This is a transcript from the July 28, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
What is the word that God has a fresh for me today? It is in fact out of Acts 11:19 and it has to do with the early church in a critical time. You might pass it by because the words seem fairly innocuous and fairly straightforward and you would be wrong because there is so much going on here in just these few verses.
It says, "Now those who were among them were some of the men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who in coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenist also proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The church had been scattered. One of the places they had gathered was what is today up in Syria the Town of Antioch. They spoke to the Hellenist also the Greeks, the non-Jews proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ, the hands of the Lord was with them and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.
News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit in a faith and a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. He was there for an entire year. They met with a church and taught a great many of people and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians."
You have a story. We tell stories in order to make sense of our lives. Your life is more than just about the data of your life. You could look at an event this weekend, say, "Bobby rode his bike." That's data, but that's not the story. The story is that after weeks and months of trying and falling and training wheels and being coached by his father, Bobby finally rode the bike for himself and therefore hit a milestone. That is one of those great milestones of childhood of when you have control of your body and you are able to make a bike go without training wheels on your own. This is a celebration, not only for Bobby but for his parents and his little brother who is watching. That's a story and it goes far beyond data.
You could say at Christmas time there were 18 people at the Christmas dinner and that would be true because the data is true, but you will have missed the point if you don't also say, normally there are 19 people there, but this was the first year we celebrated Christmas without mom and mom's holiday was Christmas and we sat around that table and we didn't know what to say this year, and the food, even though we tried to replicate the same recipes and do the same things, the food tasted like dust. In the same moment, somewhere in the evening we began to tell stories and we realized how rich we were as well.
That's a story, and that's what begins to make sense of our life. It goes so far beyond just the facts and just the data, and the point of this whole theme this summer has been to claim the story of your own life. Find the narrative because when you do, you begin to see and feel and sense there are rhythms, there are themes that are emerging and weaving, something begins to happen and you begin to see not only the momentum but the meaning and the direction of your life. The truth of your life, the truth of my life, the truth of our lives is wrapped in story. That's why we make movies, that's why we go to them.
When we want to know about the big story, that's why we go to the Bible because the Bible is full of stories as well. The Bible is all about God's big story. Not surprisingly, when the Bible wants to convey some truth, often most of the time it tells it in a story. Do you want to know what it's like to be the people of God? Forget the outline. Forget the five bullet points. Let me tell you a story about a people who used to be slaves in Egypt and then they left Egypt and then they were going to the promised land via 40 years of wandering in a wilderness and it changed them and they were a different people on the other side. That's a story.
You want to know what the Kingdom of God is like? Jesus had said, Let me tell you a story. This story it's like this father who lost two sons or it lost one son and was arguing with both. It's like this woman who's looking for a coin. It's like a shepherd who's looking for a sheep. You want to know what the Kingdom of God is like. It's like this guy who throws seeds around. He tells a story because the truth is contained and is wrapped in story. As we begin to take the story of our life and we begin to see how it intersects with the big story of God, now life gets interesting.
Now it gets exciting. Now there is meaning. Now there is purpose. Now there is direction. Now there is something, something that begins to carry us along. We live with a different kind of confidence. We live with a different kind of an awareness. We live with a different kind of anticipation because we know we are part of something that is larger than ourselves, and in the past several weeks we talked about our own story. We've talked about our stories of origin, where we all came from. We talked about our guides. We've talked about obstacles this morning.
This morning I want to talk about maybe one of the most important parts because it's the part we avoid, and it's wilderness. This summer, a number of us are going to go to places if you haven't been already and there's going to be a sign telling you, "You are now leaving civilization and you are entering into a wilderness." You are entering into a place where there aren't the resources you are normally used to getting, there isn't electricity, there isn't going to be running water, there isn't going to be anything there. You can hardly find a Starbucks area at all. You're going to be out of your element and it's letting you know you are crossing a line into something that we would call wilderness.
It is by definition dangerous. It's out of control. Sometimes it's very explicit, these signs. "You are entering Maine's largest wilderness." Now, look what it says, "Your safety is your responsibility." Set a turn around time, stick to it. Your destination is your safe return to the trail-head. By the way, if you get in trouble, don't hold your breath. It could be a while. This is telling us, "Now, listen folks, this is serious stuff that you are entering into a wilderness." There are wildernesses in our life as well. Just as there are the physical wildernesses.
There's the wilderness of the heart, but geography is not all physical. The geography of the soul means that from time to time, and maybe you are in one now, we go through these wildernesses, have many of the same characteristics. They are dangerous, we are vulnerable, we are uncomfortable, we don't have the resources that we normally have. It is daunting and the difference is they don't give you signs. You just find yourself there and there are no instructions. The church in our passage was in a wilderness. It says they were scattered. Things weren't going the way they were supposed to go. They were scattered all over the place because now they're being persecuted. They don't know what to do next.
