Shake It Off ~ August 25, 2019 ~ Acts 28:1-6
We are in the book of Acts this morning, chapter 28. Let me set the scene a little bit. Paul the apostle was on his third missionary journey, when he is arrested and put in prison in Jerusalem for the crime of preaching the gospel. When the order is given for him to be lashed, he asks, “Is it legal to whip a Roman citizen before he has been tried?” See, one of the benefits of Roman citizenship was you did get your day in court, versus non-citizens; and Paul, although born a Jew, a very strict Pharisee, he also enjoyed Roman citizenship, so he had the right to a fair trial. In fact, as a Roman citizen you actually had the right to appeal your case to Caesar himself, and that’s what Paul did. So, eventually he is put on a ship bound for Rome; but on the way, there is a tremendous storm. Everyone fears for their lives. But the Lord assures Paul that no one will perish. Although the ship is wrecked, all 276 people on board make it safely to shore.
Please join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the Word of God. Let us pray.
Lord, upon the pages of this book is Your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This morning’s reading is from the book of Acts, chapter 28, verses 1 through 6.
Once we were safe on shore, we learned that we were on the island of Malta. The people of the island were very kind to us. It was cold and rainy, so they built a fire on the shore to welcome us.
Paul gathered an armful of sticks and was laying them on the fire, a poisonous
snake, driven out by the heat, bit him on the hand. The people of the island
saw it hanging from his hand and said to each other, “A murderer, no doubt!
Though he escaped the sea, justice will not permit him to live.” But Paul shook
off the snake into the fire and was unharmed. The people waited for him to
swell up or suddenly drop dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw
that he wasn’t harmed, they changed their minds and decided he was a god.
May God bless the reading of His holy Word.
Interestingly to note, the first thing that Luke points out – Luke, the author of the book of Acts – is their unexpected reception. The people living on Malta were nice to them, welcomed them. You see, the Maltese were known as the barbarous people, because they did not conform in language, or culture, or tradition, to either the Greeks or the Romans. And the Romans looked down upon anyone who didn’t do so as barbarians. If you did not want to be Roman in every way, you are a barbarian. That is what Paul and Luke grew up hearing over and over and over again. So, they had a preconceived notion of what the people of Malta were supposed to be like; therefore, they were understandably surprised when they are welcomed by them.
See, many people would see a shipwreck as an opportunity. There was a longstanding maritime tradition of heading to the shore, heading to the beach after a big storm to see whatever was there, just for the taking. It’s called Finder’s Keepers and it’s happened ever since they invented boats. They put two and two together that when there was a big storm, boats would be wrecked, and up onto shore would float some pretty valuable things. Back then, you couldn’t go to Walmart, you couldn’t go to IKEA to get furniture, so if a dresser floated up on shore, you got a dresser, or a trunk, or some clothes, or whatever! It was a free shopping day after a big storm. That’s what they were expecting.
That’s not what happened. Instead of enriching themselves, these people offer kindness and mercy. That’s not what Paul and Luke expected, and it made me wonder: Who are the Maltese in our lives? Those we already pre-judge? Are they a different color? Do they speak a different language? Are they rich? “Oh, they’re rich, so they must…” Are they poor? “Well, they’re poor, you know…” Are they a democrat, or a republican? Are they a different faith tradition? I know all of us would love to say, “I don’t think like that at all!” I don’t know.
Why don’t people come to Hartford? Is it because of, perhaps, a reputation of being a barbarous people? I mean, I’ll never forget. When I first got called to this church in 2005, I was given the word, and I was driving down here. I got a phone call, it went to my voicemail and I listened to it later, from a woman, a member of my church up in Maine. She was literally in tears, crying. Not because I was leaving, but because of where I was going! She feared that deeply for my life, because Hartford is Mogadishu, Somalia! “You’re going to get raped, and murdered, and robbed, and assaulted, and killed!” I come into the city all the time. We go to breakfast; we go to dinner. There’s plenty of places to eat. There’re the movies, there’s the Tobacco Shop on Pratt Street. You’ve got the waterfront, Bushnell Park. There’s a lot of amazingly good things about this city, but people pre-judge it. People pre-judge the people. They don’t come.
So, we all, I believe, have some Maltese in our lives that we just don’t necessarily admit. I believe it’s a daily battle for us all. As Christ followers like Paul and Luke, we should look at people as individuals, created by God, and not pre-judge based upon what somebody else may say. If we do, we will often, like Paul and Luke, find ourselves blessed and surprised as well.
