Pentecost: Unity in Christ through the Spirit

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches 
Genesis 11:1-11
June 5, 2022

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on June 3, 2022

Thoughts at the beginning of worship: 

Scripture teaches that our lives are grounded in God. Adam was a clump of clay until God breathe life into his lungs. Likewise, for the church, as an organization, would’ve been long dead had not God breathe the Spirit into the disciples on Pentecost. God keeps breathing the Spirit into the church. Today, I want you to understand that our hope is not in our efforts. We find hope in God who wants to partner with us in carrying out his mission in the world. That’s the message of Pentecost.

Before the reading of Scripture:

Worship in an Indonesian Pentecostal Church

I attended a 6 AM worship service when I was in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2011. Between Easter and Pentecost, this congregation hosted daily predawn worship services, praying that when Pentecost arrived there would be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Housed in a high-rise building, the congregation leases two floors. I thought this was unique until I learned the high-rise also housed two other churches as well as a mosque.  

We met in the children’s worship room, where we sat around on the floor while a small praise team led us in songs. The music began contemplative, soft, and reflective, but gradually became more energetic. They sang songs in a variety of languages including English and Dutch. That’s not unusual as Indonesia has more languages than any other country in the world. Interspersed with the music were passages of scripture. Of course, I couldn’t understand the readings, but Petra, the pastor who had invited me, whispered to me the passage so I could find the reading and follow along.  

Blended prayer

After about forty-five minutes of singing and scripture, they began to pray. Everyone, at once, prayed aloud. But this didn’t result in the chaos that you might think as the voices blended to create a unique and beautiful sound. A couple of people moved forward as Petra and the other leaders of the church gathered around them, laying their hands on the shoulders as they prayed. One of the women became excited and suddenly fell backwards, only to be caught and gently lowered to the floor. After about fifteen minutes of praying in all kinds of tongues, Pastor Petra pronounced a benediction. We moved to another room where we enjoyed Javanese coffee and nasi timbel (sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves).

Worship focuses on God

When we worship, God is our audience. We gather and we offer our hearts up to God and when we do so, we believe it pleases to the Almighty. If we think about worship in this manner, the experience of hearing all the various voices of prayer mingled together must be very pleasing to God.  For you see, we’re designed and created in a unique manner by a God who delights in diversity yet draws us together in unity in Jesus Christ. 

Pentecost and Babel

We heard earlier the passage from Acts, the story of the church’s birth. The coming together in Acts is often contrasted with the dispersing of humanity at Babel. Today, I want us to look at this passage from Genesis. It occurs at the end of what is known as the “prehistory” in Genesis. 

Genesis’ Prehistory

It’s hard to take this “prehistory” literally as there are contradictions within the text.[1] But the importance is in the stories, for they provide a foundational meaning to how we are to live with God. After the flood, it appears everyone stuck together and there is a general failure to populate the world, as everyone works together to “build a name for themselves.” After Babel, people go their separate ways. In the next chapter, we see God reaching out to Abram. And what is God’s promise to Abram?  God will bless him and make his name great![2] We have a great name, not because of what we do, but because of whose we are.  

Read Genesis 11:1-9

A Retelling of the Babel Story

God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’  Genesis 1:28

Instead, the people of the earth joined together and in a singular band traveling across the face of the earth until they found a land of promise. There they settled.  It was a rich valley. As there were no stones, they made bricks with which they constructed a city that included a tower reaching high into the heavens. From what we know, this was the ultimate family reunion. Everyone was together, happy and secure.  

God’s visit

One day God came down to earth to visit. The Almighty investigated the first corner of the world and saw no one. So, God looked around the second corner and again saw no one, and neither did God find anybody in the third. This bothered the Creator. Something was wrong. Hadn’t he instructed the people to fill the earth? As God heads to the fourth corner of the world, he hears celebration. A party! God wonders why he wasn’t invited.  

There, in the middle of the city, a huge tower reaches into the sky. So big and high, the people are proud. But to the Creator, it’s not remarkable. In God’s eyes, it’s small, so small the Almighty must come closer to see it. 

God acts

God isn’t threatened by the tower but knows something must be done. Humans, it seems, are too big for their britches… No telling what these people might do next. So, God mixes up the languages. Soon the architects can’t communicate with the construction engineers. The bricklayers and the plumbers and the drywallers speak different tongues.  

Confusion reigns and people began to leave the city. They form new cities where everyone speaks the same language. “Now,” the Creator thinks, “people will learn to depend on me for their security and they will no longer need the protection provided by brick walls which erode away.”[3]

Is the story about a tower?

I retold the story of the Tower of Babel to clear up several hazy points. First, the tower plays a minor role in the story. But we must admit, there is something about towers that intrigue us. As a child, I loved building towers and continued that love as an adult with my own children. The best restaurants are often at the top of towering buildings. Cities like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, and Shanghai boast of their skyline. There’s something about towers. God never says they’re sinful. 

Or is the story about a city?

The story mostly focuses on the city.[4] We have this image of the people building a tower into the heavens so that they can storm heaven, but that vision comes from the active imagination fueled by Jack and the Beanstalk and renaissance artists. The text never gives us the idea an invasion of heaven is imminent or even contemplated. Instead, the tower serves as the unifying symbol for the residents. “We can do this,” they say to one another as they pat themselves on the back.

The humor in the story

If we pause to consider this story for a minute, you’ll see the humor. Imagine ancient people telling the story around the campfire. It brought smiles to their faces, but also taught an important lesson. The God of the Universe must come down from heaven to check on what we’re doing. This giant tower isn’t large enough to be seen from Outer Space! Of course, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know what’s happening on earth when he’s in heaven; instead, it is a statement of human inability.  

