A god of surprises - Acts 10:1-48
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me introduce you to the Wizard of Oz view of religion. I am sure you are familiar with the story. Dorothy the little girl from Kansas finds herself surrounded by brainless, heatless, spineless people in the persons of the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion. When Dorothy gets to the Emerald City, the Wizard says to her what many people think God says to us. Each of the characters comes to the Wizard with a need. Dorothy seeks a way home. The scarecrow wants wisdom, the tin man compassion, the lion courage. The Wizard of Oz, they hear, can grant all four. So they come into his presence shivering and trembling and present their requests. His response? He will help after they demonstrate their worthiness. ‘Bring me the witch’s broom’ he says ‘and then I will help you.’ So they do. They scale the castle walls and destroy the witch and in the process they discover some remarkable things about themselves. They discover they can overcome evil and do it all without the help of the Wizard. Which is a good job because when they get back to Oz they discover the Wizard isn’t a Wizard after all, just some huckster-a so called ‘professor’- who can put on a good performance but not help them with their problems. But the Professor redeems himself by what he shows this band of pilgrims. He tells them that they already have all that they need if only they realised it. After all didn’t the scarecrow display wisdom, the tin man compassion and the lion bravery in the way they dealt with the witch? Dorothy doesn’t need the help of Oz Almighty, she just needs a hot air balloon. Then Dorothy wakes up to find it was all a bad dream, her ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ home was right where it had always been.
What is the moral of the Wizard of Oz? Simple: everything you need you already have. If you look down deep long enough and hard enough there is nothing you can’t do. There it is in the popular saying- ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ It is the idea that God started it and we must finish it. Prayer then becomes a token, (the real strength is ‘down here’ within, not ‘up there’ with God). Holy Communion becomes a ritual (the true hero is you and what you are doing, not him and what he has done). Your faith is strong as long as you are strong. Your life is good so long as you are good. But there is the rub- we are not good, we are not always strong and so we are not always secure. DIY religion is not very helpful for those who are useless at DIY, whose life shelves are crooked, and whose tables are wobbly. I can’t carry my sin, it wears me out. I need someone who will carry it for me, better still- bury it. And if the truth be known, so do you. And the wonderful news is that God has provided that someone. And one person who was about to discover this wonderful, liberating truth for himself was a Roman soldier called Cornelius and we read all about him in Acts chapter 10.So if you have not done so already do turn with me to that passage.
Whether he was fully aware of it or not, Cornelius had a problem. It was the problem he shared with the rest humanity. The problem being that he was on the wrong side of God and needed to be brought on the right side of him. Now to any impartial observer nothing could have been further from the truth. Here he was a Roman soldier, a member of the hated occupying forces who inspite of all of that was actually riding high in the popularity stakes amongst the Jews and with good reason. For a start in v2 we are told that he was generous. If he heard about anyone in need he took practical steps to remedy the situation. What is more we are informed that he prayed to God regularly. He was what was technically known amongst the Jews as a ‘godfearer’, that is, while he was not a full blooded convert to Judaism, he was a gentile adherent. He honestly did worship Yahweh the one true God. So in every respect here we have a genuinely good man-he was kind, putting his faith into practice, and devoted having a religion of the heart. And if Cornelius were around to day do you know where he would be found? Well, here of course, sitting in the congregation- extremely nice, extremely generous, but extremely lost.
However, at this point you might say, ‘Hang on a moment. How do you know he was? Look at v4 God had obviously heard his prayers and was well pleased with his attitude to the poor- there is no sign of disfavour there. And later on in v 34 Peter himself says: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.’ Well, that is certainly the way some people have taken this passage. They say that God has no favourites, so long as the heart is right, the man or woman is sincere in their beliefs and good in their behaviour then God is not prejudiced. He has no favourites, including Christians. A good Buddhist is just as acceptable to God as a good Anglican. And I think it has to be admitted that on the face of it such an argument carries some force, especially in a pluralistic and religiously ecumenical age like ours. It also seems to give weight to the objection often thrown at Christians: ‘What about Mr so and so. He doesn’t go to church and yet he is a better ‘Christian’ than many of those who do.’ Meaning, of course, that he is a nicer person. So what do you say?
