Many of us remember the iconic bear, born in the 1940’s. He has charged us, for over seventy years now, with a part of social responsibility. With catch phrases like, “Hold till it’s cold” he has appeared in radio, print, outdoor, and electronic media with his message of urgency. We’ve seen the signs across our country, we’ve heard his radio spots, and some have perhaps even been visited by him in our classrooms.
But of all his iconic memories, you know him best if I just start by saying. “Repeat after me, Only you… (can prevent forest fires).
In his seventy years plus, Smokey has undergone some changes, as I suppose we all have. In the 1940’s his warning centered around the connection between the evils of forest fires and the evils of Nazi Germany. If we are too busy fighting a blazing forest, we can’t stop Hitler’s advancing army. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for Hitler succeeding, would you? Of course not, so put your matches out when camping.
In the 1950’s, Smokey made the cover of Newsweek and his message really began to take off. By the 1960’s he had his very own comic book, Smokey Bear Nature Stories, and by the 70’s he was a common fixture around national parks and forests everywhere. Throughout the decades, Smokey has been our constant companion and reminder to our social responsibility and compassion on nature. You have a part, a duty, an obligation to save the forest and protect furry woodland creatures.
For the Jesus follower, the same imperative is passed on to you about mission. What we’ve been taught in the book of Acts is the dual nature of communal worship and personal responsibility in sharing and extending faith. The bedrock of whatever we desire to do, is a commitment to follow and be shaped by Jesus. Your desire to spend time in faith, growing more into a reflection of Jesus and a commitment to the importance of prayer and personal transformation.
So, what are we waiting for?
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea. Acts 8:26-40
Acts 7 is the story of Stephen’s persecution, and upon his death the floodgates of persecution are opened. The entire church, save for the twelve apostles are scattered. Two thousand were added at Pentecost, and the end of Acts 2 says that those numbers were added to daily. This means that quite literally thousands fled Jerusalem. 99% of the church was dispersed across the country and the Middle East. We went instantly from one church meeting at the temple in Jerusalem, to hundreds and thousands of churches in one week because persecution forced them to scatter.
And their response? The natural outflowing of what we’ve seen in the book of Acts. They knew their story, they knew God’s story, they knew the joy of fellowship, they knew the importance of transformation and so they quite naturally just got to it. Everywhere they went they preached, they communicated the Good News. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, wherever they were, they shared their faith in Jesus.
Like building a house with a bad foundation is evangelism in the hands of Christian who hasn’t first been transformed by Jesus.
[/pullquote]The rest of Acts 8 is a couple of highlight stories to show how that happens. Philip finds himself in several situations and leads some of the most unlikely people to faith: the despised Samaritans, a sorcerer that practiced what we might call ‘black magic’ and an Ethiopian eunuch that served the Royal family.
How did Philip evangelize? Three things are of critical importance
1.) Preparation. Smokey tells us to prepare our campsite well. Clear away any debris, prepare a rock retaining wall, and gather your materials like wood and especially water. Start with the end in mind and prepare for that. Similarly, we must begin with preparation. Despite any well stated desire to “share my faith”, it is ultimately going to fail unless if we prepare well. Like building a house with a bad foundation is evangelism in the hands of Christian who hasn’t first been transformed by Jesus. It’s a dangerous and scary thing.
2.) Hear and respond. Smokey teaches us of our personal responsibility. First prepare, then be smart and listen to the advice he has. Don’t be responsible for the destruction of our forests. Don’t just prepare and stop, actually do what you have prepared for. For the Christian, our task is the same, an openness to hear the Spirit and respond. Many of us wonder why we never see or experience greatness in our spiritual lives. The most honest answer is because we never actually do anything with what we know. It would be similar to preparing everything for a great camp fire, but then never starting one. A stack of logs next to a fire pit isn’t the same as a nice warm fire on a cool fall evening.
Many of us, I would argue, actually know too much about our faith, at least in the sense that we know enough to argue away what makes us uncomfortable. It’s not my gift, I’m not qualified enough, it takes too much time, that’s the pastor’s job. We spend a lot of time going to church, studying the Bible, attending Sunday School, being involved in Bible studies, ….and then we never do anything with it. We essentially prepare ourselves with a bunch of knowledge about God, and then fail to ever use it to show or tell anyone what we’ve seen, heard, or experienced. Not only do we need to prepare, and not only do we need to hear, we need to respond. Many of us never see the spiritual breakthrough we desire, because we are never willing to exercise faithfulness in the small things. Why would God want to trust us with something big and impressive, if he can’t even trust us to pray for others when we say we will, serve without being praised for it, or do something nice when it’s not an inconvenience?
3) Commitment. Finally, Smokey frames it in the area of personal responsibility. Enjoy the outdoors to their great extent, and as much as you can, and then leave it like that for others to enjoy. Jesus would say it in short, “Love God. Love others.” Once we’ve prepared, and once we’ve been open to hear and respond to what the Spirit tells us, we must be willing to be others centered. We serve, because it’s what Christ asks of us. We wash tables, sweep floors, share meals, clean dishes, and invite others over so that others might be blessed. In short, this one is about humility, and this is where the last group of us struggle. Some of us fail to prepare. We don’t read our Bibles, we don’t pray, we commit to fellowship, and we aren’t transformed by Christ. Others prepare, but are never open. They have eyes that don’t see and ears that don’t hear. Finally, some prepare well, some are open to service and mission, but they stumble because they quit being humble. Proud of what they do, they make sure everyone knows how hard they work.
Acts 8 is a blueprint for faithfulness in mission. With a chance to help the hurting, broken, poor, disenfranchised, questioning, scared, and lonely that surround us every day of our lives, how will you respond? Determine where you are at today and find a way forward.