As we prepare to enter into the new year together, many of us are thinking toward the future. What does it hold? Will we be able to handle what is coming at us? Those are big questions, but as followers of Jesus, all of them must necessarily fall subject to what His plans for us are. In the New Year’s sermon, we took some time together to talk about how to move into the future with the kind of attitude that will see the most Gospel advances happen in the world around us. Enjoy.
Fueled by Boldness
Have you ever made a really bold ask before? A woman named Demi Skipper did and she wound up with a house for her efforts. After watching a Ted Talk by Kyle MacDonald, a Canadian man who started with a paperclip and traded his way up to a house, Demi decided she was going to try the same thing. She started with a single bobby pin and began trading. After offering to trade that bobby pin for pretty much whatever anyone was interested in trading for it, she eventually found a woman willing to trade her a pair of earrings for it. These earrings became a couple of margarita glasses, and the race was on. Demi traded her way through a snowboard, a MacBook laptop computer, various other pieces of jewelry, a Peloton stationary exercise bike, three tractors, a celebrity card at Chipotle, which entitles the holder to free food, a solar-powered trailer home, and finally a small house in Clarkston, TN where she and her husband will relocate to from San Francisco. Not a bad deal. Sure, the taxes are a little higher on a house than a bobby pin, but it’ll serve them a few more purposes including giving Demi a home base from which to attempt the whole thing again with the goal in mind of giving the house away to a family in need. She documented her entire adventure on TikTok.
In an interview with a local television station, Demi observed that while the individual trades understandably get all of the attention, each one was preceded by thousands of people telling her, “No way,” when she offered to trade them whatever it was for whatever they had. In the end, it was her boldness that got her a free house (which, I suppose, is a little like a free puppy). Now, think about this with me for just a minute here. If a little boldness could take a woman from a bobby pin to a house, what else could a little boldness accomplish? Let me get more specific with that question. Demi’s boldness was always with the goal in mind of getting a house. What if we took a little boldness and aimed higher than that? What else could we manage to accomplish? Let me get even more specific with you: What if we focused our boldness in the direction of advancing God’s kingdom? What could we accomplish then?
This morning finds us with our feet planted squarely in the new year. 2022 is here and there is no going back. And, while we have all perhaps learned to not put too much faith in the turning of the calendar, there’s just something in us that still looks forward to a day when things will be better than they are now. Over the next month or so, we are going to be bombarded everywhere we look by ads promising to help us realize all of our new year dreams–even the dreams we didn’t know we had. We are going to be encouraged to lose weight and tighten up our finances and take our dream vacation and retire early and exercise more and adopt new good habits generally and on and on and on it will go. Many folks have been doing some introspection this week about their lives, where they are, where they want to be, and how they can get there. Most of them will post something about it on social media. You probably have processed at least one thought about something you want to accomplish in the next twelve months.
Well, given that this is the headspace we are already all living in right now, I figured we might as well have the conversation all together and with the Scriptures as our guide. This morning I want to spend some time together thinking about what we could accomplish for God’s kingdom together if we would just embrace a little bit of Gospel boldness. And I want to do this with the help of what is perhaps one of the single best stories of Gospel boldness you will find anywhere in the Scriptures. If you have a Bible with you this morning in some form, find your way with me to Acts 3 and let’s take a look together at this incredible story.
Acts 3 picks up a few weeks after Peter’s powerful Pentecost sermon, which Luke records for us in Acts 2. The church had been through an initial period of truly explosive growth and now they were all trying to figure out what it meant to do life together in this new community they had. It wasn’t easy and there were a number of growing pains they would have to sort out. But at least the apostles–the group of guys who had been with Jesus throughout His ministry and had been commissioned by Him directly to the work of advancing the kingdom by growing the church were clear on what they needed to be doing. And so, everywhere they went, they proclaimed the Gospel. They proclaimed it both in word and in deed. Now, why and how they did what they did we don’t know except to say they were listening carefully to the Spirit and moving when He said go. What we can see, though, is the results.
