Follow the Yellow Brick Road

“Three days after Festus arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. Then the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews presented their case against Paul to him; and they appealed, asking him to do them a favor against Paul, that he might summon him to Jerusalem. They were preparing an ambush along the road to kill him. However, Festus answered that Paul should be kept at Caesarea, and that he himself was about to go there shortly. “Therefore,” he said, “let the men of authority among you go down with me and accuse him, if there is any wrong in this man.” When he had spent not more than eight or 10 days among them, he went down to Caesarea. The next day, seated at the judge’s bench, he commanded Paul to be brought in. When he arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him and brought many serious charges that they were not able to prove, while Paul made the defense that, “Neither against the Jewish law, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I sinned at all.” Then Festus, wanting to do a favor for the Jews, replied to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem, there to be tried before me on these charges? ” But Paul said: “I am standing at Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as even you can see very well. If then I am doing wrong, or have done anything deserving of death, I do not refuse to die, but if there is nothing to what these men accuse me of, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar! ” After Festus conferred with his council, he replied, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go! ” (Acts 25:1-12 HCSB)

Growing up, I never had the chance to watch the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” During that time (the 1960’s), it would always be aired on a Sunday night and we would always be at church. I actually read the book before I ever saw the movie and, believe it or not, I was an adult, with children of my own, the first time I ever saw the full movie. Dorothy and Toto traveling the yellow brick road meeting new friends while seeking the great and powerful Wizard of Oz who could help get them back home to Kansas. The new friends never expected the wizard to send them out into a dangerous situation to find the things they thought were missing from their lives. I mean, they had spent the entire trip trying to avoid the wicked witch, now they’re being sent out to confront her and take her broom.

Much like the story of Dorothy and her journey to confront her fears, we find ourselves seeking the things that are missing from our lives. We often look in all the wrong places while avoiding those very places that might force us to face our fears, challenge us in the process and cause us to grow in surprising ways. You might wonder what Dorothy’s journey to Oz and Paul’s trial have in common, but I hope it is a bit obvious from my description and comments. Paul has found himself on a journey that he never expected. He was a good Jewish boy who just wanted to grow up and be a good Pharisee and faithfully serve God. In his pursuit of God, he found himself confronted by a new, strange and radically different reality – Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, and has called him into service and absolute obedience.

Our search for God often starts out much like Dorothy’s journey home and Paul’s journey towards God, headed in the wrong direction. We tend to limit our search for God to all the wrong places and under incorrect assumptions and ideas about God. If there’s anything I’ve learned about God over the last 40+ years of ministry it would be that our understanding of Him is often too shallow and misshapen by our sinful personal desires and biases. So, my goal today is to guide you towards the lesson that Paul learned and the High Priest missed, God came to us in human skin as Jesus and He has called us to walk with Him along a road that is not popular, comfortable or convenient but will take us to the City of God. So, stick with me a bit longer and let’s see where this road leads us…

In our focal passage, Paul has now been held in Herod’s palace in Caesarea for just over two years. As mentioned last week, Felix was removed from his governorship and Festus was selected by the Emperor Nero to take his place. As a favor to the Jews, Felix left Paul in prison and Festus inherited the situation. However, Festus appears to be on a mission to get things cleared up that Felix had left in a mess, so Paul’s case appears to be near the top of his list of items to address. He had barely landed in Caesarea before he headed off towards Jerusalem to confront the issue and the High Priest – head on. While we don’t have any direct evidence, it seems likely that Festus would have visited with Lysias, the Roman Tribune, to get the background on Paul’s case prior to meeting with the High Priest.

Paul’s life is still on the line as the High Priest suggests that Paul be brought to Jerusalem so that the trial can resume and the issue quickly resolved. The plot to kill Paul is still on the High Priest’s agenda but Festus’ response is quick and decisive; Paul will remain in Caesarea and the High Priest can travel with him and under his protection when he returns to Caesarea in just a few days. Festus doesn’t fall for the High Priest’s manipulations and the plot to kill Paul is, once again, left unfinished.

Can you imagine living under the threat of a plot to take your life? Real threats can be paralyzing. You’re afraid and don’t know what to do, so you don’t do anything. You feel stuck in the situation and don’t know how to respond. Can you imagine trying to live your life as a Christian under the threat of violence, prison or death? Many Christians around the world know the reality of these threats. They live with them, every day. In fact, it is estimated that 11 Christians die for their faith each day around the globe.

“When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ” So a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been.” (Revelation 6:9-11 HCSB)

To follow Christ is to follow Him into the fray, into the danger. To follow Him is to embrace the pain and the cost of the cross. Paul knew this, firsthand. We need to learn it, desperately. We live in a culture that operates under the assumption and presupposition that to follow God and experience His blessings is to avoid pain, sickness, sorrow and struggles. There is nothing that could be further from the truth. God promises His blessings on those who walk with Him, but they are never guaranteed to be in this life or to be materialistic in nature.

Just the other day, I saw a marquee sign at a local church that stated: “If Jesus came to defeat sin then He also defeated sickness.” The statement implies that Christians shouldn’t get sick and we should just claim health through faith and let Jesus provide it. While I believe that God will set this world right and defeat sin, sickness and death, I also believe that we have not yet realized the complete fulfillment of God’s promises and sin, sickness and death still plague our physical lives. Will it come? Absolutely! When? When Jesus returns in full glory and power and everything is renewed or recreated and made right. Right now, we live in between the times – between the time of His coming as a servant and a sacrifice and the time of His coming as the King of kings and Lord of all Eternity.

