Sunday, 25 February 2018

Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. – Acts 27:14

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 25, 2018): Acts 27

For those who live on the north-east shore of North America, there is a mystical wind that almost everyone knows to avoid; the dreaded noreaster (or northeaster). Sailors are familiar with the wind which is essentially a northern cyclone (although noreasters have been known to hit as far south as the Gulf of Mexico). The wind takes its name from the place of highest wind speed for a storm that is partially over water, much like a hurricane, and is spinning in a counterclockwise direction. From the perspective of those on the ground, this circular cyclone produces a violent wind that appears to be coming out of the north-east as it hits the shore. Noreasters are usually winter storms, hitting the coast between November and March. And when the noreaster begins to blow, it is best if you leave your ships anchored and head for someplace warm to wait out the storm.

There are things to like and dislike about newer translations of the Bible. I love that they make the Bible more accessible and understandable. In many cases, I believe the newer translations are not just easier to read, but they are often more accurate than the older versions, and especially the King James Version. But there are times when the modern language becomes a little too familiar or uses language that might not be universally understood, and this passage is one of those times.

For me, the King James use of the word “Euroclydon” is more accurate than the NIV’s “Northeaster.” While “Northeaster” is an interesting and somewhat accurate word to use in the place of “Euroclydon,” it delivers the emotional impact that it is trying to relay to only a small subset of people; namely, those living on the North Atlantic seaboard in the United States and Canada. “Euroclydon” is a little less known but a little more accurate. A “Euroclydon” is a wind from the east (north, mid or south-east) arising out of an area that is known by the geographical term “The Levant.” A “Euroclydon” causes a violent agitation of the Mediterranean Ocean. In modern times, this wind is not known locally as a “Northeaster,” but rather a “Levanter” – a Mediterranean wind arising out of the Levant in the east.

The important thing to note, no matter what we call the wind, is that this was a storm in which no one wanted to travel. It would have been characterized by high and broad waves that would cause problems for even more modern boats, let alone the ancient boat in which Paul was trying to complete his journey to Rome.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 28

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. – Acts 26:11

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 24, 2018): Acts 26

Ji Seong-ho, the North Korean defector who was praised by President Trump in the President’s 2018 State of the Union address and is currently making his home in South Korea, believes that North Korea has hit squads around the world trying to end the lives of defectors like himself. With the public execution of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in 2017, the incredible idea that hit squads roam our cities has to be at least entertained as a possibility. In the world of a dictator, the easiest way to mold public opinion is to make sure that the voices of your opposition can never be heard. In North Korea, that is partially achieved by maintaining a tight control on the media. While many in North America became more familiar with the struggle of Ji Seong-ho to get out of North Korea following President Trump’s 2018 endorsement, it is almost certain that no one inside of North Korea has heard his story. North Korea’s UN mission called Mr. Ji “human scum;” what was left unsaid is that scum must be eradicated. If there is a North Korean hit list, then there is little doubt that South Korea’s Ji Seong-ho is on it, along with a number of other defectors who have refused to worship and bend to the reality presented by the North Korean leader.

In some ways, this admission of Paul is an incredible one. In his testimony in front of King Agrippa, and with the Roman Governor Festus in attendance, Paul admits several things that might be shocking to his audience. The first admission is that Paul was a man of power. That he had a vote on the disposition of prisoners and voted for their death indicated that Paul was likely a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. But only Rome had the power of life and death within the empire. The by-the-books Festus was likely shocked at this admission, even though Rome long understood that the Jews were involved in the execution of their people.

But then Paul follows up that admission with another. Paul was part of a hit squad that operated within Judea, and that tried to force confessions from Christians in order to execute them. Maybe the juiciest of Paul’s confessions is that Paul worked as an agent of Jews, not just within the boundaries of the province of Judea, but that he went into other cities within the Roman Empire in order carry out his task of killing Christians. There was no place that a Christian could run and be free of the tyranny of the Jewish ruling council. If you stood in disagreement with them, they would find you and have you put to death.

