The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: March 2018 (page 1 of 2)

Afraid

Two Marys make their way
to Jesus’ tomb,
as morning sun breaks the horizon,
the third day since the horror.
They step quickly over killing ground,
crosses standing close,
memories raw with grief.
They turn away, forcing thoughts
to focus on why they’ve come.
A  proper burial for the Master,
spices and oinment and wrappings.
Joseph and Nicodemus,
who had sorrowfully taken Jesus’ body down,
had no time as the sun set
and hope died
and night threatened falling.

“Who will roll away the stone for us?”
they wondered aloud as they neared the place.
Women could do no such thing.
A tomb-sealing burial stone
was a massive mountain
to seal in the dead
and seal out grave robbers.

But, close now,
they saw the stone rolled  aside,
the tomb unclosed.
Their fear as yet unfelt,
drawn as they were to look.
Caution to the wind,
they bent and stepped inside.
A white-robed young man sat there then,
his presence now signalling danger.
He spoke calmingly, knowingly:
“Don’t be alarmed.
You seek Jesus of Nazareth,
the crucified one.
He is not here; he is risen!
Look!  This is where he lay.
Now, go tell his disciples,
‘He goes ahead to Galilee
where you will see him as he said.'”

The Marys ran, then,
ran without thinking,
from fear quaking
with fright trembling,
by terror impelled.
They were afraid,
their tongues stark still,
said nothing to anyone.

Soon, though, they will speak,
breaking their silence
with news too wondrous to keep.
Soon their fear will turn to great joy,
and their trembling to praise-full celebration.

But today, the third day from the cross,
they tremble with fear.
How different from us!
How removed from our routineness!
The grave was empty,
the young man an angel,
Jesus risen.

How many times we’ve heard it all.
Only rousing music stirs us;
not black words on white page–
even from the Holy Book.
Jesus conquered death.
Unless it’s near us,
it moves us not.
Or if it does,
it does reassuringly comforting for that day.

But tremble we don’t,
fearful we’re not.
Awe of the almighty
doesn’t grip us.
Our mouths don’t hang open,
our tongues aren’t shocked still.
Of course, we sing in celebration,
Christ has triumphed over death for us!

But still, here is place for reverence,
reverence so reverant it borders on fear–
fear of power so shattering,
it raises the dead
and drives open a tomb.

So, come, with two Marys.
Find the massive stone rolled away.
Unthinkingly enter and find the young man.
Listen to his words:  “Jesus is not here; he is risen!”
And tremble in awe at the power of the Almighty–
power exceeding even the unrelenting dominence
of death itself!

 

 

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Forsaken

The soldier hammered spikes
an agonizing three times,
once in each wrist
and once in his pressed-together feet.

Skin split sending rivers of blood
down his body
and onto the cross
where they stretched him out
on the hard ground.
Those rivers were joined with others
that ran down from his crown of thorns.

The pounding hammer was merciless,
the pain pulsating,
mingling with the searing wounds
from whipping that opened his bones bare.

Romans hoisted the cross then,
dropped it into a hole where it stood,
twice a man’s height,
under which family and friends gaped
in helpless grief as morning hours dragged.

Passersby mocked; through agony he heard:
“He saved others; he can’t save himself.”
“Let this Christ come down now
that we may see and believe.”
But come down to save himself he couldn’t.
He could have called ten thousand angels
to destroy the world and set him free.
But last night in the lonely garden
he’d yielded to the Father’s will
and now would not turn back.

At noon darkness swept the sky,
angry, foreboding, wrathful.
It suffocated everything, refused to relent.
Mothers hurried children inside.
Grown men’s stomachs churned.
Priests lit candles and mumbled prayers.
But darkness overruled the light—and reigned.

At the ninth hour, three in the storm-dark afternoon,
a cry of anguish rose,
an inhuman animal shriek.
From the cross it pierced the dark,
with words from David, darker still:

“My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?”

In those moments the Son of God
bore the sin of the world
and absorbed the holy wrath of the Father
against mankind’s treason.
In those moments the Son
hung central in the will of the Father,
loved to the uttermost.
Yet from his only Son,
the Father turned away,
absolute holiness unable to abide,
absolute sinfulness in its world-weight.

