Sunday, June 12, 2016

Caesarea: "The Lord's Will Be Done": Sermon on Acts 21:1-16

Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea...  Again with all the names of this island and that island, this town and that town! Doesn't Luke have anything better to talk about? It's easy to wonder that sometimes. Now, I know all these lists of obscure places seem like a bit of a drag to us. It's just more names to stumble over and mispronounce. But to Luke's audience, these parts were fascinating. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved reading travel books that described or even just mentioned far-off places. 

So let's try to get in that mindset. Close your eyes if you have to, but picture yourself as one of Paul's traveling companions, on this ancient wooden ship, sailing the briny blue of the Mediterranean. Take a deep breath; smell the sea. Feel the wind in your hair. Imagine shoving off from the coast of Asia Minor – modern Turkey – into a thick net of islands. If we were just a bit further west, we'd run into Patmos, where John will someday be stranded and receive the Revelation. 

Imagine hugging close to the coast, sailing south along the jagged edges – it's not a smooth ride. We might glimpse the towering columns of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma – the second most popular oracle after Delphi. The pagan crew jabbers amongst themselves, imagining what questions they'd like to ask their god if they got the chance.

Imagine docking at the island of Cos – a famous resort, with spas and the best medical care money can buy. Hippocrates was from here, you know – yeah, the Hippocratic Oath guy. Imagine the sands of the beach, the crisp light blue of the water, the palm trees jutting up unevenly amidst the shrubbery. 

Imagine shoving off again the next morning, curving past Knidos on a long Asian peninsula; sailing past little Dodecanese islands with their stout volcanoes – Gyali with its lava domes, Nisyros with its cauldron-shaped crater – don't worry, they mostly go for steam and ash and earthquakes, not the whole fire-and-brimstone bit. The Greek in the cabin next to yours is just excited to see all these little places mentioned in the Iliad. You pass by Tilos, a wealthy island famous for clothing and perfume – but all these islands are starting to blur together.

Curving east, the ship makes its way to the northern tip of the larger island of Rhodes. Now everyone's excited – you rush to the side of the boat, craning your neck to be the first to see it. There, on the horizon, you can catch the sun glinting and gleaming off the bronze of the fractured knees! It's the Colossus! In its heyday, it was a hundred-foot-tall bronze statue of Helios, a Greek sun god. But in an earthquake a couple centuries back, it snapped at the knees and toppled onto the land. 

It's still there – as the ship pulls into port, you get a perfect glimpse of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Now if only they'd invented the camera by now, you'd be all set. Still, during a moment of shore leave, you join the mob of tourists – you can't help it – and go over and try to wrap your arms around the big bronze thumb. You can't – almost nobody can – it's just too thick.

No matter – back onto the ship, they're setting off again. It's just a short trip over to the coast to Patara, a Lycian city. You can see the lighthouse before you reach the natural harbor. This ship is reaching its stop, as far as you're concerned; you, Paul, Luke, the whole rest of the gang, have to go ashore. It's time to book passage on a bigger ship, one that doesn't have to weave in and out of islands. Still, it's nice to walk the streets of Patara for an hour or two – nicer still if you somehow knew that, in a few hundred years, a baby born in one of these houses would grow up to be Jolly Ol' St. Nick (Acts 21:1).

You've spotted a ship heading to Phoenicia, and Paul says it's time to go – no time to waste (Acts 21:2). He's determined you'll reach Jerusalem right at Pentecost, and not a day later, not if he can help it. This voyage is a bit less exciting, heading out across the Mediterranean. No hugging the coast anymore; the only land you glimpse is the southwestern coast of Cyprus on the left, and for most of the days of the journey, there's nothing but blue in all directions. It's a bit disorienting, isn't it, to have no landmarks, no sense of direction, other than to watch the clouds by day and stars by night? Paul's eyes aren't so good these days, so he asks you to let him know when somebody sees land again. Paul's feeling a bit restless – understandable.