Sin in the story

Furthermore, the sin in the story isn’t the tower nor the city. The tower and the city are symbols of the people’s sin, as they think their accomplishment speaks well of their abilities. They are proud people who have failed to heed God’s command to fill the earth and have decided they can depend on each other for their needs. There is no need for God. The people in this city never mention God, from what we’re told. They’re going merrily on their way as if they are in control of their own destiny, which in the mind of God is arrogance. 

The division of people into various language groups isn’t just punishment. Instead, the people avoid the potential of a future calamity as God sees to it that the mandate set forth in Genesis is fulfilled.[5]God desires the world to be filled with different people. Diversity is celebrated within God’s kingdom. Unity doesn’t come from human effort but from a common need of all people to look to the Almighty for their security and to worship God for their blessings.  

Jesus Christ, the source of our unity

Unity comes in Jesus Christ who prayed on the night of his betrayal for his disciples’ unity.[6] In the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, God brings believers into a church that may be split by language, nationality, style, and customs. However, we find unity because we worship the same Lord. 

Language at Pentecost and Babel

We should note a fine difference in the use of language between our stories. In Genesis, the emphasis is on what people can do by communicating together with each other. Such ability enables them to do things on their own without having to depend on God. In Acts, the emphasis isn’t on speaking in tongues (any more than the Genesis story is on the building of a tower), but on people hearing the gospel in their own unique language. These two passages, the scattering of people through language and the bringing together of people on Pentecost, go together. They show our God’s desire for a unity focused on Jesus Christ, not on our own wishes and desires.  

God uses the church to tell the story

On Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the church, an institution that’s not perfect because God has entrusted it into our hands. Nonetheless, the church is the vehicle God chose to tell the story of his Son to a lost world. We’re a world, as that old song from the 60s goes, “on the eve of destruction.”[7]  

Meaning of Babel

Babel fell into ruin as the people dispersed, but that doesn’t mean that God is against cities or human achievements. The collective ability of humanity is vast as we see in this story. However, we must never forget our limitations and the fact that we need to depend upon the Lord in all things. The word “Babel” means the “gates of God.”[8] We later drew from this word babbling. (What some of you may think I’m doing).

However, far from being a gate of God, in this ancient city from what we know from the text, God wasn’t being considered. This led to their downfall, and it should serve as a reminder to us.  


Giving ourselves the right name isn’t enough; what’s important is how we relate to God. Are we trying to glorify ourselves, or do we live to glorify God? 

Another way to ask this question has to do with our motives. Are we trying to build a name for ourselves or are we content with the name God has given us? Do we give God the glory for our accomplishments, or do we claim them as our own? These questions need to be continuously asked for temptation always suggest we replace God with something else. That’s sinful. That’s idolatry. Amen. 

[1] In Chapter 11, all people live together but in Chapter 10, we learn of Noah’s children going their separate way and starting cities.  

[2] Genesis 11:4 and 12:2.  See Donald E. Gowan, Genesis 1-11: From Eden to Babel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 118.

[3] For the foundation of this story, see Gowan, 115-120 and Walter Bruggemann, Genesis: Interpretations, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 97-104..

[4] Gowan, 115. 

[5] See Bruggemann, 99-101

[6] John 17

[7] “Eve of Destruction” sung by Barry McGuire, 1965.

[8] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1972), 150.

These day lilies blowing yesterday beside the house have the color of Pentecost

Why Church? A Place for Questions

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 13, 2022
Acts 8:26-39

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 11, 2022

At the Beginning of Worship: 

Last Sunday, I kicked off my Lenten sermon series on “Why Church?” with a discussion on why Jesus established the church. In the sermon I pointed out that the word used in the Greek New Testament for church is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament for the people or the community of God. The church is the people of God. 

Perhaps I should have gone a little deeper and emphasized that Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches is not “the Church.” Yes, we’re churches, but we ‘re only a drop in the bucket of the church on the earth, which include people of all races and ethnic groups and languages. While we like to think that we’re important, we’re should always remind ourselves that God’s work in the world is much larger than those of us who gather in each of these rock buildings along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Nonetheless, we’re still a part of that movement of God, that began with Jesus and continues through the Apostles’ and down to us.  

Today, our theme will be the church as a safe place for people to ask questions and to explore their own relationship to God. We should all be asking questions and encouraging others to ask questions. We may not have all the answers, but we have faith in the one who does. 

Before the Reading of Scripture: Conversion in Acts

Before I read the Scripture for today, I would like to discuss the idea of conversion to the faith as it occurs in the book of Acts. Interestingly, there are no patterns that becomes a standard for all conversion in Acts.[1]  Conversions involved large numbers of people, as it did on Pentecost.[2] It involved family groups as it did with the jailer in Philippi.[3] And at times it involved a single individual, as with Paul[4] and with the Ethiopian eunuch, which we’ll look at today.  

The catalyst behind each set of conversions is different. The Pentecost crowd heard the call to repentance. The Philippian jailer and his family witnessed the faithfulness of Paul and Silas. Paul’s conversion came with a command, for the Lord had something for him to do. And in our story, the conversion comes from Philip leading the Ethiopian through the scriptures. 

God Must Act for a Conversion to Happen.

Ultimately, these conversions came through an act of God, whose Spirit worked within the lives of those converted to bring about a change in their lives. In a way, conversion was never the end, but the beginning of a new life following Jesus. Conversion is not our destination, but a start of a journey that won’t end until we’ve gone home to be with the Lord.[5]

Let’s now listen to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. I was shocked to see that I had preached on this text early in my time here on the Blue Ridge. But today, I’m approaching the text from a different angle than I used back in late 2020.[6]

Read Acts 8:26-39.

After the Reading of Scripture: 

I mentioned how there is no universal model for conversion in Acts, but there appear to be two necessary things that need to happen for a conversion to occur. First, God’s Spirit must act in the life of one being drawn into the faith. Second, there must be someone to help interpret what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Even with the dramatic conversion of Paul on the Damascus Road, he was sent while still blinded by the light, to believers who helped him understand Jesus.[7]

In our text today, we see the Ethiopian is intrigued with what he is reading from Isaiah, but he has no context. Had he continued along the road back to Africa by himself, he would have just remained confused. But God works by whisking Philip out onto the Wilderness Road, where he’s able to help the Ethiopian understand. 