Well, the first thing to say is that Dr Luke who wrote this book makes it quite clear that salvation- being put right with God and being rescued from our sin- only comes through consciously trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ and so in chapter 4:12 he records the apostle Peter saying these words: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to man by which he must be saved.’ That is crystal clear isn’t it? It allows no room for any ambiguity at all. It is therefore highly unlikely that Peter will be contradicting himself a few pages later by saying in effect there is no salvation outside Christ except for those who are sincere in worshipping Israel’s God, because in chapter 4 he was talking to devout religious Jews, so if they needed to believe in Jesus in order to be saved, how much more this Gentile!
In the second place, when Peter speaks about God not showing favouritism, it is not religious favouritism he is talking about but national favouritism. The whole thrust of this episode which includes that account of the strange vision of Peter, was that God was not just interested in saving Jews but in saving everyone and that in order to be saved you didn’t have to become a Jew first, obeying the law, getting circumcised, worshipping like a Jew- having the badges of national identity. The reason why so much space is devoted to this story is that it forms a key turning point in the spread of the Gospel and God’s history of salvation, for now the Gospel is breaking out of the strict confines of Judaism and is beginning to embrace non-Jews as represented by this Roman. That is also why Cornelius and his household experienced a min-Pentecost when they were converted- with speaking in strange tongues as did the first Jewish followers. Not that this was a normative Christian conversion, but an exceptional one, one which was like the experience of the disciples when they met in Jerusalem- look at v 47 ‘ Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water for they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ That is why in v45 we read that the circumcised believers, Christian Jews were astonished that ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on gentiles’ -scandal of scandals! In other words, God made it absolutely plain by these extraordinary occurrences that non-Jews were not to be thought of as second class religious citizens, inferior in some way. They have the same Spirit as the Christian Jews on the basis of believing the same Gospel worshipping the same Jesus and nothing else.
You see, Peter had to learn, as many people today have to learn, that God has no favourites by virtue of our background, our nationality or our learning. Do not think that because you are a white middle class male you have an advantage over a black working class female. From God’s standpoint there is no difference at all between you any more than there is any difference between a drowning white man and a drowning black man, both are in need of rescue and colour or class are a total irrelevance.
But when you think about it, if Cornelius was all right with God, then why did God go to all this trouble, and it is exceptional- of sending an angel, giving Peter a miraculous sign, getting those men to travel all the way to Joppa, arriving precisely at the right moment when Peter’s vision had finished, requiring Peter to make a 40 mile journey all the way to Caesarea so that Cornelius could hear the Christian message about the Lord Jesus? It does seem to be rather excessive to put it mildly. Well, surely the answer must be that good as he was, devout as he was and religious as he was, something was still missing which meant that Cornelius was a lost man. And that something, of course, was a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. And all these providential and miraculous events conspire together to make the point loud and clear that regardless of who it is, God so wants people to be saved by hearing the message of his beloved Son and that comes through personally responding to that message.
For example, notice that right at the outset Cornelius did as he was told. The angel said ‘go and get Peter’ and he did. There was no question of putting it off, as some folk do today: ‘Oh I will get round to going to church sometime, I may pick up the Bible some day.’ Here was a God given opportunity not to be missed. What is more, here was a man who wanted others to share in that opportunity too- v 24, as he makes sure his wife, children, servants and pretty well the whole street and his dog is there too in order to listen to what God has to say through his messenger Peter. And that is precisely what God is looking for in you and me: that eagerness and willingness to respond to all the Gospel opportunities he gives to us-not slouching, not prevaricating, but grasping with both hands the opportunities to hear his saving Word. ‘Today is the day of salvation’ says the Bible- there may not be a tomorrow.
Also, just look at how Cornelius addresses Peter in v 33: ‘Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.’ You see, Cornelius was aware of something that many people today are not, namely, that when folk are gathered together to hear God’s message -God is present. Let me say that again as you hold on to your seats- God is present. What determines the presence of God is not that they are in a special building-this is just an ordinary home. It is not that they are having a special time of worship- there isn’t an organ, guitar, tambourine or hymn book in sight. What makes this meeting special is that there is God’s man with God’s message on his lips and so God present by His Spirit. That is what makes a Christian meeting distinctly different from a non-Christian meeting. The proclamation of God’s Word by God’s power means we are in God’s presence. Notice that Peter doesn’t share his experience, or his view or his opinion, he shares the Gospel and when that happens you listen for God is speaking to you.
