Not too light a thing…
Preached by Jason Abbott
There’s an amazing passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah where God, speaking to the coming Savior, the Messiah, says:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and…bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you…a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach…the end of the earth (49:6).
In this way, God’s saying, “I do not dream small. I do not make small plans. I do not send small saviors.” In this way, God encourages us to dream big dreams and to plan big plans and to trust in a big Savior. God encourages us to trust in him for big and unbelievable and, even, seemingly impossible things.
But, we don’t do this very well. Rather than dreaming like our God dreams, we dream like our culture dreams—two car garage dreams. Rather than planning like our God plans, we plan like our culture plans—401k plans. Rather than trusting in what our God tells us to trust in, we trust in what our culture trusts—Republican or Democrat salvations. No, we don’t do this well.
In today’s passage, we’re going to see that God calls us to readjust our views in order that we might dream, plan, and trust him as we should. In God’s calling—to love more people—we’ll see that it’s not simply that we’re to love more people, but that we’re to love more people in God’s way. (Page 1050 in brown Bibles)
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
In order to see how God calls us to love more people more like he does, we’ll want to study Cornelius’s account in terms of (1) what God could have done to save him and, then, in terms of (2) what God did do to save him.
1. What God could have done.
Sometimes when we read the Bible it’s easy for us to wonder why God did what he did in the way he did it. Today’s passage is one of those passages for me. As I was studying it this week, I wondered why God was working so inefficiently in order to reach Cornelius. Just consider the broader storyline of this conversion. Here’s the 21 point, cliffnotes’ version of what happens in chapter 10:
- God sends an angel to Cornelius in a vision; he’s in Caesarea.
- The angel tells Cornelius to send someone to get Peter; he’s in Joppa.
- Caesarea is 30 miles away from Joppa.
- Cornelius calls in 2 servants and a devout soldier to tell them everything and to send them on their way the next day.
- As they’re walking to get him, Peter’s praying and getting hungry.
- While he’s waiting for his food, Peter falls into a trance and has a vision where a sheet is lowered 3 times before him with unclean animals in it.
- God tells Peter to kill and eat.
- Peter tells God he won’t because he’s always obedient.
- God tells Peter to eat because he’s commanding him to eat.
- Peter is confused about this vision.
- The 3 men from Cornelius arrive.
- The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go back to Cornelius with them.
- Peter invites the 3 men to be his guests for the night.
- The next day they walk the 30 miles back to Cornelius’s house.
- They arrive and Cornelius tries to worship Peter.
- Peter tells Cornelius that that’s a bad idea.
- Peter begins to realize what his thrice repeated vision means.
- Peter says really racially insensitive things about Cornelius to Cornelius.
- Peter shares that God has now told him that those views are, in Christ, really racially insensitive things to say about Cornelius and wrong.
- Peter preaches a short gospel-centered sermon about Jesus.
- Cornelius and his family believe in Jesus and are saved.
In his 1st letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes that “. . . the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25). Friends, this passage provides a prime test-case for Paul’s statement. I’ll bet no one (in their right mind) would plan to bridge the racially charged divide between Jew and Gentile like this. This isn’t human wisdom here.
I’m a human. Here’s how I would have done it—cleanly and efficiently.
- God sends an angel to share the gospel with Cornelius in Caesarea.
- Cornelius and his family get saved and start a Gentile church.
- God tells Peter he’s saving the Gentiles and to be cool with that.
- Peter listens to God and is cool with that.
Isn’t my 4 point plan cleaner and more efficient than God’s 21 point plan? Wouldn’t you do something similar if Cornelius’s salvation were up to you—something quick and tidy and with far less walking?
And, let’s be clear. God could have done it this way if he’d chosen to do so. God is more than capable of saving Cornelius and his family without Peter’s help. Nevertheless, God sovereignly chose this way. Moreover, this isn’t the exception but the rule in how God works out his plans to love more people.
Take my inefficient conversion for example. It’s a mess of events!
- God gives me a mom and dad who teach me to love Jesus.
- As a child and teenager, I imagine I love Jesus.
- I have multiple conversion experiences growing up—at Petra concerts and vacation Bible schools and Bible camps.
- In a period of teenage rebellion I become an atheist.
- As an atheist, I join a college Bible study.
- As an atheist in a Bible study, I hear the gospel for the one-billionth-time but understand it and believe it for the 1st time.
This is how God brought me to faith. It’s a messy affair. And, I imagine that most other Christians have similarly messy stories about how God saved them—about how they began to see their sin as a problem in light of God’s holy standard, about how they started to realize that Jesus’s perfect life and sacrificial death was for them, and about how, by trusting in Christ, God granted them forgiveness.
This is the gospel. This is the good news, and it’s typically a messy business.
