Sunday Sermon: Why Do You Consider It Incredible?

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: Acts 26:8
Post-Easter Series: “The Dawn of a New Day”

When I was growing up, one of my favorite comic strips was “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Some of you may remember it. Or some of you may have visited one of their “odditoriums,” as they are called, while on vacation in Orlando or Gatlinburg. Both comic strip and odditorium involve collections of stories about bizarre events and displays of odd items that were so strange and unusual that they bordered on credulity, even though they were supposed to be real; hence the title, “Believe It or Not.” You may not can explain it. You may not can wrap your head around it. You may not be able to replicate it or repeat it. But the choice is yours. You can believe it or not.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised that while the comic strips have long since disappeared, the “odditoriums” have managed to attract enough attention to stay open. That’s because, once upon a time, people were prone to be open to the possibility of things inexplicable, but as life has evolved and narratives of despair have become the default, we’ve become jaded and pessimistic and not all that excited about what the future holds for us. Even on this Senior Recognition Sunday, it would be interesting to hear our seniors respond as to how they feel about their own futures. If they view them positively, then our church had done a good job of grounding them in the possibilities of a God who is always about making everything new; but if they don’t feel good about their futures, then by all means we need to remind them before they get away, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ always works best in what seems on the surface to be the most hopeless of situations.

That’s the burden the Apostle Paul must have felt as he stood before King Agrippa and his Jewish accusers that day in the governor’s audience room in Caesarea, on the shores of the Mediterranean. This last section of the book of Acts recounts Paul’s final days in Judea, before his arrest and extradition to Rome. At this point in Paul’s life he had returned from his last missionary journey with an offering for the impoverished believers in Jerusalem, which he had received from Gentile believers in other places throughout the Roman Empire. But now, as a way to open doors among potential Jewish converts there in the Holy City, Paul has taken upon himself a vow of purification and has gone into the temple to make an offering for himself and four other men who have joined him in the vow.

It is there in the temple that Paul is recognized and immediately branded a blasphemer because of his commitment to Christ and his openness to non-Jews.  Several trials ensue, along with a number of plots against his life; and the next thing you know, Paul is whisked off to Caesarea, thrown into prison there, and like a ping-pong ball is batted from one Roman official to another until he is given an audience with King Agrippa, the great-grandson of Herod the Great. 

Paul’s witness to Agrippa would make an ideal case study in first century Greek rhetoric. For example, notice how Paul first expresses his respects to Agrippa and counts it an honor to explain his situation to someone who understands Jewish customs and controversies as well as does Agrippa, who himself would have been at least part-Jew. 

Then Paul turns his attention to the charges leveled against him, knowing that his accusers are in the audience. “I’m not a fraud or a blasphemer,” he begins. Everyone in Jerusalem knows me. They know my background. They know my training as a Pharisee, the strictest sect of the Jewish people. And so, I think it odd (yes, that’s essentially what Paul was saying) that these are the people who would charge me with doing something against God in light of how they say they live in God’s hope, working night and day to see it fulfilled.” And then, having checked off all the rhetorical boxes, Paul comes to the main point in his defense, which is “And why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”

I find Paul’s speech a thing of brilliance. He doesn’t disrespect the king. He doesn’t undermine his critic’s belief. He doesn’t even start out by naming Jesus, even though he will definitely get to Jesus in short time. What Paul does instead is to tell everyone within the sound of his voice that if anyone there has a problem with him, it’s not really Paul they have the problem with. It’s God. It’s God they have the problem with. “And why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” “You believe it or not.”

That is, after all, the one question upon which the whole matter of our everyday life hangs; is it not? Do you believe that God raises the dead or do you not? 

I saw a statistic the other day that first didn’t register until after a few moments reflecting on it. The statistic read that 52% of all non-Christians in America believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s right; the statistic doesn’t refer to Christians; it refers to non-believers in America, those who claim no real faith in the Risen Christ. On the surface, that might seem something to celebrate. Over one out of every two non-Christian Americans believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. But when you think about the implications of that belief, you come to understand that it represents mere intellectual acceptance, the same sort of concurrence you might give to any other historical fact, such as Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 or Alabama became the 22nd state in the Union in 1819 or the Mets won the World Series in 1969.  The people who “believe” in the Resurrection don’t necessarily see it as anything that changes the playing field upon which they live their everyday life. 

But when you believe in the Resurrection like the Bible calls us to do, then you can’t help but do things that other people find odd or strange or unusual, though they seem perfectly reasonable to you in light of Easter hope. You see the world differently. You see other people differently. You see yourself differently. You forgive those who wrong you. You put others first. You follow God’s lead even when it takes you to the edge of light, and then you take one step more. You live in the hope of God’s glorious tomorrow because, quite frankly, without it you couldn’t abide the cold, harsh, lifeless reality that surrounds you at every turn.

Reading this account of Paul’s defense of his faith to King Agrippa, I’ve been reminded of how when I was growing up, it seemed that every youth revival we had in my home church involved the preacher asking us the same question: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” 

That question haunted me then, and even though I like to think I’m older and wiser, it still haunts me today, despite the fact that for all intents and purposes I’m a credentialed Pharisee with a Ph.D. in religion. The question still haunts me today because of how in my more honest moments, I see how on too many occasions I limit God. I limit God by showing more faith in the constraining realities of this everyday life than I do in a God who has the power to raise the dead. I walk to the edge of light, peer into the darkness, and flinch before I take a step. And in those very moments I have to remind myself of where my hope rests. It rests in a God who raised Jesus from the dead. And if God can do that, then what is there that God cannot do?

You may be here this morning, decades past your high school graduation. Or you may be here with some years yet to go. The question still pertains, “How do you see your future?” “Where do you see yourself in the days to come?” “How do you feel about the possibilities that are before you?” If you feel pessimistic and uncertain, then know that’s precisely how the Devil wants you to feel, because then you will have nothing to live for, except how much you can make, how far you can advance, how much power you can attain – none of which will bring you joy. Now, is the time to ground your future instead, as incredible as it may seem, in a God who can raise the dead, and whose power can do in you immeasurably more than you might ask or imagine.

John Bertram Phillips was an English Bible scholar, whose translation of the New Testament into Modern English in 1958 set the stage for other contemporary translations that would follow. In an interview done toward the end of his life, Phillips was asked to define the marks of a Christian. That’s essentially asking how you might put someone on trial to see if he or she truly trusted Jesus. Phillips’s answer speaks, I think, to the type of witness to which all genuine believers should aspire. “There are,” Phillips contended, “four marks of a genuine Christian, all of which come from God. They are a tranquil mind, an unquenchable joy, an outgoing love, and an irrepressible sense of victory.” 

In a day when such distinctives may seem odd to many, for us who truly love Jesus, they seem to make entirely good sense. They make entirely good sense because we choose to believe. We choose to belief in Jesus, and our belief in him makes all the difference today and will continue to do the same tomorrow…and the next day…and even forevermore.