This brings us to Acts 3. “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple for the time of prayer at three in the afternoon.” In the earliest days of the church, the believers didn’t think of themselves as anything other than faithful Jews and behaved accordingly. This was a public time of prayer that everyone in Jerusalem attended if they could. The Jesus followers did not consider themselves an exception to this. Because of that, all the beggars in the city would line up on the paths leading into the temple in hopes of catching passersby in a moment of religiously motivated generosity. After all, when better to ask someone to give you a few bucks than when they are either feeling really good about their relationship with God or else trying to feel better about it just before or after attending a service?
Well, on this particular day, a particular man caught Peter and John’s eye. And again, we don’t know why. Somehow and for some reason the Spirit moved at this particular moment. What we do know, though, is that Peter and John responded with the Gospel. “A man who was lame from birth was being carried there. He was placed each day at the temple gate called Beautiful, so that he could beg from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter the temple, he asked for money. Peter, along with John, looked straight at him and said, ‘Look at us.’ So he turned to them. But Peter said, ‘I don’t have silver or gold, but what I do have, I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!’” In that moment, to the utter amazement of everyone within earshot, the man got up and began jumping and leaping and praising God throughout the temple complex. “All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized that he was the one who used to sit and beg at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. So they were filled with awe and astonishment at what had happened to him.”
Naturally, this miracle attracted a crowd. Peter, being Peter, took the opportunity to address the crowd with the Gospel just as he had done outside the upper room a few weeks before. His message was pretty simple: Jesus died for sins, you killed Him, God raised Him from the dead, and now you need to repent of your sins and believe in Him.
Now, keep in mind this was all happening in the temple. Word of this level of commotion going on in the temple eventually reached the ears of the chief priests and the Sadducees–basically, the guys who had orchestrated Jesus’ death. Here they were smugly confident they had dealt with their Jesus problem a few weeks before–including the initial and rather troublesome rumors that He had risen from the dead–and yet these two knuckleheads were out in public talking about His having been raised from the dead and continuing to proclaim His message of repentance and salvation. As a result, “while they were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, because they were annoyed that they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. So they seized them and took them into custody until the next day since it was already evening.”
After spending the night in jail for the crime of irritating the people in power, Peter and John were brought before the full Sanhedrin–the religious ruling council of the Jews–the next day. There was one thing they wanted to know more than anything else. You can see this with me in Acts 4:7: “After they had Peter and John stand before them, they began to question them: ‘By what power or in what name have you done this?’” They wanted to know how it was these two nobodies had done this miracle. Given the floor and filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter didn’t mince words. “Rulers of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man, by what means he was healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead–by him this man is standing here before you healthy.” In other words, this was all Jesus’ doing from start to finish.
Well, needless to say, this put the Sanhedrin in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, they couldn’t deny the fact that a miracle had happened. Everyone–including them–recognized the formerly lame man who was walking around on healed legs. That matter was settled. And, although they hadn’t been there to see it for themselves, everyone was explicitly clear on the fact that it was Peter and John who had done the miracle. If they were now insistent that the miracle had happened in Jesus’ name, there really wasn’t much they could do to contradict their testimony. Their hands were tied. They certainly didn’t want this message getting out, but there were not any legal recourses available to them for shutting it down. So, they did the only thing they could: threaten. Look down to v. 17: “‘But so that this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.’ So they called for them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”
Have you ever gotten on a roll before? What do you tend to do when you get on a roll? You stay on it. You’ve got momentum and don’t want to waste it. Generally, in those moments you figure you’ll sort out later whether you should have kept going or not. Peter and John were filled with the Spirit and had been on a roll before. They saw no reason to stop now. With the full weight of the Sanhedrin staring down at them, they responded with respect, but boldness. “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” This was like a mic drop moment from a Hollywood script playing itself out in real life. These two uneducated disciples of Jesus had just stared down the most powerful group of men in their culture and didn’t blink. The Sanhedrin members were no doubt furious, but their frustration with the Jesus movement hadn’t yet grown to the point they were willing to throw law and custom in the trash in order to put a stop to it so their hands were completely tied. “After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done. For this sign of healing had been performed on a man over forty years old.”
