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To the ends of the earth…

by on March 8, 2015

Statue-AugustusI’m pretty stoked. After more than a year of stalking the book of Acts, thinking about it, looking at it from various distances, musing on it, we are finally ‘doing’ it in our Sunday gatherings. If it’s anything like our Luke series, this could take us a while!

Here’s the first talk, on Acts 1:

I should mention I found Richard Bauckham’s Bible and Mission influenced and helped my thinking about this chapter quite a bit. Thanks RB!

To the ends of the Earth

ACTS 1, Daniel 2.WalterRaneTheseTwelveJesusSentForth

Today we are going to talk about empire. We’re beginning a new series on Acts. Acts is a continuation of Luke’s gospel. I want to suggest that you read through Acts with us as we go. Just a chapter or two each week. And you might even have questions that arise as you read that you could feed to me, to help me in my teaching.

Luke wrote acts. He was a friend of apostle Paul, that great missionary traveller. Luke wanted to explain to people why it was that gospel become so popular in the Gentile world, but not among Jesus’ own people, in Israel. He tells the story of how Christian church first got started, how it spread like wild fire throughout the Roman empire.

In first scene, we see Jesus alive from the dead. We watch as he meets his disciples. When they see him alive, they are so excited can hardly contain themselves. They had been hoping Jesus would rescue Israel from all her powerful enemies, but then Jesus was killed, and as the disciples on the road to Emmaus had said, all their hopes were dashed. But now here he is: Jesus risen from the dead by the power of God! Surely now is the time for Israel to rise from the dead also!

v.6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to return the kingdom to Israel?”

Is this the time, master? Are you going to give Israel her kingdom back finally? It’s been so long. Ruled over by the Babylonians and Persians. By the Greeks. Now slaves of the Romans. Surely now is the time. Are you going to give us back our land, our dignity, our King? This was what every good Jew was longing for. Freedom from Rome.

But Jesus has something different in mind: v.7  He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

As to political movements, that’s not for you to worry about, I have another path for you: a path that will take you to the ends of the earth.

‘To the ends of the earth.’ It’s a phrase with a remarkable history. We’re going to talk about this idea today.

Strong empires have always boasted about world domination. The Babylonian king Nebuchnezzar was one of these:  “You have grown great and strong.” Daniel tells   him, “Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven, and your sovereignty to the ends of the earth.” Alexander the Great: he had a longing to conquer. It kept him running, he didn’t care so much what happened to a place once he had conquered it, he only knew there was more land ahead, and it had to belong to him!

Conquest of the whole world was the declared aim of Roman empire. The great Augustus wrote of all the people who were subjected to Rome, and boasted that Rome’s power now extended to the ends of the earth. (Of course he’d never heard of Australia!) This idea of the ends of the earth has always been intoxicating to powerful rulers.

In modern times, British empire used to boast that ‘The sun never sets on the british empire.’ We have just emerged from an era of empires, through the c.20th European countries let go of their empires. But then Russia started one, and much of Europe crushed under its iron hand. And the US developed dream of projecting power around the globe: into Europe, South America, later in the Middle East.  It wanted to be the world policeman. It’s the same old story, and its not over yet. Empire. As long as this old world keeps on turning there will be strong men who dream of dominating it.

And of course for every man who dreams of empire the are ten people hoping to get free from empire. That was Jesus’ disciples, and indeed all good Jews: longing to break free. 30 years later this the nation would explode into a massive rebellion in which 2 million Jews were killed.

But Jesus here turns the question in a new and unexpected direction. ‘This thing is going to the ends of the earth.’ Now Israel never had this dream, the expansionist dream of massive empire. But her prophets did tell of a time when God would do something new with Israel, something so astounding that all the nations would sit up and pay attention, and then Yahweh would be known far beyond the borders of Israel. Isaiah prophesied:

The LORD has bared his holy arm

before the eyes of all the nations;

and all the ends of the earth shall see

the salvation of our God.  Isaiah 52:10

Now Jesus uses this language, as if to say, now is the time, Yahweh has done his wonders right here, and now its going way beyond Israel to the nations.

By sending them ‘to the ends of the earth’ Jesus also picks up on the language of Caesar Augustus, the one who boasted Rome’s power extended to the end of the earth. It’s as if he said, “Augustus imagines that he rules a world empire. But now I’m going to tell you about the real world power. Jesus uses the language of conquest, the language of empire. Aggressive words!

But with a twist. There is to be no army. No battles. No weapons. No shedding the blood of the enemy. Jesus always spoke against rebellion and violence: ‘He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.’  That was always his warning. No, this power is of a different kind:

v.8  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The power that backs this conquest is not steel and muscle, not machine and missile. It is the power of God’s Holy Spirit: a different sort of force altogether. And the disciples can’t even start until it comes:

v.4 “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

And there’s something else unique about this empire, another twist to this plan for conquest. The people who go out to extend it are not soldiers, not holy warriors on jihad, not coming to coerce and overpower and force and crush and destroy. They are not authorities who come to impose their jurisdiction. They don’t even come as  teachers. No, they are simply witnesses: v.8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, … and to the ends of the earth.”

