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Step By Step

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark. on May 2, 2010.

Psalm 148:1-14; Acts 11:1-18

I’d like a show of hands of those here today who have the Bible memorized. Hmm, no takers, huh? Okay, let’s try this… Is there anybody here who feels he or she has such a full grasp of scripture that you could take any passage from any portion of the Bible and competently interpret its meaning? Nobody willing to take that one on either, I see.

My guess is that there are some folk present today who do have a pretty good understanding of what the Bible is trying to say, and could do a relatively fair job of explaining it. But when it comes to knowing all that is in this book we call holy, well, just about all of us will be quick to admit we approach it with the appropriate amount of humility. In fact, we could be given a dozen lifetimes and never fully know what this book has to say to us.

However, that doesn’t keep us from reading it and trying to understand it and even, in some circumstances, teaching it to others. I still remember, rather painfully, some of my earliest attempts at preaching. I had felt God’s call, and thought rather naively that with such a call the words would just magically appear in my mind and heart. Boy, did I have a lot to learn, not only about how to preach but what to preach as well. I took little solace in the fact that others thought the same.

One time, while preaching in my church in Nashville, Tennessee, I shared with the congregation the process I went through in preparing a sermon. After worship was concluded, one of the church members came up and expressed to me her surprise that it took that much effort. I just thought you stood in the pulpit, she said to me, opened your Bible, and God gave you the thoughts to say. If only it were that easy. This lady was the administrative assistant to the CEO of Gaylord Enterprises, the owners of the Grand Ole Opry. In other words, she was no dummy, to say the least. But she didn’t understand anything about the process of preaching.

I didn’t have the courage to tell her that when I started out doing this, I pretty much thought the same thing. But I do have the courage today, after forty years of preaching, to tell you that the more I know about scripture the more I realize I don’t know. And if you hear anybody, preacher or otherwise, who says anything else, run as fast as you can in the other direction. We simply have to admit “ all of us “ that there is a lot of the Bible we haven’t yet figured out.

If that is true, and I certainly think it is, we’re in pretty good company. Let’s start with Simon Peter. If there ever was anyone who simply stood up and said what the Holy Spirit wanted him to say, it was the Big Fisherman. But that still doesn’t mean, that just because he said it he fully understood it.

On the day of Pentecost, when Simon preached and the end result was that three thousand people were saved, he began his sermon by saying, In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…

Hold it right there. Let’s freeze the frame. Did you hear what Peter said? That’s important because I’m not all that convinced that Peter himself knew what he was saying… not really, not fully. In fact, I think this was one of those cases when Peter wasn’t just preaching his words, but was conveying what God wanted him to announce. So let’s hear it again: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh… Now what do you think Peter meant by all flesh ?

I wouldn’t doubt it at all if Simon Peter, in his own mind and heart, was thinking along the lines of all Jews. You see, he had no other frame of reference. Jews were all he knew. Jesus, his Lord and Master, like himself was a Jew. And weren’t the Jews God’s chosen people? Peter had no indication, at least that he could see, that God was planning to bring his salvation to anyone else other than his chosen ones. Even those people gathered together on the day of Pentecost, though they were from all over the world, were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. That’s the way Luke puts it. You couldn’t find a Gentile in the whole bunch.

But what we will find out, in the stories that follow, is that God had a broader idea in mind, an idea beyond Simon Peter’s wildest imagination. And he’s going to use Simon to help bring it about. And frankly, on the day of Pentecost, I doubt that Peter had a clue as to what was about to happen. He had no idea how his world was about to be rocked. Excuse the pun… rocked, Peter the Ro… Okay, let’s move on.

It started with a man named Cornelius, from Caesarea. Cornelius was not a Jew, he was a Gentile. Nor was he a follower of Jesus; not yet anyway. But he was devout, we are told… just the kind of man God could use. Cornelius had a vision from God, and was told to send for a certain man named Peter. He could be found in Joppa.

About the same time, Peter had a vision of his own. He had gone up on a rooftop to pray. While there he saw the heavens opened and a large sheet coming down at his feet. On the sheet were all kinds of creatures, reptiles and birds of the air. Get up, Peter; kill and eat, he was told. But Peter had never eaten anything like that in his whole life. He had never put anything in his mouth that wasn’t kosher, and he wasn’t planning to start now. The voice said to him, What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

Still, Simon Peter was not an easy sell. This happened three times before he really and truly got the message. But just about the time he did, three messengers came to him asking him to go visit a man named Cornelius in Caesarea. And he did. Give Simon Peter this much. When prompted by God, Simon Peter responded. When he arrived, he found an entire household of people who were just ready to affirm Christ as Lord, and to be baptized.

It was then that Simon Peter, bless his heart, finally started getting the message. Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? he asked. Just as we have. You know who he was talking about, don’t you?

That is what brings us to the account we read a bit earlier. The pipeline was swift and sure in those days, and it didn’t take long for word to hit the ears of the church leaders in Jerusalem. Peter is spending time, having table fellowship with, presiding over the baptism of, the uncircumcised.

