Waiting for God to act

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Good morning. Before we go any further, let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, speak to us this morning we pray, through your living word, by the power of your Holy Spirit – and prepare us for all that lies ahead. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation in which you have to wait for God to act. The Lord’s timing is not our timing. The discipline of waiting teaches us to trust him.

This morning we’re back to our new series on the early chapters of Acts. Last week Sam took us through Acts 1.1-11. That has a summary of the resurrection appearances of Jesus; Jesus giving the apostles his promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and their mission; and Jesus ascending to heaven to rule. So as Sam memorably put it, the disciples were to look back to the cross and resurrection, forward to their mission, and up to God.

So now we’ve got to Acts 1.12-26, with the apostles and the other disciples between the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t know when that was going to be, so they had to wait, but Jesus had told them that they wouldn’t have to wait for long. So I’ve called this WAITING FOR GOD TO ACT. Now I couldn’t help thinking when I was preparing this that we at JPC are in a time when we too have to wait for God to act. We’re in a leadership transition. And we’re in a time when there’s a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety over the direction that our denomination, the Church of England, is heading – and therefore we’re uncertain how we will need to respond. Not everything is uncertain, of course. Nor will the wait last for ever, for us any more than it did for them. We too have a clear mission from Jesus. In fact Acts 1.8 is a mission that is to be fulfilled by the apostles through the whole church through the ages. Jesus said to them:

…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

So their mission is ours too – to be witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. And for us, that mission was made particular to our situation by our founders 160 or so years ago. They said this church was to be:

…a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town.

Now our situation is not the same as that of the disciples back then in Acts 1. Their wait for the Holy Spirit after seeing the ascension of Jesus was unique and unrepeatable. But there are lessons we can learn from their experience in their time, for our experience in our time. So:

1. They devoted themselves to prayer while they waited for God

Take a look at Acts 1.12-14. This is on page 909 in the Bibles:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

A few years ago at the end of a GAFCON Anglican conference in Jerusalem a few of us had to wait some hours before traveling to the airport. It so happened that one of us was a leading expert on Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. He offered to lead a guided walk. I jumped at the chance. We were driven up to the top of the Mount of Olives. He then lead us, walking in the sunshine, down the side of the hill, past the cemetery there, down into the Kidron Valley, then up the other side into the old city of Jerusalem. In other words, probably just about the same route those apostles would have taken. Unforgettable. And on the way down, we came to the Garden of Gethsemane, with its grove of ancient olive trees, and little chapel. I asked our guide how likely it was that this was the actual site of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before he went to the cross. He said it was virtually certain. So I’m speculating, but maybe the apostles were reminded, walking past the Garden of Gethsemane back into the city, of that night a few short weeks before. Jesus, in agony, had prayed, and sweated:

like great drops of blood falling to the ground.

As Luke himself had recorded in his Gospel (Luke 22.4). And Jesus had said to them (Luke 22.39):

Pray that you may not enter into temptation.

But when he finished praying he had gone back to them, and found them not praying but asleep. And he woke them and said (Luke 22.46):

Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray…

Maybe they had that in their minds now. So when they got into that upper room where they were lodging, as they waited for God to act and for the Holy Spirit to come, their top priority was to pray. And they kept on praying. And they all prayed – the men and women together, united in prayer. And there’s that amazing note that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was among them. So that’s the first thing – and surely that challenges our own priorities. Acts 1.14:

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…

They devoted themselves to prayer while they waited for God.

2. They recognised God’s sovereignty even over Judas’s betrayal of Jesus

This is Acts 1.15-20. Let take a look at that. From Acts 1.15:

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120)…

Let’s pause there a moment, and not let that slip by unnoticed. The total number of disciples was about 120. Far fewer than there are of us here this morning. And their mission was to take the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth. God is in the habit doing huge things through small numbers. This New Covenant was foreshadowed under the Old Covenant, when at the beginning of Exodus it’s reported (Exodus 1.4-7):

All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons…But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

For now, in Jerusalem, that multiplication of believers lay in the future, though it was soon to begin, as 3000 believed on the Day of Pentecost. So, back to Acts 1.15-19. Peter stood up:

…and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

By the way, in case you’re worrying about it, this account is quite compatible with the other account of the death of Judas in Matthew 27, which says how Judas went and hanged himself. The gory headlong fall that Luke records would simply have followed the hanging. Peter continues – Acts 1.20:

“For it is written in the Book of Psalms,“‘May his camp become desolate,and let there be no one to dwell in it’;and“‘Let another take his office.’

The apostles were clear that all of the events around the crucifixion (and of course the crucifixion itself) were both under the sovereign overruling of God, and also fully the responsibility of those implicated in them. So in Acts 1.18, even as he is stressing that all this is the fulfilment of prophecy, Peter calls Judas’s betrayal of Jesus his wickedness. This is yet another clear example of how we have to hold together both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. So they recognised God’s sovereignty even over Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.