Now let me ask: Is Cornelius’s situation your situation? Be honest. Like him you do believe in God. Like him you have a prayer life. Like him all humility you may consider yourself to be a pretty descent person of the truth be told, not only not doing anyone any harm but positively doing good. Like Cornelius you have some prior knowledge about the Christian message, possibly gleaned from school or church- v36, ‘You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the Good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.’ He had picked this up somewhere along the way-but its proper significance for him had never been appreciated and so not responded to. Maybe like Cornelius you have a religious background, perhaps brought up in a Christian home, holding to Christian values. You know so much and yet- and yet- what you know isn’t enough. You look around you and you see other Christians who seem to have something you don’t have. For while you have a religion, they have a relationship. Am I right? You know I’m right.
Well, you don’t have to listen to my sermon to take my word for it, listen to Peter’s as he fills in the missing blanks of what you need to know and need to do.
The first thing you need to realise says Peter is that Jesus lived a unique life- v37: ‘You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached- how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil because God was with him.’ This was no ordinary man. He was God’s man, ‘anointed by the Holy Spirit, literally he was ‘Christed’- marked out as God’s prophet, priest and King because he was God’s Son. And he had powers which even his enemies couldn’t deny, they just disputed and said he had the power of the devil, which didn’t really wash because he released people from the power of the devil. His fame spread like wildfire through the towns and villages and people flocked to meet him and hear him. God was with him you see, as he was not with any other person before or since.
The second thing you must understand is that Jesus died a unique death- v 39 ‘ We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on tree.’ Now doesn’t that strike you as rather a strange way of describing Jesus death? This was a Roman soldier, he knew all about crucifixion, why, they had turned it into a black art form, so why not say ‘they killed him by hanging him on a cross’? Well, it is because Peter was aware that Cornelius knew his Old Testament and especially Dt 21:23 which says, ‘ God’s curse rests on everyone who hangs on a tree.’ But Peter has just said that God was with Jesus, that his life was a good life, so how can Jesus be cursed by God by hanging on a tree? The answer is elementary dear Watson, he wasn’t put there to bear his curse, but to bear ours. He died as our representative and our substitute, taking the judgement for sin which is rightly ours. He is the one who deals with our biggest problem, being cut off from God by being cut off for us, doing what no religion in a million years could ever do, provide the sacrifice necessary to get rid of our sin.
Thirdly, Cornelius had to see that Jesus has a unique role -40-43. God raised him from the dead vindicating his Son, appointed him to be our judge and affirms him as our Saviour in line with the OT scriptures: ‘All the prophets testify about him that everyone (note that )who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through the name.’ If you don’t know ‘the name’ you don’t know forgiveness. It is that simple.
Reflecting on the natural inclination of all of us to think that being good is good enough, the 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said this: Sometimes people are so foolish as to think that the doing of professedly religious acts will take them to heaven: attending church prayers twice daily, fasting in lent, decorating the altar with needlework or giving a new organ, they do many such things. Many who are nominally Christians appear to me to believe in a sort of sincere obedience-covenant, in which a man does as much as he can, and Christ will do the rest, and so the sinner will be saved; but it is not so. God will never accept any composition from the man who is in debt to divine justice; there is no heavenly court of bankruptcy where so much in the pound may be accepted and the debtor discharged. it must be all or nothing, he who would pay must bring all and that can never be so, for God’s word declares: ‘By works of the law no one shall be put right with God.’
So what that you believe in God? So did Cornelius. So what that you pray? So did Cornelius? So what that you do works of charity, so did Cornelius. What you must do is what Cornelius eventually did and nothing less- turn and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone with all your heart, receive his Spirit and follow him. That is becoming a Christian- and that is a surprise.
Let me tell you something. Several years ago this letter appeared in the Church Times: ‘Dear Sir, I am a country solicitor and was, at the time of my conversion some 18 months ago a churchwarden. I had been a churchgoer for most of my life... I was baptised as a baby and confirmed as an immature 15 year old, so in theory at least, I appeared to have all the right qualifications for calling myself a Christian; but I have to say that I have serious doubts as to whether I truly was one. I think I was unsure of my beliefs, I had nothing to say about the ‘Good News’ to my fellow man and I would have shrunk from praying out loud in public, and as for reading the Bible, well it hadn’t been off the shelf in years. I dare to suggest that, in all that, I had much in common with many other members of my church. Now by the grace of God I have joy and peace when before they were lacking. Why? Because I have been ‘born again’.’
You see, there is only one Gospel, one Spirit, one Saviour and one way of receiving forgiveness and eternal life and it is freely on offer to everyone regardless. But it is not automatic as any relationship isn’t automatic, it is personal and it could well be that this is the day when it becomes personal for you too. So why not join with me now as we bow our heads in prayer.
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