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"Preparing for Pentecost."

MESSAGE for Sunday, November 8, 2009, Acts 1:12-24

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          When most people who are familiar with the book of Acts think about the first two chapters, two highlights come to mind.  First, they think about Pentecost in chapter two—the account of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that marked a new era in God’s relationship with his people.  They also think of Jesus restating his commission to the apostles in chapter 1:8 that we looked at last time—“8 But 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.” But many who know this letter might have trouble remembering what happens in-between Jesus commissioning the apostles in 1:8 and Pentecost.  To that more obscure section of this book we turn this morning.  Jesus has just ascended into heaven after he commanded his apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit.  Let’s pick up Luke’s account beginning with verse 12.  He is speaking of the apostles and he says:

          12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 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. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. 15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “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. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (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. 19 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.) 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.’ 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 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.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

          Luke uses this account as a bridge to connect Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles in 1:8 and his account of Pentecost, but its far more than just a bridge.  We mustn’t drive over this bridge too quickly.  There are some rich and helpful truths here that we dare not pass over.  When we come to texts like this one, we are tempted to wonder—what could this possibly mean to me?  Pentecost has already come—I will never be in the same position as these apostles—suspended between these two major events in salvation history—the cross, resurrection and ascension on one side, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the other.  What possible meaning am I to draw for my life from this unique moment in redemptive history?  Paul gives us some help in First Corinthians 10 as to one way we are to understand these historical texts.  He looks back on another unique moment of salvation history in the wilderness with Moses and the stiff-necked people of God.  He says that “these things took place as examples for us…”  As Paul reminds us later in the verse, in the case of the wilderness wanderings of God’s people, most of those examples were negative and serve as warnings to us, but there are other Old Testament history texts where God’s people obey him and they serve as good examples for us to follow.  So part of the function of Old Testament history texts is to provide examples for us to follow and warnings for us to heed and the same principle of interpretation applies for New Testament history texts as well.  When we look for examples and warnings and in this bridge text between the commissioning of the apostles and Pentecost, there is a good example for us to follow and a warning for us to heed.  This morning we will only be looking at the example to follow.

          We may not think of the preparations God’s people made for a one-time event like Pentecost to be an example for us today but it is.  It’s true that what happened at Pentecost will never happen in the same sense again.  The Holy Spirit has come—the new age has begun.  Today, when a new believer is born again and is at that time baptized with the Holy Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no sudden rush of wind or other spectacular signs.  Those experiences are largely limited to the initial outpourings of the Spirit recorded in Acts.  In that sense, it may be difficult to see how people’s preparation for Pentecost can be an example for us today because that’s not something we can specifically duplicate today.  But in a broader sense, Pentecost, and these 120 people’s preparations for it, give us a powerful example because Pentecost is the greatest revival of all time.  It is the archetype—the prototype revival when God breathes his own life-giving Spirit into his church.  In that broader sense, it provides an example of God moving powerfully in the church of God and what the followers of Christ did to prepare for that moving of the Spirit continues to serve as an example to us as individuals and as a church. 

We still need this example because we are regularly in need of fresh outpourings, fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit and what the believers in Acts did to prepare for this is instructive to us who long for a fresh, reviving move of God’s Spirit.  I hope we all long for this because so many of us have gradually taken our eyes from God and increasingly turned to the idols of this world—money, sex and power, but also families, spouses, careers, reputation.  This happens so gradually, so imperceptively, that often we don’t even realize it until we wake up one morning and notice that the intimacy we once enjoyed with Christ has been replaced with indifference--our love for Christ has grown cold.  Where once we were full of faith, expecting God to do great things, we’ve become surprised when God happens to answer our prayers.  Where once the deep, glorious, and unmistakable peace of God reigned in our hearts--anxiety, worry and a growing preoccupation with the things of this world gradually have choked off our peace.  Where once the joy of the Lord ruled our hearts and minds, a spiritual dullness and indifference to the things of God gradually come over us.  Where once the truths of the gospel—our forgiveness of sin, the righteousness we have in Christ, our status as much-loved children of God filled our hearts with joy unspeakable and full of glory—those same truths have become to us routine and the reality of joy is increasingly reduced to a Biblical concept we understand and perhaps even talk about, but seldom truly experience. Finally, where we once hated sin and faithfully battled against it, we have gradually lowered the bar and what would have at one time been utterly repulsive to us, now seems increasingly acceptable, perhaps even inevitable to us.  Those are the unmistakable signs of a person and a church in need of reviving from God and it describes so many believers and so many churches today including our own.

          In those seasons of our individual lives and our life as a church, we need a fresh move of God’s Spirit and this text shows us what God’s people did in preparation for this most important movement of God when he initially breathed his life into his church.  Now, as our lukewarm hearts seek reviving, we find an example to follow in these verses for this morning.  Through that lens, let’s look at what they did beginning with verse 14.  After he names the 11 apostles who remained, Luke says, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.  It’s interesting that even though Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit and told them to wait for it, that did not lull these people into a state of idle presumption.  They weren’t sitting around playing card games, thinking to themselves, “I wonder when the Holy Spirit Jesus promised will come.”  No!  They were promised the Spirit and in response to the promise, they earnestly prayed for it with faith and expectancy. 

