“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
First, let me tell you a little story. When I was in my cooking days, I would do special dinners at Banville & Jones wine store. On the second floor was this cute room set up to feel like an Italian restaurant with an open kitchen on one end where I would prepare four or five courses that would be matched up with four or five different wines put forward as pairings by the sommelier. I remember hearing something on a particular night that really stuck with me and that leads me to a little imagination experiment.
Picture a vineyard. What do you see? Probably rolling hills covered in vines, lush soil, and a warm sun somewhere in the French countryside, right? That’s what I thought too. But the sommelier said something peculiar, that the best grape vines are not actually planted in mounds of dark rich soil, but in hard, scrabbly, rocky ground. They said the vine that has to work to put its roots down and find nutrients and water in ground like that produces the best grape. The harder it has to push its roots through hard ground, the better the fruit it yields. Hold that image in your mind as we go through Acts.
These chapters of Acts tell of Paul arriving at Ephesus and finding disciples there who had not been baptized with the Holy Spirit, only into John’s baptism before the coming of Christ. Paul continued to baptize them properly and, after laying hands on them, all twelve of them received the Holy Spirit, prophesying and speaking in tongues. Later on Paul went to the synagogue at Ephesus and spent two years speaking boldly about the kingdom of God, reasoning with and persuading all who would approach him there. The word of the Lord spread rapidly all over Asia Minor as he healed, performed miracles, and cast out demons.
Some Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to mimic some of what Paul was doing, trying to cast out demons in the name of this Jesus that Paul proclaimed, only to become victims of the evil spirits themselves! Word of this spread as all those who practiced witchcraft and sorcery took their sacred tomes and materials, piled them up, and burned them, adding to the glory of the Lord in that place.
Paul then resolved to travel through Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem and then on to Rome. In the meantime, while staying in the countryside, Demetrius the silver smith acted against Paul and his disciples on account of new converts to the Way declining to do business with him as he was a maker of silver shrines to the goddess Artemis. Demetrius went so far as to stir up an angry mob against those preaching Christ in Ephesus, but a clerk dismissed the rioters shortly after. Paul continued to make his way to Greece, eventually coming to Philippi. This is where a young man, sitting on a high window ledge, listening to Paul preach through the night fell several stories and hit the ground where he died. Paul went out and brought the young man up, raising him to life!
Chapter twenty ends with Paul attesting before the elders at Ephesus to his integrity in preaching the word, setting an example for those who would follow after, and warning about ravenous wolves that would quickly make their way into the fold of believers. After much prayer and shedding of tears, they walked him to his ship and waved farewell, knowing they would never see his face again.
Growing up while in Sunday School, I pictured the journey of Paul the Apostle in Acts as some sort of mad dash to spread the Gospel to as many places as he could in as short a time as possible. Reading and rereading this book over the years, I have come to see that it is far more … well, not relaxed, but organic than what I first picture of this man with a mission.
The book of Acts covers such a wide scope of events, each of which are of a differing magnitude than the others. There are incredible Holy Spirit-filled moments where thousands come to faith and simple dinners at a friend’s house. There are miracles everywhere, people let out of prison without the door being opened, raising the dead to life, and tongues of flame; yet there are also severe beatings, simple insults, and life-threatening catastrophe. There’s menial labour, the building of tents and serving of food, yet that is the very building of the church in the real world! There are highs and lows, and though we see women and men of incredible faith doing amazing things, they are each intensely human and do not weather these things without pain and suffering.
Reading Acts as an adult with real hopes, fears, and responsibilities, we can get a sense of the massive uncertainty Paul and the other Apostles and disciples would have felt; the wrestling with fear, the frustration of patience, and the pain of not knowing what God wants you to do. Paul desired more than anything to go to Jerusalem at one point and Rome at another, to travel here and there and do this and that, yet even a man as full of the Holy Spirit as Paul found himself floundering and despairing even to the point of death. God would veil His intentions for Paul at some places and constrain him from going to others, deliberately pulling Paul from the center of action like at Ephesus when the riot occurred. Paul must have felt such responsibility for the good disciples being harassed, yet he was not able to go help. Instead of being able to journey on from Ephesus straight away for Jerusalem, he spent a whole two years in the countryside doing what God wanted him to do; preaching, teaching, and working a job of manual labour so that nobody would be deprived on his behalf.
I bet the shipwreck on Malta wasn’t exactly a part of Paul’s initial plan either, but it was his blind trust and obedience in uncertainty that God used to lead many people to Himself. I bet the hardest part for Paul especially was the patience and waiting. Even beatings and imprisonment would have had more flavour for each blow was evidence that the Gospel was being preached to an evil world, every stripe a reason to rejoice for sharing in the suffering of Christ. After all, Jesus said that they would have trouble, but to rejoice for He had overcome the world!
But patience has very little flavour. Patience doesn’t look like a heroic act; in fact, it can feel lazy and selfish. We are more prone to feel like we’ve been cut off to drift the open waters with neither heading nor rudder. It is harder to see what God is doing and He feels more absent than ever – in that silent, dark, humid atmosphere of doubt is when despair can grow like mold on the inside of your skull. At times like these we can find ourselves parched, desperate for something to quench our thirst, whether that’s giving in to temptation or surrendering to our pride and taking matters into our own hands. Does this sound familiar?
Application and Question:
If it does (and I think it would for anyone who is living their life on God’s terms), take heart knowing this: Patience can be as much of a cross to bear each day as open persecution. We don’t face much of the latter in Canada compared with the rest of the world, but that doesn’t make the bearing of other things any less legitimate. Waiting on God and learning to trust Him in the waiting is a massive, life-long skill to learn and burden to bear!
It goes against our natural instincts to go our own way and do what we think is best. Trusting God with His timing and direction means surrendering your own and learning to grow where you are planted. What difference does it make if He decides to plant you in rocky and barren soil? Does that not yield the better fruit? Have we not walked through the wilderness for the past two years and been forced to dig deep to find that life-giving water? How have you been like that tree in Psalm one? Let’s let the spiritual fruit we bear tell our story.
Lord God, thank you for being our Living Bread and Water in this valley of the shadow of death. Thank you for bringing us up with strong roots, even for planting us in hard and rocky ground. Teach us to listen and wait with patience, to take each day as it comes, and to trust that we truly do live each day on your terms instead of our own. Please be with us who are struggling – do not merely take our cup away, but by your mercy take away the bits of us that still oppose your rule in our hearts. Let us learn to abide in you, bear much fruit, and truly live as your disciples. In the mighty name of Jesus, amen.
Song: Bread and Wine - Josh Garrels
In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.