But the 350-mile journey doesn't take as long as you thought. And sure enough, there it is! The old city of Tyre, jutting out on what used to be an island 'til Alexander the Great built a huge bridge so he could conquer it. Paul knows a couple believers here – it isn't his first rodeo in this neck of the woods, though you've never seen it before. You're amazed as you walk the broad street beside the aqueduct, carrying fresh spring-water into town. The apartment buildings loom taller than they do back home – real estate's at a premium on a tiny island city, you figure. And that hippodrome – you've never seen one so big! You're sorely tempted to go catch a chariot race, but the look Paul gives you says all you need to know about the options for entertainment you've got during the week-long layover you have in the city (Acts 21:3-4).

And that's another thing! One of your companions mentions to Paul that your next stop is only a two-day hike, isn't it? So why wait here a whole week until the ship's unloaded all its cargo? Why not just... go? But Paul reminds you there are people to see. Not just people. Disciples, fellow believers. (Man, Paul sure is in a more easygoing mood now that you've got a few extra days to unwind!) We have to look around to find those disciples – they've moved since Paul was last in the area – but once we find one, we meet the whole church. And what a time – everyone's so happy to see you, everyone's so pleased to meet you! It's like a family reunion with long-lost brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins... Paul was right; this is worth the stay.

And you know, that's Luke's point in later going into extra depth on this stop. The gospel is no obscure message. The church is no shrimpy sect, tiny tribe, or quaint cult. The gospel has gone forth in many lands by now, from Judea and Samaria all the way to Macedonia and Achaia, and plenty of places besides. The church is a global family, and Paul the missionary is welcome everywhere. So when Luke's readers hear the words of these stories, they'll remember: no matter how tough times get, no matter how much your neighbors tease you about your faith, no matter how they hassle you or harm you, you're not alone. The church is a global family; the gospel is a global message. It tears down the dividing walls between races and nations and builds a new humanity, all one in the Spirit, no matter our differences of skin color and place and culture. And everywhere in this global family, Paul is welcome. He's no sectarian figure, no petty cult leader, no outcast, no innovator, no rebel.

Well, the week goes by. The ship is ready. It's hard to say goodbye to all the new friends you've made! And they feel the same way. The families venture out on the beach. It's not like Miletus, a group of distinguished men with their close-cropped hair and gray beards. These are young and old, men and women and even little kids. They all walk with you to the beach near where the ship's anchored. You furiously wipe a tear from your eye – a grain of sand must've gotten in there. Yeah, that's it. 

And there, with seagulls cawing over the morning waves, with a fresh breeze bringing a pleasant salty aroma to your nose, you kneel down in the glistening white sand, maybe next to a little child, and you pray for one another – the disciples in Tyre pray for you and your group, and you pray for their church, nestled in this little corner of the earth. The look in Luke's eyes tells you he won't forget this scene. Wherever the church is, there is prayer. And not just trite words tossed into the air for mild effect, but deep spiritual communion with the Lord and with each other. A church without prayer is as big an oxymoron as picturing the Mediterranean dry as dust (Acts 21:5-6).

Sailing a short distance down the Syrian coast, you disembark at Ptolemais. Paul tells you it used to be called Akko – it was a Canaanite city, one that Israel never really conquered. As you step off the ship, Paul points south across Haifa Bay to a mountain peak on the other side. He calls it Mount Carmel and regales you, as you rest for the evening, with stories about Elijah and the priests of Baal, with fire from heaven and the chanting crowd and rain and a race.... But when daylight wanes and dies, Paul decides you could all use some sleep. It's up with the sun the next morning. Then you say goodbye to the Jewish-Christian family that gave you a bed to sleep in (Acts 21:7). Before you're out the door, Paul gives them a solemn warning to take care in the coming years. You'll remember that in a decade when you hear news of the massacre.

