This past week, something happened that came as a surprise to many of us. I am, of course, talking about Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States. This development raises concern in the hearts of many Americans, including many of us here today. I say that not simply based upon my own personal observations, but based upon the polls. (I know, I know. We discovered this week how wrong some polls can be.) Nonetheless, I think it is significant that in a national poll, 60% of Americans said that Trump was not qualified to serve as President. 37% of Americans said they would feel scared if he was elected and 21% said they would feel concerned. That means that well over half of the people in our nation today are feeling at least a little bit unsettled.
For people of faith who did not vote for Trump, his election may raise the question: “Where is God in all of this?” The answer that resounds throughout Scripture is that God is still in charge, God is still sovereign, even in uncertain times.
Oftentimes God uses what seems like our greatest defeat to bring about God’s good purposes. In our reading last Sunday, we saw what seemed to be the great defeat of all Paul’s plans. He was arrested in Jerusalem. But in Acts 23 we will begin to see how God, in sovereign goodness, used this seeming defeat to bring about the kingdom purpose. Listen for God’s word to you….
The next day, since the commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them.
Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
Those who were standing near Paul said, “You dare to insult God’s high priest?”
Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”
Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)
There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.
In Acts 23 we see several truths that flow out from the sovereign rule of God. By God’s sovereignty I mean God’s good rule over all of his creation and God’s ability to bring about whatever God desires. Paul talks about God’s sovereignty in Ephesians 1:11 where he mentions “the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” God has given human beings freedom. We are free to reject God’s plan for our lives or to accept it by his grace. Yet, at the same time, God works in and through and beyond the free choices of human beings to bring about God’s purposes. So let’s examine how God’s sovereignty and our human freedom work in a specific situation by looking at Acts 23. The first thing I see here is that because of God’s sovereignty we can be bold.
Paul knew that God was in charge of his situation and that no one was going to harm him unless God allowed it for some good reason. So Paul dared to be bold in his testimony before the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin.
I wonder: are we like Paul? Do we realize that God is fully in charge of our lives and that therefore we can dare to be bold for him? I’m not talking about being obnoxious in sharing our faith and purposely offending other people. I’m just talking about being clear. When I highlight something in bold print on my computer that word stands out more than all the rest. The print is darker, clearer, easier to read. It jumps out from the paper. That’s the way we need to be when it comes to living and sharing our faith. And we can afford to be bold because in Jesus we have nothing to lose.
In this time of national and even global uncertainty, Christians need to be bold in speaking about and living out the love of God embodied in Jesus Christ. One thing that concerned me throughout the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, and I know it concerned many of you, was how Trump spoke about and acted toward women, Mexicans, Muslims, people with disabilities, and refugees. Now I understand that we live in a time of fear, and in such a time some people are drawn to authoritarian figures who promise them safety. I get that. But how does God want us to act as God’s people in a time of fear? I believe God wants us to act and speak in faith. I believe God wants us to act and speak in love. Rather than fearing the “Other”, God wants us to reach out to the “Other”, to those who are different from us, to the most vulnerable among us, and God wants us to speak and live out his love in Jesus Christ. I believe God wants us to build bridges instead of walls.
None of us have the opportunity that a president has to set the tone for our country. None of us have the opportunity the Apostle Paul had to set the course for an entire faith movement. But by God’s grace we can all be bolder in our witness for Jesus Christ, bolder in showing and declaring his love for all. And as we band together as a people of faith, and become bolder in our witness to God’s love for all, even we, the little people of this world, can change the course of our nation and even our world.
I know we do not all view things the same way politically in this congregation. I know we don’t all share the same attitude toward our current president or our future president. But I would like to share with you a story I heard our current president share this week that touched me.
In June 2007, then-Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited the small town of Greenwood, South Carolina (population 29,000) as part of his campaign efforts. When he arrived at the town’s civic center, late at night and in a driving rain, he was surprised to find a room of only 30 supporters. An older, African American woman named Edith Childs, noticing the look on the candidate’s face, yelled out to those assembled, “Fired up!” The room responded, “Fired up!” Obama, surprised by the enthusiasm, turned around to see Childs as she continued, “Ready to go!”, to which the room again responded, “Ready to go!” Soon after the campaign stop in Greenwood, the same chant was repeated at a larger Obama rally in Aiken, South Carolina. Before long, volunteers were carrying signs and wearing shirts printed with the slogan. The national and even international press picked up on the craze.
President Obama shared this story this past week as an example of how even one person’s voice, one person’s boldness, can change the world. The story makes me wonder: Are we fired up? Are we ready to go … for the kingdom of God? Paul certainly was. And we can be too as we seek a spirit of bold love from the heart of God.