Notice what happens. Philip and the Ethiopian converse about what he’s reading. Philip doesn’t just jump up on the carriage and say, “You must be saved.” Instead, he asks if he understands what he’s reading. And then he allows the Ethiopian to ask questions. And, once his questions have been answers, the Ethiopian is at the point that he wants to take the next step and asks to be baptized. 

The Need for Questions.

One of the things we can learn from this text is that we need to be open and willing to answer questions. The idea Christian community isn’t one that has all the answers. If we believe we have all the answers, we are mistaken. We think too much of ourselves if that’s the case. We don’t have all the answers, but we believe in a God who does have the answers. And we are to help direct or point others toward God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who can lead them back to God the Father. That’s what is happening here with Philip and the Ethiopian. 

Of course, you may be wondering what this has to do with church? Too many people think we must draw more people into the church building. And while it’s a noble goal, it’s the wrong way to look at church. The church, as I’ve already noted, is the community of God. And that community exists beyond the walls of buildings. What Philip was doing was to go to where there was a need.

We’re to do the same. Instead of trying to drag “the heathen” into a church building so they might we saved, we need to go to where they are at. And we need to seriously listen to their questions about our faith. We must befriend them and love them for who they are, as does God. And we need to be honest when we don’t have an answer. Humbly, we need to let others know that we live faithfully as a follower of Jesus and while we don’t have every answer, we trust him.

Questions and the Sermon

By the way, this idea of the church as a place for communication has implications that I don’t like for the sermon. Sadly, often the sermon is one direction, with me giving you my ideas about the Scriptures. Ideally there should be a way for this to become a two-way conversation. But that’s hard to do in an hour, so I encourage you to discuss the sermon with each other afterwards.  

Reaching out to different people

Another thing we learn from this text is that the people God sends us to interact with may not look anything like us. This Ethiopian didn’t look like a Hebrew. He probably had very dark skin. He stood out in the crowds around the temple. Too often the church has focused only on reaching people who are, in many ways, like us. 

As the book of Acts shows, the church is to be constantly expanding its boundaries as it reaches people for Jesus Christ. But that’s not just the work of missionaries, for there may be people in our community that don’t fit into the stereotype of what we think a Christian should look like. Sadly, few churches do this very well. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr pointed out that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America. And the segregation extends beyond racial divisions. We feel comfortable with those most like us, but the church throughout Acts is always being called to step out in faith and to reach others. 

Example of a church reaching out

In the late 1990s, I spent parts of several summers in San Francisco as I was doing course work for my doctorate. Each Sunday, I sought out different types of worship experiences. One of the most engaging churches was on the edge of the Mission District of the city.[8] It was an old church with thick brick walls, and it was packed. Not only were all the pews filled, but there were also people sitting in every windowsill around the church. This congregation had three services each Sunday, and there was a line for each service waiting to get in. It was an amazing experience. 

But what impressed me most wasn’t the numbers, but the make-up of the congregation. There were blacks and whites, Hispanic and Asians. There were rich people, who allowed the church’s valet attendants to park their brand-new Mercedes. And then there were homeless people who staggered in. There were those who walked the streets at night as prostitutes and drug dealers as well as those who had offices in the nicer buildings of the city. This was before COVID, so we all packed in together.

Why church? Because every one of those people who gathered at that church, whether young or old, rich or poor, had a need to hear the message of Jesus Christ. We all have that need, and we all should have the willingness to help others meet this need. 


An ideal congregation, in my opinion, is a place where we can have a friendly dialogue about what’s important in life. And as these conversations occur, as with Philip and the Ethiopian, we can help one another foster a better relationship with our Savior. And for us to create such a conversation, we need to be open to people’s questions. Are we? Amen. 

[1] For an in depth discussion on conversion in Acts, see: William H. Willimon,, Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (1988, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010), 100-105.

[2] Acts 2:37-42.

[3] Acts 16:25-34.

[4] Acts 9:1-9

[5] For a discussion on conversion in Acts, from which I draw upon in these paragraphs, see William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 101-104.

[6] To see my sermon from December 2020, click here:

[7] Acts 9:10-19.

[8] Glide Memorial Church. 

Sun sinking over Laurel Fork (February 13, 2022)

Times are Changing: Where is God leading us?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
April 18, 2021
Acts 16:1-10

The sermon was recorded on Friday, April 16, at Bluemont Presbyterian Church

At the beginning of worship

The sessions of both congregations, Bluemont and Mayberry, are engaged in planning for the future as we come out of the COVID pandemic. While we all want to get back to our former lives, the primary question to guide our work should be “where is God leading us?” It’s an age-old question as we’ll see today. 

Acts 16

The sixteenth chapter of Acts is a turning point. Paul heads into Europe. The story Luke tells in Acts focuses on Paul and his companions. Barnabas and Peter and others move to the sidelines. This doesn’t mean they stopped their missionary activity. Instead, Luke, the author of Acts, centers his story on Paul. But even Paul had no plans to go to Europe, until a dream… We’ll learn more in the sermon.

Read Acts 16:1-10 

After the reading of scripture

Several years ago, I preached through the book of Acts. Fifty-four sermons! Early on, I began to question the name of the book. It’s full name as it appears in most Bibles is “Acts of the Apostles.” But if you read the book, you’ll understand it wasn’t so much the “acts of the Apostles” as it was “the acts of God through the Apostles.” If it was just up to the Apostles, they’d probably never gotten out of Jerusalem. They often don’t act until prodded to do so by God. God’s Spirit, throughout the book, is the motivating power. 

But as I continued to study this book, I decided it should have at least one subtitle: “The Roots of the Church’s 2000 Year Resistance to Change.” Most often, not only did the Apostles not act until they received a kick in the pants, but they also tried to slow down the work of the Spirit. 

