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Sermon at PYUMC – July 25, 2021 – Rev. Kristen Roth Allen
Acts 20:16-24 NIV
Have you ever been driving down the road and realized you really had no idea if you were going the right way or not? How do you decide it’s time to stop and reorient? In April my husband Bill and I were heading to NH to visit my mom and dad, and we decided to take an unfamiliar route through western Massachusetts, through Vermont, and into NH (just for fun!). We left Massachusetts and headed into the twisty mountain roads of Vermont, and pretty soon we realized we had taken one too many turns and we really didn’t know which way to go. So we decided to stop and look and the map. Surprise! We didn’t have an atlas in that car! No problem, we thought – we’ll put it into our phones. Surprise! No cell service in these mountains! So we just kept driving, trusting our instincts to get us to NH. After a long while, we reached a sign that said, “Welcome to Massachusetts” – we were almost right back where we started!
In life, sometimes we need to stop and reorient – to decide if where we are headed is really where we want to go, if what we’re spending our precious lives on is really worth it. One of the great blessings of this last year is that we’ve all had the time to STOP. We’ve had to. And that has given us all time to reorient our thinking about what is worth it. Is it really worth it to wear pants that are uncomfortable? Nope, we’re not doing that anymore! Is it worth it to keep coloring our hair to cover up the gray? Is it worth it to be so busy and stressed and over-scheduled all the time? Maybe you saw the news this week that the entire staff of a Burger King quit at the same time. They put on the sign outside the restaurant “We all quit. Sorry for the inconvenience.” They decided working there wasn’t worth it.
But we haven’t just reoriented ourselves about the things that aren’t worth it; we have
gotten some clarity about the things that are worth it. Time with friends and family – that’s
precious! We’re not going to let that slip by anymore! Our health – that’s also such a gift!
We’re not going to take that for granted again!
What’s worth it on a spiritual level? Have you given some thought to that over the last
year? What have you realized needs to be reoriented in your spiritual journey? The
dictionary says that “reorient” means “to orient once again, after a disorientation” (that fits
well, doesn’t it! This has certainly been a disorienting year). Another definition is “to find
one’s position again in relation to one’s surroundings; change the focus or direction of; to
change the goal or emphasis of something.”
Today we get to look over the shoulder of a spiritual giant as he reflects on what is worth it,
at a time when he was reorienting his life to a new stage. We’ve skipped ahead in the book
of Acts; last time we heard about how Paul and Silas were sent out as missionaries. Now
here in chapter 20, it’s many years later, and Paul has traveled around and around, sharing
the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ all over the place. Now he’s headed back home
to Jerusalem. Just like we plan our schedules so that we can be home for Christmas, Paul is
eager to get to Jerusalem for Pentecost, which was a major Jewish holiday and also an
important day for his Christian community as they celebrated the birth of the church. Did
you ever meet someone at the airport who was there just for a layover? Maybe they didn’t
have time to rent a car and come see you, so you went to see them while they had a
stopover at the airport. That’s what’s happening here: As Paul is traveling back to
Jerusalem, he doesn’t have time to make a side trip to Ephesus and see his beloved friends
from the church he started there – so the leaders of the church come to the port where Paul
is stopped to see him. This is especially poignant because Paul suspects that this will be the
last time they ever get to see each other.
We pick up their conversation in Acts 20:18. Paul says to them, “this was my pattern with
you from the very beginning.” What was the pattern? 19I served the Lord with great humility
and tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. Paul is
remembering with them how their ministry together was: it was a situation that needed
“great humility.” So right away we know it was hard! If you’ve ever been in a situation that
would describe as requiring a lot of humility, you know that’s no fun. The famous Yogi
Berra, who was known for saying profound things by accident, is quoted as saying, “It ain’t
the heat, it’s the humility.” Isn’t that the truth! Humility is rewarding in the long run,
because humility is a virtue, but it takes some dying to self and a lot of trust in God.
So Paul characterizes his time with them as needing his humility, and full of tears. 19I
served the Lord with great humility and tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of
my Jewish opponents. Why the tears? It is because he was suffering at the hands of those
who opposed him there, in particular his Jewish opponents. He faced a lot of suffering at
the hands of Gentiles too, but here in Ephesus it was particularly the old guard Jews who
thought he was corrupting the Jewish faith.
In fact, Paul’s ministry was often marked with tears. He wrote to another church that he
started (in Corinth): “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and
with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2
Why do you suppose that Paul is telling the Ephesian leaders that he served the Lord with humility, tears, and trials? Surely, Paul was not bragging or complaining about his problems. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Paul wanted to prepare the leaders of the church to expect similar hardships. When backpacking on the Appalachian Trail many years ago, I discovered something called “water bars.” They are places where the trail is on a hill, and someone has done the hard work of digging out a section across the width of the trail and setting a log into that spot – almost like a stair (but too far apart to be stairs). The reason trail maintenance volunteers go to all the trouble to do install these water bars is that without them, when it rains the water gathers on the trail and runs downhill with such force that the trail washes out, leaving nothing but a gully full of rocks (which makes a terrible trail!). When the rain hits a water bar, it shunts the water off the sides, preserving the trail. Now if these trail workers wait until it starts to rain to try and install water bars, it won’t work at all; you have to do the work while the trail is dry, not wait until the floods come. That’s what Paul is trying to do here: install some water bars. He knows the floods will come to this group of believers that he cherishes. Trials and trouble and tears always seem to be part of the equation when we belong to Jesus.
