Sunday, June 19, 2016

The God of Your Father: Sermon on Genesis 26 for Father's Day

Abimelech, Ahuzzath, Phicol, Gerar, Esek, Sitnah, Gerar, Shibah – names like those can so easily flow together into one big, messy jumble. It's hard to follow what's going on. And what a strange story to share for Father's Day. 

But actually, I'd like to suggest that this chapter of the Bible – Genesis 26 – is all about negotiating the legacies of our fathers. What we see here is Isaac navigating the complexities of dealing with what's left behind when his father is done. Three chapters earlier, Isaac's mother Sarah passed away (Genesis 23:2). Two chapters earlier, Isaac's father helped to arrange his marriage to Rebekah (Genesis 24:27). And in the last chapter before this one, Isaac's father Abraham finally passed away (Genesis 25:8) – an event that at last, if only briefly, united Isaac with his notorious half-brother Ishmael (Genesis 25:9), whose twelve princely sons are then recorded (Genesis 25:13-16). Isaac, meanwhile, had just two sons, Jacob and Esau, a pair of twins fated for conflict – conflict reflecting the favoritism Rebekah showed for Jacob and Isaac showed for Esau (Genesis 25:28).

And now we come to the present chapter. The first full chapter where Isaac has no living parents. They're gone. From dust they came, and now to dust they've returned. Isaac is left to stand on his own two feet now. He's the head of the household. He's the chief of the clan. He's in charge of his own life – not his mom, not his dad. Because they're gone – or are they? Because for someone absent from the narrative, Abraham's name sure keeps cropping up over and over again in this chapter. That's why I'd like to suggest that this chapter is all about figuring out what to do with a father's legacy. And there are a few things Isaac has inherited from his father, each dealt with in turn.

First, Isaac has inherited his father's perks. Let's start exploring what the story says. The chapter opens by announcing that a famine has struck the land, making life difficult there. There's no food bank. There are no grocery stores. Isaac raises livestock and farms. That's where he gets food for his body and his family and all the people in his service, his employ. If there's a famine, that means things aren't growing, and his flock ain't doing so hot either. Times are tough. But notice the words we hear to describe all this: “Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham” (Genesis 26:1). We're meant to remember that Abraham was in this situation also. During tough times before, Isaac could lean on his father. His father was in charge. Now, Isaac has to figure out what to do – and that's not always easy.

At the same time, Isaac is in a parallel situation. Isaac is repeating scenes from his father's life (cf. Genesis 12:10). Isaac stays for a while in Gerar with the Philistine king Abimelech. The whole scene is a bit odd, since the people we know as the Philistines didn't show up in the land for a couple hundred years. Moses is foreshadowing. The name 'Abimelech' means “my father is king,” and it was a frequent throne-name taken among Canaanites and even Israelites during the days of the judges – Gideon's son Abimelech proclaims himself king of Israel (Judges 9:6), which does not end well (Judges 9:53-55). And the name 'Gerar' means “lodging-place,” best as we can tell, and that's exactly how Isaac means to use it: it's a hotel on his journey out of this dried-up land. Abraham stayed there six chapters ago and met the king then – also called Abimelech (Genesis 20:3).

Isaac's learning from what his father did. On the move? Take a break at Gerar. Famine in the land? Plan for Egypt. That's what Abraham did. But here in this story, God steps in. God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt, to stick with the promised land. And God repeats a bunch of things he said to Abraham, and even tells Isaac, “I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:3-5).

Hear that? It has nothing to do with what Isaac has earned or merited on his own. It doesn't rest on Isaac's credit – his great faith, or his wonderful works, or his noble character. He's supposed to respond that way, but it doesn't depend on that. It's just because Abraham had a working faith – and God passes that credit on to Isaac, with all the perks and promises and privileges that come with it. And we see that Isaac responds. He doesn't go to Egypt, passes the rest of his life without seeing Egypt; he settles down in Gerar and never, for all his days, leaves the land God commanded him to settle (Genesis 26:6). He aims to make the best of his father's perks.

