The God of Small Details

Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong” (Acts 25:1-5)

                 As I read this passage (actually, from a couple of different translations) I get the very distinct impression that Governor Festus had no clue that the Jewish leaders were planning to ambush and kill Paul, if he had come to Jerusalem. Luke, the historian who wrote the Book of Acts, somehow knew this, and our English translations make it to read like a parenthetical thought.

                 Yet the Scripture in its totality is God’s Word and there are no extra ideas here, so the clear meaning is that God by His sovereign direction – even over pagan or secular rulers – preserved Paul’s life in this way. Certainly He could have protected Paul even if they had brought him to Jerusalem, but it is clear that the evil plans of those who opposed the Gospel were thwarted by His oversight of the small details.

                 That principle is true in our lives as well. Life has a tendency to “throw us a curve” at times, to interrupt our carefully laid plans. These interruptions may or may not divert us from our plans ultimately, but we can be sure that if we are completely His, they are not accidents. That’s why the writer of the Proverbs says, “The mind of a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (16:9).

                 In the passage above, Paul had no control over the decision of Festus to conduct his hearing in Caesarea instead of Jerusalem, but it is comforting to realize that the Lord still is watching out for us by orchestrating the small details. Sometimes when He steps into our plans we also have no decisions in the matter, but at other times, He is seeking to prompt us to seek Him for some sort of wisdom. Either way, there is nothing that happens to us that He doesn’t at least allow. What a comfort that truth is in times of trouble and bewilderment!

The Gospel Yeast

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”  Luke 13:20-21

                 This is one of the few times in Scripture where yeast is not compared to sin. Most often it is used to speak of the way sin changes the state of a person’s heart. But in this case, that change is a positive one. The Gospel (the kingdom of God) actually alters the very nature of human development.

                 I came to know Christ in college. To many around me, the changes that took place in my life were probably considered changes that came with maturity and human development, but I knew different. There was a significant difference between the “BC” person and who I became.

                 Though my life as sheltered and stable, I grew up with no real sense of personal value. Before I came to Christ, I had no understanding of why I existed. I was scared to try new things because I feared ridicule or that I would fail and people would think poorly of me. I’m sure it was not intentionally communicated, but I believed my personal worth was a function of some unique contribution that I knew was not in me. Had I embraced an Eastern mystical religion in those days, it would have fit my don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor. I wasn’t passionate about anything so that I would avoid being criticized.

                 But Christ changed that. His presence in my life began to permeate everything I was and did. That “small” decision to trust Him with my life suddenly impacted the whole of my life, just like the yeast did to the dough in Jesus’ illustration. I recognized the Bible as the source of Truth; I saw Jesus as the Ruler over the universe; I may not have had clear vocational direction, but I knew it was somehow connected to my relationship with Him. All the pieces of my life that had previously seemed so fragmented, now were brought into order by His presence, like a magnet does to iron filings.

                 But it makes me wonder about some of the people near me. Has their internal orientation changed because of their decision to trust Christ? (Has the Gospel yeast permeated their lives?) Rather, have they viewed Christianity as “fire insurance,” simply to keep them from hell? When small children (even my own) trust Christ, does the Gospel yeast so alter their lives that they will be true to it in the turbulent adolescent years and beyond? Certainly, I can never peer into the hearts of these near me, but He does expect me to inspect the “fruit” or see if “the dough has risen.”

Weeping Prophets

Although they say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ still they are swearing falsely.” O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent (Jer 5:2-3).

             The indictment that Jeremiah levels against the people of his day could equally be applied to America today. Many in our society use language that suggests they believe in the Lord, but there is little evidence apart from their speech. When God corrected ancient Judah – perhaps through economic struggles or natural disasters – they did not repent. When He disciplined them, they acted like they felt no pain. At the very least, they weren’t changed by the painful trouble.

             This wasn’t merely a phenomenon among one socio-economic class either. The verses that follow the ones above indicate that Jeremiah discovered that it didn’t matter what the individual’s financial status was. Rich and poor alike hardened their hearts and refused to repent.

             But the real tragedy was that he discovered that even the political and religious leadership possessed the same unrepentant spirit.

             A cursory scan of the American Church will reveal a similar heart among our people. Churches are more concerned with full seats than they are with full hearts. Few churches will take a stand against sin for fear of offending the network of family and friends of the sinner in the process.

             It doesn’t seem to phase us that there are more and more natural disasters plaguing our country. We don’t seem to care that our politicians wink at the most sordid immorality. We are willing to justify anything in the name of “tolerance,” lest we offend someone. God, by definition, must love us and therefore put up with any sin we choose to embrace, so we’re not concerned about offending Him. Yet these things and the problems they create should cause us to fall on our knees to wail over the offense we have brought to the true and living God.

             The unrepentant spirit of his people created in Jeremiah a mournful spirit that led subsequent generations to call him “The Weeping Prophet.” That same spirit appears to be returning to those who grieve the aforementioned sins. It’s not a spirit of depression so much as it is a spirit of mourning over the low spiritual fervor of the American Church. We see how few people consult God through the Scriptures; people who pray appear to be the exception rather than the rule in the Church; few denominations are growing statistically, and those that are have only marginal increases. One of the few positive signs is that those that are earnest in spirit are beginning to revive the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting as a way of appealing to the God of Israel.

             The answer to America’s problems will not be found in an election – even if it is wildly successful to conservative causes. The answer – just as in Jeremiah’s day – will only be found in a people willing to fall before the Lord without any hint of self- righteousness, who will grieve and repent of the sins of this land.

 

The Object of Our Trust

Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. (Acts 27:9-12).

             I certainly feel the frustration of the Roman Centurion in this passage. It seems that most of my decisions also pit the wisdom of professionals against the wisdom of revelation. Now, before I comment more about the revelation, it is important to note that the Centurion was not a believer at this point, so he did not have a Christian frame of reference and he didn’t have a clue that his only place in the history of the world was his intersection with the life of Paul the Apostle.

             Personally I can excuse the Centurion for this bad decision (hindsight is 20/20). What I have trouble excusing are believers in our day who operate a Church as if it is a business. Certainly there are some business practices that are proper to follow: financial accountability, organizational management principles and living within our means are just a few.

             But I have been in settings where the leaders ignored the example of our Lord Jesus and ruled by their directives rather than leading as servants. The secular business model took precedence over the revealed Truth of Scripture. An unbelieving Centurion might be excused; but these leaders should have known better.

             There are also times when a Church needs to consciously set aside a normal practice to obey Scripture. One example is that Scripture continually commands us to give. Think about: the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4); the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-22); the principle of sowing and reaping (II Cor. 8-9); and the explicit teaching of our Lord in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you…” These teachings are diametrically opposed to most business models. The Christian businessman may compare “faith” with “risk management,” but the object of his trust is different. The businessman trusts in an expected return on his investments based upon statistics; the Christian trusts in the faithfulness of the God he serves.

             As with Paul and the Centurion in Acts 27, our decisions always betray the object of our trust. It may not be evident immediately, but sooner or later it will become clear. This helps us make sense of the verse in Hebrews that says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6).