June 2, 2013

The Real Power Source

Every now and then in the Bible you come across a story that really needs to be told by the one who experienced it.  This morning, we find ourselves looking at one of those stories…

Oh my goodness!  I can believe I made it out.  I thought for sure that last round of guards had spotted me.  I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever sat so still or quiet before.  The others would laugh at the thought of me staying this quiet for this long…oh…hello.  How long have you been there?  You’re not with Herod’s men are you?  Well, I guess not or you would have probably arrested me by now.  Herod isn’t generally known for his subtlety and his guards less so.  You’re probably wondering what all this mumbling to myself is about.  I suppose taking a bit of time to share some of my story won’t be such a bad thing.  So much has happened in the last three days taking a moment to reflect on it all myself would probably be wise.  Perhaps the Spirit will minister to us both in the telling.  Well, alright.  You’ve convinced me.  Settle in, though, because there’s a lot to tell and I’m not much known for a paucity of words.

It all started about two weeks ago.  The word reached the city—Jerusalem, of course—that the brothers and sisters in Antioch were being called “Christians” around that time.  The news set the city astir.  Many brothers and sisters had already been driven out of the city after Stephen’s tragic murder, but in the years since Saul’s conversion things had settled some.  The word began to spread again, and some disciples had even started to return to the city.  The members of the Sanhedrin had no one left with sufficient gravitas as Saul had had.  Their efforts at silencing our voices had grown feeble particularly as many from among their own number began accepting the truth: Jesus had been resurrected.  There was no body in the tomb and their ridiculous story about His body being stolen out from under the noses of the elite Roman squad Pilate had assigned to guard the tomb, while preserving the lives of the soldiers, had gained no traction.  If anything, our patient persistence in the face of their initially fierce persecution amply demonstrated that our commitment couldn’t be explained simply by suggesting we were delusional.  Besides, as long as Rome thought we were simply another Jewish movement—and truthfully we believed this just as fervently as they did—the Jewish leaders could only go so far before Rome took away their hunting license for disturbing the peace.  We were due the same legal exemptions as they were.

In any event, when word reached the ears of the powerful in Jerusalem that we had developed a unique identity everything changed.  We lost the protection of our Jewish identity.  We were now seen as a new religious movement.  You may have heard before about Rome’s famed tolerance.  The Emperor is glad to accept the religions of all his subjects.  That’s a load of fish guts—and I know fish guts.  Yes, Rome is greatly tolerant…as long as you stay within the confining limits of their uncomfortably small definition of what should and shouldn’t be tolerated.  No, Rome’s approach to things new and different tends to be to smash first and if it gets back up, then begin to investigate whether or not it’s worth letting hang around.  Herod exemplified this principle wonderfully as his uncle and grandfather had done before him.  The Sadducean leaders had been complaining in his ear for months about the followers of the Way.  “They aren’t like us.”  “They are heretics.”  “They are blasphemers.”  On and on it went.  But Herod refused to listen.  Surely he knew of our proclamation that a messiah “pretender” who had been put to death during the reign of his uncle had come back from the grave.  And yet by observation we went to the Temple regularly.  We obeyed the law.  We were all Jews.  There was nothing he could do.  Yet he was still suspicious as are all Herods.

With the word of our new identity he had all the reason he needed to both get the Sadducees out of his ears and to follow his natural Roman inclination to smash first and ask questions later.  He began rounding up all the believers he could find in order to kill them.  So many died.  The biggest blow, however, was yet to come.  He got ahold of James.  One of the inner circle.  John’s brother.  The three of us went everywhere with Jesus, even places the others did not.  They both became brothers to me.  All the twelve of us apostles were like brothers, but the bond between John, James, and me was especially close.  And then he was gone.  Herod rather unceremoniously had his head removed from his body.  It was like he was sending a message: just as I have removed his head, so also will I remove the head of your movement.

So we hid.  We hid as the Jews celebrated.  They lavished praise on Herod.  And so like a dog trying to engender even more praise from his fawning master Herod sought out the rest of us.  So we hid better.  We felt confident that we had done everything necessary to remain out of sight as we did after Stephen’s murder.  Yet James’ death had shaken our confidence some.  If the Lord was allowing attacks directly against the apostles now what would come of the rest of us?  Even as this question was swirling the door to the room in which I was currently taking cover blew open ahead of a very serious looking group of soldiers.  Our Passover preparations meant nothing to them.  They grabbed me roughly and hauled me back to the Tower of Antonia.  It is simply a miracle of the grace of our Lord that this all happened in such proximity to the Passover.  The political pressure of the Passover was, I believe, the only thing that kept my head attached to my body that night.  The guards were eager to use me for a bit of sport but I was a special prisoner.  Oh the Jews who had Herod’s ear knew exactly who I was and weren’t about to let the opportunity for message sending I represented go to waste.