And you know, this is something we inherit from our fathers as well, perhaps. Now, in our congregation, we have a wide variety of experiences with fathers. Throughout history, there have been good fathers, bad fathers, in-between fathers, distant fathers, controlling fathers, inspiring fathers, you name it. But throughout most of history, one common theme was that a father would teach his son the family trade. A son inherited his father's vocation as the chief perk. Some of us here have followed our father's vocation. 

But all of us have inherited a big pile of DNA that helps set the baseline for who we are. That's about the sum total of what I got from my father. If I've got any intellectual gifts, a lot of that came to me through him. I'm far from the smartest person in my family – but that perk got passed on. And I suppose you could say I follow my father's vocation as a traveler of the world – he was always on trips, spent much of his time managing factories in Central America or visiting Italy with his church choir to sing for the pope. 

I'm not sure what you think of when you think of what got passed down to you – maybe the color of your hair, the shape of your face, your height; maybe a love for some hobby, a passion for some interest; maybe some skill; maybe wealth, maybe a good place in society, maybe a strong reputation.

Second, Isaac inherited his father's pitfalls. For all the later lionization of Abraham throughout the Bible as the father of the faithful, the ancestor of Israel, Genesis sure is honest about what a struggle it was for him to live in faith. He had his share of flaws – maybe even more than his share. One of those was a tendency to manipulate the situation with half-truths and trickery, trying to protect himself at everyone else's expense – all because he couldn't shake the thought that God needed his help to get things done. Abraham spent most of his life as a weakling in faith.

And Isaac internalized that side of him. Isaac inherited his father's pitfalls, problems, mistakes, dysfunctional behaviors. It's not just that Isaac learned from his father how to play favorites and mess up his children's lives – though there sure is that. Isaac also learned dysfunctional ways to cope with stress and fear. When Abraham faced famine, he went to Egypt and passed his wife off as available for the Pharoah's harem – and there were consequences (Genesis 12:11-17). Years later, Abraham went to Gerar and proved how little he'd learned, when he pulled the same trick on his generation's Abimelech (Genesis 20:2). For a guy whose vocation was to bless the nations, Abraham sure did have a penchant for trying to save his own hide and turn a profit by luring them into sin (Genesis 20:9). And now Isaac pulls the same stunt – lies that Rebekah is his sister, so that no one would kill him to get her (Genesis 26:7). Isaac might follow God's instructions on where to live, but he hasn't caught God's vision for how to live – not yet.

But it's a common story. People learn from their parents. A father's patterns of behavior, for good or for ill, get imprinted on his sons and daughters as being 'normal,' being inevitable. We internalize those lessons and, even without thinking about it or recognizing it, we repeat those behaviors – or we spend our lives reacting against them to the point of letting them control us by contrast. We obsess so much over the harm our fathers did that we define ourselves as their opposite, or we emulate our fathers as inevitable role-models, even in their errors, maybe even in the things they themselves wish we hadn't caught. That's Isaac's story, and I'd be willing to bet there are more than one or two of you for whom that hits home this morning.

Third, Isaac inherits his father's problems. After things take a nice turn in Isaac's life – he gets rich, he gets lots of resources, he gains influence and power – well, the locals get jealous (Genesis 26:12-14). And the dominant theme of the next scene is that the locals keep stealing the wells Isaac sends his men to dig. Now, wells were important – wells were vital – because in a desert land, you've got to have somewhere to get water. But time and again, Moses reminds us that, out of sheer spite, these locals had actually undug – filled up, stopped, clogged – the wells that Isaac's father Abraham dug (Genesis 26:15). Isaac had to repeat the work – he “dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he” – Isaac – “gave them the names that his father had given them” (Genesis 26:18).