Now a witness is not a threatening person. Not even a forceful person. A witness doesn’t need to win an argument. A witness is simply a truth-teller. The witness has seen something, and says what it is. The only thing a witness can do is testify. A witness doesn’t claim to be an authority, doesn’t tell people “You have to listen, I’m in charge here.” No, they just tell their story.

It doesn’t sound very impressive, does it, not likely to take the world by storm. But we are going to see how the story these disciples told transformed the world. For of course the truth they had to tell was, that God had raised up Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and seated him at his right hand, and made him lord of all.

That was the whole program Jesus left his disciples with. Receive the Spirit’s power, be my witnesses, it will take you to the ends of the earth. A new world-wide empire, which Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

Many people in our times point at this Christian mission and say, look you’re just like all the rest of them, still trying to get power over people, still trying to make everyone like you. That’s what empires do don’t they. In the Soviet Union everyone had to learn to speak Russian. When the english conquered Wales they made English the official language, Welsh started to die out. Empires like to make everyone the same. I guess the US won’t be happy until the whole world drinks Coca cola and eats KFC. Empires come like a stream-roller crushing everything.

But this new empire, which Jesus called the kingdom of God, was going to be nothing like the old ones. If Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold, and Greece the thighs of bronze, Rome the legs of iron, and so on, the kingdom of God was not going to just be another body part – the toes or something. No, Daniel the prophet saw a stone that was cut out – without human hands – and it came and struck the statue, and the whole thing was shattered, and the stone grew into a mountain in its place. God’s kingdom is not just the latest and greatest empire. It’s something new altogether. A kingdom that extends based on the truth of its story, the story of Jesus. A kingdom that extends by winning people over to it, by invitation. A kingdom led and administered not by human power, but by witness and the Spirit. The kingdom Jesus rules has room in it for every language and culture and custom. No one gets crushed. Everyone can flourish.

Friends, there’s no other empire that will ever allow this. Only the kingdom of God, the kingdom where Jesus rules. In our lifetime we will see new empires arise, and they will be just like the old ones.

Meanwhile disciples of Jesus are still called to be witnesses and carry on extending the kingdom. We are the community of Jesus, entrusted with the story, the witness from those first disciples. The story about how God raised up his son Jesus and made him lord of all, to be the saviour for the world.

What is that going to look like for us today?

One thing we need to say is, here in the west Jesus’ kingdom is looking weaker than ever. Not many people are wanting to hear the story, are they? The church buildings are not full! What’s going on? People say Christianity is dying out. Is it true? What’s happened.

The answer is not simple, but I think we’ve actually been largely to blame ourselves. For centuries the church tied itself to power and privilege. It set itself up as an authority. It stood with great human empires like the British and the Spanish empires. The church was so big and powerful, but it had lost its way. It stopped being a humble witness. Now I think we are paying for that.

I think we have to spend a time learning to give up on ideas of power, and learn to be weak again. Learn to just be witnesses. Like those first disciples. Then God will use us. The holy spirit is just as strong as he’s ever been, and Jesus is just as much lord as he ever was, and the witness will grow strong again. It always does. It will keep extending to the ends of the earth. So don’t lose heart!

Another thing we want to say is, we are not primarily political. Christian witness doesn’t mainly operate through the normal channels of power in the world. It is more subversive, more mysterious than that. Jesus said it’s like yeast hidden inside a lump of dough, that eventually leavens the whole lump. There’s something unexpected, something surprising about the way God’s kingdom grows. We’re not saying Christians shouldn’t be in politics or anything like that. But we are saying, that’s not the heart of our calling. Not power but humble witness, is our business.

Lastly I want to ask, how do we go about being witnesses today telling the story of Jesus? And I want you to notice how little Jesus says here: v.8 you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.”

And then he left! So that’s it – that’s all we get. Light on detail isn’t it! There is a lot of room for different approaches, different forms this witness could take. I know of Christian artists who paint the story. Others who act it out in drama. We used to have the Jesus story all told in Manga, Japanese cartoon style. Here is a 3D bible story book. All different ways to witness, to tell the Jesus story. I know people who’ve sold up and moved somewhere where people are poor and disadvantaged, and just lived among them as a good neighbour, that is their way of living out the story of Jesus. There’s a group called urban neighbours of hope who do that. I know women who knit squares, that’s their witness. Others cook meals for the elderly and sick. I know a builder who goes to India and helps build orphanages, to show the love of Jesus. Other people earn big money and give it away for Jesus. There’s a million different ways to live this witness. Jesus has given us plenty of scope to be creative, to personalise it. To use our own gifts and abilities and longings.

There’s no formula for this. We’ve got this calling to be witnesses, Jesus has sent us out, and in the end he will return and bring it to completion. But we are living in the in-between time, and here in the present, we’ve just got to improvise and do whatever we can.

I wonder what you can do? I’m sure it’s different from what I can do! Here you are in Australia, practically the ends of the earth – I wonder what being a witness to Jesus is going to mean in your life? I can’t tell you! But I’d love to see it grow and develop.

Here’s the thing though, first of all get full of the Holy Spirit. If you aren’t sure you have the Holy Spirit, it’s very simple: do what these disciples did, pray and ask, ask God in Jesus name – they do that here in this chapter.  And God will answer, he will bring you to him and save you and make you his child, and he will fill you, and then, and then – well, that’s where the fun begins!

From → Bible talks

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