They wanted to wait for the right moment to send the message, but they couldn’t afford to take any chances.  It was no doubt still firmly planted in their memories what had happened last time they had the full group of us apostles arrested.  We had been locked in the city jail and were well guarded.  Then the angel came and led us out in the middle of the night past the somehow unaware guards with instructions to be in the Temple in the morning proclaiming the Gospel which we followed with glee.  All the Jews knew, though, was that their prisoners had escaped from right under the noses of the guards and had thumbed our noses at them, flaunting our unexpected freedom along with their apparent impotence.  No, they took no chances this time.  I was locked in the Tower with four units of guards on duty in rotating shifts chained to two of them at all times.  Furthermore, these were Roman guards, not Jewish Temple police.  They were fully aware that if I escaped they would all be put to death.  Things were looking grim and all the brothers and sisters in the city knew it.

That night I made myself as comfortable as possible considering the circumstances—sleeping with your arms chained to two smelly soldiers isn’t exactly a breeze—and by the grace of God I fell asleep.  Hard.  I was sleeping so hard that I didn’t notice the light suddenly flooding the room.  I didn’t notice, at least, until I felt a sharp kick in my side.  As I winced from the pain of the blow I assumed that one of the soldiers had gotten bored and decided that if he couldn’t sleep then I shouldn’t either.  But nothing but my past prison experience could have prepared me for what waited for me when I opened my eyes.  There standing before me was an angel.  The Lord had not forgotten me in my moment of trouble.  The first David said it rightly: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of [the grave] entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.  In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help.  From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.”

What happened next I will describe for you, but I can’t blame you for thinking that I was merely delirious.  The angel told me to get up quickly.  If God’s servants are capable of mirth, I must have provided a great deal of merriment for this particular servant.  The look on my face surely must have reflected the full weight of my bafflement.  How could I get up quickly when I was chained to two Roman guards?  Perhaps they had committed the unthinkable given their position and fallen asleep, but that meant little.  Chained to them as I was, had I moved even far enough to scratch my itching nose they would have immediately roused and probably given me a kick themselves in embarrassment for falling asleep on duty—again, they knew the punishment for failure.  Then I took a moment to look around.  Two things became apparent, neither of which made any sense.  First, the guards weren’t sleeping at all.  They were just as they had been when I fell asleep in the first place.  How they had not seen this brilliant gleaming and glorious figure that was addressing me goes beyond my ability to understand.  Furthermore, these undoubtedly well-trained guards had somehow not noticed the second thing.  The chains that had been on my wrists had fallen to the floor.  More to the point: I could now stand up without alerting them with the sound of my movements.  But they were awake!  How could this be?  I could stand freely without the chains and not alert the guards, but they were awake so my movements—let alone the angel—should have alerted them…I must keep telling my story or I will get lost in the fog of miracle.

As I stood there trying to wrap my humble mind around my present circumstances, the angel gave another instruction: “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.”  Yes, knowing the modesty of the Jews they had removed all but my undergarments in an effort to put yet another roadblock in the way of my escaping.  Still reeling and trying to make sense out of everything I took a cautious step in the direction of my robe, cloak, and sandals.  The scrape of my bare foot on the dusty floor sounded like a trumpet blast in the stillness of the room.  Yet when the ringing of my ears fell still again no one had moved.  Not even a flinch.  I carefully tiptoed the rest of the way across the room and, under the angel’s patiently watchful eyes, followed its instructions.  Once I was wrapped in my cloak the angel instructed me to follow him.  Again, I know this sounds totally fantastical, but I can only report what I experienced.  I began cautiously following and still there was no sign from the guards that they were seeing any of this.  For a fleeting moment I wondered what exactly they were seeing.  Was I still sleeping in my chains in their eyes?  But these thoughts were soon overwhelmed by more wonder.  The angel walked up to the cell door and opened it as if it had never been locked.  Furthermore, the rusty hinges did not make a single sound.  We walked past the first guard, then the second with still no sign of awareness on their part.  Finally we came to the massive gate leading out into the city.  I could not make this up even if I had such a desire: the gate opened under its own power.  The Lord Himself must have been pushing the doors.  I continued to follow until we were out on the streets at which point my guide vanished.

By this time I had come much more to my sense than I had been when the angel kicked me in the ribs.  I knew immediately where I needed to go: the house of John Mark’s mother.  Her resources, including her home, had proven an invaluable tool for the brothers and sisters and surely that is where they would be gathered no doubt persisting in prayer.  When I came to the gate I knocked gently.  The servant girl, Rhoda, came to the gate.  You should have seen her face when I greeted her by name.  But for the obvious severity of the circumstances I would have burst out laughing on the spot.  Her bewilderment must have mirrored my own when I first laid eyes on the Lord’s angel.  Even now I cannot but smile at the sight.  In any event, when I asked her to let me in she grew so excited that she ran back into the house without opening the gate.  The commotion she caused was loud enough to be heard from the street.