We dislike change

This is a natural response. We don’t like change. We want to do things our way. But times change. People change and so too must the church. Of course, the gospel doesn’t change. We still worship the same God, but how we worship, how we share the faith, and how we live out the gospel changes because the culture in which we live changes. 

Yet, change makes us uncomfortable. We want to turn back time. Let’s go back to the 50s when the churches were full, and things were on the move. But that’s not an option. 

An example of resistance to change 

       You know, as much as we don’t like change, we like to accumulate stuff. That’s true in our homes as it is in our churches. When I was in my first church, I remember working with a group of people going through a bunch of old Christian Education materials. This was in 1990. There were still those who wanted to hold on to old filmstrips of Bible stories. We didn’t even have a working filmstrip projector. They were no longer making bulbs for them. We also had chalk boards and felt boards still up on the walls, which was being replaced by whiteboards (today it would be smartboards).

Now, granted, a child could still learn on a chalk board or via a filmstrip. Many of us here had learned the gospel stories in such a manner, but new technology came along. VHS tapes and CDs had come into vogue in 1980s. As Bob Dillon sang back in the 60s, the times are a changing. Today, they are no longer making VHS players!

Why did Paul have Timothy circumcised? 

With the way things change, I wonder why in our text Paul decided to have Timothy circumcised. After all, in the previous chapter, you have the Council of Jerusalem. There, the question of circumcision seemed to be settled for the second time in the Book of Acts.[1]Gentiles did not have to undergo such surgery in order to become Christians. Paul fought for this change. He took this as good news, yet here he has one of his assistants go under the knife. Why? 


Paul, in the case of Timothy, compromised. From what we gleam from the text, Paul felt that by having Timothy circumcised, he would be more acceptable to the Jewish population. Timothy had a Jewish mother, but his father was Greek. Today, in Judaism, the line generally passes down through the mother, but there is some question about that during the first century.[2]

Having not been circumcised, while claiming to be a Jewish Christian, would have made Timothy suspicious to the Jews of Asia and Europe. So, while Paul didn’t expect Gentiles to be circumcised, he felt it was a good thing for Timothy. Paul was willing to compromise this principal for the sake of the gospel. 

In Galatians, Paul tells us that circumcision carries no weight with Christ. However, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of being all things to all people in order to win them over to Christ. It appears this is what Paul is doing here by making Timothy more acceptable to the Jews.[3]

Paul’s traveling companions

Now Paul is traveling with at least two companions: Timothy and Silas. He may have been traveling with three, for beginning in verse 10, Luke the author of Acts, shifts from the third-person plural (they) to the first-person plural (we). Does this mean Luke was along as an eyewitness? Scholars have argued it both ways and it’s an interesting idea but doesn’t matter much to the story.[4]

Heart of the matter: Doors are closing       

Now let’s get into the heart of the matter. Starting in verse six, we learn of the paths Paul took through Asia. There seems to be a problem. Doors are closing. The Holy Spirit hinders their ability to share the gospel. The Spirit of Jesus keeps them from even going into new and fertile territory. They head off on this missionary journey but find themselves unable to do the work. What gives? 

How did the Spirit hinder them? Did they come down with a bad case of laryngitis? How did the Spirit keep them from heading to go to Bi-thyn-i-a?  Did the Spirit station an angel by the road with a fiery sword as the Cherubim stood at the east gate to the Eden?[5] We don’t know. Sometimes, however, God closes doors in front of us in order to redirect our lives.[6] God, not Paul, is in control.[7]  

Paul’s dream

The third movement of this passage comes in a dream. Paul must have been frustrated by his inability to do the work to which he felt called. Then, one night he has a vision. We assume this came in his sleep. Ironically, in the darkness, the path forward becomes clear. Instead of working across Asia, Europe calls. 

In this vision, Paul sees a Macedonian man pleading with his for help. How he knew he was Macedonian, we don’t know. Maybe he waved the Macedonian flag like an Olympian. Paul realizes what he must do. According to the text, they agree and arrange passage to Europe.  

Lesson 1 from the text: willing to compromise

There are several things we can take from this passage and apply to our lives and to our work as Jesus’ ambassadors in the world. First of all, at times we should compromise. It may help us reach others. Timothy was circumcised. Sometimes such efforts gain enough trust that we can share the gospel with others. 

What’s important isn’t our own desires, but what is best for the other. When we are considering what to do in the future, this is good advice. It’s another way of living out one of Jesus most frequent themes, “if you want to be first, you have to go to the end of the line” and if you want to be great you have to be willing to be a servant.[8]

What are we willing to sacrifice to help spread the gospel? How can we serve others? 

Lesson 2 from the text: God opens and closes doors

A second theme we see here is how God opens and closes doors, which leads our missionaries into Europe. What we sometimes take as misfortunes can be God leading us to a new opportunity. 

I’ve seen this in my own ministry. Just before I had the call to Skidaway Island, I was all set to accept a call to a church in the Finger Lakes region of New York. But at the last minute, I realized it wasn’t where I was to be. I turned down the call. It was hard. I was excited about the possibilities. We already had an offer made and accepted on a home. 

Afterwards, I commented about how I felt as a pawn in some divine chess match. “Get used to it,” I was wisely counselled. After all, you’re a Calvinist. 

We, who believe in God’s providential control, are able at times to look back and see God’s hand leading us forward. Sadly, however, when we look ahead, we’re like Paul. We don’t see the hand leading us, only the closed doors. But there are times those closed doors leads us to open doors where our skills and abilities and insights can be of use.  

Lesson 3 from the text: Follow God’s guidance

A final theme, which goes with the second one, is that we must follow God and accept the growth he provides. For Paul and company, that meant to go to Macedonia, to Europe, at the pleading of the man in the vision. Where and to whom is God calling us to minister? Where have we been placed? We need to look around and see how we can be useful to God’s kingdom. We should be thankful for those who are here and do what we can to minister in the ways of Christ. God doesn’t call all churches to be all things to all people. 

Paul learned he wasn’t called to spend the rest of his ministry in Asia, but we know other missionaries filled in the gap. 

Trust God to take care of everything

A lightbulb moment in seminary came when one of the leaders of World Vision spoke. During a times of questions and answers, a number of students, some conservative and others liberal, tried to pin this man down to their particular concerns. Essentially the questions could be boiled down to what he was doing about abortion and how was he fighting against systemic oppression. 

Refusing the bait, this man insisted his call was to help feed and care for hungry people. That’s it. He trusted God would call others to take care of those issues. 


There is a wisdom in going in the direction God calls. For this man it meant focusing on hunger. In Paul’s case, it meant leaving behind what’s familiar in Asia and heading off to Europe. What about us? Amen.  


[1] See Acts 11:18 and 15:19-20.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 232.

[3] Galatians 5:6, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986 reprint) argues in favor Luke joining up with Paul, Silas and Timothy.  See pages 327-328.  William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988) while not discrediting that Luke could have been along, gives two other explanations and then suggests that the use of “we” gives the rest of Acts “a sense of drama and immediacy.”  (See pages 135-136).  

[5] Cf, Genesis 3:24.

[6] See Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Drowers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1976). 

[7] Gaventa, 234.  

[8] Matthew 19:30, 20;16, 20:27; Mark 9:35, 10:37, 10:44; and Luke 13:30.  

Advent 2: Joy

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 6, 2020
Acts 8:26-39

Introduction at the beginning of Worship

One of our secular songs of the season is Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. The lyrics come from a poem, “Lilly’s Secret”, published in December 1865. At that time, just after the Civil War, the United States needed a little Christmas cheer. In the poem and song, a girl teases Santa with this request:

Jolly old Saint Nicholas
lean your ear this way;
don’t you tell a single soul
what I’m going to say,
Christmas Eve is coming soon;
now you dear old man,
whisper what you’ll bring to me;
tell me if you can.

She tells St. Nick what her siblings want for Christmas. A pair of skates for Johnny, a doll for Suzy, and a storybook for Nellie (she thinks dolls are folly). 

            But her whispering in Santa’s ear displays wisdom grounded in humility, as the poem and song ends: 

As for me, my little brain
isn’t very bright;
choose for me, dear Santa Claus,
what you think is right.[1]

This song displays two pieces of wisdom. First of all, Santa is jolly. What causes this joy in the man in red? I suggest it comes from his giving. 

            Joy is our theme for today. While we should never confuse Santa with God, we know the Almighty also takes great joy in giving. Second, when it comes to God, like Lilly with Saint Nicholas, we should receive his gifts with gratitude rather than demand what we want. We’re like Lilly in that we don’t know what we need. 

Today’s theme

            Who would have thought we’d need a Savior born in a stable and crucified on a cross? That’s not the kind of gift we would have thought of, but it’s what this world needs. And we’re to joyfully accept this gift and to share it with others. In doing so, we’re not only joyful, but we help fill the world with JOY!

            Today, we’re again looking at a passage that isn’t often used during this season. In Acts 8, Philip guides an Ethiopian Eunuch to faith… Philip, in this part of Acts, is transported around like the characters from the Enterprise in the old Star Trek TV show. He’s preaching in Samaria, only to find himself in the Gaza when he meets the Ethiopian. Afterwards, he’s heading to Caesarea. The joyful gospel spreads throughout the region. 

After the reading of scripture: 

            Jesus came to save sinners.  We often hear these words of Paul from 1st Timothy echoed in our Assurance of Pardon after we confess our sins.[2] Jesus came to save sinners. Our passage this morning emphasizes this role of our Savior. In our passage, the good news is experienced by someone first century Judaism would have considered beyond redemption. For a first century Jew, you avoided foreigners. Furthermore, a eunuch, like a leper, was considered unclean. The assurance of this news fills the eunuch with such joyful excitement that he asks to be baptized the first chance available. 

            Now, we don’t know if this Ethiopian eunuch was a bad guy. To the contrary, the evidence we have within the text suggests he’s seeking God. He’d made a long trek up the Nile and across the wilderness to worship and to pursue truth. Only those who have a desire for God would have gone on such a pilgrimage. Of course, being good and bad has nothing to do with our need for God. We all need God which is why Jesus came.

            Interestingly, this Ethiopian eunuch journeyed to Jerusalem to worship. As a eunuch, he was in the service of a queen. He was a high official in the court, the Treasurer. For this reason, he may have had some official business in Jerusalem. But we don’t know. 

TV’s portrayal of this story

            A few years ago, a TV mini-series titled “AD” put a Hollywood spin on the story of the early church. In order to make the story TV-ready, they filled in a lot of details with speculation. In the episode dealing with this story, the Ethiopian was driven out of Jerusalem. The Romans were going to kill him because they feared the Ethiopians would join with the Jewish Zionists against Rome. 

            As the eunuch leaves Jerusalem, he travels through Gaza where a wheel came off his chariot. Philip happens along the way. Not only does he interpret Isaiah for the Ethiopian, Philip repairs his chariot.[3] Of course, they’re trying to make a story that plays better on the big screen by providing a few additional details and altering a few others. Who knew Philip was a mechanic! 

            According to the text, we’re just told that the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem to worship—the rest of the details came from the NBC writers. 

            It’s interesting the Ethiopian went to Jerusalem to worship. Was he a God-fearer? One who studied the Hebrew scriptures but hadn’t yet converted? He couldn’t be accepted into the Jewish faith at the time as a proselyte. Circumcised was a rite that would have been impossible for this man.[4]  

Who’s this eunuch?