After Paul gave his bold testimony to his faith in the resurrection of the body before the Sanhedrin, we read in Acts 23:11, “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’”
The missionary Jim Elliot, who gave his life trying to communicate the good news about Jesus to the Auca tribe of South America once said: “Your life is immortal until your job is done.” Hear this encouraging word: Because of God’s sovereignty our lives are immortal until our job is done.
No one could take Paul’s life away from him until God’s purposes for his life on earth were fulfilled. Part of God’s purpose and plan for Paul was for him to communicate the good news about Jesus Christ in Rome, the capitol of the empire. How encouraging it must have been for Paul, after enduring the abuse of the Sadducees, to hear this comforting word from the Lord. He was finally going to get to go to Rome and share his faith in Christ just as he had long desired to do.
I believe the Lord wants to speak a comforting word to us today as well: Take courage! Take heart! God’s purpose for our lives will be fulfilled if we allow him to work in us. As Paul said in Philippians 1:6, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Salvation doesn’t mean we will always be safe, in physical terms, but it does mean God’s purposes will be fulfilled in our lives.
A third result which flows from God’s sovereignty is that: because God is sovereign, human beings cannot foil his plan. Let’s see what happened with Paul after God gave him his word of assurance….
The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”
Paul’s own people were determined that Paul should pay with his life for taking the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles. However, this story goes to show that no one can thwart God’s plan. As it says in Isaiah 14:27, “For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” The Lord was determined that Paul should testify to Jesus Christ in Rome, and there was no human being that was going to be able to foil God’s plan.
A fourth aspect of God’s sovereignty that we see exercised in Acts 23 is that God uses people to make certain his plan is carried out. Listen to the rest of Paul’s story and see the unique people God used to carry out his plan for Paul.
But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.
Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” So he took him to the commander.
The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”
The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”
He said: “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.”
The commander dismissed the young man and cautioned him, “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”
Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”
He wrote a letter as follows:
To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings.
This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.
So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.
God used quite a number of different people and each had their different motives, but God used each of them to carry out his purposes for Paul’s life. First of all, there was Paul’s nephew. I’m sure he had the best of motives for wanting to protect the life of his uncle. And he was in the right place at the right time, under the sovereignty of God, to render great service to his Uncle Paul. This just goes to show the truth of the statement once made by Francis Schaeffer: “There are no little people and no little places.” Paul’s nephew may have seemed to others like an insignificant person, but he wasn’t insignificant in God’s plan. And neither are we.
Secondly, God used Claudius Lysias to protect Paul more than once. At least four times in Acts 21 through 23 the Roman commander Claudius Lysias rescued Paul from almost certain death. As we gather from the letter Claudius wrote to Governor Felix, he had mixed motives at best. He lied about the order of events, for he only learned after he was about to flog Paul that Paul was a Roman citizen. To be sure, Claudius would do whatever was necessary to make himself look good and to save his own skin. But God used him, nonetheless, to protect his servant Paul. And that just goes to show that God can use all sorts of people in his plan, those we think wicked as well as those we think good.
Thirdly, God used the Roman army to protect Paul. Paul’s travel insurance was provided by the Roman government! Imagine it—200 soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spear-men. That’s pretty heavy-duty travel insurance!
I believe there are at least two ways people can look at these events in the life of Paul. We can look at it and say: “Oh, Paul’s life just worked out naturally, according to his own free will and the free will of other people.” Or we can look at Paul’s life and say, “There is obviously another hand involved here.”
Many years ago the following story appeared in The London Observer,
Imagine a family of mice who lived all their lives in a large piano. To them in their piano-world came the music of the instrument, filling all the dark spaces with sound and harmony. At first the mice were impressed by it. They drew comfort and wonder from the thought that there was Someone who made the music—though invisible to them—above, yet close to them. They loved to think of the Great Player whom they could not see.
Then one day a daring mouse climbed up part of the piano and returned very thoughtful. He had found out how music was made. Wires were the secret; tightly stretched wires of graduated lengths which trembled and vibrated. They must revise all their old beliefs: none but the most conservative could any longer believe in the Unseen Player.
Later, another explorer carried the explanation further. Hammers were now the secret, numbers of hammers dancing and leaping on the wires. This was a more complicated theory, but it all went to show that they lived in a purely mechanical and mathematical world. The Unseen Player came to be thought of as a myth.
But the pianist continued to play.
Were the events of Paul’s life merely the product of wires and hammers or was there really an unseen piano player “behind the scenes”? And what about your life and mine?
I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe God, the great pianist, in his sovereignty, will continue to play beautiful music using the keys, the hammers and the strings of our lives, if we allow him to do so. He will add line upon line until the concerto is complete in the day of Christ Jesus. No one will be able to stop his music in our lives until the symphony reaches its triumphant conclusion.