One last boat ride, forty miles down the coast to the huge harbor of beautiful Caesarea, the Roman headquarters for Judea. Built by Herod almost eighty years ago. As you walk through the busy streets, Paul points out the governor's palace and tells you about a former resident named Pontius Pilate. But he's been dead for twenty years; now a man named Felix lives there. Paul knows his way around – he's been here a couple times before. Things in the city are a bit tense – Jews, Greeks, Samaritans, Romans all live here, and just like Ptolemais, it'll turn bloody as the years roll on.

Our group reaches a large house where the church meets. Maybe the owner is a bit surprised to see Paul. And as Luke fills you in on what's going on, the irony of the whole situation isn't lost on you. The only reason this man ever left Jerusalem was to escape Paul's killing spree, back when he was still “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). This man, Philip, lost his best friend Stephen in the first Christian martyrdom – and Paul had plenty to do with that. But times have changed. And now Philip welcomes his home to Paul – and all the companions – in hospitality (Acts 21:8).

That's what the gospel does. It bridges the gap. It turns enemies into family, rivals into friends. If you read this month's church newsletter, maybe you remember a quote from Trevin Wax: “Christians are former enemies pulled together by the cross of Jesus Christ. That is our foundation.” And that's what makes a united church so powerful – when people like Philip and Paul can embrace, reconcile, pray together, work together, love each other as brothers in the Lord. That's what the gospel did. And that's what the gospel does. It's why the gospel is the only hope for a divided America – and a divided church. 

And friends, our nation and the church of God are otherwise hopelessly divided. Right now, an Orthodox church council scheduled to start this week in Crete is falling apart because the various patriarchates are jockeying for power and control. Right now, countless denominations in America have lapsed into outright rejection of the Bible as an authority for the church's life and doctrine. Right now, our country is more politically and culturally polarized than we've seen it in decades; our friends and neighbors are filled with anger and resignation at the mess we have on our hands, and the world looks on in dismay at the prospects set before us. We live in a divided nation, and we have a divided church – and the only hope is the gospel Paul and Philip shared in common, the message that overcame their past and made them family.

But back to Caesarea. Since you've made such great time, you can afford to spend plenty of time with Philip, as he and Paul swap stories – Paul shares about the gospel's advance in Asia and Greece, and Philip fills you in on the early church and his continued ministry to the Samaritans. (Luke's taking plenty of notes, of course. He hints he may want to write a book someday.) 

And suddenly, there's a knock at the door and a voice you don't know. Philip sends someone to let him in. The room falls into a hushed buzz of whispers, and one name crops up again and again: 'Agabus.' Philip mentioned Agabus – how this aging man is a prophet of God, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel from centuries ago. He's come from Jerusalem with a message for the church here (Acts 21:10). 

Wordlessly, with single-minded purpose, he strides across the room toward Paul. Reaches out and grabs Paul's sash, unwinds it from his body. Not a word is spoken while Agabus sits on the ground and wraps it firmly around his ankles, then his wrists, and ties it tight with his teeth. Suspense hangs heavy in the air until the prophet finally speaks. “Thus saith the Holy Spirit: 'This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles'” (Acts 21:11). 

Color drains out of your face. All the laughter and celebration has ceased. The somber silence is pierced, perhaps, when a little child starts crying. One of Philip's daughters speaks: “I heard the same thing. Paul, please don't go!” (Acts 21:9). The whole room starts begging, pleading, weeping for Paul. This can't be the end! He can't go, he dare not go! And yet he will go anyway.

Now, I have to admit, this is pretty confusing. Isn't it? I mean, in the Bible, when the text tells us that somebody does something “through the Spirit” – you'd better listen! When a prophet pipes up, you've got to pipe down! And here we have Agabus delivering a direct message from the Holy Spirit about what's going to happen in Jerusalem. We have a whole group of Christians in Caesarea – Luke writes 'we,' so he admits he's in on this, and probably so are Philip's four daughters, who all bear the gift of prophecy – and they're all begging Paul, “Don't go! Don't go!” (Acts 21:12). And remember, the disciples in Tyre had been telling Paul not to go – and they did it “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4).