Paul was once part of this hit squad, but he had defected, and now found himself pursued by it. And now, he was exposing it to those in power, hoping that they might agree to keep him safe from his former friend’s. Paul understood that if Agrippa and Festus decided to send him back to Jerusalem, his life would be forfeit. His only hope was to be sent to Rome.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 27

Friday, 23 February 2018

When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. – Acts 25:18-19

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 23, 2018): Acts 25

Stephen Hawking received his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when he was 21. What he received from the doctors was a death sentence -  he had about two years left to live. In an interview with the New York Times on December 12, 2004, or forty years after his original diagnosis, Hawking remarked, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus." Of course, for one of the greatest minds that has ever lived, that is not quite true. Hawking never gave up on his expectations. Instead, he followed his expectations into the stars. And it is still his expectations that shape his discoveries and his view of the future. Hawking’s illness has had a shaping effect on his expectations but has never totally subdued them. Hawking’s reality, as is true with every one of us, is shaped by what it is that he expects to be real, and what it is that our future holds for each of us. And the one truth that we need to understand is that the first step in changing our future is rooted in changing our expectations.

Porcius Festus succeeded Antonius Felix as Governor over Judea somewhere around the year 59 C.E., during the reign of Nero as Caesar in Rome. Festus was a man of fixed expectations and, while that can be positive in many roles in life, it would not serve him well in this role as Governor over Judea. The main problem was that Festus expected that any province the Roman Empire would function under Roman Law. The Jews had created problems for the Empire by demanding numerous civic privileges or immunities under the law in their territory. It was a problem that Felix had never been able to fix, and a situation that now the expectant Festus was going to exasperate. Much of what would happen during Festus’s short reign would become the building blocks for the war that would break out between the Jews and the Romans in 66 C.E, and would end with the destruction of Rome in 70 C.E. and the massacre and mass suicide at Masada in 73 – 74 C.E. In short, Festus expected the Jews to act like Roman citizens, but the Jews were not up to the challenge.

With regard to Paul, Festus’s expectations are made clear. He had brought the Jews to Caesarea to present their charges against the Apostle. Felix had done the same thing late in his reign over the area. But Festus expected Roman style charges that would have Roman-style penalties attached. What he received were religious questions about Judaism and complaints about a Jew that had been executed three decades earlier, but who Paul claimed was still alive. What the Jews presented to Festus were covered in the realm of “civic privileges” to which Festus’s expectations had blinded him. In this, Festus almost takes on a sympathetic role in the story, much like Pontius Pilate, begging with the Jews, and now the Jewish king Agrippa II, to give him a Roman crime so that he could deal out Roman punishment.

Of course, for Jesus and Paul, that was an impossibility. There were no Roman crimes that applied to the behavior of either of the men. For Festus, a Roman who was probably at best an agnostic, and who was tolerant to many different religions, questions of religiosity would never equal a crime, let alone a transgression deserving of death, which, once again, was the punishment that the Jewish authorities required for Paul.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 26

Thursday, 22 February 2018

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets … Acts 24:14

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 22, 2018): Acts 24

A paradox: a statement that, despite being grounded in sound, logical reasoning leads to a conclusion that is logically unacceptable or self-contradictory. In the science fiction realm, paradox is the best way to defeat an evil computer or robot because they can’t handle the contradiction. Comedian George Carlin once illustrated the idea of a paradox when he asked:If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?” There is nothing wrong with the reasoning in the question except that it seems to employ a curious double negative. Frank Herbert in “Chapterhouse: Dune” reveals a paradox in a more serious way. “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.” Essentially, when we seek to be free, we become captives to all of our various wants that we have come to believe are essential to our freedom. Herbert is speaking of a long distant future, but we understand what he is saying in our own culture. Both personally and nationally we are being enslaved by our own wants and desires, and often by the debt load that it takes to make us happy. But we also have examples of people who have disciplined themselves to the point where they have the ability, and the money, to do whatever they want. Through discipline, they have enslaved themselves, and so they are truly free. Maybe it doesn’t make logical sense, but it is true.

