Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Winning Strategy


A Winning Strategy

Acts 26:1-29

            Today’s reading is much longer than those typically chosen for a devotional.  Remember, no time spent in Bible reading is ever wasted.

            First, a little background on this Scripture passage. 

            Paul has been arrested in Jerusalem after being accused (falsely) of bringing Gentiles into restricted areas of the Temple.  The arresting officer has placed him in protective custody for fear of what the incited Jews might do to him.  Although he would have most likely been released once tempers had cooled, he was accused by the Jewish leaders of causing riots.

            Paul was held to appear before Felix, the Roman governor.  Felix heard Paul speak several times.  He did not release Paul, but kept him imprisoned for two years.  At that time a new governor, Festus, was appointed.  Paul appealed his case to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen.  This meant further imprisonment and further delays.

            Finally, Paul appeared before the king, Agrippa, and made his defense.  That defense is the subject of today s reading.

            Two responses to Paul’s appearances before Roman officials are worth noting.  The first (Acts 24:25) is by Felix, who, on the occasion of their first meeting said to Paul, “Go away for the present.  When I get an opportunity, I will summon you.”

            The second response is from Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s defense says, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”  So says the translation in the English Standard Version.  The King James Version gives us a different slant.  Here Agrippa says, “Paul, almost you persuade me to be a Christian.”

            One day, Satan called all his minions together.  He said, “We’re losing the battle for human souls.  It’s clear our present strategy isn’t working.  We need fresh ideas.”

            One devil spoke up: “We could tell them that this Christianity business is all nonsense.”

            Satan said, “We’ve tried that.  It doesn’t work.”

            Another devil said, “We could point out what a good time they will have on earth if they follow us.”

            Satan said, “That hasn’t worked either.”

            Many suggestions were offered, and one by one Satan discarded them.  Finally, an old, experienced devil said, “We could tell them just to wait awhile.  No hurry.  They can enjoy life now and make a decision later.” 

            Satan said, “That’s it.  That’s the strategy that will work.”

            We hear the same message when someone proposes sensible gun control laws after a mass killing.  “This is not the time for knee-jerk responses.  Let people mourn awhile, then we can talk about gun legislation.”  But that time never comes.

            We hear the same argument when many want to hold our political leaders responsible for criminal actions.  “Now’s not the time.  It will only inflame the country and lead to more violence.  Let’s let things settle down; Then we’ll study it.”  But that time never comes.

            Felix says, “I’ll call you when I have more time.”

            Agrippa says, “You almost persuade me to be a Christian.

            Too many people say, “Wait awhile.  No need to rush to judgment.”

            Satan says, “That’s the strategy that will help us win.”

Sunday, January 10, 2021

New and Improved


New and Improved


            There are certain Scripture passages I find myself returning to often.  This is one of them.  Every time I find myself back on familiar ground I discover something new, something I haven’t seen before.  Here I am again at Isaiah 43.  The words are the same, but like v. 19, I’m finding a new thing.

            The backstory for this passage is familiar.  Israel hasn’t kept covenant with God.  God has allowed Assyria to invade the northern kingdom and destroy it completely.  The southern kingdom—tiny Judea—didn’t learn from the experience, so once again God allowed a nation to invade and conquer.  This time it was Babylon, who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, took Judea’s leaders captive, and caused many of the people to scatter.

            God’s prophets, in some cases the same ones who foretold doom and punishment, are now telling those in captivity that God will not be angry forever.  There is still a price to be paid, a time of sorrow to be endured, but eventually, when the debt has been satisfied, the people will return to their land.

            The most encouraging of these prophets is Isaiah.  Things will get better, he says.  Conditions will improve.  Wait for it; it will happen.

            Isaiah, speaking God’s words, reminds the people who God is.  “I am the Lord,” God says, “your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your king.”  God is the Holy One of Israel, the One to whom the people owe thanksgiving for all their blessings.  God is their Creator, the One to whom they owe their very existence.  God is their King, the one to whom they owe not merely obedience, but obeisance.

            Then God promises them release from captivity.  “Forget about all that happened before,” God says.  “I’m going to do a new thing—something you haven’t seen before.”

            If God went no further than this we would have encouraging words with which to begin the new year.  This would be true of any year, but even more so of the one just past.  Over the last twelve months we have experienced a major health crisis as well as unprecedented political upheaval, and increased racial tension.  How wonderful to hear from God, “Forget all that, I’m doing something new.”  How welcome those words are!

            But God promises more.  God tells the people that not only will they be going home, but the way will be easy, unlike the Exodus. 

            Israel had never forgotten their escape from Egypt.  Throughout their history this was their touchstone.  God had led them out of captivity—slavery—and taken them to the Promised Land.  But the journey had been long, difficult, exhausting, and had cost the lives of everyone who had been an adult when they left Egypt.

            Now God says, “Forget that journey.  Remember it as part of your history, of course; but this time the trip will be much easier.  Yes, you must go through the wilderness, but it won’t take you forty years, and you won’t have to eat manna and drink water from a rock.  There will be streams in the desert, running water for you to drink.  You will have straight roads and enough food.  It’s beginning—do you see it?”

            New and improved.  How often have we heard those words applied to a product that manufacturers have tweaked a little—or not at all; perhaps just added a new ad campaign.  But with God it’s really true.  Things will be new—and improved.  God is doing a new thing.  God is always doing a new thing.  Do you see it?