority or of suffering hardship because of their faith. They had just heard about Jesus their Savior, perhaps for some of them the very first time they’d even heard his name, and then this is what happened to the one who brought that good news to them. Do you think some of them might have been wondering – is this really how this Jesus thing is supposed to go? Jesus says to trust him – so why would this Jesus let something like this happen to his followers?

What about you? Have you ever stepped back and taken stock of life and wondered to yourself – is this really how life is supposed to go? Or has something gone horribly wrong? Riots and diseases, financial turmoil, and all kinds of political games. Frustration with the difficulties brough about by various restrictions, but then concern for your own health or that of loved ones; it’s confusing! Stress and anxiety are on the rise all across the world, making difficult situations even harder! You know that God says to trust him when things are difficult and don’t make sense, and you know that he promises to hear prayers and offer help, but as things continue to drag on there are certainly days when that gets hard to do! That’s when the doubts start to arise. Is what we see going on around us, and the doubts that we struggle with at times really what God has in mind for his people and his world? Or is there something horribly wrong with the world, or with you as a Christian struggling with doubts?

Easy questions to ask, and I’m sure Paul and Barnabas had asked such questions themselves too! Even though both of them had no doubt experienced persecution before this, they probably hadn’t envisioned Paul being stoned and left for dead when they set out several months earlier, joyfully sent by the Christians in Antioch with the charge of bringing the gospel message to the gentiles! It would have been easy to doubt whether this was what they were supposed to be doing, and it would have been easy – even justifiable! – to give up and go back home. But amazingly, we don’t see Paul and Barnabas doing that.

Instead, despite the fact that there were shorter and probably safer routes back to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas chose to complete their work in the city of Derbe and then retrace their steps, returning once again to Lystra and the surrounding cities, even though they had experienced persecution there!  Luke writes: “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” (Acts 14:21-22a – NIV84).

Eternal Encouragement

So what gave Paul and Barnabas the strength for such a difficult course of action? That can be seen in the encouragement they shared wherever they went. Luke describes a mantra of sorts that they embraced: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.” (Acts 14:22b – NIV84). Now, at first glance that doesn’t sound particularly encouraging at all! With a closer look, one can see some commiseration: WE must go through many hardships… The apostles were on the same level as everyone else – they knew the struggle too – but when you dig deeper we find a lot more encouragement than just the first century version of today’s commonly heard platitude “we’re all in this together.” This was a reminder of one of the foundational truths of Christianity and life in this world. Whether it’s an apostle or a new convert, a pastor or a member, a life-long Christian or a young child, the same thing is true. The devil and his allies are constantly fighting against you, trying to stir up doubt, trying to lead you to look at the effects of sin in world around and trying to influence you to come to the conclusion that God’s plans have failed, you might as well give up. What you see – this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!

But the key is this: God says the exact same thing! Stoning missionaries and persecuting their followers – this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Pandemics, riots, injustice, racial tension, crime, poverty – this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be! Not one of those things was supposed to be part of God’s perfect creation. Instead, this is the tragic outcome of what happens when people rebel against God and introduce sin into the world. Nothing is the way it was supposed to be and struggles like these become the sad reality. Paul and Barnabas were far from the first ones to make that point. On the night before his death, Jesus told his disciples: In this world you will have trouble.” 

But the good news is this: that’s not all he said. He continued, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 – NIV84). And that’s the key piece that Paul and Barnabas turned to for their own encouragement. It’s the key piece they directed the first century Christians to as well! God doesn’t want you to struggle for a few years here, make the best of it amidst the hardships of a sinful world and then suffer the spiritual consequences of your sinfulness for eternity. God wants something far better for you! Paul and Barnabas said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s the key – God wants you to be a member of his kingdom. Right now, even while still surrounded by the effects of sinfulness, God wants you to know Jesus as your Savior, to know that your sins are forgiven and you don’t need to be afraid of being punished for them.  Jesus already did that. Further, God wants you to look forward to the day when you’ll be in heaven, where you’ll never see a series of events that gives you reason to say “that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” Everything will be perfect there! That’s what we confess in the third article of the Apostles Creed when we say that we believe in the life everlasting, in the life of perfection to come in heaven, and the struggles that we face here serve to make us look forward to that day even more! We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God! The devil’s attacks and your struggles with the effects of sin are ongoing, but so is God’s promise! Jesus forgiveness, his mercy, is new every morning – it never runs out! And his promise is there every day too: he’s prepared a whole new world, an eternal one, for you to look forward to. That’s the Encouragement Paul and Barnabas shared, and you can see the effects of that Encouragement playing out in the lives of the first century Christians immediately.

Eternal Blessings

I doubt anyone would have faulted Paul and Barnabas if they had avoided Lystra after their first experience there, but they didn’t. I doubt anyone would have been surprised if the congregation in Lystra had disbanded out of fear after these events. But that didn’t happen either! Instead, God blessed his people with the strength to not only survive, but to continue building their church and reaching out to more people with that promise about eternal life to come through Jesus! “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. After going through Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.” (Acts 14:23-25 – NIV84)

And so in the same way today, God blesses us with the strength to continue our work as Christians. As a congregation, we do many things in different ways than we used to, but we still try to keep on doing them as best as we can – even though in a lot of cases it would be easier to just stop – because we are looking ahead to heaven. The things we do together here at St. John’s serve to proclaim that message, and the same is true in our personal lives. Like the apostles, God surrounds us with opportunities to be a source of heavenly focus and encouragement for our fellow Christians as we struggle together. Like the first century Christians, God surrounds us in our personal lives with people who can only see the hardships of this world, and he equips us with the good news about a life after this one where there will never be reason to say, “That’s not how it’s supposed to be!” And when that good news is shared, God brings Eternal Blessings for those who believe it.

Paul and Barnabas got to see that when they arrived back at home. Even though many of their experiences had been hard, and even though there were times when it had all looked like a fruitless failure, with the perspective of God’s promise of heaven to come they could see what God had accomplished despite their struggles. Luke writes: “From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Acts 14:26-28 – NIV84). Despite the struggles, God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, and there are more people in heaven today because of what God had accomplished through his apostles! What doors of faith is God opening today? Maybe it’s as simple as a Christian sharing links to online worship services with a friend who needs some encouragement. Maybe it’s the living witness of God’s people displaying attitudes of kindness and encouragement in the middle of so much turmoil and strife. Maybe it’s any number of other things that we don’t even know about yet, but that we have the privilege of being a part of! In the end, no matter what form those blessings take and no matter how many unexpected and difficult things might happen along the way, we know where God is leading us – heaven. And we know what awaits us there, and so we joyfully confess that we believe in the life everlasting. Amen.