They thought they were following Jesus and now they got persecuted and now instead of Jesus coming back quickly, as many of them thought, now they're out in a wilderness and now the rules are different and now nothing is following the way they thought it was. They spoke to no one at that point except to Jews. Now they were beginning to speak to non-Jews. There's one passage, if I could just land on this today, "And then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch." If there was ever a verse that said, these folks are in a wilderness, this was it.
Saul was in a wilderness. Saul was one of the rising stars of his faith, one of the rising stars of his community and now he was a pariah. It was in the midst that the zenith of his power and of his fame, that he confronts God and God, the one he thought he was serving is the one who says, "Why are you persecuting me?" There is this amazing story of 180-degree turn, but having made it, it didn't matter because no one wanted to talk to him. The people he was persecuting, the new church, they didn't want to talk to him. They didn't trust him.
The people who had sent him, they didn't want to talk to them. He was a traitor. Here's this person who is in a wilderness of a different kind. He is in the wilderness of nobody wants to be with him. He is an outcast. He goes back to his hometown and even though this verse makes it sound like it's one verse after another. We know from the story and Paul's account, later on, there are years of cooling his heels, years of wondering who he was, years of wondering, why his life had just gotten parked, maybe he was just done.
The fact that Barnabas goes to get Saul because he thinks he has something to offer to this community that's in a wilderness says volumes. It changed them, and it changed Saul. He, later on, became Paul, as I mentioned last week. This is the guy who's responsible, either directly or indirectly, for over half the New Testament being written all because this guy was out in a wilderness and somebody came and came alongside and people who were in the wilderness gathered together.
I'm going to ask you, what is the wilderness that you are in? What are those times that you have been in when you were out of your element? The resources aren't there. What used to work doesn't work anymore. It feels lonely. It feels vulnerable. It can look like this. Although this feels a little bit heroic. There's nothing grand about most of the wildernesses we go through, but it might look like this, or it might look like the first day of first grade, or middle school. It might look like when you move to a new community.
If that doesn't make sense, you probably have forgotten what that used to feel like, where you were stepping into a zone where you are no longer in friendly territory. You may have seen a sign or you may not have seen a sign, but you know that the rules are different, and nothing's working anymore. I remember walking into junior high. We used to call it junior high then. The rules had changed. The world was upside down. I can point to one of those times that was one of those true wilderness times in my life. It also points at the first lesson of a wilderness.
When I took a youth group trip one time, many years ago now, to Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville, Ohio, is in Eastern Ohio, right across the river from Pennsylvania. We were there doing a work trip as we do in mission trips. While we were there, they were having their old west days. They were having their wild west celebrations. There was a whole week of celebrating their western heritage. I remember because I was from California going, "What do you mean West? You're in the Midwest. You're pretty much in the Mid East. What is this?" They said, "Yes, but this used to be the wilderness. This used to be the frontier, and this used to be part of our story."
It reminded me that which is a wilderness at one point sometimes becomes familiar and sometimes becomes now manageable, because that's one of the rules of wilderness. That place that was so daunting, that that seemed to be such a wasteland. Over time, as people step into it now it becomes much more familiar. Maybe that's why we don't remember first grade. Maybe that's why we don't remember middle school or high school. Maybe that's why we don't remember, but we don't have to go too far back.
It wasn't that long ago when polio and other diseases were a wilderness from which you did not return. It meant you were banished. It meant people were afraid, leprosy before that. Cholera has only been not even 100 years now have we understood the true cause of cholera and that which used to attack and take people just like that and scare people to death. Now is pretty normal stuff.
That which used to be a wilderness is no longer wilderness because people have stepped into it. Wilderness changes us, but then we get to change the wilderness too when we step into it. The wilderness you are in today may be the place where somebody is waiting to come tomorrow, and you may be the person to help them find their way. There was in this passage, this huge gulf between Christians and Jews and non-Jews. There really wasn't much difference in either one of these at this point. Between the Jews and the others, they wouldn't talk to each other. They wouldn't dream of it. To be a non-Jew was to be a nobody, as far as the Jewish community was concerned, back in those days.
You didn't cross that line, you didn't go and talk, you then became anathema yourself. This was a vast, vast gulf that existed. This passage is the beginning of a change that's taking place where now there's conversation. The things that were unthinkable, and the things that you and I would think are just normal today, but we remember. Do you remember? I sure do when there was a time when just talking about race, would have divided a church, and people would walk out. I remember because I was in a church and that happened. People walked out just because somebody wanted to talk about people of color, being able to worship in the same sanctuary. There was a gulf there. Today, we think that's no big deal.