“Brothers and sisters!  Simon is standing at the gate!  He’s there.  I saw him with my own eyes.  You must come see.  The Lord has answered our prayers.”  There was a pause, then came the scolding.  “You must be out of your mind.”  “Are you hungry dear?  It seems you’ve grown delirious.”  “Child, we are praying for his release, but no one escapes from the tower, much less when they are guarded by four units of regulars.”  Yet she rightly stood by her testimony.  The skepticism remained.  “It is only his angel,” they said.  “The Lord is giving us a glimpse of him in order to encourage us to remain persistent in our prayers.”  Although the interchange was a welcome comic relief to the circumstances, I was beginning to fear that I would be discovered if I remained in the open any longer.  I knocked again, this time more forcefully.  “That’s him!” Rhoda squealed.  A group of them returned to the gate with her, muffled their own cries of astonishment, and quickly opened the gate to let me in.  There was much rejoicing that night.  Yet I dared not stay long.  While it was still dark I slipped out of the city and began making my way here.

I have been able to stop in with other brothers and sisters along the journey and news had spread as to what happened next.  In the morning the city was buzzing with wonder about the Jesus follower who had mysteriously escaped from the tower.  The soldiers seemed driven by an invisible whip as they scoured the city in search of me.  Some brothers who were more connected to the ruling council discreetly kept tabs on the goings on.  After much searching and examining the guards themselves, Herod had all four units put to death for their failures.  He then made a hasty retreat from the city back to his capital, embarrassed no doubt that this humble Jew had made a fool of him even as the council had experienced.  No doubt some members of the council were inwardly smug at Herod’s loss of face.

What happened next I can only describe as the hand of God.  Some trouble had been brewing between Herod and the people of Tyre and Sidon for some time.  Recognizing that while he made a poor friend, he was an even more potent enemy—especially given how angry he was over losing me!—the people sent an envoy asking for peace.  The stage was set.  Herod would make a grand speech to the people of the region giving them a chance to adulate him properly.  The sun was shining especially brightly that day.  As he spoke, with the sun glinting off of his silver-threaded robes, he had the appearance of glory.  The people began acclaiming him as such and all of a sudden in the middle of his speech he fell down dead.  Members of the church who were present reported that it was an angel who struck him down.  The description of the creature they gave suggested to me that it was the same one who had freed me.  Once again, the Lord has removed our chief opponent.  Surely our work to bear witness to the resurrected Christ will continue to spread.  Those who are interested will come in ever increasing numbers to know the truth.

That all brings me here with you.  Even as I relate the events of the last few days to you, I still can hardly believe them myself.  What are we to make of all of this?  Surely we serve a great and powerful God!  Perhaps this has all come to pass to remind us of that.  We have been working so hard at the work the Lord left for us to do.  We have been bearing witness all over the region.  Even the Gentiles have begun to receive the Gospel message, the first from my own tongue.  And we have seen success.  The number of disciples has continued to grow at a rapid pace.  And as disciples beget disciples who themselves beget more disciples growth is approaching exponential levels.  Yet in all of this, something is easy to forget.  We are not the power source.  My mind drifts back to the words of Moses in the fifth book of the Law: “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you…out of the house of slavery. . . .Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’”  If nothing else the events of the last several days has reaffirmed the truth and necessity of such reminders as this.  For all our work and success we are but men.  None of this can happen without the power of the Spirit leading the way.  It is by His power and might that the Gospel advances.  The Gospel moves on God’s power.  To think otherwise is folly.  How else to explain my escape from the tower after having been chained to two guards and guarded by a total of four units of soldiers?  How else to explain Herod’s entirely timely demise?  These two events were miracles.  They were God-only tasks.  He has removed another obstacle from our path.  The Herods are simply unmatched in their viciousness.  Had he been fully unleashed on the church it may not have survived.  And so the Lord put a stop to him.  Now the Gospel can continue forward unhindered.  But, this could only have happened with the Lord’s help.  The Gospel moves on God’s power.

Have you experienced this?  Do you know the depth of this truth?  Because you have listened so long and patiently I can only assume that you are fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord.  In what ways are you being faithful to our great commission to make disciples?  Are you engaged in personal relationships?  Are you fighting the great cultural battles that rage when the church comes into contact with the world?  Are you building programs that will effectively reach the masses?  Do your work to the fullest of your ability.  You must.  There is no hope for the church apart from those efforts and there’s no hope for the world apart from the church.  But also know this: it doesn’t come from you.  You and me by ourselves can do nothing of value for the church or the kingdom.  The Gospel moves on God’s power.  It may seem that our efforts are somehow effective, that our resources are necessary, that our presence is vital, but apart from the power of the Spirit this is a mere mirage.  No, it is worse than that.  It is a delusional state of mind that directly impinges the church’s ability to accomplish its goal.  The Gospel moves on God’s power and nothing else.  If we think our power sufficient we are drag on the church better excised than tolerated.  You could no more, say, run an effective summer program aimed at presenting the Gospel to young people than I could have escaped the tower under my own power.  The Gospel moves on God’s power.  When we forget this we err gravely, but when we live in it we soar on eagle’s wings.  The Gospel moves on God’s power.

Alas, I would keep celebrating the sufficiency of our Lord with you, friends, but I must keep moving.  I fear I may have remained with you longer than wisdom would have advised.  Only continue your efforts to make disciples.  There is simply nothing in this world more important than that and anything which takes away from it is evil.  But continue in God’s power and not your own for the Gospel moves on God’s power.  The Gospel moves on God’s power.  Let us seek His power together before I leave you.