Friday, January 30, 2015

God's Unpredictable Call (Acts 10:9-33) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

William or Bill Klem, known as the "father of baseball umpires," was a National League umpire in Major League Baseball from 1905 to 1941. He worked 18 World Series, which is a major league record.  Klem was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. 

He was beyond passionate about America's favorite pastime, declaring "To me, baseball is not a game, but a religion."  He umpired for 37 years and was the first umpire to use arm signals while working behind home plate.  He became known as "the Old Arbitrator," due to his keen eye for calling balls and strikes.  On one such occasion, as he crouched and readied behind the plate, the pitcher threw the ball, the batter didn't swing, and for an instant, Bill said nothing. The batter turned and snickered, "Okay, ump so what was it, a ball or a strike?" To which Bill responded, "Sonny, it ain't nothing 'till I call it."

Calls in baseball come only from the umpire.  The umpire has total authority in making the call.   Calls in life, whether in baseball or in some other aspect of our lives, are very significant aren't they?    We wait, we worry, we work, we pray, we prepare, we hope, we network, but the call for an opportunity or a chance or a decision ultimately comes from someone else.

So it is in the life of faith, in our spiritual lives.  In the Christian life calls ultimately come from God.  Calls to us to do something, to go somewhere, to accept an opportunity, to take on a responsibility, to fulfill a task, to get a second chance, are unpredictable, occasionally unusual, often surprising, and sometimes even strange and odd.

I think of rather strange calls in the Bible.  Jesus called a group of tough, grizzled fishermen to follow him and to become fishers of men.  God called the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians, the hated enemies of the Jews, and preach a message of repentance, but Jonah refused and ran from the presence of the Lord and he ended up in the belly of a large fish for his trouble.  God called Moses to go to the omnipotent Pharoah, who had absolute authority over life and death, and tell him to let the Israelites go from slavery in Egypt.  Esther, a Jews, the queen of Persia, was called by God to go to King Xerxes 1, the King of Persia, to tell him about a plot to commit genocide against the Jews, but in doing so she risked her very life. 

In our New Testament lesson from Acts, the disciple Peter had been on a journey, and has come to rest in the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa, a small seaport town on the Mediterranean Sea.  He goes up to the roof of the home to pray and has a vision.  Remember that the Jews had very strict dietary laws.  Peter sees the heavens open, and something like a large sheet descending from heaven, and it contains all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds.  A voice from heaven says:  “Peter, get up, kill and eat.”  Peter is shocked and confused and shouts:  “Lord, I cannot eat anything which is unclean.”  The voice comes to Peter again: “What God has created do not call unclean.”  This happens three times and the vision ends. 

While Peter is trying to understand what this vision is all about, three men representing Cornelius, approach the house and request to see Peter.  The representatives tell Peter about their leader, Cornelius, a Gentile, a non-Jew, who has been on a quest for the truth.  The representatives ask Peter to journey with them to meet this man who was known as a man of prayer, a righteous and God-fearing man, and respected by many Jews. 

The next morning Peter and the representatives travel to Cornelius's home in the nearby seaport town, Caesarea.  The Spirit had told Peter to go with them and he obeyed.  Peter knew that going with them broke with Jewish tradition, that it was against the rules of Judaism.  He is feeling uncomfortable as he nears the home of Cornelius.  He knows the laws of Judaism prohibit him from eating anything unclean or associating with people who were unclean, like Gentiles. 

And then Peter remembers the vision from God.  It was an “A-HA” moment.  He remembers what God said in the vision: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”   And Peter suddenly realizes something profound – the vision wasn't just about dietary rules, it was about something much bigger, it was about people.  The unclean animals in the vision represent the Gentiles, and Peter understands in a monumental moment, that God is not just the God of the Jews, but the God of the Gentiles, the God of  all human beings. 

How incredibly difficult this new awareness must have been for Peter.  It changed everything he had been taught since childhood.  It was a new truth that he was trying to get his mind around.  Isn't this true about how God works in our lives?  God was in this vision preparing Peter in advance of his visit to Cornelius.  God prepares us in advance for some future situation like God prepared Peter.

We may wonder why something is happening in our life, why we are going through something, why were are wrestling with some issue, and then the “A-HA” moment comes, the pieces begin to come together and we realize later that we were being prepared for sometime in the future.   How often do we miss the benefits of God's preparation because we are impatient or because we don't listen and pay attention?  Peter did listen, and a something entirely unexpected was about to happen in his life and God used him in a powerful way. 

