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"Availability to God"

MESSAGE FOR MARCH 25, 2012 FROM ACTS 28:1-15

This week, through Luke’s account in Acts we are finally able to accompany Paul and his travelling companions to Rome.  Three years earlier, Paul had written to the Romans where he stated his desire to come to Rome.  Now, those desires are realized as God has repeatedly removed the obstacles standing between Paul and Rome.  Last week, we traced God’s hand in Paul’s life as he triumphed over wind and wave through a perilous sea journey that should have killed all on board Paul’s ship.  All 276 on board survived thanks to God’s promise to Paul.  As you heard, today we pick up the story on the shore of the island of Malta.  As we examine this story more closely we see at least four expressions of God’s sovereign grace to Paul as he journeys toward Rome.  Our hope today is--as we see God’s lavish grace in Paul’s life; we will be more inclined to recognize his grace in our life and as we receive it—freely give it out to others.

The first expression of God’s grace to Paul is seen--beginning in verse one.  Luke writes, “After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta.  The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us, because it had begun to rain and was cold.”  The first expression of God’s grace is: God’s grace to Paul through the unusual kindness of the natives on Malta.  These natives were under no compulsion to start a fire or welcome these unexpected visitors.  Think about it—276 foreigners just show up on your island out of the blue.  Some of them are near exhaustion from the ordeal of the storm they have just weathered and they are doubtless hungry.  These were 276 needy people.  The natives on Malta spoke a Phoenician dialect so there would also have been a language barrier to overcome.  Yet, in the midst of the ship’s great need, these islanders come out and show God’s grace to them. Luke implies the grace of God at work with this phrase translated “unusual kindness.” 

Most of us here today could tell stories of receiving these expressions of God’s grace.  Your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and a stranger stops and makes significant sacrifices to get you back on the road.  You lose your wallet or your purse, but a complete stranger gives you cab fare or the use of their cell phone.  Your kid breaks his shoe lace at the soccer game and some parent you barely know takes the lace from his shoe and gives it to you.  Often these things come to us, not from believers, but just thoughtful unbelievers.  Those kinds of things are so easy for us to take for granted or forget a few minutes after they happen to us.

When we do that, we steal joy for ourselves and glory from God.  The great missionary doctor Helen Roseveare tells the story of a time when she was on furlough in England.  One afternoon in the middle of a heavy rain, she was waiting for her train.  A woman is standing nearby and Helen offers to let the woman stand with her under her umbrella.  She is making small talk and at the same time praying, “Alright Lord, I have a captive audience here—how can I get into the gospel with her.”  At that moment, Helen looks up at a billboard advertising cigarettes and blurts out—“You know that billboard makes me mad because cigarettes cause lung cancer.  I’m a doctor and I hate to see people suffer like that.  Immediately, the woman completely breaks down into tears.  Helen points her to a bench where she can comfort her and they sit down together.  After the woman has recovered a bit,  she told Helen that she had just left the doctor’s office where she had been told she had lung cancer from 20 years of smoking cigarettes.  Helen led her to Christ right there on that bench. 

Great story isn’t it…but as it relates to God’s grace--think about it.  Which required more effort from God—supernaturally arranging that meeting or saving that woman’s soul?  The answer is—from God’s perspective—they both required the same effort.  For the omnipotent Lord of the universe, he expends no more energy on one than he does the other.  That’s not to say they have the same impact, but it is to say that both require grace—but are undeserved, both express God’s goodness and both were planned from eternity past.  Likewise, it would require no more effort from God to heal that woman of her cancer than to have providentially arranged that meeting.  Think about it—to heal her—all he would have needed to do is remove all her cancer cells.  That’s child’s play to the Creator of the universe.  To arrange the meeting took some complex arranging of schedules involving thousands of possible variables to bring them together.

The point is—these kinds of expressions of God’s grace happen all the time.  We don’t deserve any of them, they express God’s goodness to us and they were planned from eternity past.  And frequently—unless they are immediately life-changing, we either don’t acknowledge them at all, or we give a momentary hat-tip to God as if to say, “Thanks, God—that’s sweet of you” and then promptly forget it.  In each of the examples of God’s grace in our lives I cited earlier, the Lord of the universe reached down from heaven into our lives and extended his goodness to us.  We don’t deserve it.  We must not only notice God’s manifold expressions of goodness to us, but realize that for him—he is exerting no more effort in what we see to be the “little” expressions as he is in the life-changing ones.  