I've always been uncomfortable with this passage. It really makes it sound like Paul gets himself in all that trouble because he's too stubborn to listen to God – just too bone-headed to get with the Spirit's program. It sounds like Paul could have avoided a lot of grief if he hadn't disobeyed the prophecies. So is that what's going on here? Does Paul lose a prophet-versus-apostle showdown, or what?

Well, the more I read it, the more I study it, the more I think the answer is no. That just doesn't fit what Luke is doing. Agabus doesn't prophesy a thing about whether Paul should go to Jerusalem; he just has news about what will happen in Jerusalem. That's what the Spirit says to him, and it's probably what the Spirit says to Philip's girls, and it's probably what the Spirit said to the disciples in Tyre. That's the whole message: “In Jerusalem, Paul will be bound and delivered into the hands of the Gentiles.” All the stuff about not going – that's a human application of the divine message. And it's an understandable one! I mean, who here, if God personally gave you a message that your best friend was in danger if they went to a certain city, wouldn't try to talk them out of going?

And yet Paul goes anyway. And it's not an act of disobedience. Over these last chapters, we've seen Paul grow and grow and grow – he's become so much more spiritually attuned and well-trained than he was during his first years as an apostle. Paul has matured the way the church needs to mature. And so it's no surprise that Luke paints a picture of Paul as being increasingly like Jesus. The deeper Paul gets into his mission, the more he becomes like Jesus, and the more he discerns God's will for his life. And God has a plan for him: that the former persecutor of the Jerusalem church must now face persecution in Jerusalem from people just like his old self.

Paul is being raised up as an imitator of the Suffering Servant, to walk the same path – to be “taken away by oppression and judgment” (Isaiah 53:8), purified from his old life of violence, and yet “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10). And Paul, like Jesus before him, refuses to let any heartbreak hold him back from bowing to God's will. In the Gospels, the Twelve try to stand in Jesus' way – they try to talk him out of it, they resort to violence to intervene, and in the end they abandon the path of Jesus and scatter like sheep without a shepherd. But the church has come a long way since that fateful night. The disciples in Caesarea stopped their outcries and entreaties; they held back from holding Paul back; and not only didn't they scatter, but they walked with Paul toward the city (Acts 21:13-16). That's a mark of the maturing church: they didn't scatter; they walked together.

But notice this scene, when Paul insists he's ready to die for the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 21:13). The disciples could have chalked it up to Paul being stubborn – heaven knows he'd earned a reputation over the years! The disciples could have said that Paul was being unreasonable. They could have cut him loose to his own devices. They could have begrudgingly accepted his autonomy, respected his choices – or at least gone through the motions. And if they had, what would they have said? “Let the will of Paul be done.” In other words, “Let Paul get his own way, if he insists. Let him go rushing off into danger. His choice, his problem; we did our best.”

But that isn't what the disciples say. What do the disciples say instead? Do you remember? They say, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14). Not Paul's will. Not their own will. God's will. They may not like the way the Lord's will is turning out. They may not find it easy. They may not find it pleasant. They may not find it natural. They may not find it sensible. They may be full of objections and counter-proposals. But after they've had their chance to speak, after they've had their chance to beg and plead, in the end, they say, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” 

They've adopted the same mindset that Paul has. Paul and the disciples are now of one mind: that the Lord's will comes first. And in that, they can say – like Paul wrote in a letter – that they've become “of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). For they “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). And the humble mindset of Jesus Christ leads them to think the way Jesus thought when he came face-to-face with the thorniest step in God's will: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

In an ideal world, that wouldn't have been the Father's will, to watch his beloved Son chug the goblet of divine wrath. In an ideal world, it wouldn't be the Lord's will to summon Paul to face grave danger in Jerusalem – to watch him someday be beheaded as a martyr, or see Peter crucified upside-down, or watch John dipped in boiling oil. In an ideal world, we wouldn't face disease, death, pain, tragedy, poverty, starvation, shame. In an ideal world, we'd still call Eden home; we'd pursue our mission from there, beautifying the whole earth as a holy garden; and God would dwell with us, even now, face to face. And that would be the Lord's will in an ideal world.