From eternity Father, Son and Holy Spirit
enjoyed love-oneness—
always until now.
In these black moments,
the Father tore away in grieving separation
from the Son of his eternal love.
And the Son hung abandoned,
bearing the weight of sin without God.

He could have called ten thousand angels.
But he died alone for you and me.

 

 

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Perfume

It happened in Simon the Leper’s home
in Bethany, two days before Passover.
A woman appeared during supper
carrying a beautiful jar of expensive perfume.
Jesus, disciples and Simon sat silent.
The woman too said nothing.
She broke the seal on the jar
and poured the perfume over Jesus’ head.
It seeped into his long hair,
streamed onto his clothing.
The sweet aroma filled Simon’s home.

But that was not all the filling.
Several indignant voices rose from the table,
as the woman cherished what she’d done.
“Why waste such expensive perfume?”
“She should have sold it and fed the poor!”
Harsh, scolding words poured from their lips.
The woman dropped her head in shame.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied,
defending the woman
and bringing a slight smile to her lips,
as angry men towered over her.
“She has done a good thing to me.
You always have the poor to help;
but you will not have me long.
She has done what she could
to anoint my body for burial.
She will be talked about
wherever the Good News is preached.”

It happened as the chief priests and law teachers
were looking for a chance to capture Jesus secretly
and put him to death.
They had an accomplice, a traitor,
who stood from Simon’s table
at Jesus’ rebuke
surrounded by the sweet smell
of burial anointing perfume.
Judas strode out
to arrange with the chief priests
to betray Jesus to them.
The priests welcomed him with delight
and promised a rich reward.
So from that night
Judas began looking
for the right time and place
to hand Jesus over.

Mark, pray tell,
who is this woman?
And why does she offer
such an extravagant gift?
But Mark stays silent.
We can only guess such a gift
was an act of love and heartfelt thanks.
Jesus had lavished on her God’s grace;
he had freed her from  some devilish past.
And she had come to honor him,
not knowing it portended his death.

It had been a wearying week of conflict.
At its start, Jesus had ridden a donkey’s colt
into the teeming city, where he’d die.
Passover pilgrims had welcomed him
with palm branches and messianic praises,
while priests plotted his death.

All week, from Jesus cleansing the temple
to the Jews public attempts to belittle him
to his end-of-age-judgment
to Judas’ betrayal,
conflict ruled the days and nights.
But this night came a humble woman
yearning to show love
to the Savior who had first loved her.
She gave what she had
and the sweet smell filled Jesus’ heart.
Unknowingly, she was preparing him for burial
by honoring him from her treasure.

This is Holy Week–
a week we should set aside
to meditate on it
and on what Jesus said and did
as he suffered and died.
But we don’t, can’t.
Work must be done,
church activities must be attended.
And soon it’s Monday
and while we’ve worshipped him in song
and heard a sermon of his death and rising,
we’re hardly more knowing than that woman.
We’ve ceased to sit still and ponder deeply
what Jesus said and what Jesus did
that warring week of his awful, wonderful death.

Would that, like this grateful woman,
in the clamor of a busy life,
we would quietly approach Jesus.
And while others busyed themselves,
we poured whispered praises on Jesus,
as his words and deeds of that week
sank deep into our hearts.
That woman could be our model,
and her perfume our rivers of praise,
spilling down on our Savior’s head.

 

 

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Racial Credibility

I don’t think I’m a racist.  In the church we planted, I rejoiced to look out over a sea of faces 30-35% of whom were non-white.  One of our elders was an African-American, a man I respected and loved.  But I can’t get inside the African-American mind.  That’s where Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” helps.

“Many things have changed since 1963 (when King wrote this).  And some deep things have not changed . . . There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today . . . The victims are likely to be Latinos or Somali immigrants as African Americans . . . The Ku Klux Klan has no corner on hate anymore” (John Piper, Bloodlines, p. 27).

In my shut-in, sheltered life, I don’t see that.  That’s why  I need King’s letter.  It offers perspective.  It helps this old white guy see life from inside the experience of a black man.

A bit of background.  As I said already, the year is 1963.  In the Birmingham (Alabama) News, eight white Christians and Jewish clergymen criticize King for proceeding with public protests in the city.  King responds with this letter.  Here’s a portion  . . .

