When Circumstances Get in the Way of Life
August 12, 2018
What do we do when life is upended? When we find ourselves on a detour? In this morning's reading that's exactly what's happened with our good friend, the Apostle Paul. Unfairly accused and locked up in Herod's palace, Paul has been waylaid from the important work God has for him.
He's not the only person who has ever experienced something like that. Circumstances regularly get in the way of life. A broken relationship. The loss of a job. A diagnosis we don't expect. A divorce we don't want. Unjust accusations. Failure to achieve something we've worked hard at. These are the kind of things that can break a person.
How do you deal with detours like these? Paul must have been deeply disappointed by the detour he found himself on. Locked away, unable to do God's work – for more than two years! How do you cope with this kind of disappointment without losing it, lashing out, or becoming depressed?
Here is the answer: Paul learned to trust God with the detours. He knew that detours are part of the journey, and how we travel them matters. In our text this morning, Paul shows us three things that are important when you find yourself on a detour:
One, don't take shortcuts. Two, treat people as people, not as obstacles. Three, take advantage of rest stops. Let's look at these one at a time.
First, don't take shortcuts.
Two weeks ago my son Nathaniel and I were in downtown Seattle on a Friday afternoon. We began heading home at 3:00. Did I say it's a Friday? In late July? Yes, a nightmare. We couldn't get near the ferry terminal. We head toward I-5 to drive around. Nathaniel navigates with his cell phone. There's an accident on the James Street on-ramp, he says, so we head south through side streets, construction, congestion, you get the idea. We're finally on the freeway, heading for Tacoma and the Narrows Bridge. By now traffic is building. Everyone wants out of town. Accidents are popping up everywhere on Nathaniel's phone. Let's take Highway 99, he says; it looks clear. Sounds like a good shortcut. Two and a half hours later, we arrive in Fife, still a long way from the Narrows Bridge. A nightmare.
Okay, that's not the same kind of shortcut we're talking about with Paul, but it's every bit as tempting and problematic. The shortcuts Paul warns us against are the ones that compromise our morals. Don't do it! he says. Maintain your integrity.
Paul says, “Because of this [my hope in God], I always try to maintain a clear conscience before God and all people.” (Acts 24:16) Paul had plenty of chances while he was locked up to get out, but those chances involved some moral compromises. We're told that good old Governor Felix “hoped that Paul would bribe him, so he sent for him quite often and talked with him.” (Acts 24:26)
It's not that hard to justify a bribe as okay, a means that is justified by the ends. After all, what good to God is Paul in prison, anyway? Surely the churches would help Paul come up with the money, just to get him back to work for the gospel. You could almost consider it like paying bail!
Paul sees things differently. He lives his life in a way that says no ends, no matter how high and lofty, justify a shortcut that is unethical, immoral, or otherwise contrary to who God is.
When Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, he was tempted to turn a stone into bread. When he was in Gethsemane, he could have called in companies of angels to rescue him from the cross. He didn't do it. If Jesus doesn't take shortcuts, he wouldn't want us to, either.
Detours are part of the journey, and how we travel them matters. Don't take shortcuts.
The second thing Paul shows us is to treat people as people, not as obstacles.
We need to view the people in our path as those who have been put there by God. They are not obstacles to go around. And they are not objects for us to manipulate to get us out of our circumstances.
Regardless of how difficult or unhelpful or grouchy someone is, regardless of how they treat or mistreat us, every single person we encounter is someone made in God's image. They are those for whom Christ died, and therefore they are worthy of our time, our prayers, and our most carefully chosen words and actions.
Paul had every right to see Tertullus the attorney as an obstacle. Tertullus twisted the truth and said awful things about Paul. “We have found this man to be a troublemaker who is constantly stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the cult known as the Nazarenes.” (Acts 24:5) Tertullus wanted to lock Paul up and throw away the key. Paul's response? He cheerfully shares the gospel with everyone there, Tertullus included. (Acts 24:10)
Paul would be well within his rights to view Felix the governor as an obstacle, too. After all, Felix caves to Paul's accusers and keeps Paul locked up without deciding his case for two years! Instead of being angry at him, Paul hangs out with him!
A few days later Felix came back with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish. Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. "Go away for now," he replied. "When it is more convenient, I'll call for you again." (Acts 24:24-25)
Paul shares his story of how Christ met him and listens to Felix's story. In fact, Paul comes to know Felix so well and speak to him so personally that Felix gets pretty uncomfortable – Paul chooses his words so carefully that they hit home.
Paul teaches us to see people as people, not as obstacles to go around, not as objects to use for our own needs. When you are on a detour, that can be hard to do. Most of the time, detours take a lot of our energy. We find ourselves very focused on our own problems, and it's hard to pay attention to the needs of others.
My friend Karen has been going over to Seattle for medical treatments for many years now. She has every right to focus on herself and her own needs, and to view the medical professionals as people who are there to serve her. But I have been struck over and over by how she sees those professionals as real people, people who get tired and sometimes discouraged. She takes time to listen to the nurse who is having a bad day, to people whose kids might be giving them heartaches or who are having troubles in their marriages.
Karen's attitude even extends to the people who ride the bus. I remember her sharing about one rider who tearfully told her how frightened she was because she had just been diagnosed with her own serious disease. Turns out it's the same disease Karen has been living with for more than a decade. Karen took time just to listen and reassure the woman she was not alone.
Treat people as people and not as obstacles. And finally, take advantage of the rest stops. When you find yourself on a detour, the rest stops are especially important. You might not realize how tiring it is to drive unfamiliar roads until you actually take a break and get out of the car. And then you feel it. It's the same way with life. What makes a detour a detour is its unfamiliarity, which can make it especially tiring.
We read in our text that Felix allows Paul's friends to care for his needs. Asking for and receiving help is hard for many of us. We much prefer to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. Some of us really hate to feel needy. One of the things detours can do is knock down our sense of invincibility. It can be extremely disorienting. We are Americans. We are used to removing obstacles from our paths. When we encounter one that we can't move, it can be particularly frustrating. We are likely to face some very uncomfortable feelings: anger, fear, disorientation. Rest is necessary.
You might say that Paul had a two-year long sabbath rest while he was locked up in prison. Oh, I don't mean he did nothing. Besides sharing the gospel with Felix and Drusilla, I'm sure he was praying earnestly for the churches and his friends and coworkers. He was probably writing letters to them and studying the Bible. But it was a sabbath in the sense that Paul couldn't make his life happen while he was in prison. He was forced to accept his own limitations and allow God to work. Sabbath rests are good for all of us.
Take advantage of the rest stops. God puts them there for a reason.
Friends, our brother Paul shows us that detours are part of the journey; it's how we travel them that matters. Don't take shortcuts. Treat people as people. Take advantage of the rest stops.
When we find ourselves on a detour, we need to rely on God even more than we usually do. Because Paul trusted God, he could walk straight into that detour, knowing God had his hand on him every step of the way. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Rom. 8:28 NLT)
We are never out of the palm of God's hand, no matter how hard the circumstances. God is always working out his purposes for us. As those who belong to Christ, we can trust there is never a detour where we are alone. God is always with us. Which means, when you think of it, that with God there are no detours at all.