Monday, August 19, 2013

Barnabas the Encourager

"Bible Characters You've Never Met Like This:
Barnabas, the Encourager" Sermon
August 18, 2013
"Unusual Characters of the Bible" Series

Can you believe our summer sermon series of characters you've never really thought much about...  Is almost over?!  It's been fun, hasn't it?  Learning about people we may never have even heard of before?  Some dark stories, some rather interesting tales, and some that are just plain uplifting?  Today, we get to talk about one of the uplifting ones.  I had heard his name before - and knew a little bit about his place in the story...  But that's about it.  Turns out, he's a pretty interesting guy!

I'm talking about Barnabas.  But wait - his name was Joseph, or Joses, to begin with...  The apostles gave him the name Barnabas!  And we'll see why in a moment.

Here's a little bit about him:  Barnabas first shows up in the book of Acts.  He's selling his land to help provide for the new Christian community (remember, the book of Acts is where we see the church be born - and the community of believers truly living in communal ways).  The new church in Jerusalem was in need of money - and Barnabas stepped right up to help out! 

That was just the beginning...  The name "Barnabas" means "the encourager" - can you imagine being so encouraging that Christ's followers would give you such a name?! 

One of the first accounts of Barnabas' generosity of spirit has to do with a man named Saul - later changed to Paul.  We've all heard of him, right?  We know him as one of the most influential missionaries in the early church - and the writer of many of the books of the Bible.  Much of what we know and teach about living a faith-filled life came from him...  But we also know, he didn't start out that way.  In his days of being "Saul" he was known for being a horrible persecutor of Christians.  The worst.  When he had his "a-ha!" moment with God and literally "saw the light" - he became a true believer, and leader in helping others to come to know God as well.  But coming back to Jerusalem wouldn't be easy.  He needed to reconcile with the church after ruining so many of its believers' lives. 

How does one do that?!  Well, you find a friend to vouch for you.  And he found Barnabas.  In Acts 9 we learn Barnabas was at his side as he once again faced those who had faced his wrath or had friends or family members who had suffered under his actions.  But Barnabas spoke to the apostles and verified Paul's story of conversion.

And his support and encouragement of Paul didn't end there.  Barnabas explained how strongly Paul had preached in Damascus.  Eventually, Paul was accepted within the church - but would it have happened without the friendship of Barnabas?  Would our whole story of faith had been changed - if Barnabas had not encouraged and supported both the church - and this new believer?

Acts 11: 22-24 describes Barnabas as he went to check on the new church in Antioch, trusted by the leadership in Jerusalem to begin giving encouragement and direction to the new believers there, here is what it says:  "As soon as he arrived, he saw that God was behind and in it all.  He threw himself in with them (the new believers), got behind them, urging them to stay with it the rest of their lives.  He was a good man that way, enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit's ways.  The community grew large and strong in the Master."

"He was a good man - enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit's ways."  He jumped right in with the new believers - walking alongside them in the new journey of faith - inspiring, teaching, encouraging them along the way!  He excelled at sharing his life of faith with others.  Always living up to his name...  Understanding what God was up to - and serving God in the way that fit for him.  Encouraging new believers; encouraging one of our greatest missionaries - and working alongside him on many journeys; and even teaching a young "Mark" who later became responsible for the Book of Mark!

God used Barnabas in seemingly small ways - but accomplished big things for the early church.  His nickname of "the encourager" flowed from living in the love of God.  How many people came to know God's love and light in their lives because of this one man - not only through his preaching, but also through his encouragement and example?

Was Barnabas perfect?  No - of course not.  None of the followers of Christ mentioned in the Bible are.  Just like you and me.  Yep - you got it.  Not perfect.  But still an example to all of us!

So how can we be "encouragers" in our lives - at home, at work, at church, in the community?  Because, let's face it, our world could use a little more encouraging!  There are so few people these days who take the time to not only be polite and friendly - but to go the extra step and encourage us in our days...  And how often do we REALLY take the time to encourage others?  But isn't that how God calls us to live?  A lifestyle of kindness?

One quote I read about Barnabas said, "When this man appeared on the scene in the early days of the church, he stepped out of obscurity doing good; and when he stepped off the stage a few years later, he exited doing good as well.  In fact, the Bible's record of this man's life and ministry reveals him as a man who had a heart to do good to all those with whom he came in contact."  A lifestyle of kindness.  A huge impact on the world around him!

It turns out, depending on what translation you read, Barnabas' name takes on slightly different meanings...  Encourager.  Consoler.  Comforter.  Helper.  From the stories I've read - I think he fit all of these things...  But doesn't it make you think?  If my friends were to rename me, based on one of my strengths...  What would they say?  Would it be a strength that is helpful to those around me?  Or would it be, "Clorox-wipe addict"?  You laugh, but we have clean kitchen counters!  I would hope it's something more meaningful than that...!

What name would your friends give you?  In what ways do you impact the world around you - out of the love of God in your own life?

Maybe we could take a cue from Barnabas and work on being encouragers - in one way or another, using the gifts God has given us - in our own lives.  How could we all work on being more encouraging - on earning a name we would be proud of?

First, maybe we could reach out a little more.  This could mean talking to people we don't know.  It could mean holding a door for a stranger.  Doing a random act of kindness - buying a coffee for the next person in line.  It could even mean taking a risk and standing up for someone who needs a friend.  (Remember Barnabas and Paul?) 

It's so easy to get wrapped up in our own little lives, the day-to-day frustrations and successes - that we forget to stop and look around.  At a doctor's visit last week, I was rushing out of the pharmacy, anxious to get home, and almost walked right past a little boy sitting in the waiting room, alone.  He had a wet towel wrapped around a bloodied arm and was talking to himself about how bad things shouldn't happen to little boys...  In my rush, I almost didn't even notice him!  But I heard that voice and turned my head - and asked if he was ok and where was his parent?  His mom came running in from parking the car and we exchanged smiles and I was on my way...  But all the "what ifs" raced through my head...  Had anyone else stopped to talk to him?  Comfort him?  Or do we all just think it's none of our business and float on by?

What about at church?  We think of church as that one place in the world where all should be accepted and loved - and noticed and cared for.  It's the place we come to belong when the rest of the world has been harsh and cold.  Do we take the time to greet and encourage those who are new?  Those who aren't a part of our close circle of old friends?  Does every person who walks in our door feel they've been welcomed home? 

Learning to reach out - outside the doors and within our church.  This is one of the ways God calls us to encourage others.  Does this describe you?  Is this reflected in your life of kindness?  There are plenty of people in need of a friend...  Could you encourage one?

Second, in our reaching out, maybe we could encourage other believers just a little more.  Barnabas was known for offering encouragement to the new believers - in many different communities!  He was excited about what God was doing - and wanted to encourage others in their new faith journeys. 

How often do you take the time to encourage other believers in their walk with God?  Do you take the time to encourage others in the church - for all the ways they help our community thrive?  I know each and every person sitting in this space - at this moment - has probably said or done something kind for another believer this week...  We have loads of encouraging words and actions within us!  Are we using them to uphold this faith community and help it become even more vital and spirited by our presence?  Or are we someone who chooses to find fault with everyone else's actions - who tends to overlook the good that is happening, and instead spread doubts?  I know when I'm discouraged about something, I can easily turn into that person, too...  It's important to keep ourselves - and each other - in check.  Spreading negativity never helps a faith community...  But asking questions, seeking clarity, having the conversations that lead to understanding?  Those can lead to great encouragement! 

Encouraging other believers - inside the church, especially.  A great way to spread the love of God - and in turn, to help the ministries of our church broaden and deepen with excitement and life!

Third, reaching out is sometimes accomplished by encouraging the discouraged.  How often has life handed you lemons - and people just shook their heads and walked on by?  Later in the book of Acts, we see that Paul, Barnabas, and Mark are getting ready for a missionary journey.  Mark is fairly young at this point, and for some reason, decides not to go...  He returns to Jerusalem instead.  Paul didn't like that at all...  Later, Paul and Barnabas are preparing another journey and Barnabas wants to give Mark a second chance - but Paul says no.  So they part ways.  Paul ends up taking Silas one way, and Barnabas and Mark go another...

This may not seem like a huge deal - but by giving Mark a second chance, Barnabas was able to encourage him in big ways!  We don't hear from Barnabas again in the scriptures - but because of Mark's journeys, and probably his time with Barnabas , he goes on to give us an account of the life and ministry of Jesus!  All Barnabas did was give him a second chance - encouraging the discouraged.

How many times have we been the one to be discouraged by life?  The loss of a job, the endless string of "bad luck," a broken relationship?  And how many times have people washed their hands of us during those terrible times?  Or - even more telling yet - how many times have we done that to others?

The thing is - God calls for us to not look away or walk away, or gossip about another's misfortune...  God calls for us to reach out in love and humility and help each other find encouragement in grace and friendship.  It's easy to judge when we don't understand, when we fear, and when we doubt...  It's harder to hold out a hand and help the other up.  But that's what encouragement looks like. 

Encouraging others by giving a hand, a second chance, and offering grace.  That's what God calls us to be about.

So, to be true encouragers in our faith life - first we reach out.  But what then?  Then, we reach up.  It's not about just making friends and making the people around us feel good - it's also about partnering with God in what God is up to in our world!  We have an opportunity to use our gifts and talents to further God's work in our community! 

The first thing we learn about Barnabas is that he is a man who gives of himself - freely.  He gave not just of his time and talent, but also his land - he used even his material goods to serve God in big ways!  Now, I'm not saying we should sell all we have and give it to the church...  But we can take a closer look at our lives and all the blessings we have, and make more careful decisions about how we give of our time, talent, and gifts - so that we don't leave it up to a small few to carry on the work of faith...  When we all pitch in, we encourage each other and we are able to spread the love of God farther and wider than ever imagined!