3. They understood the nature of apostolic ministry

You can see this in Acts 1.21-22. This is still Peter speaking to the 120 disciples, on behalf of the apostles. He continues:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.

It was important to them that they maintained the full complement of twelve God-appointed apostles. And the necessary but not sufficient qualification for being an apostle was that they had to have seen it all happen.

You will be my witnesses…

Jesus had said to them. And that meant having seen it all from the start – all the earthly ministry of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection. The obvious later exception to that was the apostle Paul, the Christ-appointed apostle to the Gentiles. But even Paul had seen the risen Jesus with his own eyes, and spoken with him. But Paul was the exception who proved the rule. The apostles were, firstly, eyewitnesses. Then, secondly, they were taught by Jesus through the Holy Spirit what was the significance of what they had seen. They saw the events. And they were given the true interpretation of them by the Holy Spirit. So they became the God-authorised teachers of the true gospel. If you were here for the series we’ve just finished on the teaching of Jesus about the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel, you’ll see how this ties in. So before his death, Jesus said to the apostles (this is John 14.25):

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

By this time, as they waited for the Holy Spirit, the apostles had got the message. They understood the nature of their apostolic ministry. And they therefore knew the kind of man they needed to replace Judas, the dead traitor.

4. They sought God’s guidance

How, then, did they go about replacing Judas? That fundamental criterion of being an eyewitness of Jesus from the beginning was in place. What next? Acts 1.23-26:

And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

So as they looked to God for guidance, it seems to me that there were four steps to how they ended up appointing Matthias:

i). As we’ve seen, they acted in obedience to what Jesus had told them. Their starting point was to follow the word of God. There’s no point pretending that we’re seeking God’s will if we don’t start there. So their long-list, as it were, was the men – and all the apostles Jesus appointed were of course men – the men who had been eyewitnesses from the start.

ii). They used their God-given wisdom as far as possible. So they whittled down the long-list to a short-list of two. And that, no doubt, was not a random process. Presumably they’re using the same kind of criteria that we later see the apostle Paul teaching Titus to use when he’s selecting men to be elders in the churches. They are helpfully summarised as the 3 Cs: Character, Convictions, and Competence. They needed someone who was reliable, Godly, had a clear and tested faith in Christ, and who could communicate well. And they end up with two names: Joseph (who seems to have been a man of three names – Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus); and Matthias. So they don’t abdicate their responsibility to use the wisdom that God has given them, as far as it will take them. At this stage they are trusting God to be guiding them as they apply that God-given wisdom.

iii). They pray. Acts 1.24-25:

And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship…”

They ask God directly and specifically to guide them to the right choice. Then:

iv). Where there was not clarity, they trusted God’s leading. Acts 1.26:

And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Maybe we find this casting of lots to choose an apostle a bit startling! I don’t think we need to. Such casting of lots had a place in the Old Covenant. And as yet the Holy Spirit had not come. That’s one consideration. But more than that, it seems to me the situation here is that they’ve narrowed the choice down to two men, and as far as they can see, there’s nothing to choose between them. So humanly speaking, under those circumstances, this is inevitably going to be a random choice by one means or another. But they are prayerful. And they are trusting God. And they make their humanly random choice by trusting God to overrule. When we are at a fork in the road, and one way forward seems just as good and Godly as another, we too should pray, choose, trust God, and then be at peace with the outcome. So, as they wait for God to act, what do we see our early brothers and sisters in the faith doing here? Four things. They devoted themselves to prayer. They recognised God’s sovereignty. They understood apostolic ministry. And they sought God’s guidance. Their situation was unique, and very different from ours. Nonetheless, we too face an uncertain future. That’s true for us as a church. Maybe that’s true for you at this stage in your own life. We to need to wait for God to act. But as we’ve seen, that waiting is not passive. It is active waiting – doing what’s in front of us to do, while we wait for God. We need God to guide us. And there are clear lessons for us. Here are four:

i). Be thankful. Thank God for the ministry of the apostles. Through their eyewitness testimony and God-given understanding of the significance of what they saw (which we have in the New Testament), we too can meet with Jesus. We must listen to them, as to the voice of God.

ii). Pray. We mustn’t be spiritually asleep, like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. We must be consistently and earnestly praying. We must devote ourselves to prayer, as they did as they waited.

iii). Be faithful. We must do what lies in front of us as well as we can, in obedience to Jesus, using what wisdom we have from him, seeking his will.

iv). Trust. We must be confident that God is sovereign over all things. The ascended Jesus is at the right hand of God in heaven, ruling all things – now, today, in your life, in the life of this church. The future is in his loving and powerful hands.

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you for our brothers and sisters in the faith who were there right at the beginning of the life of the church – those 120. Thank you for your mercy and grace at work in their lives, as they obediently waited for you to act. As we face an uncertain future, help us to learn from them. Teach us by your Holy Spirit to be thankful, prayerful, faithful, and trusting. Lead us and guide us we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
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