A second expression of God’s grace is begins in verse three. “3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.”  The second expression of God’s grace—though no more kind of God is:  God’s miraculous healing of Paul.

How unthinkable would it have been for Paul to have weathered all the opposition from the Jews, the multiple court trials and the 1000’s of various trials associated with this latest voyage and shipwreck, only to succumb to a snake bite in this freakish circumstance?  Although there are no venomous snakes currently native to Malta, this had to be a venomous snake. If there had been no venomous snakes on the island, it would not have occurred to these natives that Paul would soon either swell up or die.  And if they hadn’t thought the snake was venomous, then after Paul showed no symptoms, they surely would have said, “Oh, I guess it wasn’t poisonous” rather than assume he was a god.  These natives may have been superstitious, but they weren’t stupid.

If you have the ESV translation, you’ll notice the word “Justice” is capitalized.  That’s because they had a god named Justice who they assumed was punishing Paul for murder—a necessary bit of vengeance given that he had slipped through the hands of this god before when he survived the shipwreck.  The native’s response to this obviously strikes Luke as humorous and their absurd reasoning rooted in their superstitions is amusing.  It’s funny, but it’s also sad.  We can easily believe this was their response because it occurred 2000 years ago—many unsophisticated people believed such superstitions then.  But today, there are tribal people all over the world that would make the exact same kind of irrational leaps in judgment and they live after humanity has put a man on the moon and split the atom.  It’s pathetic that tribal people all over the world are still ruled by these kinds of superstitions, but if someone doesn’t go and tell them about Jesus, how on earth will they be freed?  The gospel brings not only spiritual freedom, but also the freedom from superstitions that blind people’s minds to reason. 

A third expression of God’s grace is in verses seven through nine.  Luke writes,
“7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured 10 They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”   A third expression of God’s grace is God’s sovereign direction of Paul’s ministry.  We see God’s sovereign hand on Paul in every verse here.  Paul and the others came ashore at a certain point on Malta’s coastline and it just happened to be in the neighborhood of Publius who was the “chief man”—the most influential man on the island.  Malta has 85 miles of coastland.  Its 18 miles long and nine miles wide, but their ship just happens to run aground off the coast at this strategic point.  This is no “coincidence.”  In a universe where God is in control of all things, there are no random coincidences.  If you experience a so-called “coincidence,” the first thing you must do is ask God—“Ok Lord, what are you doing?  Sometimes the reason isn’t obvious, but often—there is a clear reason(s) why you bump into that person you and your spouse were only two hours earlier talking about.  Or, three people in the same day bring up the same fairly obscure topic to you.  Or, a person you haven’t seen in two years suddenly appears in your life three times in three days.  We must ask God what he is doing in those situations because they are not random occurrences.

The purpose for this seeming coincidence becomes clear.  Paul and his companions stay with this island chief for three days—they get to know him and they discover—as they were staying there, that this man has a father with what Doctor Luke calls “fever and dysentery.” Luke gives us a subtle hint of God’s sovereign direction here in verse eight.  It happened that the father of Publius lay sick…”  Oh really?  It happened…”  This kind of fever was common on the island of Malta until about the turn of the last century.  Once you came down with this, you could be sick for months—even years.  This was not a good thing to have. A vaccine was finally developed and now it’s no big deal on Malta, but it was a big deal until then.  Anyone who has had dysentery knows that this is miserable and many die from it.  Eight hundred million people die each year on this planet and of that 800 million, 140 million die from dysentery.[1]  So Paul prays over this man and God heals him—no vaccine needed here!  When Paul heals the father of the chief of the island-- word spreads quickly and before you know it, everyone on the island with a disease comes to Paul for healing. By God’s grace, Paul proceeds to heal all of them.

Think for a moment about this.  It would be possible to spend weeks strategizing about the most efficient way to reach the most number of Maltese people and in ten years, not have as much influence as Paul had here in a few days.  Within a week or so, everyone on this island has in some way been touched by God through Paul.  God had given them great favor among these superstitious pagans.  Verse 10 says, “They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”  You may be thinking, “That’s great for Paul, but frankly I don’t have healing gifts—I’m not an apostle—how does Paul’s example help me?  Here’s how—riddled through this narrative is one implicit truth and that is—God used Paul in part because Paul was totally available for him to use.  Paul could have processed his time on Malta so differently.  He could have just thought, “I’ve done my part—I helped them through the shipwreck.  I have spent the last two years rotting in a Roman prison and have now sailed through these brutal storms.  I need a rest—I’m surely near burn-out.  My need must be real because God has thoughtfully given me an island respite to refresh me---thank-you Lord.”  Many believers would have looked at it this way.  And when it became clear that every diseased person on the island were coming to him for healing, he could have said, “Lord, you know what I’ve been through—I thought I was going to get some rest.”