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

” . . .  when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

” . . . when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;

” . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (p. 26).

“Many things have changed.  And some deep things have not changed.”

Paul’s letter to Philemon got me started on this, even master Philemon and slave Onesimus likely shared the same ethnicity.  Slavery just reminded me of racism

I’m a majority race trying to see life from a minority’s.  I don’t want a hint of white supremacy or black (or any other race) inferiority to have place in my mind or heart.  I want to treat my black brother in Christ as beloved.  And I want to treat my black fellow man with dignity as one created in the image of God.

So black parents caution their just-starting-to-drive kids:  “Be especially polite if you’re pulled over by a white policeman.  And keep your hands out in full view all the time.”  Why?  Because racism sometimes intercedes.

So a black man walks into our all-white church?  How do I treat him–particularly if he asks for financial help after the service?

Why am I writing all this?  Vinay Samuel, director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life said this over twenty years ago and it’s still relevant today . . .

“The most serious thing concerning [the credibility of our global witness] is the image around the world that evangelicals are soft on racial injustice . . . One sign and wonder, biblically speaking, that alone can prove the power of the gospel is that of reconciliation . . . [Hindus and Muslims] cannot duplicate the miracle of black and white together, of racial injustice being swept away by the power of the gospel . . . Our credibility is at stake.”

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The Christian & the Slave

Racism remains rampant in the U.S.  November 2015 CNN poll: 49% of Americans call racism (belief that one race is superior to another) “a big problem”.  Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t openly condemn racism–not even slavery.  But it does attack slavery in an unusual way.

Paul has arrived in Rome.  He’s now under what we might call “house arrest”, chained to a Roman guard, while awaiting his trial before Caesar.  He writes a letter to a friend–Philemon.

“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1-3).

Paul calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”, not of Rome, nor of Caesar.  He believes Christ Jesus has captured him and sent him to this “prison”.  “Philemon” is Paul’s “dear friend and fellow worker”, a member of the Colossae church.  Philemon is a slave owner.  Paul addresses his letter not just to Philemon, but also to Apphia and Archippus and “the church that meets in your home”.  Paul mentions Christ twice in this greeting—signifacant because Christ is the “hidden star” of this letter.

“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.  I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Philemon 4-7).

Paul tells Philemon how he always thanks God for him, hearing of his faith in Christ and love for all believers.  Paul tells him, too, how he prays for Philemon—that Philemon may actively share his faith, so that he may have “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”.  (Sharing the faith deepens our understanding of Christ!).  Philemon is known for “[refreshing] the hearts of the saints”, and this love encourages Paul and gives him great joy.

“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul– an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus–I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.  I am sending him– who is my very heart– back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.  But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.  Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good–no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 8-16).

Onesimus.  His name means “useful”, this one who became a useless slave to Philemon by stealing from his master and running away.  But he  has providentially found his way to Paul’s house.  Paul has led the slave to faith in Christ Jesus.  He now is  sending him, with this letter, back to his master.

Paul writes persuasively.  Since Onesimus has become a Christian, Philemon should welcome the slave back as his “dear brother in Christ”.  Paul could command Philemon.  After all, Philemon “owes” Paul.  It was the apostle who led him to Christ.

Instead, he “appeals” to him “on the basis of love”.  In other words, Paul wants this not to be a law-matter, but a heart-matter.

“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back– not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philemon 17-21).

How can Philemon refuse?  Paul urges him to “welcome him as you would welcome me”.  He promises to personally pay Philemon back anything Onesimus owes him.  Paul even tells Philemon he’s confident he’ll exceed his requests.

“And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 22-25).

How to understand Paul’s request for a guest room?  Did he really expect the Lord to answer Philemon’s prayers, so he’d be freed?  Or was he “warning” Philemon he’ll soon show up and know how he’s treating Onesimus?

Paul sends greetings from five men  with him.  But is what most compelling is what Paul doesn’t write at the end of this letter . .

What did Philemon do when Onesimus returned?

* * *

The same question can be asked of us.  Now that we know what Paul wrote to Philemon, what can we do about the scourge of racism?  I’m not suggesting that any of our “doing” will wipe out racism, any more than what Paul wanted Philemon to do would wipe out slavery.

