A God of Surprises –
Scripture Reading: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
- Acts 10:46 Or other languages
Sermon: “A God of Surprises“
I’d like to start this morning with a brief clip from a recent episode of “Britain’s Got Talent.” I apologize for a word or two you’ll hear in the song, but since it once soared into the Billboard Top Forty, I thought I’d take a chance.
That was…surprising…and unexpected. Welcome to Peter’s world in this morning’s scripture lesson. Let’s put this handful of verses in perspective, starting with the end of chapter 9 in Acts.
There we find Peter going down to the town of Lydda, where he healed a paralyzed man named Aeneas who’d been bed ridden for eight years.
In the nearby town of Joppa, a disciple named Tabitha became ill. She was what we would call a pillar of her church. Even after she died, the Christians in Joppa sent two men to Peter in Lydda asking him to come without delay.
When Peter arrived, he chased everyone else from Tabitha’s room. Peter then told Tabitha to get up—and she did. Following this miracle, Peter stayed in Joppa for quite some time with a tanner named Simon.
As chapter 10 opens, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea, had a vision as he was praying. An angel told him to send men to Joppa, to the house of Simon the tanner, and bring back anotherSimon, called Peter.
Cornelius did. He had no way of knowing that Peter himself had a vision before Cornelius’ messengers arrived.
As he was praying, Peter fell into a trance and saw a huge sheet lowered from heaven. It held animals and birds of all kinds. A voice told Peter to, “Kill and eat.”
The trouble was, Jewish law considered many of the critters contained in the sheet unclean, forbidden as food. Peter refused to eat any of them.
But, after he did, a voice said, “If God calls something permissible and clean, you mustn’t call it forbidden and dirty!”
It’s at this point that Cornelius’ messengers arrive. Peter invited them to stay the night and went with them to Caesarea the next morning.
Once there, Cornelius explained his vision. Peter said, “It’s clear to me now that God plays no favorites. God accepts every person whatever his or her culture or ethnic background, welcoming all who revere God and do right.”
Peter then preached a stem winder of a sermon. Before he had a chance to add the last “Amen,” the Holy Spirit fell in a powerful, unmistakable way on Cornelius and all his household.
That’s where our Scripture lesson begins. Notice how astoundedthe Jewish background Christians were that God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit evento Gentiles.
Peter said, “I’m going to baptize these folks unless anybody’s dead set against it.” No one was, and Peter did.
Peter ended up staying with Cornelius in Caesarea for several days. Later, leaders of the church back in Jerusalem called Peter on the carpet and asked him to explain his actions. But that’s another story and another sermon.
The early church either had to either accept the change God was bringing or decide to fight it. Psychologists say there are four reasons most of us are afraid of change.
Fear of failure leads the pack, which for people of faith is usually closely linked to a crisis of faith or a battle with doubt.
Fear of looking stupid comes next, the old, familiar excuse that keeps us from sharing the good news so many times.
Then there’s fear of the unknown. I’m comfortable where I am and with what I believe. Why change now?
Interestingly, fear of success is in the mix as well. What if things really dochange? Where does that leave me? What will I do then?
I think that’swhat scared Peter the most. What if the gospel really didspread among the Gentiles? What would happen to Peter’s Jewish faith? What would become of the Law that had held the Jews together for so long and brought them through so much?
Those early Christians had to find a way to use their past as a foundation for God’s new future. Peter himself was a good example of that.
He walked with the earthly Jesus and spoke to the risen Christ. He was there at the first Pentecost as well as this new Pentecost of the Gentiles. Peter was a link, a reminder that however powerful or sudden change might be, things that really matter endure.
Here’s one example, taken from my family history. This is a picture of a threshing run in which my grandfather and some of his neighbors took part. Fast forward to today, of course, and we know that much has changed.
Artificial intelligence is making its way into farm machinery. Girish Chowdhary, a professor at the University of Illinois, says farm automation right now is about at the stage where Henry Ford was in the early nineteenth century.
Machine learning can use satellites and drones to analyze data collected from farmers’ fields and help make decisions about planting, fertilizing, controlling disease, and predicting crop yields.
John Deere recently bought a company called Blue River Technology. They’re developing a system that can tell the difference between weeds and cotton plants. It then sprays herbicides only on the weeds, not the whole field.
There are limits, though. Robots can’t handle change very well. Soil texture, glare, clouds, and other issues can slow them down and cloud their computer vision.
Alex Purdy, head of John Deere labs, said today’s farmers are doing an awesome job. They depend not just on machinery, but generations of knowledge about their land. He then added, “The bar for automation is going to be high.”
Love of the land and wisdom passed from generation to generation ties today’s high-tech farming to the steam powered threshing runs of my grandfather’s day.
Continuity is important in the church, too. Peter and those other Christians had to accept that God was bigger than they were. Their risen Lord was still challenging them to see the world and those in it through hiseyes, not theirs.
This Gentile Pentecost opened a door that would never close. The Spirit included those formerly excluded. People once thought unworthy of God’s love and grace God now called beloved children.
Like Peter, Christ calls us to recognize and encourage the work of the Spirit in people we might consider “different,” opening ourselves to the surprising ways God works among those whom we least expect.
It won’t always be easy. There’ll be times of confusion, soul-searching, and doubt, just as in today’s scripture. When those times come—and they will—we’ll have to depend on others to remember and share the story of the faith for us and with us.
Most of all, we’ll have to take the very long view. God changes our mind through chance meetings with the Holy Spirit in the muck and mess of day to day living.
If we persevere, if, like Peter and those early Christians, we can balance who we once were with who God now calls us to be. Then we’ll see a new Pentecost, too—right here, among us.