Here's some background. For a time, Abraham and his clan stayed in the fields around Gerar. This is actually, in fact, where Isaac was born – this is his homecoming, in a way (Genesis 21:3). But then Abraham complains to Abimelech about a stolen well. Abimelech swears he knows nothing about it, so the two of them make a covenant, and that marks the well at Beersheba out as permanently Abraham's – never to be messed with or altered by Abimelech's people (Genesis 21:25-32). But when Abraham left, that covenant wasn't honored – not by the people, and apparently the king didn't enforce it. The people didn't even use the wells; they clogged them out of spite. So Isaac has to repeat the whole process. He has to dig more wells. He has to deal with the fighting, the conflict. He has to wonder each time, “Do I get to keep this one, or will they take it away too?”

In other words, Isaac inherits his father's network of broken relationships. And sometimes that's what we get left with as well, isn't it? We often inherit relationships, good or bad. People see our father in us, for good or ill; we project our fathers onto other people – again, for good or ill. We carry our father's baggage, in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. Or, we enjoy our father's prestige and station, in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us.

The truth is, there are many things we inherit from our fathers. Some are good, some... not quite so much, at times. It can be so overwhelming that sometimes, it's hard to really find room for ourselves – hard to see where we fit in as individuals, to stand on our own two feet and flourish in our own right. How do we do that? How do we both appreciate our father's legacy, stand in continuity with family tradition... and have room to flourish, grow, be ourselves, make our own commitments, act as ourselves and not extensions of our fathers? We need room. 

That's the lesson Isaac learns here. His father's network of broken relationships – broken, in this case, not through his father's fault – well, it makes life in the land very crowded. The locals quarrel with his people over one well – Isaac calls it Esek, “contention.” It happens again over another well – Isaac calls it Sitnah, “enmity.” He keeps having to move away. He's trying to find a place to be himself – not defining himself against his father, not rejecting his father, but to live out the Abrahamic promise without all of Abraham's leftover baggage piling up and toppling over on him.

And finally, he builds a well, and there's no quarrel. He calls it Rehoboth, “broad places,” and says, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land” (Genesis 26:22). That's all he wanted. He wanted room – room to be fruitful. Even “exceedingly fruitful,” as Isaac's father was supposed to be (Genesis 17:6). We all need that kind of room – room to be fruitful. 

There are many things in this life that crowd around us. There are many pressures that try to dictate the course of our lives and pressure us into simply following blindly and inevitably the path our father walked. And one of the tragic things in life is how many sons and daughters think they have to flee to Egypt to find that room. Isaac knows better. He wants room, but he won't stray from the promised land to find it. And neither should we. When Isaac finds room, finds a place broad enough for Isaac to be Isaac, then he can be refreshed by this well and be fruitful.

So in the end, Isaac ascends from Rehoboth to Beersheba – Beersheba, where Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech (Genesis 26:23). And here, Isaac realizes the fourth reality he's inherited from his father. He couldn't see this clearly until he found room. But it was true all along.  

Fourth and most important, Isaac inherits his father's God. The LORD appears to him that night and says, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham's sake” (Genesis 26:24).

If you can hear God say to you, “I am the God of your father,” do you realize how blessed you are? In the words of Abimelech, “You are now the blessed of the LORD (Genesis 26:29). When Isaac encounters the LORD as the God of his father, a God who is now his God also, a God who blesses him – that's when Isaac is really able to make peace with his neighbors. Isaac eats and drinks, enjoys fellowship, with Abimelech and his retinue. Isaac renews the covenant – makes a sworn pact of peace and good will – exchanges promises with them, and they with him. Never again is there a problem between Isaac and the Philistine herdsmen. Isaac lives out the rest of his life at peace with his neighbors, and finally is buried alongside his parents at Kiriath-arba.