That’s the effect the promises of God should have on us.  Its like a dad who, out of the blue promises his 10 year-old boy that he will buy him a new bicycle.  Before the promise, the boy had only remotely dreamed of a new bike, but after the promise, he incessantly pesters his dad about it.  Oh dad, give it to me—Oh dad, I’ve got to have it—when you gonna give it to me?  He knows he is going to get it because he trusts his dad, but the promise ignites a burning desire within him.  When we find a promise in Scripture, we must incessantly ask for it in faith, believing God will give it to us.

          These peoples’ prayer was marked by two qualities.  First, they were “devoting themselves to prayer” and second, they were “in one accord.”  These two qualities serve as examples to us as we pray for revival.  When Luke says they were “devoting themselves to prayer,” he uses the same word as in 2:42 when he writes that the church after Pentecost “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Luke’s point is that this prayer was not occasional, leisurely, laid-back prayer.  There was a flaming intensity, a real fervency here.  Prayer was not something these people did casually—when time opened up in their busy schedule or only when they were in personal crisis.  Prayer wasn’t a matter of convenience for them--it was their passion.  They had been promised a Helper who would empower them for witness—who would embolden them, who would teach them what Jesus had said to them and guide them into all truth.  They had been promised the Spirit and they wanted Him.  They were going to have Him and they were willing to exert great effort to seek after him.

          Because all of them were impassioned about praying for this promise, they were “in one accord.”  First, that implies that they were praying together corporately.  It wouldn’t have occurred to these people in that upper room to all go to their personal spaces and pray alone—the wanted and needed to pray together.  But praying in one accord is more than simply praying with others.  It means they were in absolute lockstep.  They all wanted the same thing.  There was a laser beam-like, shared focus to their prayers.  Though they used different words and their personalities expressed it differently—their hearts were all tuned to the same frequency—they were all crying out for the same thing—the promise of the Father-- the Spirit!  I can almost hear them praying back all the wonderful promises Jesus made them about what the Holy Spirit would do for them.  They were doubtless crying out for the Helper, the Guide, the Comforter, the Teacher, the Promise of the Father who would empower them and seal them and make Jesus so very real to them.  They wanted him and they did what almost always precedes a powerful movement of God’s Spirit—they prayed with great passion and unity.

          At that point, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s interesting, but frankly, I’m just not there.  I know I need a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit, but I can’t just manufacture that kind of passion.  The reason I’m lukewarm is because I don’t have that passion any more.”  Then, let’s probe a bit deeper and ask the question, “What was it about the apostles’ context that encouraged that intense attitude of expectancy and earnestness?”  When we ask that question, we get at least two answers.  First, they were sobered by their impossible commission.  Don’t forget what these disciples were up against.  Jesus had commissioned them in Luke 24 and told them that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem  We mustn’t allow the span of 2000 years to dull the powerful reality that they would have heard this commission as an utterly impossible charge.  Think about it--this is something of how they would have heard it.  They were being called to preach the message of Jesus to many of the same people in Jerusalem who not two months earlier had brutally murdered him.  Yet, somehow when they went back there to that hostile area where they were already marked men—they were going to–without Jesus being present--preach that Jesus whom they killed was raised from the dead.  His death on a cross, which made him accursed of God, was actually God’s way to save them from their sins and this condemned, humiliated criminal was actually the exalted Messiah the Jews had been waiting for.  After 400 years of complete prophetic silence, God had sent their Messiah and they killed the One they had been praying for all those years.  They were to call these Jews to believe that and call them to follow this crucified, cursed Messiah and worship him as their resurrected, exalted Lord with all the persecution that would mean for them. 

          This command was a death sentence and they knew that—Jesus told them to expect no better fate than he had received.  This commission would require absolutely unprecedented boldness.  No prophet in salvation history had ever been given a message requiring more faith and boldness and at this point, they had not shown themselves to be very strong in either the faith or the boldness department.  When Jesus was arrested, for the most part they scattered and their leader, Peter—the boldest one of the bunch, when he was put to the test, he three times denied that he even knew Jesus.  Likewise, their faith did not exactly inspire confidence at this point either.  Even though Jesus had repeatedly told them he would be rising from the dead, they had zero faith in that and it was a scandalous surprise to them.  The point is—there was nothing in their recent performance to inspire anything but a sense of hopelessness at their own capacity to obey the Great Commission.  They knew--that they knew--that they knew--that they could never on their own accomplish what Jesus had called them to do.

