April 26th, 2015

When Paul connects the dots, he sketches an image of Jesus.

Acts 13:16-41

April 26, 2015

What preaching is

What’s been happening in your life this week? How many of you recently…

…have celebrated a birthday or anniversary?

…have experienced a moment of joy or laughter or celebration?

…have been struggling with grief over death or divorce or some other loss?

…have been perplexed or confused?

…have read a good book?

…have experienced God being close?

…have felt distant or disconnected from God?

…have been on vacation? (That’s a “yes” for Linda and me!)


It’s good to be back with you after some time at the beach. I was able to do some reading and writing, which is always refreshing. Linda and I also had some great decompression time, some quiet moments on the porch and on the beach, some couple time, and some time with both our daughters. We spent Friday at Carowinds with Jeni and about 60 members of her Middle School chorus – listening to them sing, riding Fury 325, and eating unhealthy food. Fried chicken and ice cream just make you feel better, you know. Vendors at Carowinds sell a giant pixie stick, an 18” long tube, which kids can fill with different colors of sugar. One chaperone-Mom lamented, “That’s just what I want – to take my 12-year-old home with me who’s eaten about four cups of pure sugar.”


While soaking in sun on the beach I again picked up Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul. Dr. Thompson will be our keynote speaker for the Family Life Conference October 9-10, 2015. (It’s not too early to register!) He notes that the human brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons – microscopic cells which request, receive, and store information, comparable to a computer bit – which is either a “0” or a “1”. Neurons by themselves would be worthless. They would have no more meaning than billions of 0s and 1s on your hard drive. But each neuron in your brain can connect with up to 10,000 other neurons through what is called a synapse, the space between neurons only 20 millionths of a millimeter wide. A signal transmitted biochemically across that space is what you call thinking or feeling or reacting.

Whenever you create new synapses it’s like brain candy. Connections give your mind energy. When you meet someone from Hickory while at the beach and exclaim, “Small world!”, when you hug your child who lives away from home, or when you read a book that puts things together for you in a new way, thousands or maybe millions of synapses are connecting your neurons. It’s as if your brain is on a sugar high.

The task of preaching is connecting the dots inside your mind. What I try to do every Sunday is to create new synapses within the mind, between your mind and others, and, most importantly, between your mind and God’s. When a sermon touches you, those connections have been firing.

Let me tell you about some of the dots Paul was connecting.

Dots on a map

There were the dots of Paul’s own life. Paul’s birth name in his Jewish family was Saul after the most important member of the tribe of Benjamin, Israel’s first king. He was also born into a family with Roman citizenship in the Asia Minor city of Tarsus. Tarsus was a center of culture, business, and education – like a Charlotte. Not New York or Atlanta, but still a significant city. If Saul’s parents wanted him to have the finest Greek/Roman education, he would have stayed right there in Tarsus. Instead, they sent him to Jerusalem – perhaps as a boy, but certainly by the time he was a teenager – where he studied Jewish law under the leading rabbi named Gamaliel. He began rising rapidly in the ranks of the Pharisees.

As Pastor Bill pointed out last week, this same Saul became a persecutor of those who believed Jesus was the Messiah, determined to crush their movement in its infancy. Then he met Jesus personally, and was commissioned by the Lord to take the gospel to the Gentiles. First he spent some time in Jerusalem, getting acquainted with the other apostles, then in the desert getting acquainted with a new way of relating to God. He went back home to Tarsus and was there when Barnabas the Encourager found him and brought him to Antioch to join in teaching and leading that congregation of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds in various countries. Last week Bill preached on the beginning of their journey which started in Antioch and moved to the island of Cyprus. These were just some of the dots on the map of Paul’s life to this point. But as Luke tells this part of his story, what we usually associate are dots on a map of his journeys.


A young man named John Mark was part of this team on Cyprus, but when the team arrived on the southern coast of Asia Minor, John deserted the mission and returned to Jerusalem. It seems he had not bought into what was now going to be a longer mission. Paul is headed eighty miles inland, climbing 3600 feet in elevation to get there. One of the things that happens when they get to their next destination is that Luke, who’s recording this for posterity, replaces “Barnabas and Saul” with “Paul and Barnabas.” Not only is Paul using his Roman name, he becomes the lead missionary.