Friends, if you’re here today and if you want clean and efficient ministries, then you’re looking in the wrong place. If you want to check off some holy boxes in order to make your way to heaven, then the gospel of Christ will disappoint you. If you want tasks you can do to please God, the other religions are now serving. However, if you want authentic and personal connection (a personal relationship) with the God of all things, then forget about clean and efficient.
Real relationships are inefficient and messy! Especially between a holy God and his sinful, rebellious creatures.
When God saves Cornelius and his family, it’s an inefficient, thorny mess. And it’s also exceedingly beautiful. How is it so beautiful? Well, let’s look at . . .
2. What God did do.
a. God worked on Cornelius.
What do we find out about Cornelius from these verses? Well, a few things:
- We find out he’s religious—“a devout man who feared God” (v. 2).
- We find out he’s generous—giving “alms . . . to the people” (v. 2).
- We find out he’s prayerful—praying “continually to God” (v. 2).
What a dude! Cornelius seems genuine and kind. He’s the type of person whom you’d want to have as a coworker or as a neighbor or, even, as a best friend. We must admit (if we’re being honest) that he’s not the kind of person we think of when we think of people who need help.
But God thinks he needs help. Doesn’t he?!
God sees Cornelius’s religiosity, generosity, and prayerfulness for what it is: a cry for help, a cry for truth. God sees Cornelius as a sheep without a shepherd. God sees Cornelius’s efforts for what they really are—desperate shots in the dark at some mysterious, divine target. So . . . God sends help.
Friends, so many, in our time, are like Cornelius—people who long for truth. They’re eager for someone to help them find purpose in life, to find God.
- I met a jewelry store owner in Colorado who believes in magic crystals.
- I know a woman in Missouri who believes in imps and fairies.
- I run into people all the time who are willing to try any spiritual exercise in order to find some kind of transcendent meaning.
People all around us are like sheep without a shepherd. And God loves them! You might say—“Then why doesn’t he send an angel like he did with Cornelius?” Well, in a sense, God has. He sends the church. The word angel is a transliteration of the Greek word angelos which literally means “messenger.”
So, if you’re a Christian, you are God’s messenger. And, God’s placed you in the lives of many Corneliuses—they’re in your offices and your schools; they’re in your neighborhoods and your coffee shops; and, they’re in your grocery stores and your gas stations.
Your job is to deliver the gospel message to them. Don’t neglect your job!
(By the way, if you feel ill-equipped to share the good news with others, come learn how to do so. Honest Evangelism starts April 10th in Sunday school.)
Well, what else did God do in this messy story?
b. God worked on Peter.
Think about Peter. This is a guy who walked around with Jesus on mission for 3 years. He’s a guy who had the best teacher ever training him to serve God—showing him the scope of God’s gospel mission. Of all the people on the planet, Peter should have understood where God’s gospel, his loving more people plan, was going. But, he had somehow lost sight of it.
- Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors.
- Jesus healed people whom society wouldn’t touch . . . literally.
- Jesus shared the gospel with not only pagans but pagan women.
So, when God made Peter walk 30 miles to see Cornelius, he was working on Peter. He was opening up the scope of his “loving-all-kinds-of-people” mission for Peter to see once again. He was saying, in effect:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to [only!] raise up the tribes of Jacob and…bring back the preserved of Israel . . . (Isaiah 49:6).
Friends, God’s working on Peter’s presuppositions thru this messy situation. God’s working on Peter’s racism and ethnocentrism. God is working on Peter here, and he wants to work on us too.
I’ve said it before and I’ll certainly say it again—God’s mission never works in one direction. We do not become believers so that we can go change the world. Rather we become followers of Jesus and are sent on mission, to change the world, and to be changed in the process.
To say it differently, God works change through us and works change in us when he calls us to his good news mission.
Well, finally we see that . . .
c. God worked on the world.
God is working global good news through this messy interaction. How so?
By not simply bringing Jew and Gentile together, though that’s a big deal! But, by bringing Jew and Gentile enemies together—which is far, far bigger still! This is the kind of change our world needs!
Who is in charge in Israel? Friends, it isn’t the natives; it’s not the Israelites. Instead, it’s the foreign invaders—the Romans.
Who is Peter? He’s a conquered native.
Who is Cornelius? He’s a conquering foreigner.
How much hate stands between these 2 groups? More than we can imagine! Enough that at a fortified city called Masada—in 73 or 74 AD—960 Israelites, who had rebelled against Rome, preferred committing suicide to ever being placed again under Roman rule. There was no love lost between Israel and Rome!
What then could possibly bridge such a gap of hatred between conquered and conqueror—between the bitterest of enemies? A different kind of conquest! And a different kind of conqueror! The kind of conqueror who loves his enemies and even dies for them! The kind of conqueror who frees and prospers captives! Only the Conqueror Jesus Christ! Amen.