I am suggesting we can make a small difference, especially in our churches. (Yes, we find it even there.)  If there is someone in our church of a different ethnicity, or someone we might discriminate against (a poor person, an unkempt person, etc.) . . .

Now that we know what Paul wrote to Philemon,
what can–what will– we do
about racism, about discrimination?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Acts Unfinished

Acts finishes unfinished.

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house
and welcomed all who came to see him.
Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God
and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ”
(Acts 28:30,31).

That’s it?  No details of that time?  No what happened to Paul afterward?  Did the statute of limitations run out?  Does he appear before Caesar?  Was he freed?  Executed?

Luke’s ending implies Acts’ story is meant to continu–fto be ongoing– generation after generation, century after century.  We are “writing” the current chapter.

Dr. Gordon Fee suggests Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).

That was the story of Acts.  First in Jerusalem through Peter.  The Holy Spirit is mightily outpoured.  Peter preached his Pentecost sermon.  3000 Jews from all over the Roman Empire (in Jerusalem for Passover) repent, believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Within months, that number grows to 5000.  Almost immediately Jewish authorities turn hostile.  But the gospel advances through the apostles’ preaching and the Holy Spirit’s signs and wonders.

Persecution intensifies.  Stephen is martyred.  Believers scatter from Jerusaleminto Judea and Samaria, gossiping the gospel wherever they go.  Meanwhile, Saul of Tarsus, a young rabbi, has followers of “The Way” jailed.  He travels to Damascus, Syria to drag wayward Jews back to Jerusalem and punishment.  But on the road, the risen Christ appears, blinding him and converting him.  From now on, he takes center stage in the Gospel’s forward-moving expansion.

But he is not alone.  Peter finds himself led by the Spirit to a Gentile house.  He preaches to Cornelius and his household, and the Spirit is poured out on them as at Pentecost.  The Jewish Christian church is becoming Gentile–especially as persecuted believers scatter to Antioch, Syria and plant a strong Gentile church there.  From Antioch, eventually the Spirit sends Saul (soon to be known as Paul) on three missionary journeys through western Asia and ultimately eastern Europe.  At every step, Jews oppose.  But at every step, as the Spirit empowers, the Gospel advances.

Finally, in the Jerusalem temple, a Jewish mob grabs Paul.  His life is spared only because Roman troops rush in to restore peace.  But he spends the next two-plus years imprisoned before being shipped to Rome to stand before Caesar. In Rome, in his own rented house,  Paul is chained to rotating guards who repeatedly hear the gospel.  Jews reject it.  But Gentiles come to listen and be saved.

Acts ends without an ending.  That will come only when Jesus does.  The book, then, is not just history; it’s a paradigm for the church in every generation.

Again, as Dr. Fee writes, Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).

Historically the Gospel hasn’t advanced on a straight incline.  Periods of expansion have been interrupted by periods of halting.  That seems to be so in America now.   Statistics are a mixed bag.  I’ve read 8-10 studies.  The Pew Research Center says in 2008, 80% of Americans considered themselves Christian.  (Whether they were or not remains another story.)  By 2017 that number fell to 75%.  Evangelicals from 2007 to 2014 fell from 26.3% to 25.4% (Pew Research Center).  Another study claims evangelicals have slightly increased.  Another says, “Okay, church attendance is declining; but it’s really just clarifying who the real Christians are.”

The polls are dizzying.  But I’ve deduced this:  we Christians in America are probably declining a bit in number.  But even if we’re holding steady, nothing in any research I’ve read suggests that the Gospel is not triumphantly and joyfully moving forward.  In other words, if God intends the church in Acts to be roughly replicated in each generation, it’s not happening here and now.

So the non-ending end of Acts gives us something to pray for and work toward:  a church through which the Gospel is triumphantly, joyfully moving forward with an expansion of the Gospel, despite opposition, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rome Finally

Years ago our young family vacationed at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  It was this N.J. boy’s first trip to the South.  I was fascinated and excited to arrive.  In today’s text, the apostle Paul arrives in Rome–the city he long hoped to visit, albeit not as a prisoner.

Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days; then we weighed anchor and came to Rhegium. After one day there a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli.  There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome (Acts 28:11-14).Three winter months on Malta, when sea travel was treacherous. They embark early February on a grain ship.  After a day’s sail, they reach Syracuse on the east coast of Sicily.  They spend three days there, then set sail again, docking at Rhegium on Italy’s toe.  There they wait one day for a south wind to blow, taking them 180 miles in two days to Puteoloi, the principal port of southern Italy.

Image result for map of paul 4th missionary journey

In Puteolois they find a community of Christians.  While the centurion conducts week-long business, Paul is permitted to visit them.

“And so we came to Rome.”  But, author Luke will backtrack to tell of an important meeting.

The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage (Acts 28:15).

A few miles north of Puteoloi, they reach the Appian Way.  News of Paul’s approach has reached the capital city, so believers from there travel south.  Some walk 33 miles to Three Taverns.  Others travel 10 miles further to meet the apostle at the market town of Appius.  Paul thanks God for their encouraging presence.  Three years have passed since he wrote the Rome church, and he must have wondered how they received it.  Now his long desire to visit Rome (thoughunder different circumstances) is being realized, and their welcome lifts his spirits.

When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.  But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor — even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” They replied, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:16-22).

Paul is allowed a measure of freedom awaiting his trial.  He lives in a private house, lightly chained by his wrist to a Roman soldier.  (Interesting to speculate on Paul’s conversations with these guards, who change every four hours.  They, of course, hear everything Paul teaches his visitors.)

After three days Paul makes contact with the leaders of the Jews, inviting them to come to him.  He insists he did nothing against “our people” or against “the customs of our ancestors”.  Nevertheless, he was arrested and handed over to the Romans who wanted to free him.  But the Jews objected, forcing him to prove his innocence by appealing to Caesar.  He is a prisoner, he says, “for the sake of the hope of Israel”; that is, for the fulfillment of that hope in Messiah Jesus.

The Jews deny knowledge of Paul’s case (they want little to do with Paul and his Christianity).  All they know is Paul’s Christianity is everywhere-opposed by the Jews.  But they’re willing “to hear from you what you think”.

 After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.  Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.  So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,  ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’  Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts28:23-28).

They come together again, this time more Jews than before.  Paul labors long “to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets”.  They  disagree with each other, some convinced, the majority refusing to believe.  The bulk of the Jewish community, then, stands opposed to Messiah Jesus.

Paul pronounces the Holy Spirit’s words through the prophet.  Isaiah 6:9,10 stands in judgment against them, a solemn last word in Acts. If Romans 9-11 is any indication, Paul spoke these words with sorrow.  But Jewish disbelief means riches for the Gentiles.  “ . . . they will listen”. 

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:30,31).

W.M Ramsay (19th & 20th century New Testament scholar) suggests the two years was “the statutory period within which the prosecution might state its case”.  If the Romans did or not, we don’t know.  Many scholars argue that Paul was later released and traveled again.  In any case, for those two years, the gospel spread.

There, in a house unknown to us Paul received visitors.  And with courage and without hindrance he preached the fulfillment of God’s saving reign in the Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly the Romans knew—and allowed it. So there, in the heart of the empire, Luke shows Acts 1:8 being fulfilled:  the Lord Jesus Christ is made known “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 * * *

Since Acts closes in “unfinished” fashion, I believe Paul’s (crazy) route to Rome is a paradigm for today.  I’m thinking of men and women who cross language and culture lines (missionaries) with the gospel.  I have a friend who ministers in a country officially “closed” to the gospel among a little-known people group.  Families are coming to faith in Christ.  God still gets his servants where he wants them to make his good news known.

One important reason to faithfully support our missionaries in prayer and finances.

 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations,
and then the end will come
(Jesus, Mat
thew 24:14).

 

 

 

 

 

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Castaways

In 2000 “Castaway”, Tom Hanks played a FedEx employee marooned on an island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific.  Hanks has to transform himself physically and emotionally to survive.  In today’s text Paul and 275 other men are castaways on a Mediterranean island with an experience quite different from Hanks’.

