Isaiah 62:1-5, Acts 23:1-11
August 3, 2014
Today we’re looking at just one more stage in the “Missionary Journey” of Paul the Apostle. After this, you can read the rest of his journeys on your own – and I hope you will. The Book of Acts is an amazing book!
As we read today, Paul had now returned to Jerusalem. He was now back where it all started. His friends warned him not to go there. By the way, doesn’t that sound familiar? Maybe you remember Peter warning Jesus not to go to Jerusalem – for similar reasons. It wasn’t safe there for either of them!
Well, in Paul’s case, we know he wasn’t going to die in Jerusalem, like Jesus did. But, he didn’t know that when he went! So it took a certain amount of courage for Paul to have gone – just as did Jesus himself!
So no, Paul wasn’t to die in Jerusalem. His fate was to go to Rome. Tradition has it that’s where he was executed – beheaded, as far as we know. And as such, he would complete one of the greatest ironies in the history of the early church. For there in Rome, Paul, the former persecutor of the faith and pursuer of Christians, would himself die a martyr’s death for that same Christian faith! That’s a pretty amazing story!
Well, today we pick up Paul’s story in Jerusalem. And we pick it up near the end. I do hope you’ll take some time to read this whole thing. And I hope you’ll see the even bigger picture. But, at this point, Paul has already made his defense before the people. Now he’s been brought before the religious council to make his defense there. And of course the irony at this point was that he was once a member of that council! Now he stood before them accused. And I have to wonder if any of his former colleagues – his once fellow Pharisees at least – felt a pang of anguish for him at that moment! Just imagine that. They knew this man! He was their friend. And knowing the kind of man he was, did they also wonder, just maybe, if what he had experienced was genuine?!
If you look at the middle of the account we read, you’ll find that might just be the case. In verse 9 we read, “Then a great clamor arose. And some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended. “We find nothing wrong in this man.” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel did speak to him?” We’re told there was a division between the Sadducees who didn’t believe in spirits or angels, and the Pharisees who did! So the Pharisees said, “Wait! What if what he says is true!” They at least thought it possible. And maybe they did feel some sympathy for their old colleague.
Well, cooler heads did not prevail here – apparently! In fact, this meeting got so violent that the Roman tribune had to send in his soldiers to take Paul out of the place, lest he be “torn to pieces!” Now, I know our church meetings can get “contentious” sometimes, but can we even imagine something like this? (Actually, I’m glad to say we have good leaders here, and our meetings are always cordial! We’ve almost never had to call in the cops!)
But they did here! This was an intense scene! And what I hope you see here is that this was a scary time for Paul. It was a time of great uncertainty. He didn’t know if he was going to survive that meeting. He didn’t know the fate that awaited him as he moved forward. But he did what he was called to do. And the end of this story is that the following night, the Lord himself stood by him and said, “Take courage, Paul, for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome.” I think that gave him great courage. And what I want us to think about today is that we can have that same courage.
If you think about it, the Lord’s statement to Paul may not have been as comforting as it might seem. Yes, the Lord stood by him. And that would be a great comfort. But think about what the Lord said. “Take courage, Paul. Because you have to go to Rome and go through the same thing you just went through here!” And who knows what the result will be!
So I ask you again, how do we have that courage? Certainly, part of having that courage is found in seeking the presence of God. The Lord “stood by” Paul that night. Just imagine how comforting that would be to us if we truly felt that same presence! Well, let me also say that his presence is part of the life of faith that we live. We know that Jesus has promised to be with us always, don’t we? “To the close of the age!” Do we believe that? Do we know that? Do you know that Jesus is right beside you, no matter what the circumstances of your life may be!
If we really know that – and there are times in our lives when we know it and times we don’t, right? But if we know his presence, that alone will give us a certain amount of courage, won’t it! But let me ask you, even then, will we still have the fear? Let me say this about courage. To have courage does not mean that we have no fear. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you. But think about it. Courage is not the absence of fear. But sometimes people think it is. They say “I can’t be courageous because I’m still afraid” Well, fear is a natural human emotion. In fact, it’s a healthy response! It’s what keeps us safe when there’s danger near us. And I really don’t think there are many people who have no fear at all.
So, being courageous is not a matter of having no fear. It is a matter of making courageous choices. That doesn’t mean having to get rid of fear. It means not letting fear rule the day! When it comes down to it, people who are seen as courageous, are people who have acted courageously. Because as one man once observed, “No one can tell the difference.” Why? Because it’s our courageous acts that make us courageous, not our lack of fear! Does that make sense?
The reason I say all that is that I think “courage” is a word that’s closely associated with the word “Faith.” Much of what I’ve been saying is true for that word, as well. Think about it. We all have doubts. The trick is not letting those doubts “rule the day.” As we live our lives, we “act out” our faith. And there are times when we are called to take those “steps of faith,” or even “leaps of faith.” But if at those times we are totally certain about all outcomes, it wouldn’t really be “faith,” would it? We act, even though there is uncertainty. That’s faith!
Remember the man who cried out to Jesus from the roadside. He said, “Lord, I believe! Help thou my unbelief!” That’s a great statement, if you think about it! It describes the idea of faith very well? It’s completely different than if the man had just said, “Help me, Lord, because I don’t believe!” No, it was, “Lord, I believe!” I choose belief! I reach out to you because I choose belief. Now, “Help thou my unbelief!” That’s the choice we make, too. We choose to believe. And in making that choice, we ask for our beliefs to be confirmed, and we seek to go deeper in faith through that belief experience!
I hope this makes sense. Because sometimes we feel like our faith is weak, don’t we? Well, the message for today is, that’s ok! The thing we need to do is to act on it, anyway! Because the real problem with unbelief is not having unbelief, it’s doing nothing about it! So if your faith is weak, step out in faith, anyway! And if you feel like your courage is low and your fears are growing, choose to act courageously, anyway!
Paul did those things. And yes, he felt the presence of the Lord. And we should seek that, too! We should “be still and know that the Lord is God.” We can have strength through him, and through his presence. And like Paul, we can move forward in our faith, seeking to know him better, striving to follow him more closely, no matter where that path might lead.
“Have courage,” the Lord told Paul. “I need you to be my witness.” And he needs us as well.
Eternal God, in Jesus Christ you have promised to be with us all ways. But we don’t always feel his presence. Help us to know that presence. Help us to choose belief, even when we don’t feel it. Help us to seek you and to know you are with us. Grant us the strength we need to live the courageous lives of faith you call us to live. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen!