So we come to the end of our congregational study of Acts, a wonderful book written by Luke to show that Christianity belonged in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world. Just like the Jefferson’s on the classic TV show – Christianity was “moving on up!”
To Luke, Jesus is no mere rural Jewish peasant. Paul is no mere hot-headed rabble rouser. Christianity is no mere back-water religion. It was destined by God to spread from Jerusalem (religious center) to Athens (intellectual center) to Rome (political center) and then to “Infinity and beyond!”
I hope you have been studying for the test! Clover, when is the final? I even had one of those anxiety dreams the other night – walking into the exam room realizing that I had studied the wrong thing, or hadn’t even been in this class, or standing disrobed in front of the teacher… horrible.
So perhaps that this verse begins “that night the Lord stood near him” is significant because Paul was feeling some anxiety about his upcoming test. He had returned from his missionary journey with a tribute to the home church in Jerusalem. He had met with James, gone to the temple – and just as it had happened to Jesus, so too with Paul – the religious powers of the day were riled up. Some thought they saw Paul bring a Greek into the temple and that aroused the ire of the orthodox. Then the Roman guards got involved and some accused Paul of being the Egyptian revolutionary who had led 4,000 people into the desert. (21:38).
Paul, like Jesus before him, appeared before the Roman magistrates and stood before the Jewish council. Soon, Paul was bound and sent to Rome for trial where, as tradition has it, he was beheaded in 64 C.E., perhaps as part of Nero’s general persecution of Christians for setting Rome on fire.
So in the night time, that time of wrestling, that time of wondering if you are doing the right thing, the time when you question everything and wished you would have done it differently, the 3 a.m. time when you awake, and the darkness seems oppressive and you can’t get back to sleep – at night time, the vulnerable time – Paul is all alone. But, we read that “That night… the Lord stood near to him.”
Do you feel that the Lord is standing near to you? I believe that God does stand near to me and to you both during those awful hours of the night and during all the good hours of the day. God is always present – you and I may just not be paying attention.
Yes, it can be hard to discern God’s presence, particularly when fear and panic are beginning to overwhelm. But sometimes, not all the time, I start reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Or instead of counting sheep I tell myself over and over and over again “I am a beloved child of God.” Certainly not as spiritual, but sometimes I imagine myself hitting a baseball (now THAT’S a fantasy!), or I read a book and in time, the whirling of the mind ceases and that “still, small voice of calm” descends. Sometimes there is clarity, sometimes there is new resolve; sometimes there is even excitement about what is come and renewed courage. Sometimes I feel that.
Well, I like to think that Paul had one of those moments. He felt that way, that night – alone in his cell – he felt the Lord near him and he got some clarity; his journey to Rome would have some benefit – it wasn’t a waste; God would even use this imprisonment; nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it.
You can face almost anything when you feel the Lord’s presence; or catch a glimpse of possible meaning; when you allow yourself to rest, to relax the grip and place the moment of panic within the larger momentum of God’s grace.
What Paul hears in the middle of the night is this: “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”
The word there for courage (also translated ‘take heart’) is used 6 other times in the New Testament. Jesus uses that word when he heals the paralyzed man: “Take heart your sins are forgiven”. A paralyzed person in the first century, burdened by the belief that his condition was caused by sin, carried a vile stigma that haunts and corrupts. He needed courage to live in the face of such marginalization.
Jesus says the same thing to the woman who had suffered hemorrhages for twelve years. She also faces the stigma of being unclean. “Take heart” the Lord says, “Keep up your courage.”
Jesus uses this word speaking to Peter and to the disciples as the storm rages and the boat takes on water: “Take heart, keep up your courage.”
Jesus uses this word as he talks to his disciples at the last supper and tells them; “you will face persecution,” So take heart and keep up your courage.