Isaac doesn't rebel against his father's legacy. He embraces it and honors it. But he overcomes parts of it – the sin, the brokenness, the failures and missteps and dysfunctional behaviors and lapses of faith. Not entirely, alas but of course. But while Isaac isn't perfect, he does become somewhat of a success story – after he finds room, and after he builds his first altar to worship the God of his father. If the LORD was the God of your father, you can find the same thing. You, too, can be “the blessed of the LORD.” You can draw on a rich legacy of spiritual instruction and nourishment; you can find room to navigate your father's legacy, bringing it all before the LORD and letting him guide you in sifting it; and you can find peace and a healthy life. Thank God for fathers like that!

But maybe your father didn't teach you to know this God. Maybe the LORD wasn't the God of your father. Maybe your father had a different god – himself, his work, his wealth, his pleasure, or any of the good things we so incessantly insist on raising beyond their place. Maybe your father was like my fathersimply an absence from your life.  Maybe your father was like my grandfather – a totally godless man, an abusive drunk, a petty tyrant over his sad little kingdom. Or maybe your father was a decent man, even a virtuous man (after the virtue of this world), a man who taught you much... just not that. And maybe you're wondering what you can get out of a sermon titled, “The God of Your Father.”

In much of the world, it's hard for societies to make room for children to break away from their father's gods and meet the one true God. But it can be done – Abraham himself had to do it. And here's what the scriptures say. “If you are of Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29). That's right: if you belong to Christ, then you are a child of Abraham. Because the offspring off Abraham is “the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). “It is those of faith who are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).

Not all who physically descend from Abraham can really claim him as a father, because Abraham's real children are those who inherit the faith he matured into (Romans 9:7). Abraham is the father of the faithful – those who look to God as the one who can pull fullness out of emptiness, fruit off a barren branch, and life out of the grave (Romans 4:17). 

If you have that kind of faith, faith enough to believe that the crucified Jesus is by God's hand the living Lord – if you commit yourself so as to belong to Christ – then you can call Abraham your father. And in inheriting his faith, you inherit his God – and that's a good thing, because God adopts Abraham's family as his own through Jesus Christ, Abraham's true Seed. Praise be to the God of Abraham our father, for sending his Son to bring us home to our Father above. Amen.

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.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Miletus: "If Only I May Finish My Course": Sermon on Acts 20:13-38

Over these past two months, we've been following Paul through his second and third missionary journeys. When he started, he answered the Macedonian call. We learned that Jesus is still the Head of the Church, and that he sometimes sends us into new ministry frontiers. Just the same, we might have to set aside our old familiar ways of 'doing church' in order to reach our “Macedonians” – the people in our community we'd never reach by doing things the way we've always done them. 

In Philippi, we learned that the beauty of the gospel isn't in a generic God we can tame or fit into our preconceived worldview; the beauty of the gospel is in the name of Jesus, and “if our faith is in Jesus, then our faithful prayers and faithful songs can show off the splendor of the King,” even if we're in dark places ourselves. We asked the question: “What would it take to make your faith a beautiful witness?”

In Thessalonica, we learned that “following Jesus is not life as usual,” because this King turns our sinful world upside-down: “He wants to flip your anger into peace, your despair into joy, your greed into generosity, your lust into love, your earthiness into heavenly freedom, your hurt into healing.” That's the power of the gospel; that's the spiritual and political truth of the gospel. “And I'd rather displease Caesar, rather lose out on Mammon, rather walk out of step with the American way, than displease King Jesus, the Anointed Son of God.” 

In Berea, we learned the importance of listening with an open mind but verifying every claim against what the Bible says – making it the authority, the yardstick, by which we measure any preaching or any teaching, and especially any behavior or attitude we find in our own lives.

In Athens, we saw Paul set an example for how to build bridges for evangelism – how to start with what his audience knows and believes, and bring the gospel into contact with it. And we heard Paul's encouragement: you never needed idols, because God always stayed within reach, but now he's sent his Son, and it's time to repent and believe in him. Paul called us out on trying to limit our faith to the church walls, at failing to see the image of God in our every neighbor, at being intimidated by threats limited to the times and places God himself has set. 