Now, for just a second here, put yourself in the sandals of Peter and John. Better yet, put yourself in the sandals of all the members of the church when they got back home and relayed their tale. Most of the church no doubt had already heard about the healing of the lame man, but they were not privy to the goings on of the Sanhedrin, and so that was a tale for the pair of apostles to tell. How would you have responded to this news? Perhaps you would have shouted for them to stomp on the gas and ride this wave of momentum while they had it, but what if you had a family to think about. Poking this particular bear went okay this time, but next time maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it takes a big swipe with its paw and leaves you ripped to pieces. Who is going to care for your family then? Who’s going to take care of your kids? How about your wife? Sure, you’ve got family who could care for them, but they’re not really on board with this weird new movement and all the risks it is becoming clear it entails. They may not want to raise them to be followers of Jesus as you are convinced they should be. Just how exactly you are to respond to this obvious threat to everything you have signed up for isn’t quite as clear cut as you’d like it to be.
While you ponder that for a moment, let’s take a look at how the church then responded to it. Come back to the text with me in v. 23: “After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Master, you are the one who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them.’” In other words, the response of the church was to turn straight to God in prayer. That’s not a bad strategy. When the world is pushing back against us for living out our faith in public, meaningful ways, prayer should be our first instinct. Yet it’s not simply that we should pray that is of greatest interest to us here. What we should pray matters a great deal as well. Our temptation in a moment like this would be to pray for what? Safety and protection would probably top most of our lists. Think about what you have probably prayed since Covid hit the scene. Lord, keep us healthy. Lord, keep us safe. Lord, keep us Covid free. And, don’t get me wrong: That’s not a bad thing to pray. It’s not a bad thing to pray, and it would seem to be a prayer God has answered. Statistically, churches have a lower rate of death from Covid among their members than any other institution in our culture. But what if your goal is bigger than just surviving or somehow maintaining some status quo?
The church in Acts turned to prayer and they started with a profound acknowledgement of God’s greatness and sovereignty over the entire world. They prayed Scripture and specifically Scripture pointing to the futility of the efforts of those who oppose God’s plans to accomplish anything meaningful by their opposition. They prayed and acknowledged the reality of the situation they were in. They had Herod and the power of Rome opposing them on one side, and the Sanhedrin opposing them on the other–even though God was still sovereign over even their opposition. Look at v. 27: “For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever you hand and your will had predestined to take place.”
Having done all of this, they finally turned to their actual petition. (It’s probably worth noting the ordering of themes in their prayer. They didn’t jump straight to asking God for something. They started with conversation and ended with a request. Just some food for thought.) Look at this big ask in v. 29: “And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that…” What do you think comes next? That we would be protected from them to continue advancing your kingdom without interruption? That we would be faithful even amid difficult circumstances? That we would rise up against them and throw off our oppressors for the sake of advancing your kingdom? How would you fill in this blank? Look how they did it: “And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness…” If that doesn’t make your jaw hit the floor, you probably aren’t paying enough attention. In the face of this potent threat to their health and safety if they continued doing what Jesus had told them to do, they asked God to make them even more bold in their witness. In other words, they were doubling down on their commitment to obedience regardless of what the consequences for that might be.
But that wasn’t the whole of their request. Advancing God’s kingdom isn’t a one-sided affair the way Hollywood sometimes portrays it to be. They had a job to do, and they were asking for His help in doing it, but they immediately acknowledged they needed Him to do His part of the work as well. “…grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” That is, help us keep doing our thing with boldness and you keep doing your thing so that we have something to be bold about.
And I absolutely love what comes next: “When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly.” Are you seeing this? They were threatened with persecution if they continued to be obedient to the commands of their Lord, they prayed that He would help them to be boldly obedient all the same, and God immediately answered their prayer. They asked for boldness to advance God’s kingdom and so God made them bold to advance His kingdom. And the kingdom grew.