            Many of the commentators on this passage play down the man as a eunuch, stressing instead his official positions. He was an important man. After all, he had a chariot (Israel wasn’t filled with ‘two-chariot homes” in those days). He also had the ability to travel far away. As an African, he was exotic. Finally, he held a responsible position, the Queen’s treasurer. Think of a Steven Mnuchin or, soon to be, Janet Yellen, of the first century. 

            Despite his position, as a eunuch, he would not have been allowed to become a proselyte to the Jewish faith at the time. His status barred him from ever entering the temple. But in this encounter with Philip, he finds acceptance. Whatever happened during his time in Jerusalem, he now understands the gospel. 

            Interestingly, he came to Jerusalem to worship, but didn’t discover God by himself. It’s on his way home that God finds him. Ultimately, our conversion into the faith is grounded not in our search for the truth, but God searching for us. And God often uses other believers to help us understand.   

            Even the Scriptures do not help this man to fully encounter God. It takes someone else, Philip the Evangelist. (He could also be called Philip the Runner as we imagine him sprinting alongside the chariot.) Philip, at the Spirit’s request, heads down the Gaza road. His preaching has been very effective in Samaria, leaves a place where good fruit is being harvested in order to go into a wilderness area with no one around. Philip, here, demonstrates God’s concern for the lone lost sheep.[5] He helps this man understand the prophecy of Isaiah.  

Philip’s role

            God’s ways seem strange in our economy. Why give up what is good, the preaching in Samaria, for what seems to provide little return? Here, from what we’re told, the good news is heard by just one man. 

            The New Revised Standard version says he was sent south to the Gaza, but a footnote suggests this can also be translated as “at noon” he goes to the Gaza…”  Who, in their right mind, would set out on a journey in a barren waterless land at noon? It would be unbearably hot. Furthermore, he has to run alongside the Ethiopian’s chariot. This isn’t Philip’s idea. God calls him to this task.[6]  

            As Philip hears the man read Isaiah, he asks him about it and is invited up into the chariot. There, an out-of-breath Philip lays out what God is doing through Jesus Christ. The next miraculous event is that they happen along a pool of water. Water isn’t common in the Gaza. But here’s a pond and the Ethiopian ask to be baptized. 

            Philip baptizes him and when the Ethiopian comes up from the water, Philip disappears just as Spock and Captain Kirk would disappear from a distant planet, leaving behind the inhabitants to wonder. But the Ethiopian isn’t worried. He’s happy. He’s joyful. The eunuch now understands. He travels on, praising God. 

            Perhaps, but don’t know for sure, he shared the gospel south of Egypt. We know that early in Christian history, the gospel thrived there. Even today, a strong Coptic Church remains in Ethiopia. 

What do we learn from the text?

            What can we take away from this text? You know, Christians are not made in a vacuum. One can’t just pick up this book we love (the Bible) and experience the fullness of a Christian life. The Ethiopian could read it, but he didn’t understand it. 

            Think about how you learned of the faith… Were there someone (or most likely “someones”) who helped you grow and understand that lead to your acceptance of Jesus? And how did you feel when you finally “got it?” Were you like the Ethiopian? Did your heart sing?  

            God uses people, believers, to help us understand, interpret and apply the Word to our lives.  

A personal story

            Let me tell you a story. Back in the early 1980s, after a painful breakup, I went through a period where I stayed away from church for a while. I was working for the Boy Scouts at the time. One day, I received a call from Bob Eplee (one of the district scout leaders). He said he and Junebug (another leader) wanted to talk to me. I assumed it was about scouting. 

            Bob, Junebug and I met a day or two later for breakfast. I had my notebook with me (this was before laptops and iPads). I was ready to work. 

            “Put your notebook away,” they said. “We’re not here for that.” Then they totally floored me when they laid it out on the table. “We think it’s time for you to come back to church.” We had all attended the same church, First Presbyterian in Whiteville, North Carolina. This meeting was their way to give me this simple but important message. Although they may not understand this themselves, I’m sure God sent them.  

            We have all had people in our lives that have shown us how to live as a follower of Jesus. For such people, we should be thankful and joyful. Furthermore, when we have a chance to share the message, we should be like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” feeling grateful for a chance to make a difference in another’s life. 


            We’re coming up on a strange Christmas. Thanks to COVID, they’ll be many lonely people out there. As followers of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, we need to do whatever we can to safely spread joy to the world. How might you, like Philip, put joy in the life of another person? Amen. 


[1]  Accessed December 4, 2020. 

[2] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[3] For a summary of this episode, see:

[4] See Deuteronomy 23:1

[5] Luke 15:3-7.

[6] See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 141-142; and William H. Willimon, Acts (1983: Lousiville: Westminister/JKP, 2010), 71-72.

Pentecost 2020

Decked out in red with my Snoopy tie for the morning service

Our worship services are available at our church’s YouTube page. This link will take you to this service. The sermon begins at 16:00 minutes and is over at 36:10. You can fast forward to the sermon. 






Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 2:1-14
Pentecost, May 31, 2020



2020 is turning out to be a year we’ll not forget. Everything seems out of control. A virus has killed over 100,000 Americans topped off by an economy in a free-fall. We’ve witnessed the murders of innocent and unarmed black men in Brunswick and in Minneapolis, and the resulting riots threatening to unravel our nation. It’s scary. But the world has often been a scary place. For Christians, the world of the first century was scary. Jesus was essentially lynched and many more would also die a martyr’s death.[1] But out of that death came the church.

Something happened on this day nearly 2000 years ago. God’s Spirit poured down on the few believers and they began a movement. As I read this passage, think about what God did in Jerusalem, and what God might be doing in the world today.  Read Acts 2:1-14.

        There was an elderly woman who came home from a Bible study one evening and discovered a burglar in her home. In the darken house, she yelled at the intruder, “Stop, Acts 2:38.” The thief turned and she yelled again, “Stop, Acts 2:38.” He froze. He raised his hands as she calmly called the police. After the officer had handcuffed the man, he asked why he’d surrendered to a woman shouting out a Bible verse. “A Bible verse? I thought she had an axe and two 38s”.