In Corinth, we heard Paul receive a message from Jesus to “speak and not be silent.” “The church is a sent people, a missionary movement, the one holy worldwide and apostolic church; and if we're sent, then we're sent to speak the good news,” like Priscilla and Paul and Jeremiah – and even like Apollos, a man who wasn't just educated; he was “boiling in the Spirit.” And we started praying – may we never stop! – for God to turn up the heat in this church until we're all boiling in the Spirit too.

In Ephesus, we learned the difference between the gospel and magic – between really trusting Jesus as a person, and trying to use his name as a magic trick to get what we want, when we want it. We learned that Jesus won't settle for 95% of a person; he wants all of you or none of you; we don't get to keep a little pagan corner in one or two areas of our lives. And we learned how the word of the Lord can prevail in our lives, and how it can prevail in our world through the mission of the church to disciple our neighbors and neighborhoods. 

And then, finally, in Troas, we learned that even when everything seems like it's drawing to an end, even when death is inevitable, death doesn't have the last word for a Christian soldier who marches onward in faith and discipleship under Jesus Christ, the Recruiter and Commander.

And that brings us to this week. Here we meet Paul again on his goodbye tour. He spent the most time with the believers in Ephesus, where he lived for more than two years and had the most fruitful ministry of his career. But stopping in Ephesus would take ages to visit everybody, and besides, he's not exactly welcome back in the city anyway. So he sends word ahead to the Ephesian church elders – probably the leaders of each house church in the whole region, whose title in their churches was 'Overseer' or 'Bishop,' but who when gathered together were called 'elders.' And they're ready to meet Paul when he reaches the port city of Miletus – ready to listen to one of Paul's longest and best recorded speeches, as Luke summarizes the main points for us. At this stage in the game, we'd be foolish not to listen to what the mature Paul has to say.

Paul opens by reminding the elders about his ministry. They saw him the whole time he was in Asia – they know how Paul does things. They know the opposition he faced, and did it stop him? No – “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). Through it all, Paul never backed down – not once. When the going got tough, Paul kept going. He kept teaching, he kept preaching, he kept bearing witness. And that wasn't going to stop: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit...” (Acts 20:22). Paul isn't sure if he'll survive Jerusalem or not – might get beaten, might get arrested, might even get lynched.

The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:23). That's not exactly the kind of message I'd want to get from the Holy Spirit! If I were in Paul's shoes, it'd be awfully tempting to take a vacation. Wouldn't you? If you knew that everywhere you went, jail time and mob riots and punches and kicks were around the corner if you kept saying the things you were saying... wouldn't you take a break? Wouldn't you consider an early retirement – let somebody else take over, consider your time served?

I mean, think about your health, think about your life! “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus...” (Acts 20:24). Paul refuses to think about his life that way. Paul's planned persistence matches his past persistence. Paul will persevere. He won't back down. He won't chicken out. He refuses to let attachment to his own live be a distraction or an obstacle that keeps him from crossing that finish line. And his ministry is “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God,” a grace made available through repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, just like he said.

That's Paul's gospel, right there. He won't let the Ephesian elders forget it. Paul isn't the bearer of bad news; he comes with good news, he comes with great news! God is giving out gifts! God is looking on us – his sinful, wayward people, and even on Gentiles who never were his people – with favor. And all we have to do is first repent, change our minds, turn away from ourselves and fix our eyes on God; and then, trust and depend on Jesus, the rabbi put to death like a godless criminal, to be living again as the Promised Redeemer, the 'Christ,' and the true King of the Universe, the 'Lord.' If we can do that, then we can be saved, we can be rescued, we can be gifted and graced with God's very presence in our lives, we can be raised from the clutches of our corruption to the power of God's Spirit, and everlasting life is ours. It's just that radical, but it's just that simple, too.

