Advent: Born to Set the People Free

Isaiah 4:2-5; 

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgement and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed, over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. 


Acts 11:1-18  

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ Luke begins Acts 11 with the following words as he recounts what happened in the aftermath of Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion:   “The apostles and believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God (11:1).”  The word “received” is an interesting word!  It is a word that focuses on the action of the Gentiles who receive the word of God rather than on the actions of Peter who preached it. 

Gentiles “received” the word of God!  Think for a moment about all of those mission trip reports that you have heard in churches across the years.  Think about how those reports celebrate the actions of those who do the sharing or who engage in the action of ministry and mission.  We church members might say something like, “We gave out 200 coats to the children of immigrants” or “We built a small church so the people could worship” or “We preached and 40 people responded.” 

Do you catch the difference?  Luke celebrates what the Gentiles did in their reception of the word of God rather than what Peter did in his preaching of it.  Peter’s story as narrated by Luke doesn’t do anything to change that reality.  Peter doesn’t go looking for the Gentiles.  He’s on a roof minding his own business when he has the vision of the sheet coming down from heaven with the four-footed animals of the earth in it and when he hears the voice saying, “Get up!  Kill and eat! (!!:7).  Three men knock on his door to invite him to the house of Cornelius; Peter doesn’t knock on Cornelius’ door.  The Spirit encourages Peter to go with them; Peter doesn’t determine to go on his own.  And then when Peter does finally speak, he states emphatically that “the Spirit came on them as the Spirit had come on us (11:15).” 

Don’t get me wrong!  I’m all for human agency when it comes to doing God’s work in the world.  But this powerful retelling of Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius reminds me that God’s Spirit works in the world apart from me.  Even when I think I am in charge of what is going on in my efforts to do God’s work in the world, this story reminds me that I am not in charge at all.  My calling is to be open and receptive to what the Spirit is doing in my life, in the lives of others around me and in the world.   

One of my seminary professors, John Hendrix, drilled a mantra into my head and heart.  “Nothing never happens,” he said.  By that he meant for me to pay attention to what God was doing in the lives of those around me, to stand back and watch rather than to always view myself as the source of ministry and mission in the world. 

Advent is the season of preparation.  It is the season when we open our hearts as the Jews and Gentiles did in Acts to receive the word of God.  That word will always surprise us!  That word will always challenge us with where it sends us and what it expects of us.  May we during this season “receive it” gladly with all of its surprises and unexpected twists and turns.  

Rob Nash

Rob Nash serves as the Arnall-Mann-Thomasson Professor of Missions and World Religions at McAfeeHe received his Ph.D. degree in Church History (1989) and his M.Div. degree (1985) from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition, he completed both his M.A. (History) and B.A. degrees at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. Prior to assuming this position in 2012, he served for six years as the Global Mission Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and for twelve years as a religion professor at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia. He is married to Guyeth Godwin Nash, a psychotherapist in private practice, and they have two grown children who live in Washington, DC.