Paul knew this, too. That’s what gave him the ability to sit in Herod’s palace awaiting trial and the fulfillment of God’s promises. If you’ll recall, Paul had been warned about these days and the struggle they would bring…

“And now I am on my way to Jerusalem, bound in my spirit, not knowing what I will encounter there, except that in town after town the Holy Spirit testifies to me that chains and afflictions are waiting for me. But I count my life of no value to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24 HCSB)

So, how do you learn to handle the struggles? How do you find strength in the hope of promises that are yet to be fulfilled? I think the key is found in the verses that I just cited, above. Paul ends by saying that he must testify to the gospel of God’s grace. When we face struggles like Paul faced, we tend not to focus on God’s grace but on our suffering. We look at our struggles, our pain, our fear and we cry out “Why, God? Why me? This isn’t fair. I don’t deserve this?” In other words, our focus is on our perception of God’s unfairness and of our goodness. Really? God’s unfair but we are good? No, really. That’s how our culture views God and themselves. God’s obviously not good, but I am. They reason that a good God wouldn’t allow things like poverty, child abuse, childhood cancer, or hunger. I’m opposed to those things, so I must be better than this god you worship.

Just for a minute, let me revert back to the story that I used to introduce this lesson – Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. In that story, the Wizard does’t really possess any magical abilities (i.e. ignore the man behind the curtain). He sends Dorothy and her friends off to get the wicked witch’s broom, not because it is the secret to fulfill their special requests of the wizard but because the wizard needs them to defeat the witch – he can’t. In the process, they discover that the very things they needed and asked the wizard to provide, they’ve possessed all along. They didn’t need a heart, a brain or even courage – just the recognition that they already possessed those things.

This is the very same LIE that the deceiver whispers in our ears – you don’t need God, just believe in yourself. You believe in god, well this “good” god is holding out on you. He’s not so good, you’re as good or better than he is. You wouldn’t let these bad things happen to people if you were god, would you? You’d stop all of the pain, remove all of the struggles, cure all of the diseases wouldn’t you? You’d make life like it was meant to be. Do you see what you’ve done? You’ve assumed a stance of authority based on a lack of knowledge. You’ve assumed the position of god without the knowledge and understanding of God. You think you KNOW what people need, but you don’t even really know what you need.

Paul marveled at God’s grace and that is the core truth of the Gospel. Not that we are good in and of ourselves, but that we are weak, broken and sinful and our good God loves us enough to give us grace – what we need but don’t deserve. You see, at the core of our personal pains are our personal choices. At the core of our broken world is our own brokenness. Ok, but what about those innocent children who suffer abuse or cancer? Do I understand? No, but do you? Here’s what I do believe, God is good enough, wise enough and powerful enough to do something about it. But, He’s also good enough, wise enough and powerful enough to do things that make no sense to me but are still good, still full of purpose and love. I do believe that God does love those who suffer and when this painful life is ended, He gathers them into His arms and wipes away their tears, heals their pain and that they discover He is better than all the pain they may have suffered.

“But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this? ” Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor?” (Romans 9:20-21 HCSB)

Let’s get back and focus on Paul’s defense before Festus. When Festus and the Council arrive in Caesarea, Festus quickly convenes his court the following day and calls Paul before them. The Council appears to encircle Paul and hurl their verbal accusations agains him like stones – a verbal stoning, so to speak. The charges were serious but unsubstantiated, and Paul notes that fact. The accusations appear to be based on the same charges related to Paul’s obedience to Jewish law, actions against the traditions, rules and laws of the Temple, and treason or a plot to lead a rebellion against the Caesar – Emperor Nero.

Maybe you haven’t made the connection, yet. Paul is innocent of all charges but he’s not being released. The Council has not produced any witnesses that have convinced Festus of Pau’s guilt. Then why is Paul still in prison? Why doesn’t God intervene and convince Festus to acquit Paul, or just send another earthquake causing the cell doors to pop open and let Paul escape into the night? If God is so good, why put Paul through all this pain? Why? Because God has a bigger plan and that plan involves Paul standing before Caesar and declaring the Gospel.

So, I want to end this week by calling you to recognize that God has a bigger plan for you and your life than just a life of comfort and ease. If God is worthy of our worship, then He’s also worthy of our sacrifice and obedience. When I was young, my pastor used to say that “knowledge of a need and means to meet that need constituted a call from God to do so.” That was his way of paraphrasing the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 – when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was sick or in prison you came and ministered to me. Lord, when did we do these things for you? When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me. Now, you go and do the same.

Christians pride themselves in being “pro life.” Well, pro life is so much bigger than just being anti-abortion. Pro life also means you are pro-adoption and pro-foster parenting. Pro life means you are in favor of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and dying. Pro life means you care about and for the lonely and the hurting. It is easy to stand back and say, that’s not my problem or I don’t know what to do or how to help. It might be easier to do that, but it’s also wrong from a Christian perspective. James says that real believers will care for the widows and orphans. He also says that real faith doesn’t just think good thoughts and pray good prayers, real faith does something about these needs.

Paul had done nothing worthy of prison, let alone worthy of death. Yet, here he was facing that very threat. He states, “if I have done anything worthy of death then I do not refuse to die.” Jesus said that we must also be willing to die for His sake… “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it.” (Luke 9:24 HCSB) It is truly a paradox, to save your life you must be willing to lose it. A puzzling paradox, but true. You only find love by giving it away and you only discover the real secret to being alive by giving your life away in service to God. That doesn’t mean that you join a monastery and cloister yourself away from the world. It means that you find ways to live out God’s calling each day. Use the skills and the blessings God has given to you in ways that honor Him and points others towards Him.

“Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You? ’ Then He will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:44-46 HCSB)

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