They arrive in Pisidian Antioch, which probably means little to you, but is an important dot Luke needs to connect as he tells this story. After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided among his four generals. The Seleucid Empire stretched from what is today Iran in the east through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the southeastern corner of Turkey on its western edge, a region then called Pisidia.

A favorite name of the Seleucid kings was Antiochus, and so they named or renamed multiple cities Antioch – including the one in Syria where this journey had begun and the one in Pisidia. The most important Greek cities were then taken over by the Romans as colonies where Roman interests could be protected. Antioch specifically had been resettled by Roman army veterans and their families. This meant that, like Syrian Antioch, Pisidian Antioch was a cosmopolitan city of Greeks, Jews, Romans, and native peoples.

The Romans connected the dots of their major cities with roads – 50,000 miles of primary roads, built primarily by their equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers, for military purposes. Pisidian Antioch lay on one of those interstate highways, called the Via Sebaste, which connected Ephesus on the Aegean Sea Coast to the Euphrates River. Had Paul wanted a more direct route between the two Antiochs, he could have gone through Tarsus to get there. That’s true also of his return to Antioch, so it seems Paul deliberately avoided his hometown so that he could take the gospel to new places.

When Paul arrives in Pisidian Antioch, he goes first to the synagogue, presumably as a worshiper. The history of the synagogue dates at least to the time of the Exile because without access to the temple Jews needed a central place to connect with each other. They always read the Torah (Law) on a planned schedule. Then they would read various passages from the writings (Poetry) and the prophets. Remember, copies of the Bible were rare so this was their only chance to hear the Bible. They were individually trying to make sense out of life in their dispersed state. Most synagogues had no formally trained rabbi. When they met, the leader or someone designated would explain what the Bible says and how it connects to life. When a visitor who was well-educated in the Scripture showed up for the service, he would be cordially invited to give a word of encouragement, sometimes adding insights from another part of the Bible that had not been read publicly.

On this particular Sabbath, Paul was invited to give a “message of encouragement.” I suspect choosing Paul wasn’t random. He had been in town a few days and started making friends, maybe even tents. The synagogue leaders probably already knew he was a Pharisee who had been trained by Gamaliel.

When Paul spoke, it was a message of encouragement, yes, but it was a message of making connections.

Paul’s sermon

If you are a Jew living in Pisidian Antioch gathering with other Jews in the synagogue on the Sabbath, you have many dots to connect. You’ve got your own family, of course, and your job, whatever that is. You live in a city where Greek and Roman ways, including what they eat, what they wear, how they relate to their families, can all seem very strange. Their gods are not only strange to you and their idols and worship ways even offensive, their history is comparatively brief to the stories you know about your people. When you get together, you read from sacred books that were written and preserved hundreds or even thousands of years before anyone had heard of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. The scrolls speak of a story of God’s interaction and intervention, but to you those stories seem very remote. The people in that synagogue are just like you, asking, “Where is that God now?” “Why should I try to keep God’s laws?” “It looks like the people around me are having more fun.” “I keep blowing it anyway, so I wonder what God thinks of me.”

What Paul does in the first part of his sermon amounts to a retelling of those key dots in the Jewish collective story. You can’t talk about Jewish history without speaking of the Exodus and of David. They’re the stories you tell over and over again. Anyone, especially a guest, who shows up in a synagogue and can’t connect his message to these central Jewish narratives will likely lose credibility immediately. What they ask for is “a message of encouragement.” They are always in need of encouragement out in the Diaspora, far away from Jerusalem and surrounded by these pagan ideas and ways.

Paul begins with stories that are almost as familiar to you as they were to them:

The God of Israel chose our ancestors. They prospered as slaves, but with a mighty hand he led them out of Egypt into Canaan, their inheritance. He ruled them through judges until they asked Samuel for a king. Their first king was Saul, the Benjamite (Paul’s going to make sure he’s brought into the story) and then there was David, a man after God’s own heart.

Every Jew knows these stories, but how do you connect the dots of our current existence has a scattered people? Those who do live in the homeland suffer the indignity of occupation by Romans. Where is the promise of freedom given to our ancestors?

It’s at this point that Paul’s sermon will transition into some new ideas. Paul says Jesus is a descendant of David, and John the Baptist had prepared the way for him.

