When Things Go Wrong

“I was traveling to Damascus under these circumstances with authority and a commission from the chief priests. King Agrippa, while on the road at midday, I saw a light from heaven brighter than the sun, shining around me and those traveling with me. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice speaking to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ “Then I said, ‘Who are You, Lord? ’ “And the Lord replied: ‘I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet. For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and of what I will reveal to you. I will rescue you from the people and from the Gentiles. I now send you to them to open their eyes so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that by faith in Me they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified.’ “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple complex and were trying to kill me. To this very day, I have obtained help that comes from God, and I stand and testify to both small and great, saying nothing else than what the prophets and Moses said would take place — that the Messiah must suffer, and that as the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:12-23 HCSB)

Wow, what a week. While that has certainly been true for me, I’m sure it has probably been true for you, too. I can just imagine that was probably true for Paul as he recounts his encounter with Jesus in today’s focal passage, too. I suspect most of us are probably reeling from the events of the past week as the reality of a global pandemic crisis begins to impact our daily lives and decisions. For some of us, this has just become very real but some of you have already been living in this “reality” for a while. Either way, I want you to know that your brothers and sisters in this congregation are praying for you and desire to assist you, if we can. If you have a need, I have created a new Prayer Request page where you can send me a message and the link is at the top of our main web page.

While I really enjoy writing these pieces each week, I also enjoy the privilege of sharing them verbally during our Sunday morning worship services. For those who might wonder, I do NOT just read what I wrote. If you are interested, we are planning on posting recordings of our services on this site, soon. To be honest, I enjoy both but I also believe my writing is better than my speaking. I feel a bit like Paul, my speaking is not impressive. In addition, we will begin to offer an opportunity for watching or listening to our services with links posted here and on our main Facebook page. Now, on to our focal passage…

As you’ll remember from last week, Paul is presenting his oral defense before King Agrippa. He has been held in Agrippa’s palace in Caesarea for more than two years and Festus, the new Roman governor for the province, has invited Agrippa to hear the case against Paul. Festus is trying to identify reasonable charges he can write up and send with Paul, who has appealed his case directly to Caesar. In this week’s focal passage, Paul begins to recount his encounter with Jesus on the road during his journey to Damascus. Paul’s encounter begins first with an encounter that is beyond his ability to explain naturally or physically – a light brighter than the sun at noon shown around me and those with me.

Notice, Paul identifies that this event was not a “spiritual” encounter that was unseen by those traveling with him. He includes it here as a part of his defense precisely because others had witnessed the events. While it is certainly possible for someone to claim that Paul’s encounter was mystical because none of his entourage saw Jesus’ face or heard His specific words, they can verify the facts regarding the overwhelming light and the loud sounds because they all experienced those same phenomena as they all fell to the ground in fear.

What does this mean for us? Our encounter with the risen Jesus must not be just a “mystical” or spiritual event, either. We must have a real encounter that impacts us in a physical, mental, emotional and relational way – an encounter that impacts our entire being. Unfortunately, many claim to have had an encounter with Jesus while they continue to live their lives as though nothing has changed. In a sense, they are very much like the guys who accompanied Paul during that trip; they see a bright light and hear loud noises but they don’t really experience the physical presence of the risen Lord. They aren’t changed by their encounter, they are simply surprised.

In fact, Jesus stated that the greatest commandment was that we must “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30 HCSB) That is, love God with all of your being, with everything that is in you and, therein, lies the problem. Our love doesn’t naturally rotate around God, it rotates around ourselves. Our tendency is to gravitate towards self-love, self-gratification and self-fulfillment. Actually, we tend to gravitate towards God only as a last resort.

Really, this global pandemic situation can elicit varied responses towards God and it might be causing you to wonder, as well. Some will look at this situation and wonder why God would ever allow this to happen,  some will question His goodness and others will even question His existence or presence. While I won’t presume to grasp the mind of God, let me assure you that while this situation might make no sense to us it is not the same for God. This is not a situation that is outside of His authority or His grace and it certainly did NOT catch Him by surprise.