But this isn't an ideal world. It's a rich world – a world with a story; a world of contrasts, of black and white and gray; a world with loss and rediscovery, with tragedy and redemption, with demise and martyrdom and, dare I say, resurrection. In this world, the Lord pursues his will through pain and shame and defeat and death to bring about delight and honor and victory and life. God's plan is a messy, roundabout thing to our sin-speckled eyes. We know, within our own church body, we have members who are gravely sick. We have members who have returned to the earth whence they came. We have members who face serious financial or personal trials. And our church isn't unique in that; we have neighbors, believers and non-believers, who can say the same thing.

These may not be easy times. But these are the times that make one thing very clear. Which of us are 'my-will' people, and which of us are 'the-Lord's-will' people? Which of us face the circumstances and shrink back, protest, denounce... and which of us trust the Father to and through the end? 

Being a 'Lord's-will' man or woman doesn't mean that we don't pray about it. It doesn't mean we don't propose solutions. It doesn't mean we renounce our brains. It doesn't mean we don't request a reprieve from God. It doesn't mean that the Lord's will is a monologue. It isn't. If you think it is, look at Abraham and Moses reasoning with the God they called their friend; look at Jesus, sweating blood in the Garden. The Lord's will embraces our dialogue. And yet the Lord is wiser than we. 

And being a 'Lord's-will' person, being a 'Lord's-will' church, means that we submit and move forward as one – not divided, but united – and it means that we prepare ourselves to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

But just the same, our church is facing a crux, a critical juncture, in our life. I've had some great discussions with other members of church leadership recently, and it's become clear to us that God has been active to bless us as a church. Take the tornado we suffered nearly four months ago. (Has it really been so long already?) Not only did God protect us from having damage that would impede our worship in this sanctuary, but it's like the tornado targeted exactly those things we were needing to replace anyway – and now insurance will cover it all fully, even the stained-glass window, as we recently learned. That's a blessing! 

And that's a message – a sign from God, I believe, that he is not done with this church. We are not a placeholder on this hill. Nor does God want us perpetually wrapped up in a mindset of maintenance, when we were made for a mission. But the choice is ours. Will we seek to discern God's vision for this church, and follow through? Or will we go about our lives and treat church as a building and a weekly event, and watch our members ail and age and drift away, until our doors close and our membership book and all our papers get filed on a shelf in Myerstown, in an archive room nobody visits but nuts like me?

The Lord's will for us is for us to be holy – like Paul writes, “This is the will of God: your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). The Lord's will for us is to bless our neighbors – like Peter writes, “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). And the Lord's will for us is to catch God's vision and live out God's mission, with which Jesus commissioned his disciples before he ascended into heaven (Matthew 28:18-20). The worst prospect we could face is for God to be at work in the world and for us to miss out – all because we chose to be a 'my-will' church and not a 'Lord's-will' church.

But like Agabus, I feel God pressing a message on my heart. And it's this: Seek God. Soak this church in prayer. Ask God for a glimpse into his vision for Pequea EC. Share with each other. Talk about it. And as we find God's vision together and unite around it, go out and serve God's mission. It can just be a little thing – a neighborly gesture in Jesus' name; calling up a friend and inviting them to come and see; sharing with somebody the light the Bible shines on a pickle they're in; telling somebody the story of how Jesus has changed and is changing your life and your heart. 

Commit to being a 'Lord's-will' man or woman. I can't promise it will always be easy. Neither was it easy for Paul, though we have it easier than he did. But I can promise you that pursuing the Lord's will is the right call – and our calling. “May the Lord's will be done” – to us, and through us. Amen.

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