Almost sounds like the title of a horror movie, doesn’t it? The Uncircumcised! You see, when you don’t understand others, when their culture is different, perhaps their language too “ not to mention their religion “ when you don’t want to be with them or have anything to do with them, the easiest thing to do is to demonize them. And one way to do that is to give them an unflattering name. The Uncircumcised.

Even The Greatest Generation, that courageously led us through a terrible world war, had demeaning nicknames for the enemy. Somehow, in our minds, doing so makes these others less human. Those who formed the early Christian church did the same. The others weren’t simply Gentiles, they were The Uncircumcised.

And they hauled Simon Peter on the carpet for spending time with these others, wanted an explanation for his unseemly behavior. So Peter explained it them, step by step, we are told, how it came to be. Step by step. It was the only way he could explain it, if for no other reason than to deflect the responsibility of it all off himself and put it squarely on God’s shoulders. But there is another reason, perhaps. This is the way God works in us, changing us, slowly weaving his divine will in us, making us new and different little by little, step by step, over time.

Who of us can say that God has fully revealed all at once, in one fell swoop, what it is we have come to know about our faith? It has been a process of slowly gaining new and fresh insight into the ways of God. Faith in Christ is a journey of a lifetime and beyond, and if we are open to what God has to say to us, we will find something new to learn every day, step by step.

And the best way “ perhaps the only way “ to recount step by step what we have come to know, what we have come to learn, is tell our story. After all, most of Jesus’ teaching was in the form of parables, which are simply stories. Some of them, no doubt, he made up out of his imagination and heart. Others may have been based on reality, or as my grandmother used to call them, So Tales. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll tell you mine.

I grew up in one of those small Arkansas towns famous for having a sunset law. Do you know what I mean by that? Back in the day, black people could come into town, could work if they had gainful employment, could even shop in the stores and go about their business, whatever their business might be. But when the sun set, they had to get out of town, go back to wherever it was they stayed. They were not welcome in my hometown after dark.

I did not know this when I was a boy. In fact, it never dawned on me to wonder why there were no black folk in town. The only time I ever saw any was when we made the occasional trip over to Memphis or drove down to Jonesboro. It was only later that I found out why we didn’t have any black residents. Or, at least I didn’t think we did, until my senior year in high school when, because of the mandated law, two half-brothers came to our high school. For years they had been bused to Jonesboro to go to school, and because of that I didn’t even know they existed. But in the fall of 1966 they were allowed to come to our school. They were well-accepted and became really quite popular, but looking back on that I think it was perhaps because there were two of them and not twelve or twenty.

Like many of you, I grew up with the N word. I heard it at home occasionally, I heard it at school. I even heard it at church. And because I was a product of my place and time, there was a prejudice in my heart that was difficult to overcome. But over the years, step by step, God has planted something in me that has gradually emerged as a full-blown conviction; namely, that all people have been created in God’s image, and I have no right to consider anyone “ whoever it might be, or whatever their skin color might be, or what their religious conviction might be “ anything less than the children of God.

This is not a lesson I have learned. It is a lesson I am learning. There is a big difference, and it came home to me yet again this past weekend. Last Saturday morning, I attended a breakout session at Second Baptist Church. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas was hosting its annual spring conference, and one of the sessions had to do with business opportunities in the Delta. I sat down next to the wife of a friend of mine. Before the session began, we talked about our backgrounds and I discovered in our conversation that she was a student at Ouachita when I was there. In fact, she was one of Janet’s classmates. But I did not know her at Ouachita, which is not easy to do because it was not then and is not now a large school. I didn’t know her, you see, because she is black, and in those days I had little, if anything, to do with the black students. In those days, that’s just the way it was.

I do not share this with you because I am proud of it, to say the least. I tell you because it illustrates that God changes hearts and lives, not necessarily all at once, but step by step.

Peter didn’t decide one day that he was going to work to break the cultural and religious rules of his people. It was not a major item on his agenda. After all, he grew up with his own version of the sunset law. God simply intervened in his life and showed him a better way, overcoming his provincial attitudes and convincing him that he was to be a part of God’s bigger “ and better “ picture. And if you’re not familiar with that story, I encourage you to look it up. It’s right there in that book you’ve got on your lap.

So why don’t we, you and I, think about how we can be a part of God’s bigger and better picture? Instead of just going through each day without a sense of purpose or reason for what we find ourselves doing, why not place ourselves in God’s hands and ask to be used for something good, for something eternal, for something that will certainly live beyond us? To do that, God might just want to change our attitudes, our ways, our hearts. But don’t you think it’s worth the risk? Why not ask God to plant a conviction in you that will not only change you but change the world around you as well?

Are you ready to do that? If so, let’s do it together, step by step.

In your wisdom and goodness, Lord, change us. It need not be instantly, nor with great fanfare. It just needs to be deep and right and in keeping with your will and purpose. Invade our hearts and show us your way, is our prayer in Jesus’ name, Amen.