The story is told of a man who sought after the perfect picture of peace – a painting of it. Not finding it anywhere, he announced a contest in the hopes of producing it. Painters came from far and wide. They presented beautiful, placid scenes to the applause, the oohs and ahs of onlookers. After many brilliant pieces, finally came the last painting. The man uncovered it and the crowd gasped – could this be peace? A waterfall raged over a rocky cliff, clouds of cold spray hung in the air. Storm clouds threatened rain and lightning. In the midst of the noise and cold and spray, a spindly tree clung to the rocks at the edge of the falls. One branch stretched out into the torrent. A little bird had built a nest in the elbow of that branch. Content and undisturbed she rested on her eggs. With her eyes closed and her wings ready to cover her little ones, she manifested peace that transcends all earthly trouble.
The disciples, Peter and John, had healed a man in Jesus’ name. Peter had preached the power of Jesus’ resurrection. In the verse just before our section, the leaders who should have welcomed such blessings from God, instead roared and thundered: “[They] commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” And when Peter and John had refused, “After further threats they let them go.” Peter and John had said, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Like that bird before the raging waterfall, the disciples were at peace – confident and strong to proclaim the living name of Jesus no matter the thundering threats or the roaring trouble. And we see the same today as John and Peter come back to the other believers. We see that peace isn’t a stop to all the troubles or the heartaches or the fearful things of this world. Peace is a trust in the God who holds us fast and safe despite all the roaring, raging terrors. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we see how the Good Shepherd grants peace to his church.
This morning we see as Peter and John relayed what had happened, the leaders words and threats. And we see what the believers did. They didn’t run and hide, they didn’t argue in fear, they didn’t worry about what was coming. They prayed. And you’ll notice that peace showed itself in how they prayed: with confidence in God’s power over all his enemies. Confidence in the one to whom they prayed. They called on the “Sovereign Lord”, the creator of all things. Powerful enemies threatened to stop the believers, later on to kill them if they continued to witness about Jesus as the Savior of the world. These apostles, Christians, were just normal, weak people – no amazing education, no grand ability to speak, no political power to use, no mighty army to flex. So they pleaded to the one who had power over everything – to say that they knew he had power even over their enemies.
In Greek, the word they used is the one from which we get our word “despot”. Despot isn’t a complimentary word in our vocabulary. It’s someone who rules with absolute power according his own whims. Usually cruel; a dictator. A person who brings trouble; not one who gives confidence. But notice how the Sovereign Lord’s rule isn’t cruel but brings confidence in the best way. They cite God’s Old Testament prophet David in Psalm 2 who told how the rulers rage and the kings plot but that God’s plans prevail. They apply it to all they had heard and seen in Jesus: Pilate and others plotted, Jews and Gentiles together, to take down God’s chosen one. But, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.“ All their powerful working… Even their powerful threats now… All of it God simply used to bring about his gracious will to supply a Savior who would win salvation for his people.
I could imagine a thousand other ways to react than with prayer – because I have reacted in those ways when enemy things attacked my faith. Because, when the world writes news articles that characterize Christianity like an invasive disease, I’m tempted to find some way to get back. And I’m tempted in selfishness that just wants everything to be perfect to just cry out in despair. I know a thousand places I put my trust, than in the creator. Because I’m tempted by my own smarts and the arguments I can make and the feeling “winning” those arguments will bring. I’m tempted by how well power works in this world – and to use it to crush whatever gets in the way and to be afraid when the power’s not mine. But it’s Easter. This season schools us again and again in the power of Jesus risen. He is not conquered by death or my sins or by enemy powers. He lives. And he lives by God’s amazing plan – God’s plan of salvation to make sinners into children of God. Children don’t fear, not generally. They know their father’s love and his care, their mother’s hug and her warmth. With their parents they’re safe. So also are we who have been made children of God. God rules over all things, and he has planned our salvation in his Savior. In Jesus, he has proclaimed rule over our sins and our fears, our doubts and our failings. He promises to shepherd us with this peace, to keep us in his love until we enjoy being perfectly like him in the joy of heaven where no enemy will threaten ever again. He promises to use all things to that beautiful end. And so, in this peace he gives us confidence to be his witnesses.
And, when we have that peace, did you notice how we, God’s children, pray? Certainly, God’s prophets and people throughout history have prayed for the destruction of his enemies and the demise of their powers. But these first century Christians, what did they do? They prayed for the mighty creator to rule over their enemies and so give them confidence in him. Like this: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.”
This morning, take away this thought: that we, God’s children who are shepherded by our Savior, we can be confident in God’s power and pray – not that he take every enemy away – but that he give us strength by his promised Holy Spirit. Notice how God granted their request right then. The believers with the apostles boldly spoke the Word of God in all kinds of circumstances. Despite their fears they spoke. In light of God’s power they spoke. In love for people who were sinners they spoke. They continued to speak about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and all the holy things that flow from it in his Word. And we will too. We who have God’s peace remember his promises of power. Do you remember the things Jesus promised his disciples back in Luke’s gospel – things that also apply to you when you take up his Word and witness?
- “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11–12)
- Luke 21:15, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.”
He doesn’t mean that the enemies will all be removed. Most of these apostles finally died for what they said. But Jesus has promised that when his disciples speak, his Spirit will bring power and fire and work. And it won’t be your strength but his that works. Which means that we don’t have to be afraid but can boldly speak… And live.
Did you notice that other aspect of their witness? How could you not? It’s one of those things that stands out in Acts: the first century church and their sharing, giving, common property system? The strength God gave didn’t only show itself in words. It showed up in deeds. They shared with those who had need – no one was in need. They were one in heart and mind – about the same things, working for the same goals, living for the same Lord. They lived the resurrection of Jesus Christ in what they did.
That’s a striking picture the multiple times it shows up in Acts, isn’t it? Don’t you think it’s a striking witness in our day too of the peace God gives his church? I don’t mean that we all bring our possessions here next week – make a pile, divvy it out. I mean when our world sees the love of Jesus overflowing in everything we do? Perhaps speaking to witness isn’t your thing. Maybe talking about Jesus is hard for you to do. Peter wrote in his first epistle: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms…If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” God provides strength through his Holy Spirit so that you bear fruit in normal, everyday living. He calls you his children, his witnesses, in your behavior at work and your kindness at home, in your charity to someone in need and in your prayers for those in pain – especially when all the world is filled with trouble for us and those around us. In normal, everyday ways he sends you out to witness to the fact that you are strong in his Spirit and at peace with God because of Jesus’ salvation work – to show it in everything you do. And people will see it. And God will be praised.
“God’s grace was powerfully at work in them,” his believers – in word and deed to be witnesses. Because they were at peace in Jesus, the Good Shepherd. God’s grace is powerfully at work here too – to forgive us our sins, to fill us with his joy and love, and to commit ourselves to serving him in word and deed. May God grant us confidence and strength by his Spirit, in the midst of all kinds of trouble, to be at peace so boldly to witness. Amen.
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.