Paul won't let anything stop him from spreading that good news all over creation. If it gets him beaten, well, so be it. If it gets him arrested, well, so be it. If it gets him killed... well, he's ready. All that takes a back seat to finishing the race, finishing his testimony up to the end. And so he has to say goodbye to the elders. Paul won't be around Ephesus any more; and so they'll need to be ready to take care of things without him. “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:25-27).

Isn't that a weird phrase – 'innocent of the blood of all'? I mean, is Paul worried that the elders will think he killed somebody in the woods? Well, actually, Paul's goodbye sermon seems to mostly be based on a couple chapters in the Book of Ezekiel. And here he's looking back at Ezekiel 33, and we need to understand what it's saying. For the second time, God calls Ezekiel to be “a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7). But this time, God explains: If trouble's coming on the land, and the people have a watchman, and the watchman sees trouble on the way, sees judgment coming, well, a watchman has two choices: sound the alarm, or keep it quiet. 

If he sounds the alarm, and somebody ignores it and keeps on doing the same dumb things and dies because of it, “his blood shall be on his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and didn't take warning; his blood shall be on himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life.” On the other hand, if the watchman gets scared or lazy and doesn't do his job, and the guy down in the field keeps on doing the same dumb things and dies in judgment, then “that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand” (Ezekiel 33:2-6). That's just a general principle, but God applies it to Ezekiel: if God warns an evil person and Ezekiel doesn't convey the message, then even if that evil person gets their just desserts, Ezekiel's on the hook: “His blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 33:8).

Paul's saying to the elders, “Hey, listen, I'm Ezekiel, I'm the watchman. And I'm telling you that I've warned everybody. Nobody slipped through the cracks. Not once did I fail to pick up the trumpet when I saw trouble coming. Not once did I fall asleep on my watch. So maybe not everybody listened, but I did my part faithfully. And when I see God, he isn't going to say, 'But now what about so-and-so? Why didn't you warn them? Isn't their blood on your hands?' Nope – no blood on my hands – I'm 100% innocent. And now it's your turn, elders. You're watchmen for the church, just like the church is a watchman for the world. Don't get bloody. Don't hold back a part of God's message.”

That's what Paul's telling them – that's what Paul is telling us. It'd be easy to run with this in the wrong direction. If there's one hobby we cherish in the church, it's complaining about the world – whining that the good old days aren't the good new days, whining that it's ugly and rough out there, that evil forces have somehow “taken God out of schools” – as if anybody can block God from somewhere – or that we just don't get the respect we used to. 

The church's hobby is complaining about the world. The church's hobby is fretting over America. And that is not what Paul is asking us to do. Remember, Paul says that his job isn't to judge the world; his job is to judge the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). That doesn't mean he thinks the world is sinless – no, the sinful ways of the world are a given, to him. But he calls out sin among those who claim to be God's people.

That's how the elders are to be watchmen – how people like me, and like Carl, and like the other leaders of the church, are watchmen. As pastor and board, we challenge and encourage the church. But the church has a watchman role too, and it isn't to whine and complain and play mournful little notes on the trumpet like a dirge. No – the trumpet isn't about the faults of 21st-century American culture; the trumpet is about the gospel. It's as simple as that! It's the same message that we needed to hear in the 1950s, and in the 1850s, as in the original 50s when Paul's telling it. “Repent” – some of the sins may be different, plenty are the same, but they were and are and will be sins – “and have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” – and there's salvation in the kingdom of God, if you'll be a disciple and citizen.

This is serious business, the gospel. It means life or death to every soul. The gospel is not a hobby. The gospel is not a pet theory. The gospel is not a little box in our life that we open up in church and then close at the edge of the parking lot. Lately, I've been reading a lot of online tips from Europeans about travel to Europe – hey, go figure – and one of the common refrains is, “Keep religion to yourself – that's not something people show in public here.” 