It makes me think of Psalm 126:5-6 – Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. 6 Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them. Paul knew that the Ephesian church leaders would soon have to fight opposition like he faced in Ephesus. A few verses later, Paul says, 29 I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock.30 Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following (Acts 20:29-30). He knows there will be suffering – but it will be worth it.
In verse 20, Paul reminds them that he was also was brave or bold – he didn’t shy away
from teaching what he needed to, even though it was uncomfortable. Verse 21 gives us
some idea of what was hard or uncomfortable in his teaching: “that they must turn to God
in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” That was a challenging message back then,
and I think it’s even more uncomfortable today. We don’t like that word “must.” We would
rather invite people than tell them they “must” do something! And to tell people that
repentance is necessary is also a hard sell, because it so clearly contradicts one of the
highest values of our culture, “Let people be themselves, whatever that is.” This is one of
those places that a biblical worldview challenges our worldview. Thank goodness we have
something besides our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences to help us get us oriented to
where we are in reality. Paul’s message here challenges our comfort zones, and I think
that’s the interesting and exciting thing about studying the Bible: it is always expanding
what I think is possible.
So Paul goes on, after looking back, and looks forward: 22And now, compelled by the Spirit, I
am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. Think about those times
you have faced the uncertainty of “not knowing what will happen to me.” The agony of not
knowing, of wondering, waiting, trying not to worry is so difficult. He can’t even hope for
the best in his not knowing, since the Spirit it telling him that suffering is ahead (and we see
in Acts that was true in most every place he went): 23 I only know that in every city the
Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardship are facing me.
Then the mood of the conversation completely turns! Paul “RE-Orients” his outlook! Look
at verse 24: it all turns on the word “however.” 24However, I consider my life worth nothing
to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me –
the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. Paul is saying that all the suffering is
worth it. He considers the pain involved inconsequential when he compares it with the
goal of sharing the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
He wrote a very similar thing to another of his beloved churches, the one at Philippi. We
read this in Philippians 3:8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the
surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I
consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. It sounds a lot like what he is saying here in
Acts 20 to these leaders from the Ephesian church: 24However, I consider my life worth
nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given
me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. Knowing, loving, and following
Jesus is what makes it all worth it in comparison. Suffering is nothing compared to
“finishing the race and completing the task the Lord Jesus has given me;” it’s about
communicating with Jesus and being led by him. It’s from Jesus and for Jesus.
The task given Paul by Jesus is “testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” Paul has
given his life to the task of letting other people know this good news: God’s grace is
wonderful. It’s available through repentance and faith. Salvation is such a gift! Knowing
Jesus is such a precious treasure!
Do you feel that way? Many of us know it in our heads, but has it made it to our hearts? If
not, we are missing something God wants for us. For many people, a retreat experience like
The Walk to Emmaus or A Closer Walk brought the reality of God’s saving love from the
head to the heart. For others it was an experience at summer church camp. Often it’s
during those times away from the normal routine of life that God can most easily reorient
our experience of him. There is such a depth of love to live in; we don’t want to miss it.
Paul says that following Jesus is worth suffering for. What do you think? What do you
expect following Jesus will be like? Do you expect to suffer? Is it worth it?
This is a time to reorient our expectations about what really makes “the good life.” As
we begin to fill our calendars again, it’s time to ask, what is worth spending our time and
effort and (frankly) our suffering on? Is following Jesus worth it? Is life in the Christian
community worth it?
Have you ever done something that you knew was going to be painful – but you did it
anyway because you know it would be worth it? Like having children (both giving birth
and raising them!), hiking a mountain, having surgery, having that difficult conversation
earning your degree, competing on a sports team. Why did you do it? Because you knew it
would be worth the pain.
Is Jesus worth the pain? Am I hoping Jesus will be an anesthesiologist or a surgeon?
What if church challenges me, pushes me out of my comfort zone, and causes me pain?
Is it worth it, if it’s accomplishing what my Jesus is calling me to?
Listen again to Paul’s words to the Philippians about how he reoriented his thinking about what is truly worth it in life. This is from The Message version.
Phil 3:7-12 – MSG: 7-9 The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.10-11 I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.
12I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me.
Friends, Jesus Christ has wondrously reached out for you – and me – and he is reaching out for our friends and neighbors! What a wonderful savior we have! He is truly worth it all!
As we close, let’s pray together this daring prayer from John Wesley, who with his brother Charles started this Methodist movement that we are part of.
Wesley’s Covenant Prayer (Modern Version)
I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
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