After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it.  Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”  He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.  They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

Safely on shore, the men learn they are on Malta.  Luke calls the people barbaroi—“barbarians.”  The island, strategically lying at the narrows of the Mediterranean was settled in the 6th century B.C.  In 216 B.C. Rome captured it from Carthage and Augustus settled Roman veterans there.  These “barbarians” are descended from the Carthaginians.

Luke is probably using barbaroi to mean “natives” of the island.  In any case, they show remarkable kindness to the 276 survivors.  It’s a cold, rainy morning and the castaways are wet to the bone.  So the “natives” build a welcoming fire to warm them.

Paul pitches in.  But as he lays sticks on the fire, a viper, cold and stiff in the twigs, grabs his hand.  The islanders see.  To them, it’s a sign.  The man survived the sea, but Justice wins out.  The man must be a murderer.  When they see Paul shake off the snake, they wait for him  “to swell up or suddenly drop dead.”   When he doesn’t, the “sign” changes.  He must be “a god”. 

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.  After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.  They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed (Acts 28:7-10).

Publius, a land-owner, is island-chief.  He courteously welcomes the shipwrecked men and orders them fed for three days.  When Paul learns Publius’ father is ill, he goes in and prays for him and the man is healed.  Then, in a scene reminiscient of Jesus in Galilee, crowds of sick flocked to Paul “and were cured”.  The “barbarians” treated them royally then.  And when the men were ready to sail, the islanders filled the ship with “all the provisions [they] needed”.

* * *

God provided.  A fire to warmly welcome the castaways.  Food from the chief for three days.  A shipful of provisions for the trip to Rome.

God provides.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
*Count your many blessings, see what God has done.”

God provides.

God lavished mercy.  The barbarians could have been indifferent to the castaways, or hostile.  Instead, they were kind.  Publius’ father was a pagan, one single sick old man.  God healed him.  The islanders were pagans.  Yet every sick one who came to Paul was cured.

God lavishes mercy.

You were dead through the trespasses and sins  in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.  All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22,23).

God lavishes mercy.

Encouragement for us next time we feel like “castaways”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DarB

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Shipwreck

The most famous shipwreck of all time is the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic.  It went down in the Atlantic, tragically claiming 1,514 lives on its maiden voyage April 14, 1910.  Not until 1985 did an expedition find the shipwreck and discover the Titanic split in half–two sections lying in the ocean floor about 1/3 a mile apart, the stern crushed, the bow remarkably intact.

No one made a movie about Paul’s shipwreck.  But hundreds of thousands have read about it.

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

About midnight on the fourteenth night of the storm, as we were being driven across the Sea of Adria, the sailors sensed land was near (Acts 27:27).

Two weeks.  324 hours.  Almost 500 nautical miles.  The storm has blasted its fury on the ship and its crew and passengers.  Suddenly, in midnight’s blackness, the sailors hear waves crashing on rock and sense land is near.

They took soundings and found the water was only 120 feet deep. A little later they sounded again and found only 90 feet. At this rate they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight (Acts 27:28,29).

Soundings show water’s depth shrinking fast.  They throw out stern anchors.

Then the sailors tried to abandon the ship; they lowered the lifeboat as though they were going to put out anchors from the prow. But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, “You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.” So the soldiers cut the ropes and let the boat fall off (Acts 27:30-32).

Sailors try to abandon ship in the lifeboat.  Paul warns everyone will die unless they all stay aboard.  The sailors cut the lifeboat’s ropes and waves catch it away.

As the darkness gave way to the early morning light, Paul begged everyone to eat. “You haven’t touched food for two weeks,” he said. “Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.” Then he took some bread, gave thanks to God before them all, and broke off a piece and ate it. Then everyone was encouraged, and all 276 of us began eating — for that is the number we had aboard (Acts 27:33-37).

Night’s eerie darkness surrenders to pre-dawn light.  Paul, the prisoner, has become a leader.  He urges everyone to eat.  They’ll need strength for the challenge ahead.  With words reminiscent of the Eucharist, he eats.  His confidence encourages them all.  The whole ship—276 of them—start eating.

After eating, the crew lightened the ship further by throwing the cargo of wheat overboard.  When morning dawned, they didn’t recognize the coastline, but they saw a bay with a beach and wondered if they could get between the rocks and get the ship safely to shore. So they cut off the anchors and left them in the sea. Then they lowered the rudders, raised the foresail, and headed toward shore (Acts 27:38-40).