We're hearing that in America these days too: the idea that 'religion' or 'faith' is something necessarily private, to the point that it'd be inappropriate to bring into public view, let alone to touch somebody else with it. But not only is that a weird quirk of modern Western culture, foreign to the whole experience of the human species from before recorded history; it's also a recipe for death. Because the gospel is not private. It's not just an opinion that you might or might not hold. It's a public truth about a public Lord and a public Savior, and it means life or death for everyone, whether they want to hear or not.

Friends, here's the key point. Our neighbors are dying. Some are dying fast; others are dying slow. As soon as a baby's born, she's starting to die. That's Adam's world. But worse, our neighbors are dying spiritually. They are passing away under God's sword of judgment, because our neighbors are clinging to their sinful flesh and to all the sinful ways we try to cope with our fragile existence. Our neighbors are refusing the wisdom of God for living, and are instead running around on foolish roads that lead to death – if not the big death of their souls, then the little death of their potential as disciples. And it happens to the churched and the unchurched. Your neighbors, our neighbors, are dying, are just wasting away. And there is a trumpet in your hand. Will we silently watch our neighbors bleed out, quietly sit there and stare at them as they expire? Then we can't say, like Paul, that we're “innocent of the blood of all.” This gospel is serious business.

Paul goes on to talk about wolves and shepherds and caring for the flock, and it's all a little bit befuddling, to be honest. But there are two main passages of Scripture shaping this part of the speech. The first is the next chapter of Ezekiel, about the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves but not the sheep (Ezekiel 34:2-3). And the other one is Luke's story about Jesus commissioning the Seventy. It's the only other time in his writings that Luke mentions wolves, because Jesus tells the Seventy that he will “send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). 

The church is always a church under threat. We've forgotten that too easily in America. We have this long legacy of the church as some kind of respectable institution, safe and secure from all alarm. But the church is always a church under threat – from wolves. Some wolves are persecutors of the church. But Jesus most uses the image of wolves to talk about false prophets, false teachers – those who bring twisted, corrupted ideas into the church and try to revise her faith (Matthew 7:15). And Paul warns that, after he leaves, “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). Sadly, that's true. We could stand here and name plenty of false teachings that, like the fangs of a wolf, tear apart the gospel, dividing the seamless fabric of the church's faith.

But just as dangerous as those wolves are the bad shepherds. A shepherd's job is threefold: a shepherd feeds the sheep; a shepherd protects the sheep; and a shepherd shows care for the sheep. But a bad shepherd steals from the sheep, leaves the sheep defenseless, even abuses the sheep. We see that in Ezekiel 34: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you don't feed the sheep. The weak you haven't strengthened, the sick you haven't healed, the injured you haven't bound up, the strayed you haven't brought back, the lost you haven't sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts” (Ezekiel 34:3-5). And that's what Paul warns about, why he tells the elders to “pay careful attention to [themselves] and all the flock,” because not only will there be wolves, but “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28, 30).

Now, I want to make this clear: Paul is not against a paid ministry. You might think that, from all the times he says in this speech about how he didn't covet anybody's gold or silver, how he refused to accept compensation for his service, all that (Acts 20:33-34). But actually, he says it would be a shepherd's right to drink some milk while guarding the flock (1 Corinthians 9:7). Paul insists that he has the right to “refrain from working for a living,” in the way he does as a tent-maker (1 Corinthians 9:6). “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Corinthians 9:11). Just like all Israel supported the landless Levites, so the church provides for those who lead. After all, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). And those in the church who preach and teach, he suggests, are worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17). Jesus himself told the Seventy to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). So if you hear anyone say that pastors or missionaries shouldn't be paid, know that Jesus, Paul, and all the apostles disagree. Paul may have had practical reasons to not use that right, but it was still his right (1 Corinthians 9:15).