        Peter, after his great sermon, that follows the account we’ve just read, called on those within his hearing to “Repent, be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38.

Too often, we think we need force to back up our words, or as in the joke, the possibility of force. But Scripture constantly reminds us our hope is not in what we do or what we have, but in what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. We see this with Pentecost, when those flames of the Spirit poured out on a motley group. God takes the initiative. Without God, our efforts are in vain.

As dawn broke on this day in which the church came into being, there were only 120 or so believers. From this small beginning, the Christian faith now claims approximately 1/3 of the world’s population. These “tongues of flames” fell upon the timid group of believers. Filled with God’s Spirit, they set the world on fire. When the morning began, they were like a car with no gas. They had a purpose, but no energy. So, they waited, knowing Jesus promised his Spirit.

        These men and women are not the type of people you’d think could change the world. They’re marginalized. And, to be honest, they don’t change the world. That’s part of the point of the story. God’s the primary actor. Without God’s intervention, nothing would have happened. And the same is true in our lives. God can use us; we don’t have to be sophisticated or multi-talented. The disciples were not great leaders or thinkers, government officials or military heroes. What God needs are people who are faithful. These believers displayed their faithfulness. Many of them were faithful even unto death. With God, all things are possible.

The second aspect of Pentecost for us to consider is the linkage between the Old and New Covenant. Those who’d gathered on this morning, on the day of Pentecost, gathered to celebrate a Jewish holiday. The name Pentecost is derived from the festival held on the fiftieth day following Passover. The festival was also known as the Feast of the Weeks, the Feast of the Harvest, or the Day of the First Fruits. Originally it was when the grain harvest was formally dedicated, but over time the festival came to represent the giving of the law on Sinai, which, according to tradition, occurred fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt.

The two flames on our Presbyterian cross represent the two covenants—the Old and the New. The same is true for the two candles on our communion table. The flame of the Old Testament is the giving of the law on Sinai. The other flame represents the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost when the Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled. God wrote the law onto the hearts of believers.[2]

To have the fullness of God’s word, to know God to the best of our limited human abilities, we must draw upon all of Scripture. The two covenants remind us of the mysterious nature of our God. What we know about God has been revealed to us by the Almighty, first in the Hebrew Scriptures and then, the final revelation, in the life of Jesus Christ. Again, God is the actor; God is the one engaging the world.

        The final aspect of Pentecost for us to consider is how this event serves as a model for God’s intention for the world. Consider the group who’d gathered on this morning. They were all Palestinian Jews. First century Judaism was more multi-cultural than they were. They gather, a homogeneous lot, without an idea as to what will happen. Soon a violent wind destroys the morning calm. Luke describes the coming of the Spirit as a gale blowing into the house. Picture the curtains blowing, as they used to do in the days before air conditioning when a storm was rising. It was frightening. “What’s happening,” they wonder?  Luke goes on to say that the wind was like tongues of fire; like a wildfire that gains momentum consuming all that’s around. And those who had gathered begin to speak, in all different kinds of languages.

In addition to celebrating the giving of the law, the Pentecost holiday was special for another reason. Passover was considered the “high holy day” for the first century Jewish faithful. But because it was such a long trip, many would stay through Pentecost and would have caught wind of what’s happening at this time.[3] We need to remember that by the first century, Jewish settlements had been established throughout the known world. This explains why there were so many different people in Jerusalem for this festival. They’d come to worship; they’d come with expectation. And here, as they’ve gathered in their ancestral homeland, people who were no longer fluent in Hebrew, begin to hear the gospel in their native languages.

Again, God is the one who is acting. The early disciples and believers who’d gathered weren’t sitting around scheming, trying to create a strategic plan of how the church would grow.  And if they had been, you can bet they wouldn’t have even considered reaching such a diverse group of people as they did that day. After all, these people had a tradition of interacting only with those who looked and sounded and acted like they did.  God is doing the work here. God’s vision is much larger than they could imagine. God is calling all people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

         Friends, we live in an uncertain time. We must place our faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and live humbly and compassionately, showing the world a different way to live with one another. Violence isn’t the answer. Love is. God loves this world and calls on his church to love the world. When we marginalize others, when we turn our heads at injustice, we fail to live up to our calling.

    Let me tell you a story. I was in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and was walking with other tourists in the business section of the city. Across a four-lane road, coming toward us, was a man and woman. They were arguing. Then the man pulled back and hit the woman with his fist to her head, knocking her down. In shock, we looked at each other. Others had seen it, too, but no one except us-a group of English-speaking tourist-seemed fazed. We were outraged, yet never felt so helpless. If it had been an English-speaking country, we’d all been on the phone with the police. But here, few knew English and we couldn’t speak Mongolian. We needed those tongues of fire!

         Pentecost shows us that not only does God show up, God gives us the tools needed to do the work for which we’re called. That motley group of disciples are able to preach in the languages of those gathered in Jerusalem. Today, we no longer have to wait for God to show up. God’s Spirit’s with us. Unlike Mongolia, in our country, in our neighborhood, most people understand us. We have no excuse. We must be compassionate toward those suffering from COVID-19. We should grieve the deaths of over 100,000 of our citizens, we need to do our part to keep the virus from spreading further, and we need to speak out against racial injustice. At Pentecost, God gave us a vision of the nations and people being brought together. It’s now our turn. We must help make the vision a reality. Amen.



[1] For a link between the cross and lynching, see James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011).

[2] Jeremiah 31:33.

[3] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 74-75

Looking with Gratitude


Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 4:32-35
November 24, 2019

“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus,” Eugene Peterson writes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. The Christian story continues on in this community and in all communities where people gather to “repent, believe and follow.” Nor does “the supernatural doesn’t stop with Jesus. God’s salvation, which became articulate, visible, and particular in Jesus, continues to be articulate, and particular in the men and women who have been raised to new life in him, the community of the resurrection.”[1]

Ponder the implication of this for a moment. We are a part of a movement that began 20 centuries ago in an obscure part of the world. Christ is still alive, working in his church, whether it’s here on Skidaway Island or in some remote city in China or a hamlet in the savannahs of Africa. Today, the question for us to ponder is this: “what should this community look like?”