The story continues and Peter enters the home of a Gentile, which previously he would never have done, and shares the Gospel about Jesus with Cornelius.  Peter forgets the religious barrier, and tells Cornelius the story of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection.   The Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles who are listening to him.  And he baptizes Cornelius and the other Gentiles in the Spirit. 

God gets our attention, yours and mine, in different and sometimes unusual ways and when God gets your attention, pay attention.  When God lays something upon your heart, to go to someone, to call someone, to get involved in some issue, to take on some new task, to accept an assignment, then listen and go.  God may even specifically give you the name of an individual to pray for or to call or to reach out to.  God will lay it upon your heart, as an opportunity to share God’s grace with another through your presence, your forgiveness, your kindness, your courage, and your investment of time and love.

I think of times when out of the blue, someone pops into my mind, and I decide to contact them and they say:  “You know I was thinking about you, so glad you called, or you know I have been dealing with a difficult time in my life, thanks for calling.”  Was that a call from the Spirit?  Was God prompting me?  I believe so.

To have a personal relationship with God means you must be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God will prompt you, guide you, direct you, and call you, maybe even in a vision.   True, we are not infallible about whether or not we are hearing from God.   So it helps to understand that God’s will is always in sync with the truths and principles that we know from Scripture.  God’s call is always in line with the gifts and abilities, with our strengths that God has blessed us with.

Sometimes the Spirit prompts us through events in our lives and other times through thoughts: a thought to write somebody, to serve somebody, to get involved,  to make a commitment, to do something, to confront somebody.  Two things are for certain in the realm of God's kingdom.  God calls us to fulfill His purposes and often God's calls are uncomfortable, strange, unusual and even risky.

Rev. Bill Hybels writes: “God sometimes calls us to an ominous and dangerous place. History is filled with men and women who said no to fear and changed the world.  But imagine if they had given in to the paralyzing effects of fear on their lives.  Imagine the apostle Paul, fearing resistance or rejection, choosing to stay home rather than embarking on the missionary journeys that took the message of Christ throughout the known world. 

Imagine Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. giving speeches filled with gentle hints about the evils of segregation, because he feared pushing too hard. Instead, King championed the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the United States.

Think of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman and Pakistani activist, who at the age of 12, was an advocate for human rights, education and equality for women in Pakistan, who lived in a town where the Taliban had banned girls from attending school.  Imagine, if she was silent because she was too frightened by the death threats she received from Taliban extremists.  Instead, she became even more vocal about the educational rights of children and women and survived a 2012 assassination attempt.  She was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2014.  She now resides in England.

Rev Hybels concludes:  “Imagine yourself, fully aware of the mission and vision God has placed in your heart to advance his kingdom in this world, and yet you are held hostage to phobias, irrational worries, and destructive fears of failure, harm, or rejection. If you don't fulfill the mission God assigned to you, who will?
Yes, like the disciple Peter, God calls us into Christ's service, God calls us into the work of His kingdom, God calls us to fulfill His purposes, and those calls are sometimes uncomfortable and even risky.

I close with this story told by the noted Christian author, speaker and activist Ravi Zacharias, about his co-worker Michael Ramsden, a Christian pastor from Iran.   “As pastor Ramsden was driving with his wife, they stopped in a small Iranian village to purchase some water.   Before entering, the minister noticed a man holding a machine gun and leaning against the wall outside the store. The minister's wife looked at the man's face and the gun, then put a Bible in her husband's hand and said, "Give that man this Bible." Her husband looked at the man, his menacing beard and his machine gun, and replied, "I don't think so." But she persisted: "I'm serious. Give it to him. Please, give him the Bible."

Trying to avoid the issue, the husband said, "Okay, I'll pray about it." He went into the shop, purchased the water, climbed back into the car, and started to drive away. His wife looked at him and said, "I guess you didn't give him the Bible, did you?" Looking straight ahead, he replied, "No, I prayed about it and it wasn't the right thing to do." She quietly said, "You should have given him the Bible," and then she bowed her head and started praying. At that point, he turned around and told his wife, "Fine! If you want me to die, I will."

When the minister returned to the store, the man with the machine gun was still standing against the wall. The minister approached him and placed the Bible in his hand. When the man opened it and saw it was a Bible, he started to cry. "I don't live here," he said. "I had to walk for three days in order to get to this village. But three days ago an angel appeared to me and told me to walk to this village and wait until someone had given me the Book of Life. Thank you for giving me this book."   Yes, you never know, God's calls are sometimes totally unpredictable.  Amen!

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