But obviously the highlight, the climax of this story, is the snake bite, right? A poisonous snake jumps out of the fire and bites Paul on the hand. Now, on some level, if you were Paul, maybe you would say, “Oh, for crying out loud. Now this?” I mean, let’s review Paul’s journey. He began his faith journey blinded, remember? He was on the road to Damascus, a very zealous Pharisee. He was trying to arrest Christians, put them on trial, and on the way, Christ appears to him. He is knocked to the ground. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and he’s blinded. He’s led into Damascus. A man named Ananias comes and lays hands on him, and something like scales fall from his eyes. He once was blinded, and now he can see again. That not only physically happened to Paul; it was a metaphor, right? It was an analogy. Before that encounter with Christ, he was blinded to the reality that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah; after that encounter, he believes. That was his conversion experience. As soon as he believes in Jesus, he asks to be baptized. As soon as he’s baptized, he begins preaching the truth that Jesus is Lord; and a short time later, after publicly proclaiming the risen Christ, the Jews threaten to kill him. He escapes only because some believers lower him in a basket from the city wall.
So, he begins his journey blinded. He begins his journey with his life being threatened, having to leave town. Later, when his faith itself is being questioned as genuine, he fills us in on a little more of his story. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul tells us this:
been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced
death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me
thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.
Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and day adrift at
sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and
from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from
the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the
seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I
have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry
and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold,
without enough clothing to keep me warm.
(2 Corinthians 11:23-27)
Paul’s had a tough time of it, I would say. What does that tell us? Well, as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, and will continue to hear me say, if you came to Christ expecting that your life would now be nothing but peace, joy, love, fulfillment, and lasting happiness, you were misinformed. That’s not what it’s about. We’re not supposed to come to Christ expecting peace, joy, love, lasting happiness, and fulfillment; we’re supposed to come to Christ because we’re trying to avoid eternal separation from Him. We’re trying to avoid hell. That’s the point for coming to Christ. A couple of weeks ago, I said when we were talking about Jesus being caught in the storm, “Hey, if Jesus cannot avoid all storms, why do we think that we could, or should?” Similarly, Paul has been caught in storms as well – you heard the list – including being shipwrecked three times! Now, I know this sounds depressing. “Why so glum, Pastor?” I’m sorry! But it’s not glum to point out that we live in a fallen world. It’s just reality. Trials and troubles, difficulties and dilemmas are going to happen. It’s this thing called life. There are storms, and there are snakes. It’s been that way all along, since Adam and Eve. We are reminded of this truth repeatedly in Scripture; in life! I mean, we all remember what the Egyptians did to the Hebrews, right? Four hundred years of slavery – beat them, whipped them, starved them. We know what Nero did to early Christians. He used to impale them on sharpened stakes, cover them with a flammable liquid, and set them on fire to use them as human tiki torches to light the way so you could see where you were going in the dark.
Yes, it’s a fallen world. There are storms. There are snakes. It didn’t get any better as time passed. In the Middle Ages we had the Inquisition, we had the Crusades. It didn’t get any better. Then of course we had the big 3: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Hitler is responsible for 17,000,000 deaths. See, the 6,000,000 figure we always hear was just the Jews. Hitler didn’t just kill Jews. He killed the Jews, he killed gypsies, he killed homosexuals, he killed Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he killed Catholics, and he killed Poles – 17,000,000 people are attributed to him. Not to be outdone, Stalin is responsible for 23,000,000 deaths, most of which, his own countrymen. Mao? He laughs at them both. Experts say over 50,000,000 people dead because of the reign of Mao Zedong. Yes, it’s a fallen world, full of fallen people, and there are storms, and there are snakes.
And that’s just Europe and Asia. I could go on like this all morning. What about this country? What about the Unites States of America? Think back to before we even got here. When the first European settlers landed on the shores of what would become the United States of America, most experts estimate the Native American population to be 50,000,000. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, 50,000,000 Native Americans. When the census was taken in the year 1900, do you know how many there were? 300,000. 49,700,000 Native Americans. That makes Mao Zedong jealous. By the latest census figures, it’s up to 6.6 million, so we’ve gone from 50,000,000 to about six and a half million Native Americans in North America.
Things didn’t get better, and of course, there was slavery. We can’t deny that. And the Civil War to defeat slavery, which cost 600,000 lives. And then those who were defeated did not want to go down in defeat, they wanted to continue to terrorize those folks, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a fallen world, full of fallen people. Unless you’re a student of history, this stuff seems to be forgotten.
Did you know that on October 1, 1910, the LA Times building in Los Angeles was bombed by labor activists? Twenty-one people died, 20 injured. September 16, 1920, a bomb in a horse-drawn wagon went off in front of the Morgan Bank in lower Manhattan. Thirty-eight people died, 300 injured. Have you ever heard of Andrew Kehoe? Andrew Kehoe’s Michigan farm was foreclosed for failure to pay school taxes, so he went and placed 400 kg of TNT in the school. It exploded May 18, 1927. Forty children died. The school superintendent confronted Kehoe on a nearby street. He turned and fired into the TNT in the back of his car, killing himself and the superintendent, for a total of 46 people dead, 58 injured. There are some people here, this morning, who are old enough to remember Charles Whitman. On August 1, 1966, former marine Charles Whitman climbed into the tower at the University of Austin campus, and as a sniper, killed 19 people, 31 injured. December 31, 1986, three employees in a labor dispute with management set the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico on fire. Ninety-seven died, 140 injured. We all remember April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. One hundred sixty-nine died, 675 injured. 9/11 – 2,759 dead, 8,700 injured. Newtown, CT. Twenty children dead, 6 teachers.
Why this list? And believe me, this is just a partial list. Because just this month, we have experienced shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, all horrible and the most recent example of the existence of evil. But as I just pointed out, it’s not new. It truly isn’t. This has been a fallen world for a very long time. In fact, I want to share with you a quote:
Our Earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.
That’s from an Assyrian stone tablet – 2800 BC. This has been a fallen world, filled with fallen people, for a very long time. I mean, are the deaths of the twenty children in Newtown in 2012 more tragic than the forty that died by Andrew Kehoe’s hand in 1927? One by a rifle, one by a bomb. This has been going on for a long time, folks. And it can be overwhelming, I completely understand that. Sometimes it can be so depressing and so overwhelming, we just want to sit in our homes and not go anywhere. We feel like we have to look over our shoulder. What do we do? We have to do something, right? What do we do?
First, we pray. We pray for the victims and their families; we pray for this nation and its people. Sadly, what I’ve been hearing in the news – maybe you’ve heard it too – a lot of people have been pushing back. “Never mind your prayers!” they say. “We don’t need your thoughts and prayers; they don’t cut it! What we need is more laws!” Do we really mean that? Because if we do, we are saying we have more faith in our government than we do in our God.
Let me ask this question, show of hands. How many people here this morning believe that some version of racism still exists in the United States of America? Well, we must be all mistaken. I don’t understand. We passed a law! The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – you cannot discriminate against anyone based on the color of their skin; it is illegal! It’s a good thing heroine is illegal too, or else we’d have a problem with that.
Look, I am certainly not saying that laws are not important. I believe that raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 was a good idea! Personally, I think we should raise the voting age to 21 or to 25 as well, but that’s a different story for a different time! Laws to clean our air and our water are great. Laws to take care of our environment are important, and they are good. You know what the youth group BLAST did yesterday? We picked up trash! We walked around our address here at 277 Main Street, back on John, through the alleys, and up on Main Street, and we picked up. We cleaned, because they wanted to. It was their idea. They wanted to serve, they wanted to clean, that’s what we did. Let me tell you this, I think we should pass some laws about littering!
“Now, wait a minute!” you say. “God was pretty big into laws, wasn’t He?” Yeah. He was. In fact, not only do we have the Ten Commandments, but if you add up all of the laws in the Old Testament, you’ll come up with 614. There are 614 laws God expects to hold us accountable to, but remember – how often do I always say? – why does God give us laws? Why did God give us the Ten Commandments, which none of us can keep? Does He set us up for failure? No. God gave us laws to reveal to us we can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t do it under our own power. We need help. And He says, “That’s okay. I am sending you the Messiah, the Christ; and He, not laws, will change hearts.”
That’s what has to happen, folks. Hearts need to change. Jesus says in Matthew 15:19:
from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality,
theft, lying, and slander.”
It all comes from the heart. Hearts need to change! And only Jesus can do that.
“Oh Pastor, you just think that Jesus is the answer to everything.” Why, yes, I do! because He is! It’s not that I don’t believe in laws, or don’t think that we may need some new ones, or to tweak the ones that we already have. I’m not saying that. But I also believe that passing laws is, in some way, the easy way out. Have a problem? Call your Congressman! Call your Senator! Get them to pass a law! Bada boom, bada bing, problem solved! That is how it works, and I would encourage every single one of you – I don’t know many people who know who their elected representatives are. You should. They are representing you. Our two Senators are Blumenthal and Murphy. Our representative is John Larson. My State Representatives are John Fanfara and Russ Morin. I didn’t vote for any of them, but they represent me! So, if I have an issue or problem, those are the people I should talk to. You should know who your elected representatives are. If you have an issue, you should contact them. But we should not think, “Oh, just pass a law, bada boom, bada bing, I did something, now I can go back to my life feeling good about myself; living in a world without racism, littering, or heroine.”
Laws are only a piece of the puzzle, friends. We can’t stop there. There is more to do. The real game changer remains Jesus. Yes, He is the only one who can change hearts. We can pass a bunch of laws – and I pray that they are effective – but our work is not done. Only Christ can turn this thing around. In God we trust, not in government.
So, are we sharing the gospel with our family and our friends and our co-workers? Or are we trying to do what only God can do? We’re trying to change hearts by passing laws, and then we wonder why it isn’t working. I know sharing the gospel is hard. Believe me, I do. But that’s the only thing that’s going to change the direction of our world.
We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible. That’s why we have these invite cards. If you don’t want to tell somebody about Jesus, all you have to do is ask them one question: “Do you go to church? No? Well, I’d like to invite you to mine.” That’s it! “If you have any questions there are videos on the back – truelife.org – you can click on all these videos, answer a lot of these questions in the privacy of your own home, but we’d love to see you.” That’s it. Share the gospel. Introduce them to Jesus or invite them here so that we can introduce them to Jesus. Jesus is the answer. It’s the only thing that’s going to turn this around, it’s the only thing that’s going to make a difference.
The second thing we need to do brings us back to Paul’s snake. Paul’s had a challenge. There’s been a lot of storms in his life. And there’s been a lot of storms in all of our lives, I understand that. But this snake jumps off, this poisonous snake jumps off and latches onto his hand. One more storm for Paul to face. What does Paul do? Shakes it off. I am not saying we are supposed to dismiss these tragedies that take place, to ignore them, to pretend that didn’t happen. I’m not saying that; no one is saying that. But we do need to realize we live in a fallen world full of fallen people. Sorry. That is simply a fact. Stuff happens. And until Jesus returns, things like that will continue to happen, as they have since the beginning. It won’t matter how many laws we pass.
Nonetheless, we cannot, we must not let Satan take us down. That’s what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to get us to abandon our faith. He’s trying to get us to lose our trust in God. And he will kill as many men, women, and children as he can to achieve that objective. And he is good at his job. Thirty-one people dead in El Paso and Dayton. You know how many other people died that day? 1200. 1200 children died that day. 1200 children have died every single day since January 22, 1973 when the United States legalized abortion on demand – not just when the mother’s life was in danger, not just when the baby’s life was in danger – just because I want to. That’s over 60,000,000 kids. That makes Mao Zedong jealous.
Satan is good at his job. I understand it can be overwhelming. It truly can. This must be how the people felt in Bath, Michigan in 1927 when forty children died in the bombing. Satan is on the attack. Onward, Christian soldier! The Maltese are waiting for Paul to collapse. “Aha! He’s got bitten by a poisonous snake, we’re just waiting for him to swell up and drop dead!” Does Paul give up? Does Paul give in? What does Paul do? He shakes it off. Do not let Satan plant seeds of discouragement in your spirit. If we do, he wins.
I know it’s hard. I never said it wasn’t. No one enjoys being caught in a storm or bitten by a snake. But think about it this way – the poison was not going to kill Paul. Why? Because he was inoculated with the antidote – the Holy Spirit. Paul hasn’t fell, even after being beaten, after being in prison, after being chased out of town, after being shipwrecked three times, and now after being bitten by a poisonous snake. No. Paul has not given in. He has not given up. Instead, he shook it off, and he wrote in Philippians 4:13:
can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.
When we do the same, our example, like Paul, reveals to others a power feed. Don’t give in. don’t give up. That’s what he wants.
Now, I know. I know there are people looking for answers, for easy answers to these situations. There isn’t an easy answer. Trials and tribulations, difficulties and dilemmas are going to happen. This is a fallen world, full of fallen people, but we cannot let Satan win. We have to shake it off and endure. Only then, when people encounter Christ through you, will hearts start to change. We will only see less of this:
When we begin to see more of Jesus. It is harder than just passing laws, because it demands something of you and me. Who else is going to tell people about Christ, and change some hearts before they pick up a gun? Before they make a bomb? Before they pick up a knife? Yes, it’s harder than making a law; but it’s also far more effective, and I want to be effective. I want God to use me powerfully. I want people to see Him in me in times of tragedy. I also want to shake off the devil’s attempt at poisoning my faith. I want to yell at him, “Get thee behind me, Satan! You will not take me down!” That feels good to say. Repeat after me: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” “You will not take me down!” “I can do anything through Christ who gives me strength!” Yes! Can I get an amen? Yes, would you stand and pray with me?