The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, September 3, 2023)
Rev. Dr. Cliff Jones
“The Question of Why”
Acts 8:1 - 4
You know, some questions are trivial - they’re just not important.
I was rummaging around our cabinet, looking for a game to take to a picnic. I thought it might be fun to play at some point. I pulled out Monopoly, Checkers, Trivial Pursuit - where you have to answer questions in 6 categories as you move around the board: history, entertainment, sports, science and nature, art and literature, and geography. When that craze died down, they came out with “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”, another game where you have to answer unimportant questions. We bought that game, too.
So… I brought a few questions with me from that game; unimportant questions, just to see if we are smarter than a 5th grader. Ready? If you know the answer, just shout it out:
The Tropic of Capricorn lies in which hemisphere?
What is the longest river in the United States?
What was the name of the first satellite pulled into orbit by the United States? (Ex)
Which Civil War battle took place the farthest north? (St. Albans Raid, V)
Well, now we can go home, resting in the assurance that none of us is smarter than a 5th grader! Fortunately, those questions are not important.
But, some questions are important - important to us!
Questions like “We’re without a pastor; how long will it take to get someone?
“What are we going to do?” “What’s going to happen to us?”
And, then, of course, the main question: ‘Why?’
“Why is this happening to us?” “Why now?”
Every congregation asks these questions when a pastor leaves. And, these are the same kind of questions we often ask ourselves when we hit tough times personally. When the rent rises, when the divorce is finalized, when we’re worried our money won’t last through retirement, when our grandchild develops a serious condition, when we come down with - you name it - AFib, cancer, COPD, diabetes, long-term COVID, pain that won’t quit…, we ask the questions: “What will happen to me?” “How will I cope?” And the big one: “Why?” “Why me?”
What answers have you come up with to the question of why? Maybe friends have tried to answer it for you. They’ll say, “I’m sure it will be okay.” Or, “I had the same problem…” and then they start talking about their problem. Or, this: “God has something better in mind for you.” Really? You’re telling me, who is going through this pain, that it will all be worth it for something better? Maybe, in the future, but we don’t know, not now.
When tough times come, how do we answer the question, ‘why?’ Let’s take a look at what Scripture says about it. Let’s look at Acts 8:1 - 4.
(Read Acts 8:1 - 4)
Stephen, elected to the first class of Church Deacons, is killed, martyred for his faith. Any deacons here? His death triggers a general persecution of Christians in Jerusalem. That pressure, that devastation with Saul, who we know later as Paul, dragging Christians off to jail, forces believers to leave Jerusalem. Not just leave, but flee for their lives! It’s described as a ‘great’ persecution. The word, ‘great’, here is ‘mega,’ from which we get the word ‘mega.’ We’ve had a couple of mega block-buster movies this summer. There was a mega storm in Florida this week, and Canada is experiencing mega fires with over 400 of them this summer, just to name a few. Mega - not just persecution, but a "great persecution arose against the church.”
Can you imagine leaving everything: house, furniture, possessions, friends…? Can you imagine going into your child’s bedroom at dawn:”Honey, get up, hurry, put a shirt, pants, jacket, and your snuggly in your back pack; we’re leaving in 5 minutes.” And, out the door you go.
Why? Why is this happening to them? Remember, these are the first Christians. They have chosen to follow Jesus as Messiah. They are the righteous ones. Wouldn’t God protect them? And, if God didn’t protect them, what about us?
What about our congregation, our church, our budget, our building, our people?
What about me and what I’m going through? Why is all this happening - to me?
I remember having a meal at a restaurant. I knew the owner, nice guy; I could see how hard he was working - and he was making a success of it. His life was working. He bought a great house and put a lot of money into restoring it. Then, the Pandemic struck and his restaurant dried up, no customers. He had to close it, sell the house he had bought. What do he and his family do? Why is this happening to him, at a time with a new mortgage and business pressures?
I was talking to a friend last month, a good man, with a beautiful family, who told me that he started a new job this May, and was fired 6 weeks later because of what a co-worker said about his management. Six weeks and suddenly no job. Why? Why him? Then, there’s my neighbor’s grandchild who continues to have multiple surgeries to try to correct what isn’t right in her body. How much more can this child take? Why is this happening to her? She’s innocent. Why?
Would you look with me again at verse 3: “Now the Christians who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
Up until this point, Christianity has been a leader-led religious movement centered in Jerusalem. Remember Peter, preaching, standing up on the day of Pentecost, and 5,000 people turn to Jesus. People continue to do so, all in Jerusalem. Then persecution comes and Christians, except the apostles, are forced to flee, and like pea pods that explode scattering their seed, Christians scatter here and there, scattering the seed of the Word of God. They just include talking about Jesus in normal conversations and for the first time, the Jesus movement becomes lay-led.
Ordinary, normal Christian people telling others about Jesus, like two farmers talking. One says,
“Jesus taught that we should be innocent as doves and wise as snakes. Before you try raising a different crop, have you checked with other farmers?” Or, “Jesus said to forgive, or it will eat at your insides, so I forgave someone this week, but boy was it hard.” Or, “I’m learning about Jesus and it’s changing me. Do you want to come with me Sunday and learn, too?” Normal people including Jesus in conversations and the movement multiples! When it was led by the apostles, the Jesus movement grows by addition. Now it grows by multiplication. Because of persecution, Christianity fundamentally changes. We call this a hinge point in history.
Does this answer their question, ‘why’ for them? I’m not sure. What do you think? I mean, they wouldn’t have recognized the significance in that moment of Christianity becoming lay-led. But, rather than remain stuck on the ‘why’ question, they went ahead and had faith. That means they trusted what was happening in their lives to the purposes of God. In essence, they said, “God, I don’t understand what’s going on or why, but I’ve committed myself to You and your will, rather than mine, so I will continue to trust that You are leading me, and will do my best to follow.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, asked Methodists at the beginning of each year to pray together a Covenant Prayer. This prayer is worth hearing:
I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, praised for you or criticized for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
How long must we wait for a new pastor? I don’t know. What’s going to happen to us? I don’t know. Why is this happening to us right now? Why am I personally experiencing tough times? Don’t know. The Bible spends little time answering the ‘why’ questions. Instead, it concentrates on the ‘what’ question: “Lord, what do You want me to do to fulfill your will?”
What do we know? We can trust that God is using this time, and our own tough times, for his purposes, whatever they are. Yes, we have confident hope that good will come from our trials, but it is God’s good we seek, not our own. We don’t know the whys but we can figure out what God wants each of us to do, as we ask him; - tell me, Lord - and, as we set aside time to listen.
Who knows, maybe this is a hinge point for this congregation, stepping out in faith, trying new things as you use your gifts and abilities. Maybe this is a hinge point for you personally, as you pursue God’s will for you, trusting that God has the bigger picture in mind, and you can contribute to that bigger picture.
What is required of us is sturdy faith, confident trust, no matter what we face. In tough times, we are not passive by-standers, but active participants with God in fulfilling his will. Or, maybe we can put it more simply: we seek to carry out the prayer that we pray each Sunday: “Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.”
What does God want? Ask him!
What is God’s word? Explore it!
What is God’s lesson? Learn it!
What is God’s intent? Discover it!
What is God’s will? Find it!
What is God’s purpose? Follow it!
“And the covenant which I have made on earth, Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.