Acts 5:12-21, Acts 5:33-42
July 1, 2007
I suppose you want me to explain this strange title. Well, it’s like this. Back in 1980 there was a Broadway play by Alex Bradford entitled “Your Arm’s Too Short to Box with God.” It was described as being “a soaring celebration of song and dance based on the biblical book of Matthew.”
I never got to see the play – maybe you did. But the title always intrigued me. The title, “Your Arm’s to Short to Box with God,” is reminiscent of humanity struggling with God, fighting against God, vying for supremacy. That’s a fight that’s be going on – ever since there have been humans! And ever since people have been engaged in that fight, they have always seemed to think they can prevail, but really they cannot. And in our story for today, we find some people who are engaged in that struggle, and from our perspective, we know who is actually the stronger.
This passage from Acts is part of the ongoing story of this controversy which began with Peter and John healing the lame man at the gate of the Temple. Now, in this chapter we find the high priests trying to stop the spread of that miracle story, and to silence the message of the Apostles. For they were telling everyone that the healing was the work of God, and was performed in the name of Jesus. As we noted last week, these were the very same high priests who had tried to put an end to Jesus’ ministry once before. Back then, this conflict seemed to culminate on Friday of Holy Week. But the reality was that Jesus’ ministry would go on!
Think again about these men, Annas and Caiaphas. There is great irony in their part of this story. They were trying to silence the growing voice of the Apostles. And though they didn’t know it at the time, they were trying to fight against what we know was the power of God! And their arms were way too short!
As I’ve read through this again, I’ve wondered how many times before these men had found themselves in the same position. I wonder how many times they had to deal with people they thought were leading people astray. I suggested that last week. Now, as we read this story today we hear about several of them. So this was certainly not the first time these priests had encountered what they thought to be “false messiahs.” And remember, one of their jobs was to be “guardians of the faith.” They were the ones who had to deal with such people. They were the ones who were entrusted with keeping the beliefs and teachings of the faith as pure as they could.
So, despite the fact that they were the “antagonists” in this drama – they were the “bad guys,” if you will – still we have to acknowledge the extremely difficult job that they had. We almost have to sympathize with them. If was a very difficult situation for them when they would come up against someone who they thought to be diverting people from their beliefs – especially when that person was so incredibly popular, as was Jesus.
Remember also that they didn’t have the luxury of our perspective. They didn’t know the end of this story. They were in the middle of it. From their vantage point, they saw themselves as doing the right thing. It is only from our “future perspective” that we see how they missed the reality of the situation. In looking back, we can see that, in the big picture, they were struggling against God. It is we who see that their arms were too short!
So here we find these priests frustrated and angry over what was happening. They have brought the Apostles before the council. A trial had been held. And they are ready to put these followers of Jesus to death! But just at that point, in the middle of this heated debate, this priest named Gamaliel stood up and spoke.
Now, we know from history and from the description here in Acts, that Gamaliel was considered to be one of the wisest men on the Jewish council. So it was good for the council to listen to him! And everyone seemed to know that. By the way, we will run into this man again in the scriptures when we start to deal more with one of his students, a man named Saul of Tarshish. A man whose name would later be changed to (what?) Paul!
So Gamaliel stands up in the council and he brings them all back to reality. His are very wise words. And he calms the group down. He stands up, and he says, (essentially) “Gentlemen! Your arms are too short to box with God.” That’s what he says! He says, “Many people have come and said they were the Messiah.” And people have followed them, and they failed.” And he gives them names of some people who had done that very thing. Then he says this. “It would be best to leave these men alone. If what they are doing is of human origin, if it is of their power alone, it will fail. But, if what they are doing is from God, you won’t be able to stop them!” And then this very wise thought. “You may find yourself fighting against God himself.” “And your arms are too short!”