Another aspect of reaching up in our role of encouragers, is to not keep quiet!  When Barnabas sees all the good God is doing in Antioch - he tells people!  He refuses to keep the stories of God's blessings to himself!  I don't know about you - but I LOVE hearing how God is working in the lives of the people around me.  I love hearing where God has nudged you into new beginnings - or away from harm.  I love seeing the surprises of the Holy Spirit working in your lives - and taking the time to notice them in my own life... 

We need this kind of communication today!  We need to encourage each other in noticing God's movement today and here - it's too easy to become complacent in our faith...  To get bored.  To just come to church on Sundays, hear some nice music and a good story, share some coffee with a friend, and go back to "normal" life...  Where's the excitement in that?!  There are too many people willing to tear down the church in our world today - too many people ready to criticize our short-comings.  If only they got to hear the stories of hope, miracles, and joy that come out of our lives of faith as well!  And there are plenty of those stories - things that happen in all of our daily lives...  The signs of a God active and present in the world today - we just need to notice and share the stories!  That is great encouragement!

Barnabas felt the call to follow the Spirit and be actively involved in God's work - and that changed his life forever.  From that moment on, Barnabas made a difference wherever he went...  And we can, too.  It doesn't matter where we are, what we do, who we're with - we can choose to be encouragers for God.  We pay a little more attention to those "nudges," we take a little more interest in those around us, we give thanks for the blessings - and pray for help when we're challenged, and we share the stories of where we see God at work in our lives.  It's really not a harder way to live - it's just a little different...  A little less focused on ourselves and little more focused on spreading God's joy.  It's a choice on how to live - and one we can all make, no matter our current life situation.

...So we've reached out as encouragers, and we've reached up - what's left, but to reach in?  Maybe we need to back up just a bit and remember that the first step to being able to encourage others, and share God's movement in our own lives - is to build up our own faith lives!  We all need to start with ourselves - filling our own spiritual needs, heck!  Even recognizing our spiritual needs - before we can help fill others up.

So how do we fill ourselves up?  Worship is a start...  Prayer is good.  Fellowship with other believers is great - especially when we can share our faith stories, our questions, and our doubts - and encourage each other.  But you know what I've found to be the most effective for me?  (And trust me, it's not nearly as engrained and automatic as I wish it was...)  Reading scripture.  Seriously.  It's not as outdated and removed from real life as we'd all like to think...  And if you find a translation that works for you - it's not as hard to understand as we like to think either.  This summer, especially as I've prepared for these sermons, I've LOVED reading the stories of people that are a lot like me.  They've had ups and downs.  They've had bumps and bruises.  They've had good, encouraging friends - and horrible ones that lacked any sense of tact or humbleness!  They've worked hard for the glory of God - and sometimes they've turned their back on God...  And yet, in every instance, God has been there.  Guiding them.  Loving them.  Forgiving them.  Bringing them back into the fold.

When I read these stories it's a reminder - not just that God is good and yada yada yada.  But the examples of people that remind me that even when I'm not good - God is still good.  Even when I mess up - God is still there.  Even when things seem hopeless - God is surrounding me with hope and love.  These reminders are what helps me to live a life of faith - and one that is strong enough to share that encouragement with others.  These stories are what keep me going when the world seems to fall apart.  They help me to stay out of the valley of self-pity and anger - instead they encourage me to live knowing that God is with me and everything will be alright in the end (what's that quote?  If it's not alright, it's not the end?)

Barnabas - the encourager.  A name given to him because of the way he lived his life - selflessly, freely, in the Spirit, always helping, teaching, consoling, comforting...  I love it.  In so many ways, his brief story can teach us how to be better followers of Christ, better encouragers in the world.  His example teaches us to Reach Out (outside of ourselves), to Reach Up (seeking God in all we do), and to Reach In (building on our own faith in real and tangible ways). 

If your friends were to re-name you...  What words would describe where you are today?  And what are the words you wish to aspire to?  This was something I enjoyed pondering this week...  Write them down.  Put them somewhere you will see them every day.  And start seeking ways to encourage yourself - and in turn, those around you.  Can you imagine what would happen - if each one of us here today, decided to do just a little better?!  We could be known for being that church where you always walk away "encouraged."  And what a legacy that would be!

In the words of  Alfred Tennyson:

"Come friends, it's not too late to seek a newer world..."

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God, we thank you for yet another example of a true follower of you - one with so many things to teach us.  Thank you for Barnabas and his open and loving heart.  Help us, Lord, to be more like him.  Help us to see beyond our own insecurities and troubles - and instead, look more to those around us and how to encourage them in your love.  Help us to walk closer with you and trust in you with our lives, noticing the places you work with love and care.  For we know you're there, God - we just need to open our eyes and hearts a little wider!  Thank you, Great Encourager.  In your name, we pray, Amen.

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