IN EVERY THING
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We often say “God willing” when we talk about future plans or future hopes. I remember how a dear friend at Blythwood used to respond whenever I said “God willing.” She’d say “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” It’s actually a Johnny Cash song.
There are two things going on in that statement which we’re going to look at this morning in light of the story in Acts 21. The first has to do with God’s will. Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s will to be done. “Thy will be done” or “Your will be done.” This by default of course means not my will. What does this mean? The second thing that this phrase implies is that the creek will rise. When the creek rises it’s bad news (which reminds me of another Johnny Cash song called “How High’s the Water Mama?”). In our lives, the creek will rise. We will get a phone call in the middle of the night and you know when the phone rings in the middle of the night it’s rarely good news. We will get news that will be life changing, and it doesn’t seem to be in a very good way.
You know what I’m talking about here and if you don’t you will one day. Being a Christian does not exempt us from suffering. You may have heard me speak about a church that I often pass by and the sign outside says “Stop Suffering.” I don’t want to sound judgemental but I’m not sure where such a belief comes from and I wouldn’t have that on the church sign.
This is heavy stuff I know but we don’t shy away from the heavy stuff. Let us ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word.
So we’re holding these two things up here. God’s will. Suffering. These things have already been introduced as we head into the home stretch of Acts and prepare to go with Paul as he journeys toward Jerusalem and from there to Rome. This does not mean that Paul has become the hero or even the focus of the story. Remember that the promise from God was that Paul would become God’s instrument. The song that Paul would be playing would be speaking the good news before kings. The plan for the church is that as Jesus said, “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The church has said “Sign me up” and through the church God is enacting the plan. Paul is playing a major role here in the final part of the plan. In this enacting we see the two things that we’re talking about. In Acts 18 Paul goes to Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila. He goes to a synagogue and gets into a discussion there. The people of the synagogue ask him to stay longer. Paul declines but says to them, “I will return to you if God wills.”
In other words Paul is putting himself in the will of God. Not only this but Paul has been given an indication by the Holy Spirit as to what awaits him as he travels to Jerusalem (which might remind us of someone else who set his face to go to Jerusalem knowing what awaited him). Look at what he says to the elders in Ephesus right before our passage – “And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecution are waiting for me.” (20:22-23)
Does this mean that the idea of self-preservation is a foreign one to the Christian? I would say not. Remember how all but the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria after the murder of Stephen. Paul’s actions are not a model necessarily but they’re not unknown. Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt that the Holy Spirit’s leading was for him to stay in Germany before the Second World War, not knowing what fate might befall him.
Paul is fairly unique here in that he’s been given a message by the Holy Spirit as to what awaits him. Often we don’t get this kind of advanced notice. The creek often rises quite suddenly. The unexpected phone call. The unexpected request to come in and see your doctor. The unexpected car that appear suddenly in your windshield…
The sadness that goes along with these events. The pathos. I want us to note how these scenes are being described by Luke. The Bible is nothing if not honest about human emotion. There are no instructions here to maintain a stiff upper lip or to remain stoic or not showing any emotions or just get over it or whatever we want to say or feel in the face of sadness. Look at how the scene with the Ephesians ends. “When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.” (20:36-38)
Have you ever had to say goodbye to someone? Really goodbye. Then you can identify with this scene. It’s a tearing apart. This is how Luke describes the departure. The NRSV puts it “When we had parted from them” but the meaning of the word in Greek for part here is tearing away. “When we had torn ourselves away from them,” is how the NIV puts it. When they leave Tyre the people of the city are telling Paul not to go.
How do we live in that kind of sadness? The kind of sadness in which we’re saying things like “We don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to go.”
They face it together. Note that as Paul and his companions are travelling, they are seeking out communities of faith no matter where they go – even places they’d never been to before. As someone has said, Christianity has become a network of subversive communities who are willing to take one another in, support one another, grieve with one another.