What incredibly wise words! What wise words for those in the Council to consider. What wise words for those in the fledgling Church to consider. What wise words for us to consider!! Whatever they would do in the future, whatever we do in the Church, we need to ask, “Is it from God?” Do we think about what God would have us do? Or do we choose to do what we would like to do – and hope God approves? Are we really serious when we say, “Thy will be done.”?
When something comes along that is different than what we believe or we are willing to accept, what do we do about it? Do we try to discern whether or not God is trying to tell us something? Are we open to the possibility that God may be working something new in our midst? Or do we simply decide instead whether or not we want what ever it is to be so?
Too often in terms of the understanding of the things of this world, or of the understanding of God and his nature, people will say, “I’ve made up my mind! Don’t confuse the issue with facts!” People tend to do that, don’t they? They decide ahead of time what they think about something. There’s a name for that. It is called, “prejudging” or “prejudice.” When they do that, when they “prejudge” something, when they decide in advance about something, then they tend to take it as a personal affront to their intelligence and even their ego, when things aren’t their way. That is human nature. That’s what we do naturally if we aren’t careful!
When I think about Theology, which is the study and the understanding about the nature of God, sometimes I am appalled about the lack of theology that is really being done in our world today. I see people criticizing something going on in a Church setting, and they will say, “I have some questions about that Theology.” And so many times it’s really a matter of “I don’t like what’s going on there.” It’s not the theology that bothers them! Too often people say, “I just can’t believe in a God who…” And then they finish that sentence in many different ways. And I want to say, “What if that’s exactly the way God really is?” What do you do now, you who can’t believe in a God who would be that way?
That’s not “Theology!” That’s personal opinion about what someone wants God to be. Theology is a humble search for the nature of God, the reality of which might, and often does, rock our world! I don’t want to go too far with that, but it is very important! Because when we’ve “already decided about how things are,” too often we leave no room for reconsideration, don’t we?! This is real “human nature stuff!” This is one of those things that, if I had a magic wand and could solve this problem completely, I wonder how many of the world’s problems would go away?! The natural thing is for people to “get their back up” when faced with different opinions and understandings. And it becomes an affront to them when their way of understanding is challenged.
Well, as I said, I don’t want to take that thought any farther. But just think about it for now. In the meantime, go back and think about these religious leaders. Jesus challenged their authority. And that alone may have been too much for them. Some people’s idea of leadership is that a person who leads can do no wrong, and if someone suggests that they are wrong, it becomes a challenge to their leadership abilities! There are people who think that, you know!!
In this case, these men are faced with facts they themselves admit. This miracle has happened. There is no refuting it. But, they have decided it cannot be from God, and they have taken the position of fighting it! (Ironic though that may seem from our perspective!!) Yet, when we read their story, do we learn from it? Do we take these words of Gamaliel to heart? We should determine that we will remember that we worship a God who is not controllable by us! We worship a God whose nature is not determined by us! We should never forget that our arms are way too short to box with him!
I hope you saw the movie, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.” It was a movie based on the wonderful series of books by C. S. Lewis called “The Chronicles of Narnia.” In that series, the Christ figure was portrayed by the great Lion, Aslan. And I love the description of Aslan given by one of the characters. When asked, “Is he a tame Lion?” The answer was, “No, of course he’s not tame. But he is good!”
Whatever we do, our lives are in God’s hands, not the other way around! What ever we do in his kingdom, we should remember the words of Gamaliel. We should ask ourselves, “Is what we are doing of our own power?” “Or is it of God’s power.” If it is of our devising – without God, it may well fail. However, if we seek God’s will, if we strive to know what he would have us do, if it is of him, neither we nor anyone else will be able to stop it!
Our God is not within our control. We were created by him, not the other way around! Christ is not a “tame Lion.” But he is Good! Our arms are too short to box with God.
Eternal God, forgive us for trying to make you into the images with which we are comfortable. Teach us the patience and the discipline we need to seek to know you as you are. Then help us, Lord, to know you, to love you, and to serve you in all of our lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.