The crew throws overboard the wheat cargo, a final attempt to lighten the ship.  Morning brings clear sight of an unknown coastline—a bay with a beach.  Could they sail between the rocks and reach shore?  They try.

But the ship hit a shoal and ran aground. The bow of the ship stuck fast, while the stern was repeatedly smashed by the force of the waves and began to break apart. The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to make sure they didn’t swim ashore and escape. But the commanding officer wanted to spare Paul, so he didn’t let them carry out their plan. Then he ordered all who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land, and he told the others to try for it on planks and debris from the broken ship. So everyone escaped safely ashore (Acts 27:41-44)!

The ship hits a sandbar, its bow aground while waves smash the stern.  Guards who lose prisoners pay with their lives.  “Kill them!” shout the soldiers.  “Kill them before they escape!”  But the centurion wants to save Paul; he orders the prisoners spared. Everyone is commanded overboard, swim or float on debris.  They all survive the stormy waves and reach the beach.

* * *

Hard to imagine the apostle Paul swimming for his life through rough seas from a shipwreck toward a strange shore.  I find it harder to imagine God’s reason for sending Paul on that ship to Rome.  Surely there were others.  Earlier, when the seas weren’t so treacheerous.  Paul did evangelize on their safe island.  And Lord only knows the effect of his witness on the ship’s crew and the centurion with his soldiers.  But two years of prison in Caesarea and a long near-deadly ship vogage seem an outsized price to pay.  God must have had other reasons, I guess.  But he’s not telling.

What’s even more surprising is that God didn’t save Paul from shipwreck, but through it.  How like Jesus!  God didn’t save Jesus from the cross, but through it.  That’s good news.

So is this:  God saves his suffering people.  Here’s the less-good news:  God saves his people through suffering, but usually not from it.

I’m staggered at how many and how much Christians suffer.  In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Pastor Timothy Keller writes, “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”  Death, and often its painful precursor, is the ultimate example.  It comes to us all–the most devastating shipwreck.

But God saves us through it.  If we’re believers, we pass through “the valley of the shadow of death”–and meet Jesus on the other side, suffering gone with the “better by far” come.

Still, while surrendering to his will, I pray God save me from “shipwrecks.”

 

 

 

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Northeaster & the Angel

“ . . . the sea represents a place of peril, of human vulnerability, the place where would-be sailors are at the mercy of the elements” (William Willimon–American theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church).  True story today, but especially so in the 1st century.  Paul, now a prisoner at Caesarea, is taken by sea to Rome.

When the time came, we set sail for Italy. Paul and several other prisoners were placed in the custody of an army officer named Julius, a captain of the Imperial Regiment. And Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was also with us. We left on a boat whose home port was Adramyttium; it was scheduled to make several stops at ports along the coast of the province of Asia (Acts 27:1,2).

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

“We” implies Luke, as well as Aristarchus, is traveling with Paul, who is under the guard of Julius, a Roman centurion.  Julius chooses a ship which will stop at Asian ports as it makes its way home to Adramyttium. The ship sailed north from Caesarea reaching Sidon in about 24 hours . . .

The next day when we docked at Sidon, Julius was very kind to Paul and let him go ashore to visit with friends so they could provide for his needs (Acts 27:3).

Friends” in Sidon had probably been evangelized in the dispersion after Stephen’s martyrdom.  It’s likely Paul had previously visited the church.  Now the centurion allows Paul to visit them for a meal and maybe some supplies to help on his journey.

Putting out to sea from there, we encountered headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland. We passed along the coast of the provinces of Cilicia and Pamphylia, landing at Myra, in the province of Lycia. There the officer found an Egyptian ship from Alexandria that was bound for Italy, and he put us on board (Acts 27:4-6).

As they set sail on the westward leg of the journey, headwinds hinder their course. They  use the island of Cyrus as a shield and dock at Myra, a regular port-of-call for grain vessels.  The centurion now books passage on another grain ship destined for Italy.  Since it is early fall, some commentators suggest ship  owners were trying to squeeze in one more trip before winter, when seas were especially treacherous.

We had several days of rough sailing, and after great difficulty we finally neared Cnidus. But the wind was against us, so we sailed down to the leeward side of Crete, past the cape of Salmone. We struggled along the coast with great difficulty and finally arrived at Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea. We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages by then because it was so late in the fall, and Paul spoke to the ship’s officers about it. “Sirs,” he said, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on — shipwreck, loss of cargo, injuries, and danger to our lives.” But the officer in charge of the prisoners listened more to the ship’s captain and the owner than to Paul. And since Fair Havens was an exposed harbor — a poor place to spend the winter — most of the crew wanted to go to Phoenix, farther up the coast of Crete, and spend the winter there. Phoenix was a good harbor with only a southwest and northwest exposure (Acts 27:7-12).

Gale-force winds now make sailing westward impossible.  “The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages . . . because it was so late in the fall . . . “   Officers and crew hold a council.  Paul, an experienced traveler,is pulled in.  He warns of danger if they go on.  But they decide they can make safer harbor.  They turn south and “struggled . . . with great difficulty” and finally reach Fair Havens. “Winter sailing” meant “scant daylight, long nights, dense cloud cover, poor visibility and the double raging of winds, showers and snow (Military Institutions of the Romans 4.39).  It is now October A.D. 59.  The ship is anchored in a harbor exposed to wind-whipped seas.

So Paul’s warning to the ship’s officers is well-founded—but disregarded.  Most of the crew argue to continue on to Phoenix, where a good harbor for wintering awaits.

When a light wind began blowing from the south, the sailors thought they could make it. So they pulled up anchor and sailed along close to shore.  But the weather changed abruptly, and a wind of typhoon strength (a “northeaster,” they called it) caught the ship and blew it out to sea.  They couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale.  We sailed behind a small island named Cauda, where with great difficulty we hoisted aboard the lifeboat that was being towed behind us. Then we banded the ship with ropes to strengthen the hull. The sailors were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast, so they lowered the sea anchor and were thus driven before the wind. The next day, as gale-force winds continued to batter the ship, the crew began throwing the cargo overboard. The following day they even threw out the ship’s equipment and anything else they could lay their hands on.  The terrible storm raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. No one had eaten for a long time (Acts 27:13-21a).

A gentle, summer-like south wind springs up; the sailors think they can make Phoenix.  Soon after pulling up anchor “a wind of typhoon strength” (a “northeaster,” they called it) drives the ship away from the coast and out to sea.  They’re at the storm’s mercy.  To save the dinghy they’re towing from being smashed into the ship they pull it aboard.  To strengthen the ship’s hull from being pounded apart they stretch cables several times around it.  To keep the ship from rising too high in the wave-crests they drop its anchor.  To lighten the ship against the onslaught of waves, they throw “cargo” and some of “the ship’s equipment” overboard.  Extreme measures.  The storm “raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.”

Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Fair Havens. You would have avoided all this injury and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down.  For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’  So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island” (Acts 21b-26).

After many days fighting the furious storm, the crew gathers around Paul.  Why would they listen?  Probably because Paul’s warning at Fair Havens came true.  Plus they’re desperate for any solution.  Paul’s message is good news-bad news  Good news:  nobody will die.  An angel promises God will keep everyone safe. Bad news:  shipwreck on an island and  the ship will go down.

* * *

We’re called to believe apart from an angel.

It reminds me of Thomas.  When  doubting Thomas saw the resurrected Christ, he finally believed.  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  I take that to mean special favor, special joy, comes on all of us who believe God, who believe Jesus risen, though we haven’t seen him.

When we sail smooth seas, trusting the Lord’s words doesn’t break a sweat.  But when a “Northeaster” hits, an angel would help, wouldn’t it?  I’m sure one has come to some.  I’ve read several accounts of Christians comforted in suffering by an overwhelming presence of the Lord.  I think most of us, though, are left with promises on a page.  We’re called to believe without an angel.

To make matters worse, the promises confuse.  Some seem to say that if we believe and keep praying, the Lord will deliver us.  Others promise deliverance through death into heaven.  We’re left to trust that God will do what’s best.  And the “worst” is entrance into eternal glory with our Lord.

Sometimes, though, in a raging “Northeaster”, it would be nice to have an angel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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