Not Paul.  From what we know, Paul was always available to God for ministry. In verse three, he’s out gathering sticks for the fire.  He didn’t begin his ministry on Malta miraculously healing all those who were sick.  His first island ministry was gathering sticks for a fire.  As the hero of the voyage, he surely didn’t have to do that but he was available to God for whatever the need was and from what we know of him from Romans, we know what his attitude was in his stick-gathering ministry.  Romans 12:1 says, “1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  If Paul is consistent with his writing, he’s gathering sticks as an act of worship, presenting his body to God as a living sacrifice.  And when all those sick people show up—he’s worshipping God as he presents his body to him as a living sacrifice.  He didn’t climb up on the altar of sacrifice, offering his body for eight hours a day and then, assuming God owed him a rest, climb down and hang out his “do not disturb” sign.  No—he did everything as unto the Lord.  31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That’s what he told the Corinthians.  

Verse 11 is an unusual verse in some ways but I wonder if it’s related to this truth about availability to God—it certainly can apply to this.  In verse 11, “ After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. It makes sense for Luke as an historian to record their length of stay on Malta and to record that they obtained another ship for the next leg of their journey.  But why the detail about the ship—“with the twin gods as a figurehead?”  That may seem like a frivolous detail but the Holy Spirit, who inspired Luke doesn’t “do” frivolous.  Why does Luke write it—because he thought it was an interesting detail?  Maybe, one reason is so we can see that Paul’s availability for ministry was not hampered by a restrictive approach to the world.  Here’s what I mean.  The figurehead of the ship was on the very front of the ship—like a hood ornament on a car only much larger and more conspicuous.  It also carried a spiritual significance to it. These twin gods were Castor and Pollux, the sons of Zeus and Leda.  They were the twin “savior gods.”  One commentator writes, “They were seen as protectors of good fortune on the seas, being said to rid the seas of pirates and buccaneers[2].”  That sounds icky—having what amount to demons plastered on the front of your ship.  Some believers in Paul’s position would have been tempted to say, “As a matter of conscience I would really rather not travel on that ship. You see, it has pagan gods on the front of it and several on board this crew actually trust in them for protection.  It’s so glaring—these “savior gods’ at the front of the boat.  Jesus is my Savior and frankly, I don’t want to be in any way identified with this pagan symbol.  Could we please find me another boat?”

That’s a separatist approach to life and ministry.  The most transparent example of this today is the Amish, but many believers have strong separatist tendencies and perhaps this is here to show us that we should be available to God for ministry in all contexts—even those that cause rub up against things that we find abominable.  Millard Erickson is helpful in this discussion.  He says the difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists (who are more separatist) is not doctrinal but in how each relate to the world. Fundamentalists take texts like Second Corinthians chapter six to heart where Paul is speaking about unbelievers and says, “17 Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you,” Fundamentalists are very concerned that the world will defile them if they have too much contact with it.  They draw strength from verses like 1 Corinthians 15:33,    33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”  More fundamentalist- type believers would have choked on going on board a ship with a pagan symbol of “savior gods” on it.  Erickson defines evangelicals as those who want to integrate into the world, not separate from the world.  Faithful evangelicals are much more likely plunge into more earthy, raw contexts of life and based on Jesus’ ministry in the gospels say things like, “This is right where Jesus would be if he were here—(in the inner city, the red light district, the hang-outs where homosexuals gather) I am obeying the Great Commission.” 

The evangelical understanding of Scripture calling us to integrate into the world is accurate---you cannot be the salt of the earth if you are not rubbing the preserving influence of Christ into it.  And you can’t wait for them to come you’re your sanitized part of the world because they are mostly uncomfortable in sanitized parts of the world.  When Paul tells the Corinthians to go out and be separate, the context is forming partnerships with unbelievers.  And in chapter 15 Paul writes about the corrupting influence of bad company to a Corinthian church that is thoroughly immersed and intoxicated by the world.  Although the fundamentalist believers—and there are many dear fundamentalist brothers and sisters—are not in sync with the Bible about how to interact with the world, we must hear their concerns.  If you were to have this conversation with a convinced fundamentalist he might very well say, “I know a number of evangelicals who tell me they are integrating into the world, but all of the ones I know have become like the world—same habits, same attitudes, same sins.” The weakness of the fundamentalist position is it keeps them from being obedient to be salt in the world and it can encourages self-righteousness because they are not around sinners and therefore more easily look down on them. 