In my reading over the past few weeks in preparation for the stewardship campaign, I came across this indictment of the modern church in America:

“One of the reasons churches in North America have trouble guiding people about money is that the church’s economy is built on consumerism. If churches see themselves as suppliers of religious goods and services and their congregants as consumers, then offerings are ‘payments.’”[2]


Contrary to what we often think, the church is not to be a supplier of religious goods and services. The church is to be a fellowship that brings people together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our offerings are to be signs of our gratitude for what God has done for us. To get a good idea of what the church should look like, let’s go back to the first century and consider the church in Jerusalem at the very beginning. Luke paints an interesting picture of this community who pinned their hoped and placed their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a community of people filled with gratitude. I am reading today’s passage from the Message translation and will put the words on the screens. Read Acts 4:32-35:


        I will always be indebted to the congregation in Virginia City, Nevada, a place where I first experienced ministry on my own as a student pastor for a year. The church on the Comstock, at least in the modern era, has always been small. But there was something about the fellowship of that group that made it an attractive place for all kinds of people. The people in the church worked hard together, keeping the church going, which was quite a task in a wooden building built in 1866. But they also worked hard to help one another. And they tried to help others, sending clothes to an orphanage in Mexico and collecting food for a pantry in Carson City.

Every month, this congregation gathered for a dinner party. People from all walks of life came together to enjoy one another’s company. Its appeal was magnetic for there was plenty of laughter at these gatherings.

One of the more colorful townsfolk was a guy named Bob. He could be best described as a skid-row drunk. He lived in a shack outside of town and mostly stayed mostly to himself. But you’d see him several times a day, winding through town, often going down the alleys where he dug through the trash from the bars. He’d eat leftovers, but what he was really after was the dregs of alcohol that remained in the bottles thrown away. Bob would pour these drops into a gallon jar that he toted around with him. Even with its high concentration of alcohol, this was a nasty cocktail none of us would consider drinking.

One evening we had a dinner at the church. As I was walking down the boardwalk, I came upon Bob. I’d been there a few months by this point, so I knew people would be okay with his presence, so I invited him in. He thanked me but wouldn’t come in. I then offered to fix him a plate of food, which he again turned down. One of the women in the church who was walking up the boardwalk, overheard my conversation. She told me that Bob had been invited many times, but would never come in, but suggested we fix him a plate and sit it on the steps. Bob didn’t want to be fussed over, but he would most likely pick up and eat a plate of food if sat out. And that’s what happened. The first plate fixed that evening was for Bob. We covered it with foil and let it at the top of the steps. When we left that evening, the plate was empty.

Virginia City had never been known as a religious place, but that’s okay because our faith isn’t as much about religion as it is about relationships. Our faith manifest itself by being kind and generous and, as we talk about here at SIPC, reflecting the face of Jesus. There was no need for Bob to be uncomfortable inside the church building. We could still provide him a good meal. As a church, we must be willing to meet people where they are at, and not demand that they conform to our ideas or go where we want them to be.

         The congregation Luke describes here near the beginning of the book of Acts wasn’t spectacular. It wouldn’t be considered particularly successful according to modern business practices. The fellowship didn’t include the leading folks of Jerusalem. Everyone was poor and marginalized. They didn’t have any glitzy advertising or even a fancy sign out front. After all, they tried to blend in and not stand out because there were those didn’t appreciate their message. But, despite all this, there was something magnetic about this community. They were generous and gracious. They were willing to help each other and to forgive others for the wrongs they’ve done because they’d experienced forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It was this magnetic appeal that drew folks to the church. Why else would someone risk persecutions and isolation by becoming a Christian?

Let’s look at this passage. What they owned wasn’t important. They knew the truth of the Psalmist who proclaimed, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[3] Instead of holding tight to possessions they knew belonged to God, they willingly shared with one another. They had set their minds on the glorious resurrection of Jesus and knew that was all that mattered. So, they attempted to do what they could to do for others which meant that no one in the fellowship was needy. Because of what God had done for them, they were filled with gratitude and willing to help others.

        I recently read an article on why we need to make a weekly commitment to attend church. I’ll post this article I my next e-news. It was written by a young widow who describes the church as “the sweetest fellowship this side of heaven.” Her husband died suddenly one night after having been taken to the hospital by an ambulance for shortness of breath. She was left with seven kids. Before leaving the hospital, she called a friend from church. By the time she was home, the friend was there to sit with her. Others came in to grieve, to bring meals, to help clean the house, fix broken appliances and cars, and to minister to and pray for her and her children. The church is not always perfect, she notes. At times, the church can be even cruel. But when we live up to our calling to reflect Jesus’ face to the world, we demonstrate what was described in our passage today. The church can be the sweetest fellowship this side of heaven.[4]

There are two essential traits we need to foster in our lives to help the church grow in this direction: generosity and graciousness. Think about your life and ask yourself, how generous are you? How gracious are you? What can you do to become more generous and gracious?

          Friends, today we receive our estimate of giving offerings for 2020, which is a sign of one half of that last question—how generous we are. We are encouraged to grow in generosity. As Vic Bell suggested last week, we’re to take a step toward being more generous, as we strive to become the church described in Acts. I pray that you will be generous and continue to take steps in this direction. But just as important as generosity is, don’t forget to be graciousness. On your walk with Christ, show grace to one another, just as God has been gracious with us. Realize what God has done and commit yourselves to do what? Say it after me… To be more being generous and gracious.  Amen.



[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 267.

[2] Doug Pagitt from a lists of stewardship quotes that was in an old file of mine.

[3] Psalm 24:1.