Yet at the same time, it's one thing to drink milk from the flock and another thing to butcher the sheep for meat. And the sad truth is that Paul was right: throughout the history of the church, plenty of shepherds have put themselves before the flock. Think of pastors who introduced false teachings into the church – Arius, one of the worst heretics ever, was a priest in Alexandria. Think of televangelists, urging the poor to exercise faith by sending donations – funny how you never hear Creflo Dollar or Benny Hinn proving their own faith by giving away their fortune to all the people who watch their antics on the screen. Think of the Mormon prophets, demanding tithing from the poor so that they can make more business investments, buy more stately houses and finer suits.

And I'm led to remember a conversation I had last week. You might remember I hadn't been feeling well, and I didn't stay for Sunday School. But on the way home, I stopped at the bed and breakfast down the street, to drop off some copies of the church newsletter. There were plenty of guests and neighbors on the porch, eager for some conversation, and one man told me a story about the church he used to attend in Virginia. I won't name names, but a new pastor took the reins, dismissed the board, and set about turning the church into a cult – he directed them to shun any dissenters, even divorce their spouses if they weren't on board with what he was teaching. He's still there – that's the sad part of the story. 

Now, that's extreme, but I'm sure more than a few of you have someone who comes to mind when you think of a truly bad shepherd – one who didn't feed you, one who didn't protect you, one who didn't care for you, one who tried making disciples for himself – his theology, his vision, his gain, his benefit – rather than for Jesus or for the kingdom of God. But the church doesn't belong to any shepherd, good or bad; it's “the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

The truth is, there are a lot of people out there who used to 'go to church' until they had a run-in with a bad shepherd; and they dropped out and swear they'll never come back, never again have public fellowship with God's people, all because there was one bad shepherd. That's one of the greatest tragedies I can imagine. It can't be easy to get over that kind of trauma – and yet you have to. You can't let one, or two, or even ten bad shepherds keep you away from the Good Shepherd when he's calling you back to the flock. But there are more than just a few names on our church's membership rolls who've spent years doing exactly that – staying away from the Good Shepherd's flock because of how a bad shepherd they met here or elsewhere failed them. Their blood will be on that bad shepherd's hands – but they themselves are starving, whether they realize it or not.

So “pay careful attention” – “be alert” – don't fall asleep on the job, like Eutychus did last week in Troas. Watch out for wolves. And pray for your shepherds – your pastor and your church board. But also, whatever area of stewardship God has given you – maybe your work, maybe your area of ministry, maybe your family – be a good watchman and a good shepherd. And in the end, it's between you and God. The same is true for these elders: it isn't between them and Paul; it's between them and God – and us and God. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). 

Isn't that an amazing thought? Grace isn't cheap, and grace isn't an excuse. We use it that way too much. Grace cost God his own blood, and grace is meant not to excuse us but to change us – not through our power, but his. Trust in his word of grace – it will meet you where you are, but it won't leave you where you are. And when God is through with you, you'll see clear as day that “it's more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Paul doesn't deny the times will get tough. They already are tough! And they'll get tougher without him. But the solution isn't to find another apostle; the solution isn't to toss up our hands; the solution isn't to fret; the solution isn't to build our own little kingdoms. The solution is the grace of God, and faithfulness to what Paul passed on. 

And there's hope beyond the wolves, hope beyond the bad shepherds. Because Ezekiel's prophecy continues from there – God himself will rescue his sheep, God will appoint good shepherds, and God says at the end, “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land. … And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land, and they shall know that I am the LORD … They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. … And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (Ezekiel 34:25, 27-28, 31).

That's what we're counting on! That's what we're trusting in! That's the inheritance for the sanctified – what we have promised to us through the word of his grace! So even though it's hard, even though bad shepherds leave a foul taste in your mouth, even though the wolves snarl or even sneak around in borrowed wool, don't give up. Don't shrink back. Don't stop short of the finish line! 

Count all those things as nothing, if only you might finish your course and the ministry Jesus gave you, to testify to the good news about the grace of God – to announce the word of his grace that brings the only safety we could ever have or ever need. Keep warning the dying; keep dodging the wolves; keep caring for the church of God; keep trusting in his word of grace. Amen and amen.