The weakness with us evangelicals—and it’s a huge problem is—in our willingness to integrate into the world, we have far too often become like the world.  And a huge reason for this is--when we go into the world, we are not going in as missionaries with a desire and aim to minister Christ to them.  People like Tim Keller and Ed Stetzer call this living “missionally.”  Paul doesn’t hesitate to go onto a pagan ship with a pagan figurehead.  He’s not worried about being defiled.  His thought process is probably closer to, “All right, Lord—we are in the belly of the beast—thank you, that for your glory, you have brought me aboard Satan’s very ship to purge his kingdomSome who now trust in the savior gods can meet THE Savior—praise you Lord!”  As he did in all contexts, he boards that ship as a missionary to minister Christ to the lost.  He boards that dark ship as a flaming sacrifice for God and in his obedience to Christ; he’s worshipping God in the midst of those pagans.  That’s a thrilling way to live and frankly, it’s the best way to not become defiled when living in very dark contexts.  The way to stay pure in the midst of this dark world is not to live defensively, spending all your energies keeping away from defiling influences, but to go on the offensive as a missionary for Jesus.  Believers aren’t supposed to be afraid of this world’s satanic influences, the satanic influences are supposed to be afraid of us!  We need to remember who won on Calvary!

A final expression of God’s grace is: God’s encouragement of Paul from the church.   [put up map] We read in verse 12, “12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14 There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15 And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.”     Paul’s Journey to Rome

http://www.esvbible.org/media/esvsb/images/big/map-44-12.jpg

This must have been so sweet to Paul—to meet believers.  He had not seen any other than Luke and Aristarchus for more than four months. God’s grace is first seen here in that, though Paul is still a prisoner, he’s allowed to stay with the brothers at Puteoli for seven days.  As they are approaching Rome, some brothers who had somehow heard of his arrival in Italy, come to meet him from both Three Taverns and the Forum of Appius.  Those who came from Three Taverns had walked 43 miles—that’s two days journey at least—walking. Those who came from the Forum at Appius journeyed about 20 miles.  How encouraging must that have been?  And how anxious must these Roman believers have been to see Paul to go this far to meet him?  Luke writes in verse 15, “On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.”  From his epistles, we know that Paul was continually rejoicing in God, so this must have been an especially impassioned “thank you” for Luke to make mention of it.  Paul recognizes that this is not fundamentally about men who are willing to sacrificially love him.  It’s an expression of God’s grace to him and he thanked God for it.  When brothers and sisters do wonderful things for us—thank them, but don’t forget to praise God because they were just the conduits he used to pipe in some of his grace to you.

As we close, three questions.  First are we sensitive to God’s grace in our lives?  God is constantly showering us with grace.  Do we notice and if we do, are we thankful?  Do we divide God’s grace into the categories of “the mundane” and “the really impressive?” That’s a thoroughly artificial distinction.  It’s ALL impressive because God doesn’t have to do anything for us and it takes no more effort from him to what we call “big things” than we might call “little things.”  Oh, beloved—how much richer our lives would be if every day we prayed—“God, give me eyes to see your goodness to me today.”

Second—are we available to God for ministry?  One of my seminary professors told us that “sometimes the interruptions in your ministry ARE your ministry.”  Paul sets a great example for us here whether he’s gathering sticks or working miracles.  He places no artificial limits on what God might expect of him—he worships God all the time as a living sacrifice.  Are you available to God for ministry at all times, or are you the type of person whose schedule is so vacuum packed, that if it’s not on the calendar, you don’t do it, period—forget about what the Holy Spirit might be telling you.  There’s nothing wrong with scheduling, but it better be free enough for God to break into it.

Third, are we living missionally?  This is very hard and I make no claims of much progress here.  But the truth is—part of being available for God is living as a missionary to him in all contexts.  We are to attack Satan and his kingdom with bold, fearless living, not going into full retreat or pensively putting our toes in the water first to make sure we won’t get defiled.  However, as evangelicals, we must also be very careful that in our willingness to integrate into the world, we don’t become like the world.  But we must live missionally or to put it another way—we must by God’s grace live obediently.  May God give us the grace to see his grace in our lives, and respond to it at any moment in worship-filled obedience.



[1] http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_people_die_from_dysentery_a_year

[2] Bock, Acts, p. 745.

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