Monday, February 23, 2009

This week's sermon: Standing Firm in Difficult Times

Acts 22:30-23:34.
There is a lot going on in this passage. There is a hearing, with arguing and accusations not just from the Sanhedrin against Paul, but among the members of the council as well. They are fighting so fiercely that the Roman commander takes Paul away so that they don’t tear him to pieces. Paul was in physical danger in these proceedings because what he was preaching was a hot-button issue. That is because there was already a disagreement over the resurrection of the dead among these two major sects of Judaism: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. So these men are angry not just about what is being discussed right at that moment with Paul, but these are feelings that are rooted in a long-standing theological argument. So Paul is returned to safe quarters in the Roman barracks. It seems as though little was accomplished other than to embroil the Sanhedrin in an internal battle, but Paul is safe for the moment.

Next in the story we read that there is a plot to take Paul’s life. More than forty men take an oath to kill him before their next meal! Once again, though, God delivers Paul’s from harm. Somehow Paul’s nephew hears about the plot and warns the guards. In order to keep him safe, they send him to the Governor Felix and hope that he can sort out the mess.

So what do we do with this story? There is so much in there, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the plot and forget to ask the question, “Why did Luke put this in here?” There has to be a point, a reason why it is important for us to know what happened. There has to be something to learn and take away from this passage. To find the point, I want to highlight what happens in verse 11: The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." In all this hardship, with all of this conflict, this verse in there to tell us that God is still in control!

When things look bleak, it is tempting to think that we must be out of God’s will, or even out of God’s control. We need to hear the voice of our Lord standing by each of us and saying, “Take courage! Your life is a witness and testimony for me.” God was not worried about Paul being thrown into prison or being taken into Roman custody. It was part of God’s bigger plan to move Paul into a place of greater witness.

Paul had testified to many people about his encounter with the Living Christ, now God was going to give him opportunity to testify to a new set of people. Just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, you must also testify in Rome. Paul was now going to testify before the leaders of the known world. And God’s plan to get him there was through the prison system. What? How could God possibly want to send his chosen vessel through the prison system, that is just ridiculous!

According to some current theology, that would seem to be the case, but if you look at scripture you see that God doesn’t care much about conforming to human expectations. He is always doing the unexpected in unorthodox ways. And don’t forget that this is not the first time that God has used the prison system and captivity to work out his plan. Remember Joseph? He told his brothers that while they meant his slavery and captivity for harm, God meant it for good. God was in charge of Joseph’s life to bring good from the bad times. Remember the children of Israel in captivity in Egypt for about 400 years? Or the Babylonian and Assyrian captivities? What about John the Baptist in prison, bearing witness to the truth? God has been doing prison ministry almost from the beginning. God was taking Paul through the prison system so that every influential figure who heard his case would also hear about Christ.

God brings us through our difficult times with the same purpose. His desire is for our good, and for our lives to reveal God at work in us. That goes for good times and hard times. I was browsing through the newspaper this weekend and there in the USA Weekend insert, the featured front cover article asks “disasters or blessings?” It discusses volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides and other events we consider to be “natural disasters” and their role in bringing about good things for the earth. The caption says, "The answer may surprise you."

I think we can ask the same question about our circumstances sometimes, are they disasters or blessings? I believe the answer is up to us. If we will put our trust in the Lord and allow him to work in us and through us, our biggest disaster can become our greatest opportunity for blessing. If we will choose to fix our eyes on Jesus, and not grow weary of doing good; I believe we will find blessing not only for ourselves but for those around us as well. Standing firm in the midst of difficulty is the key to finding our disasters are really blessings in disguise. I will close with the Lord’s words to Paul, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, you must also testify in Rome.” Today he might say to us “Take courage! Just as you have testified about me in good times, I will also give you reason to testify about me in hard times.”

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