Paul is involved in an early church paradox. Paul is often referred to as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Maybe more than any other early church leader, Paul led the charge of taking the Christian message to non-Jewish populations. In the process, he changed the way that Christianity was viewed by the world. Most notably, he ended the requirement for male Gentile people to be circumcised, an action that was abhorrent to non-Jewish cultures, to become a member of the faith. But in the process, he also erased much of Law of Moses, including many food regulations, for non-Jewish believers. It was a radical separating of the faiths. Christianity was no longer a Jewish sect. Christianity and Judaism, because of the work of Paul, could finally stand on the world stage as individual religions.

Yet, the paradox was that while Paul was a Christian, this Apostle to the Gentiles was still a Jew. And he tells Felix that he better follows the rituals of his ancient religion, Judaism, by being a Christian. For Paul, to be a good Jew, you needed to be a good Christian because all that was spoken by the law and the prophets were summed up in the teachings of Jesus Christ. To be a real Jew, a believer had to leave Judaism and become a Christian, because it is Christianity that follows the real dictates and purpose of Judaism.

It is true, but it also almost enough to make your head hurt.      

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 25

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

… 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. – Acts 23:35

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 21, 2018): Acts 23
Nelson Mandela once remarked that “it is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” A nation should never be judged by the rewards and tax-breaks that it heaps on the powerful that inhabit the land, but rather by the compassion it gives to the weak in their midst or, as in Mandela’s case, the way that the culture handles those who oppose the ruling class. The words of Jesus should still bring us pause when we consider the way that we live our lives. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Paul presented opposition to those who ruled the society in which he lived both politically and religiously. Up until this point, although he had been beaten almost killed, and arrested, on several occasions, he had actually not yet been imprisoned for long periods of time; primarily because he was a Roman citizen. Not everyone could claim citizenship. It was restricted to only the best and the most heroic of the nation. What makes Paul’s citizenship even more unique is that it appears that his citizenship was hereditary, passed down from father to son. But, again, not all citizenship worked that way. What this meant was that the local governments were often hesitant to take steps against Paul for fear of Rome. By law, only Rome could punish a Roman citizen.
But now things were about to change for Paul. Because the Jews were plotting to overthrow the small Roman guard and kill Paul, a change was quickly made to move Paul to Caesarea and have his case heard by the Governor, Marcus Antonius Felix, who is sometimes referred to as Claudius Felix. Once again Luke, who endeavors to tell us a historical story, anchors this event in history. Felix was the Governor of Judea from 52 – 58 C.E. And if we were to judge his reign we would probably not do so very positively. Felix, like many of his day, was a Governor of the rich and was swayed by their bribes while frequently treating the weak with cruelty. As a result, there was a great increase in crime in Judea during his reign. And the change in location meant that Paul would not be released from this incarceration as he had been before. In fact, this event begins a period of at least five years that the apostle would spend in prison. Two years would be spent in prison in Caesarea and then at least another two years in prison in Rome, plus the travel time and time spent in jail in Jerusalem. This imprisonment would result in a marked change in Paul’s lifestyle. Previously he was able to go wherever he wanted and was able to preach in various out of the way places. Now his place of residence and the people he would meet would be outside of his control.

But something else was also happening. Felix would be the highest-ranking official that had ever heard Paul’s story. King Herod would also hear the story, and in spite of the fact that Paul was in jail, his incarceration was allowing a promise, made to a holy man named Ananias more than twenty years earlier, come true. “But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’”
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 24

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. – Acts 22:8 (See also Acts 9:5)

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 20, 2018): Acts 22

We get asked the question almost every day – Who are you? And to be honest, there is seldom a simple answer. Today the question was asked as I sat in a chair getting my hair cut. The amazing lady who was cutting my hair already knew some of the answers to the question. I was the guy who waited fourteen weeks since my last haircut (I didn’t even know that it had been that long.) She amazed me when she asked me if I had put my summer car away yet, apparently I had mentioned it fourteen weeks ago when she last cut my hair. She even knew what it was, because her next question was “what color is your Mustang?” She knew that I was a grandfather of three, and that the youngest of my grandchildren were twins. I have to admit that I was more than a little amazed, to my knowledge I have only met her twice – today and fourteen weeks ago. Then she asked me if I owned my own company. When I replied that I was a pastor, it was her turn to be a little taken back. Apparently, in her world, pastors didn’t wear colorful Star Wars shirts like the one that I had on. But even with all of the information that we exchanged over the all-important question of “who am I,” I am not sure that we ever got down to the core answer. I am Garry, a slightly obsessive male of the human species who is in love with the world around him – although admittedly the world doesn’t often seem to want to return that love. I am an often confused traveler trying to find his way home. I am broken. But I am also the child of the King, and I am convinced that God loves me even when no one else seems to be up to that endeavor. And maybe even this only scratches the surface of who I am.