          And not only were they to preach that enormous stumbling-block of a message to the Jews—but somehow, if they managed to survive that, they were also to go to the Gentiles and preach this message.  The apostles had grown up in a culture that believed they weren’t even supposed to sit down and share a meal with Gentiles—the uncircumcised dogs and infidels who they had been taught to loathe, but now they were going to make disciples of them.  That is, they were going to relate to the Gentiles as Jesus had related to them.  Can you imagine the headache that gave these men when they heard it?  And the Gentiles, without the benefit of God’s law to expose their sin, without the benefit of Jewish redemptive history to prepare them for Jesus--they were going to believe that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah was in fact sent to save them as well. All they needed to do was repent of the idolatry (for which they were renowned)--turn from their sexual immorality (which was part of how they worshipped their pagan gods)--and as they turned their back on those fundamental parts of their life and identity, they would somehow be miraculously transformed and worship Yahweh, the God of the Israelites—who, incidentally mostly hated them and they mostly returned the favor.  That’s something like the way this commission would have sounded in the apostles’ ears.  And yet, that is precisely what Jesus had told them to do.  Its amazing how when you the Lord gives you an utterly impossible task and you actually take it seriously, how that will impel you to prayer. 

          No one had to convince the apostles that they had been given an impossible job to do.  And their response was--pray hard!  The other part of their context that provided for this impassioned prayer was they had experienced God’s great love and grace to them through the gospel.  They had seen Jesus live a perfect life and had personally witnessed the horrific torture of his death and they had come to understand that he did that for them--to make them (as sinners) right with a holy God—their sins completely washed away.  They had also seen Jesus rise from the dead.  And we know that they understood what all that meant because Luke tells us in his gospel in 24:45 that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.”  They understood the gospel and what it meant for them.  With all the gaping holes in the apostles’ resume at this point, we know that their minds had been miraculously opened to understand the gospel.  They believed the gospel and they knew that this astronomical act of sacrificial love had been done for them by their best friend to bring them to God.  They were in touch with that truth and they were without doubt profoundly affected and grateful for what God had done for them.

          Knowing what Jesus had done for them was crucial because this is what impelled them to want to obey this ridiculous commission.  Do you see how at this point they couldn’t do anything BUT pray?  On the one hand, they had been told to pull off this impossible task that they knew was pure folly for them to undertake without an unprecedented move of God.  They had been promised that the power to perform this series of miracles would come through the Holy Spirit, so that strengthened their faith to pray.  And they knew more than ever the radical nature of God’s love for them--enough to send his only Son—their closest friend—to live a perfect life, die a brutal, sin-atoning death and rise from the dead.  They loved Jesus and wanted to obey him because of what he had done for them.  So what do you do when a person who loves you this much and whom you love in response, tells you to do something utterly impossible and promises you the resources to do it?  You pray and you pray devotedly and in one accord with 120 other people who feel the exact same way.

          The example of these apostles tells us that if we don’t have a burden to pray, then we are lacking at least two things.  First, we are lacking that profound appreciation for what God has done for us in the gospel.  The most powerful expression of the love of God in human history—applied to us—we have taken for granted.  And second, we lack any real grasp of what we are called to do and the kind of life God has called us to live.  If you have those two things, you will pray.  That means that none of the excuses we give for having lousy prayer lives or not joining in corporate prayer with other believers will wash.  It’s not that the prayer meeting is too long or the format is not right for us.  These people prayed for about 10 days straight with breaks in-between to rejoice in the temple according to Luke 24. 

There were 120 of these people, which means that just about every possible personality type was present.  There were right-brained analyticals and there were left brain creative types and those in between.  There were touchy-feelies and there were warm-fuzzies.  There were bookworms and rugged outdoorsmen.  There were extroverts and introverts and there were both men and women—There were young and old and they were ALL devoting themselves to prayer and were in one accord with each other.  We mustn’t ever believe the lie that the reason we don’t pray is because of our personality type or our aversion to a particular kind of corporate prayer.  If you’re hungry enough for food, you’ll eat—no matter what the context.  Likewise, if you’re hungry enough for God, you’ll pray.  Prayer is the spiritual breathing we do in our life in Christ.  If our corporate prayer life is not rich, it means that we are not healthy spiritually—nothing else.  And two things that help keep us spiritually healthy are first, the realization that we have been given an utterly impossible life to live and an impossible mission to perform.  We have been called to be like Jesus—continuing his ministry and manifesting his character.  Is there anyone here who doesn’t find that an impossibility?  Second, we are healthy if we are in a consistent state of amazement at the love of God for us as we stand in the shadow of the cross.

If that is not where we are today, its because we have allowed this world and the things of it to crowd out taking seriously what God has called us and equipped us to be and do in Christ.  Its because we have allowed the things of this world to obscure our view of the cross of Christ and what that means for us.  If God’s Spirit is to come and revive us as we desperately need, we must by God’s grace cry out to him and plead with him to give us the grace to repent of our idolatries and displace them with Christ—what he has done for us in the cross.  We must by God’s grace apprehend the great love God has for us in Christ so that out of that love, we might respond as the apostles did—by out of love—being willing to do whatever Jesus asks of them.  May God give us the grace to do that for his glory and our joy.

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