That's just one of the issues of wilderness, there was a time, remember, and it is still true. Today, if you want to talk about women in the church or women in leadership, you will divide a church. We were talking about that in our class last week around Searching for Sunday with Rachel Held Evans. There are people for whom that is a very, very fresh memory and a reality. Do you remember? Some of you do when it was forbidden to talk to and somehow acknowledge, if you were divorced, you were shunned. You were shunned because somehow now you were dangerous. Somehow you were on the other side. Somehow, now you pose something to the community that they didn't know what to do with, so there became this unspoken rule. Sometimes it was spoken.
Do you remember when it was impossible to talk about the LBGTQ community and different genders and being welcomed into a church? It would divide a church. It would divide the nomination. I read about that somewhere. It is still the reality for a lot of places. A couple of years ago, on the challenge really, in the urging of my friend Rich. He said, "You ought to come to this. It's called the Gay Christian Network. It's an annual gathering." He says, "It's amazing. It will change you. By the way, it's in your backyard this year. It's in Denver. You ought to go." So I did. This was after we had made our decision. This was well into all of that. I thought I just need to go because there's something I'll bet I need to hear. Boy was that one of the few times I could say, I underestimated it.
Here was this community, a couple of thousand people from all over the country. What I heard was this gulf. People who are living in a wilderness still. I heard stories and people standing up and talking. One young man said, "I had to lie to my parents about where I was going. They think I'm going to a gaming convention in Denver because I couldn't possibly tell them that I was coming to the Gay Christian Network. They would have disowned me." There were badges you put on you so that when people were taking pictures if you had that badge, they didn't take your picture because if that picture got out that you were even there, you could be fired, you would be shunned.
There was a whole booth of moms who were there as moms giving hugs. They were just surrogate moms who were willing to give hugs to anybody because their own mom wouldn't hug them, wouldn't own them. Let me tell you, that line was long. I just came away thinking, "Oh, my gosh, what have we done?" I read the same stories you read. I read all these stories about how people are moving away from church and nobody wants to come to church. Here I've been the one place where people are banging on the door, "Please, let us in." I thought, "We have to do better than this. We have to do better."
I was reminded of Rachel Held Evans, the one we're doing, I am just pulling some quotes because we're using her book. I was reminded of her comment a number of years ago, about 10 years ago when she says,
"I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead, God wanted to use gay people
to show me how to be a Christian."
That struck home in a whole new way that day. There are those places that feel like wilderness, that you can't go there, there is such a gulf, and yet when you do step in, something changes. It changes you and it changes the wilderness as well.
By the way, on August 28th, after church, I'm going to have just a time because earlier in the summer, we had some people who were just saying, "We're on board with the decision you made. We don't want to be judgmental, but what do we do without all those passages that say, "This is wrong, this is terrible." I said, "I'd love to tackle that again." If you'd be willing to I'll stick around and on the 28th of August, just to have a time to talk through. This is how I navigated that. This is how I read Scripture. This is how I understand that wilderness.
Here's the one thing I understand about that wilderness is the only way to go through it is to go through it. You never ever get to go backwards. The people of Israel were in the desert of Egypt and they wanted to go back, and that wasn't an option. Every time we're in a wilderness we keep a longing for and pining for the days when it was simpler, and we keep wishing that we could go back. The essence of a wilderness is what used to work, doesn't anymore and in fact it might even get in the way of what needs to happen.
In our grief in the holidays workshop that we do every November, part of that is the message we give: don't try to have that Christmas dinner as if everything were the same when there is the obvious empty chair there, do something different, acknowledge it. Don't try to just pretend it never works. In the midst of a disease the things that you used to do and be able to do may be the very things that are getting in the way of you healing or at least flourishing. There are old ways of thinking that don't work anymore and the only way to go through it is to go through it. Keep moving because it's not just an interruption. It may be an integral part of your story because that's how we treat wilderness, isn't it?
Oh if we could just get past this and I could get my life back to normal. I lost my job, I lost my identity if I could just get back then I will do this. There's a sickness, there's a death, there's a divorce, if we could just go. No, it's not an interruption. So many times it's an integral part of the story because wilderness isn't wilderness to God, it's just to us because God's already there. Paul, Saul was a pariah, he can't go back. This ends up being the formational time, wilderness is the formational time for him as it is throughout the Bible. All of these things, we find out as we go through them that wilderness is the time where we experience God most profoundly, most profoundly.
Wildernesses are the places where we meet God most profoundly. Not to deny them, not to glamorize them, but it's in when we are out of our resources that is where we begin to see God afresh. Then you'll have gotten what today is about. If we get that we need to listen to and follow and trust ourselves to God then your story begins to intersect with the great story of God.