Can we be honest with each other for a minute? Many of you grew up in a day when you really didn’t have to be very bold to advance God’s kingdom, and even then, when you were bold, there wasn’t all that much of a cost to it. In case you hadn’t noticed, that day has come and gone. Things are changing. Your experience with the changes may only be anecdotal–and offer God a prayer of thanks if that’s the case–but the anecdotes across the country are starting to add up. And although the plural of anecdotes is not data, there is a growing sense across our nation that Christianity does not any longer occupy the place it once held. That sense is backed up not only by anecdotes either. The Pew Research Group recently released new polling showing that since 2007 the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has declined from 78% to 63%. At the same time, Americans who say they have no religious affiliation at all–the “nones” you’ve perhaps heard about before–has increased from 16% to 29%. If this trend holds, we are a single generation away from Christianity being the minority. In other words, we are marching steadily toward being in a cultural situation that is more like that of our earliest brothers and sisters than it is different from theirs.
Here’s the thing, though, people who identify as having no religious affiliation do not then believe in nothing. No one believes in nothing. These folks are being raised with and turning to a worldview other than the Christian worldview. Furthermore, what is becoming clear about the worldview steadily rising up to supplant the Christian worldview in our culture is that it is not simply non-Christian in its outlook; it is anti-Christian. The truth claims of the Christian worldview represent a direct ideological threat and it knows it. As a result, it tends to be pretty antagonistic to the Christian worldview and those who hold it. And the greater its cultural place becomes, the more antagonistic it will be. Do I have you all excited for what the future holds yet?
There is a very great likelihood that within the lifetimes of some of the people in this room followers of Jesus in this country will be not merely excluded from the greater society, but threatened with arrest and even violence because of their public commitment to Christ. That’s not going to happen tomorrow. It won’t happen even a year from now. But the day is coming. And it’s closer than it was yesterday. But–and this is really important, so don’t miss this–our call as followers of Jesus has not changed. It will not change. Regardless of what our cultural circumstances may be, our call and command is to expand God’s kingdom by proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples. Or, to make that a bit more contextualized to us, we are to be a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.
The question, then, becomes: How do we do that? Well, a full answer to that question could occupy a whole sermon series and that’s obviously beyond the scope of what we’re going to cover this morning. But what the disciples here in the first church demonstrate for us is a pretty good place to start. When making disciples and advancing the kingdom got hard, they didn’t turn away from it or ask God to make it easier for them. In fact, they didn’t even have a category for God’s making it easier on them. Their situation was what it was and that was that. What they asked for was boldness. They sought God’s help in embracing Gospel boldness to advance the kingdom regardless of what their present circumstances might be. And the result was that the kingdom grew. I think there’s something to that. Kingdom growth is fueled by Gospel boldness.
Okay, but again, how do we do that? More specifically given when we are, what does that look like for us in the next year? Well, I don’t know all the details of that just yet. But at the risk of making some predictions, there are a few things I feel comfortable saying. In the next year, you are going to have the chance to invite someone to church who’s never been before or who hasn’t been in a long time. It won’t be easy to get the words out of your mouth, but your invitation will have the potential of making an eternal difference in their life. In the next year, you are going to have the chance to share your faith with someone who has lost theirs or who never even had it in the first place. There might be a cultural cost for doing this, but doing so will unleash Gospel power in a way you’ve never experienced before. In the next year, you are going to have the chance to give more generously than you’ve ever been asked to give before. With all the uncertainty of the current economy, this is going to be a challenge indeed, but your going beyond what you even thought you could handle will advance God’s kingdom in ways you haven’t even known to imagine yet. In the next year, you are going to have the chance to take on a ministry position you aren’t sure you’re ready for right now. Leaning into your heavenly Father and ministering out of the overflow of your own relationship with Jesus will change more than one life when you say yes to it. In the next year, you are going to have the chance to embrace Gospel boldness in a way you never have before. If you’ll do it, the kingdom will grow. Kingdom growth is fueled by Gospel boldness.
Listen, I don’t even pretend to know exactly what the future holds, let alone our future, and certainly not your future. But I do know this: God is on the move. It may look like the church and the faith are in retreat in our culture, but I assure you, God is on the move, and we have the chance to be a part of that movement in some truly incredible ways. Doing this will take one thing more than just about any other: Gospel boldness. Kingdom growth is fueled by Gospel boldness. As we prepare to embark on the journey of a new year together, let us commit ourselves to Gospel boldness so that we can see the kingdom expand in our community and beyond in ways we’ve never seen before. Kingdom growth is fueled by Gospel boldness. Let’s see it grow together.