We tend to evaluate these circumstances and situations with our finite minds and limited understanding and then we tend to apply these same limitations to God’s knowledge, understanding and ability. Like Job, we demand answers when we are truly unable to understand the situation or even the questions (see Job 38-40). In a sense, God responds to Job’s question and ours with a dose of reality – “where were you when I created all of this?” In other words, if you’re so smart and think you can handle these issues then why are you asking me? Why weren’t you present when I created these things. You tell me, since you’re so smart. If you have to ask these questions, then you really can’t comprehend the real answer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think God avoids our questions or wants to suppress them. I just think that we sometimes ask really dumb questions. Asking God some of these questions and expecting a comprehensible answer is a bit like me asking a theoretical quantum physicist for a simple 30 second explanation on string theory. Any answer to that question that I could really understand would be overly simplified and entirely non-technical. Really, any answer God would give us regarding most of our deep questions would need to be overly simplified and entirely non-technical, too (by the way, isn’t that what He’s given us in scripture – overly simplified and non-technical answers to these very questions?). We simply cannot comprehend the thoughts, mind and intents of God. That’s why He’s God and we aren’t…

“Where were you when I established the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38:4-5 HCSB)

Jesus makes a very interesting statement in His encounter with Paul, “it is hard for you to kick against the goads.” This “goad” that is referenced in this verse is a sharp stick that would be used by someone as they walked alongside an oxen and prodded it to keep it moving and to keep it moving in the desired direction. While the word is fairly generic and could refer to something like a scorpion’s stinger, a cocklebur, or even a goathead sticker (anyone who grew up in Oklahoma or Texas is very familiar with goathead stickers as you walked barefoot across your yard – and then screamed in agony when you stepped on one) it is most likely that the word (Greek – kentron) and the phrase Jesus uses is referencing the sharp stick or iron prod used control the ox.

Now here’s the really interesting part, in my opinion. Who or what are the goads Jesus references and what was He using them to do? As mentioned, a goad would be used to move and turn an ox towards a particular destination while serving his master’s purpose. I believe that is precisely the meaning in this story and Jesus has been moving Paul towards this encounter and a decision – will you believe and will you obey me? Jesus has been using the challenging circumstances and the “irritating” Christians in Paul’s life as a means (or goad) to move and direct him to this very moment. Don’t misunderstand what I just said.. I’m not giving you permission to be an intentional irritant in someone’s life but, as you are obedient to Christ, your Christ-like actions and your biblical beliefs may act as irritants in someone’s life that poke and prod them into encounters with Jesus.

I hope you catch the implications in those statements. If not, I’ll get specific. We are all facing challenging circumstances and even painful irritants in our lives and God is using them to move us towards encounters with Him and His will. You face a similar situation to Paul’s – will you believe and will you obey Him? Perhaps the events of the last few weeks or days have caused your head to reel and your heart and hope to plummet. If so, they are prodding and turning you towards an encounter, a choice of faith and trust in a holy and gracious God. You can, like Paul, choose to see and hear Jesus and respond in faith and obedience or you can simply see a bright light and hear some noise, like those who accompanied him. The question is not whether you’ll encounter God, but what you’ll see and how you’ll respond.

Finally, I want you to notice the question Paul asks and the answer he received, “Who are you, Lord? And the Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.’” Jesus personalizes the actions of Paul towards these new Christians as persecution against Himself. Two quick observations: 1) our obedience to Christ in proclamation of the gospel and fulfillment of His commands are viewed by Him as His personal words and actions; 2) resistance to and actions against our words and actions are taken as a direct, personal offense against God. Now, I recognize that might not be news to some of you but it should be encouraging and empowering to all of us who are believers. God not only empowers our efforts, He personalizes the offenses against us.

Some of you reading these words have never experienced real persecution for your faith, but some of you have. Some of you reading my words, live in areas where your faith is in direct opposition to your family and/or your culture. I want to encourage you to continue to trust our Lord even as you face daily opposition to your faith. Go back and read that previous paragraph and let that settle into your soul – when you proclaim your faith God is empowering and speaking through you and when you face opposition because of your faith God is standing with you and personally feels your pain. Get up, stand on your feet! Stand firm, my brother and sisters. Stand firm!

“But get up and stand on your feet. For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and of what I will reveal to you.” (Acts 26:16 HCSB)

We are also appointed as servants and witnesses to these things. In the days ahead, we will be facing challenges that we’ve not expected, anticipated or desired but we are being prodded towards obedience, faith and complete trust. While I don’t know, specifically, how your faith will be challenged in the days ahead I do know we will all be challenged to believe, to trust, and to witness of His faithfulness. The real question is not whether it will happen, but how we will respond. If you are currently living in fear because of the global threat of this viral pandemic, please know that Jesus, the resurrected Lord and living Word of God can bring life, peace and hope in the midst of these circumstances. If you are a believer, then act in faith by serving one another and loving your neighbors.

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