Monday, April 27, 2009

This week's message: God at work?

Acts 28:1-11.

There is a new movie coming out, called Angels and Demons. I am not recommending it for watching, but I think that the title is representative of a continued obsession throughout human history to ascribe the things that happen in our lives to either powers for good or powers for evil. Particularly for negative events, we want them to either be divine retribution or a demonic attack. We talked last week about how God’s plan for Paul could not be stopped by a storm and a shipwreck. We saw how storms come in our lives and things happen that are simply part of the natural order of things. This morning we are going to see how God is continuing to work to bring about his plans for Paul to testify in Rome, protecting him from a snake-bite and using him to minister to the people on the island of Malta.
Read Acts 28:1-11.

The people on the island were kind and hospitable. Paul went to help them gather firewood, and as he threw a bunch of sticks on the fire, a snake came out of the bundle and latched onto his hand. I think I would too, if I were the snake. Poor thing was just trying not to die a fiery death, which he did anyway as Paul shook him off into the fire. The islanders all stood around then, convinced that this was a man in trouble with the gods. Surely a man who comes out of a giant storm and shipwreck washing up on shore only to be immediately bitten by a terribly poisonous snake is someone the gods have it in for. We would not be hard pressed to find those who would react the same today.

If you had a coworker whose car stalled on the way to work and was hit by another vehicle totaling it, then when they finally got to work, having walked from the accident site, only to get bitten by a copperhead as they took a shortcut through the landscaping, there would be at least one person in the office who would claim it was bad karma coming back to get them. We never want bad things to just happen. We want bad things to only happen to those who have it coming. Then we don’t have to feel bad for them. And we don’t have to worry about bad things happening to us, since we can’t possibly be as bad as they are. It is human nature. And the people on the island of Malta were showing forth their human nature with gusto.

They knew the men who had washed up were prisoners, probably it was the shackles that gave that away. They already figured these men were guilty and deserved whatever punishment they received. So when one gets bitten by a poisonous viper, they quickly assure themselves that it is only because he must have murdered someone and the gods are getting justice. And they all sit back and wait for Paul to swell up and die. Nothing happens. In the space of two sentences, Paul goes from doomed recipient of the gods’ wrath to a god himself. Does anyone else here see the irony of that quick-change?

First Paul is an evil murderous man, now he is a god. Let’s go back to that coworker who was bitten by the copperhead on the way into the office, turns out the snake bite didn’t make her sick, she put in a whole day’s work and on the way out the door, the same person who was claiming karma was coming back to get that coworker is now saying how lucky and blessed she is—“Man, her guardian angel was working overtime today!”

We want to be able to figure these things out. We want to know if the person with a snake bite is getting what they deserve or when they are fine that they have some kind of supernatural power to withstand poison. I think when we get caught up in the judgment cycle, we have our focus in the wrong place. Everyone was fixated on the snakebite and the storm.

When we get caught up in the event, we lose sight of where God is at work. The important thing is not that these events happened, it is that God was at work in spite of them. Paul and his companions were on this island for three months, and during that time, Luke tells us that God used Paul to heal the father of this high official, Publius. God used Paul to heal the sick as they were constantly brought before him for the next three months. But what do we remember? That he was bitten on the hand by a snake the first day he was on the island. God was at work for 3 months among these people, but we remember a few hours of suspenseful waiting for Paul to swell up and die. God changed the lives of the people on this island of Malta, but even now we want to make Paul the hero because he survived the snakebite and the storm. Sure, Paul was an important guy, but God is the hero in this story.

God is the hero of all of these stories. God was at work. God is still at work today. He may use certain people, but they aren’t heroes, they aren’t angels, they are vessels. Paul himself said we are clay pots, meant to hold and transport the message of the gospel. We said last week that every event in our lives is an opportunity for us to meet God, to see him at work. But in order to see God we need to stop focusing on the event and start asking God to reveal himself. It wasn’t about the shipwreck or the snakebite, it was about God bringing his message of hope to the people of Malta in the clay pot we like to call Paul.

We need to stop passing judgment on a situation and ascribing credit to angels or demons for making things happen. We need to start asking God what he wants to teach us in every situation. God show me yourself in my boring day at work. God show me yourself as I face challenges in my family. God what do you have to teach me in the blessings I receive and the struggles I have? It’s not about the circumstances, it’s about what God is doing behind the scenes to bring about his will, to show us who he is, and to bring us closer to himself.

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