I think of the courage it takes to be a single mother living on a block surrounded by foreclosed and empty houses in the neighborhoods of our cities. If you don’t feel connected, if you feel stigmatized, if you feel lost and lonely – then it’s over… you don’t have a chance. So perhaps the Lord is calling us to testify to the Lord’s presence in the dark and depressed neighborhoods – you are not alone, you will not be marginalized. Those in power don’t like it when folks get courageous… it stirs things up.
I remember the proud women in Nicaragua who, as part of a community of other proud women, created a business and walk with stature. What courage in the midst of such poverty.
You see when you feel that you have something to give, something to say, and you get a sense that the Lord wants you to give it, and say it, that the Lord wants to you “testify” – then there is hope – and hope is powerful.
Courage means that you can face it, whatever it is – because you have the hope in something beyond, there is a purpose to what you are going through. It is amazing what people do when they have courage. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 11 the author describes Moses who is; “unafraid of the king’s anger…for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible.” Moses had courage because he kept his “eyes on the prize.” He pulled himself along. Sometimes that is the most that any of us can do – pull ourselves along because we trust that there is light on the other side of darkness. The Lord is near even if invisible.
Whatever you are going through, imagine the Lord standing next to you in the night and telling you: “Keep up your courage… I need you to bear witness.”
I remember an old man who was dying a painful death, but he wanted to leave a legacy of how to die well for his children and grandchildren. He was amazingly courageous. His thoughts were not necessarily on heaven. What pulled him through was this desire to be a witness.
I have been reading a new biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer – a man who fled Nazi Germany only to return from New York because he believed that the Lord asked him to “testify” in Berlin. And just like Paul he was martyred.
I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who felt the Lord was calling him to be the Bishop and to speak out for the marginalized of El Salvador. And he was shot down at the altar during mass.
And I think of Dr. King, who didn’t really want to go to Memphis, but the sanitation workers needed him to stand with them. He had to bear witness.
This really happens. But I am not Paul, and I am not Bonheoffer, and I am not Romero, and I am not Dr. King, and I am not that dying man. Yet still there are times in the night when I seek for courage, to continue to trust – courage to let things unfold, to preach a sermon that I know will agitate, to do what I believe I have to do, to trust that the Lord is present even when the evidence suggests the Lord’s absence. This is when real courage kicks in, you see.
How about you? In what is the Lord calling you to courage? Facing a new treatment? Caring for your spouse in an endless succession of sleepless nights when he can’t even remember who you are? Speaking the truth that needs to be expressed? Thinking about the end of high school or college and what’s next? You see, the Lord is calling you to keep heart, keep up your courage! He needs you to give witness.
The Lord said to Paul: “just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”
Now don’t misunderstand – Jerusalem and Rome are more than cities. Sometimes we fall into the temptation that a change of location will make all the difference. Perhaps. But more often than not the journey of the heart does not necessitate re-location. Jerusalem and Rome can also represent past and future attitudes in a relationship, in a job – just how you look at the day that is before you. Sometimes just getting out of bed and making it to the shower and then downstairs to face a new day may be your journey – the bed that you want to remain in may be Jerusalem, I don’t know. Rome may be the doctor’s office, the class room, the kitchen.
Whatever, wherever, keep up your courage, the Lord is near – you can do it. Let your life speak. Give testimony to your experience. God needs it. The world needs it.
Remember the past times when you have felt the Lord’s presence at night. The more you remember what you have been through; that yes, “tears may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” the more you recall the past struggles that have led you to breakthroughs, the more you hear the testimonies of others who have been through (suffered) and persevered – the more you can turn and trust that perhaps on your journey to Rome, things will happen. I don’t know… but that thought inspires me.
Lent is a good time to consider where the Lord is in your life and what the Lord is calling you to do. Communion is the right sacrament to share – for the Lord is here offering himself to you and to you and to you – equipping you to testify, to give witness in Jerusalem and in Rome, in Mentor and in Shaker, in Lakewood and in Cleveland.
Keep up your courage for the Lord needs you to bear witness.