Paul begins to recount in his trial who he is and how he came to be here in the first place. Paul had been zealous for his God. He had acted exactly as he believed that his God had demanded. And up until this point he had been confident that his actions matched up well with the one who he had believed to be his God. But in a moment all of that seemed to change. Maybe for the first time in years, Paul was willing to ask the grand question – who are you. Lord? And not only was Saul willing to ask the question, but he was willing to hear the answer.

The question itself is only a starting place – but it is a question that I believe needs to be asked continually because it is so easy for us to find our way into tangents that carry us away from the true identity of God. As I look around at my world, the most prevalent problem that I see is that many of us have simply stopped asking the question. Within the Christian community, I watch many organizations and belief systems chase after their God in the same way that Paul chased after his. And, just like Paul, there seems to be little acknowledgment that they might be wrong – in fact, they are sure that they are not. So they follow their path and pursue their goals, never even considering whether or not they are serving the one true God.

And it isn’t just within the Christian Community that the struggle to know God is being abandoned. The opponents of Christianity seem to miss the identity of God as well, but maybe that should be expected – after all if we as Christians have stopped asking the question, why should they start asking it? Every time I sit down to read something written by Richard Dawkins, my overwhelming reaction is that “I am glad you don’t believe in that God because I don’t believe in him either.”

Maybe the right course of action is just to step back from all of our protestations and arguments and allow God to answer this basic question that Paul asks – who are you, Lord? And to remain quiet enough for God to speak the answer.  

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 23

Monday, 19 February 2018

After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. – Acts 21:10

Today’s Scripture Reading (February 19, 2018): Acts 21
A couple of years ago, I wrote a monologue for a preaching class concerning the events of Pentecost Sunday from the point of view of the prophet Agabus. I dressed in a robe with sandals tied onto my feet and holding a staff in my hand, and I entered the class to talk to them with the words that I imagined that the prophet might speak to this group of students. One comment, admittedly muttered under his breath at the end of my presentation, was a question about whether or not Agabus even existed.

Not only did Agabus exist, but it is traditionally understood that he was one of the early adopters of Christianity and likely a major player in the early church. Just because we don’t know his name does not mean that he is not an important part of church history. He is only mentioned twice in the Bible, both times in the book of Acts, but both of his appearances are at key moments. In his first appearance, in Acts 11, he is among a group of prophets who have traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch, and it is Agabus who prophecies of a coming famine, which would hit the area in the mid-forties, during the reign of Claudius. His second appearance is in this passage, where he appears very much like an Old Testament Prophet, acting out his message of Paul’s arrest if Paul decided to continue to Jerusalem. This, too, would turn out to be true. Paul would go to Jerusalem and, there, he was arrested and sent to Rome in chains.
But according to the early church, these are not the only significant moments to which Agabus would be a witness. He is believed to have been a resident of Jerusalem who followed Jesus early on in his ministry. His name is listed among the seventy that Jesus sent out. He is believed to have been present with the Disciples at Pentecost. And, like Paul, Agabus was a missionary of the early church, going on his own missionary journeys, spreading the Gospel, and converting many. This missionary activity set him at odds with the Jews in Jerusalem. The set out to find Agabus and found him at Antioch. It was there that he was arrested, beat, and tortured before they finally placed a rope around his neck and dragged him out of the city and stoned him for his belief in Jesus.

Agabus shaped the early church with his teaching, his faith, and even his death. We may not recognize his name, but his story, like many other unknowns of the church, deserves to be told and celebrated.
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 22