How much these Pisidian Jews had heard about Jesus we don’t know for sure. But Jewish history before and after this time is filled with the longing for Messiah, as well as with men who either proclaimed themselves Messiah or were heralded as such. My hunch is that something about Jesus’ story had traveled the Roman roads into various Jewish communities. From a Jewish perspective, however, the fact that Jesus had died without liberating his people – and especially that he had died on a cross – made him only another in a series of false hopes.

So Paul is going to connect some more dots. He acknowledges that Jesus was condemned, crucified, and laid in a tomb. Then he tells the rest of the story.

But God raised him from the dead and for many days he was seen by witnesses. This is good news. What God promised our fathers has been fulfilled in Jesus. The second Psalm points to him as the Son of God. Isaiah says that the blessings promised to David will come on him. Another psalm promises that God’s Holy One will not see decay. These promises obviously were not for David, because his body has long since decayed.

Let me connect these dots for you – Moses to David to Isaiah to Jesus. What you know best about Moses is his law, and you’re still trying to make yourself good enough by keeping that law. Let me connect some dots for you. That whole system from Moses was about doing what you could for God to look kindly on you, to see you as forgiven (“released from sin”) and justified (“declared to be holy and good”). Now Jesus has done that for you. And if you believe in him, God will see you as good, as right, as complete! That’s good news – so don’t be like the scoffers Habakkuk told you about who will never believe.

That’s Paul’s sermon – making connections to every person’s search for meaning in a disconnected life and world. He always ends up pointing to the One whose life, death and resurrection had changed his life forever. You may think the world’s history is wandering aimlessly. You may think your life’s history is meandering. It is not!

Through Jesus

When Paul connects the dots, he sketches an image of Jesus. He says to his audience what he would say to you and me. Whatever the dots are in your life, your mind is trying to create synapses. It’s yearning to make the kinds of connections that make sense out of their randomness. Paul would ask you to see an image of Jesus connecting the dots of your life.

I’ve been on vacation, as I said earlier. We talk about unplugging, about disconnecting, when we get away. But for me, at least, it’s getting away because at home all you can see is one or maybe a handful of dots at a time. Creating some distance allows you to see more of the dots and make more connections. It happens for me when I read a book, when I walk on the beach with Linda, when I watch a sunset, when I sit on a quiet porch and enjoy an hour or two of solitude, when I spend some unhurried time with my kids I don’t get to see often enough, when I ponder the dots of the different lives God has sent to me.

What I didn’t do and can’t do and shouldn’t do is to completely unplug from the lives of those who struggle. I wasn’t meeting with them or answering long e-mails, but I was trying to connect the dots of real life – those who face death, especially the death of a child, those who are not as fortunate as I am to have a great marriage, good health, financial stability, those for whom God feels distant and uninvolved. One person said to me not long ago, “I felt like I was the only one trying to make the marriage work. I pulled away from my faith because I only had energy for one one-way relationship. God didn’t seem to be trying either. He wasn’t doing anything. He didn’t respond when I talked to him. I was doing all the work there too.”

Don’t you think there were people like that in Paul’s audience at Pisidian Antioch? There were people who felt isolated, disconnected, going through the rituals of reading the Bible and praying but feeling more and more distant because all the effort they were giving to keeping God’s law only gave them more guilt and shame. It was never good enough, trying to please this God who seemed only to demand more obedience to the Law from a way off distance up in heaven, with stories of his active intervention growing more remote as the years from Moses and David and the miles from Jerusalem only grew.

When they heard Paul that day, some of them – not all, but those who were ready at the moment – heard a preacher who knew them. Paul understood their story. He had lived it. He knew the dots of their struggle. They heard someone who “got” them. All of them were not changed, but Paul gave them a chance to believe (embrace) this “message of encouragement.” That’s what he was there for.

Curt Thompson says that being known has the power to transform your life. When someone understands, really grasps your story, you are freed to trust and to change. Paul’s message said to these Diaspora Jews, “Through Jesus, God has shown up, in the flesh.” “Through Jesus, God has demonstrated that he knows.” “Through Jesus God has released you from your guilt and shame.” “Through faith in Jesus you have been declared good.” I know every dot in your story. I can put my finger on your struggle. I get you. I love you. And I’m here for you. It’s Jesus who connects your dots.

Maybe your dots are different from those of the Jews living in Pisidian Antioch. But you are known and loved. Through Jesus, God is at work, giving you meaning and hope and life and joy. God has showed up in Jesus, and he will continue to show up. Amen.

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