Pray with one another. Everyone together. I love the detail that all of the people went from Tyre. Men, women, and children. Look at the line from 20:36. When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. This group of people kneeling on the beach praying together in the midst of their uncertainty and sadness. The usual posture for prayer was standing up. Here we have entire groups of people kneeling together, symbolically signifying a humbleness before God – a need for God. The importance of prayer posture as a kind of symbolic act. The importance to the church of praying moms. Praying grandmothers. Down on their knees until they’re physically unable to get down on their knees anymore, and then praying on their faces. We’ve been talking about habits that leave us open to the Holy Spirit forming us in the image of Christ. The significance of getting down on our faces before God when the waters have risen or the waters are rising –not to ensure getting what our own wills ask for but to lead us to a greater understanding of God; of our need for God; of God with us; of Christ in us the hope of glory; of the Spirit’s comfort and peace; of the truth that God has us and that God is in control no matter our circumstances.
The importance of symbolic action. Speaking of which along comes Agabus from Jerusalem. Paul and his companions have reached Caesarea. You’ll remember of course Peter going there to meet with the centurion Cornelius. I love how this all comes together. The centre of Roman rule for the region. Big port city. You’ll also remember that after he encountered the Ethiopian Finance Minister and baptized him, Philip ended up in Caesarea. We find out that he has four daughters and they’re all prophets. The words promised through the prophet Joel are happening – your sons and daughters will prophesy. Here is Agabus, standing in a long line of prophets who did things like smash jugs or walk around naked or burn their hair (these OT prophets!) to symbolize events to come. Agabus takes Paul’s belt and ties up his own hands and feet with it and says in the same way Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns the belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles in Jerusalem.
Again I want us to note the pathos of this scene. Once again the message is “We don’t want you to go!”
Then we hear from Paul. “What are you doing weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.” Your will be done. Not mine but yours.
Note that Paul doesn’t try to explain the reason for the suffering he knows is ahead of him. His response in the face of it is “I’m not afraid to die.” Our dear sister Dorothy was asked by the oncologist how she was feeling about things as she faced the end of her time on earth. Her response was “Well I’m not afraid to die if that’s what you mean.” “Why” questions can be very hard to answer in these kind of cases. Dean Pinter in his commentary on Acts tells a story of a parishioner in his middle age, a teacher, otherwise fit and hale, who receives a diagnosis of serious cancer that had spread through his body. When posed the question “Why you?” this man responded “Why not me?” There is no easy answer to either question, but this is what that response meant to this man – “Who knows what my testimony in walking through this crisis will mean for others and the gospel? Maybe this will be the most important lesson I teach my students.”
Who knows? The Lord’s will be done. Paul could say this because he pledged his allegiance to and identified with and belonged to the one who walked the way of suffering for us. This is not to say that we are Jesus or that we welcome suffering or seek it. We can face it knowing that suffering and death is not the end but that from this God brings exaltation and life. The one that we follow is the one who heard that voice saying – This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased – and we hear the same voice. The one on whom the Holy Spirit descended like a dove who shares the same Spirit with his followers and who walks with us.
This enables things like the conversation had recently between Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper on CNN. I could not believe this conversation was taking place on television. Cooper was talking to Colbert about the death of his father, who was killed in a plane crash along with two of Colbert’s brothers when the comedian was 10. This was part of their conversation:
“You told an interviewer that you have learned to – in your words – ‘love the thing that I most wish had not happened’… Do you really believe that?”
“It’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that. I don’t want it to have happened. I want it not to have happened, but if you are grateful for your life – which I think is a positive thing to do, not everybody is, and I am not always, but it’s the most positive thing to do – then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”
Colbert goes on about how the common bonds of suffering bring people closer – “You get the awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being… At a young age, I suffered something so bad that by the time I was in serious relationships in my life, with friends, or with my wife, or with my children, I’m understanding that everyone is suffering.”
Following the Way of Christ enables us to say with assurance that we are beloved by God and that God is indeed in control. That God brings life even from death.
And so we pray “Your will be done” and set our faces resolutely toward what lies ahead of us, just as Paul does. God grant that Christ continues to uphold us and the Spirit continues to guide us along our Way together.