“And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts is the story of the birth of the church. It’s a story of starts and stops, dramatic growth, and sudden setbacks. If you were going to make a up a story that you hope would inspire everyone to believe, no matter what, I’m not sure it’s the story you would tell. If you believe in Jesus, and admire these early saints, you love their dogged determination to do the right, faithful thing, no matter what the cost – no matter how sharp the setback. But if you’re looking at this early group of Jesus followers from the outside, you might wonder: “Hmmm, what’s up with all these obstacles, setbacks, and reversals? If they are who they say they are, shouldn’t they be going from victory to victory?”
The passage from Acts, above, is the end of the story we looked at last Wednesday: Paul just recounted the story of God’s redemption to the Jews in the Synagogue at Pisidia – the whole story from Abraham, through Moses, the prophets, and now Jesus Christ. When he was done telling the story, the results were, well, what they were: Not everyone liked what Paul had to say. Not everyone wanted Paul to stay in Pisidia. Many people came to hear him, again, the following Sabbath, but a few powerful folks wanted him to leave. And in this story, those few powerful people won the day: Paul and Barnabas were driven out.
Now, if you had spent that time doing faithful, good work in a city, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to Jew and Gentile alike, only to have a handful of powerful people make life heck for you – so much so, that you had to leave – you might be despondent. You might wonder: ‘Why did I bother? What gives? Doesn’t God want “success” everywhere he sends us?’ I know I might feel that way. But I don’t think Paul and Barnabas did. And I think they had the response they did, because they knew that God was in control in the setbacks, in the sudden reversals – God is in control. An easy thing to say – an easy thing to believe, maybe. A very difficult thing to live.
We read, “they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” Amazing. Just amazing, that they would react this way. But possible for you, and for me. I think many of you know that I came from a church plant in South Carolina, and – as you can imagine – trying to start a church in a pandemic was very, very difficult. Starting a church under normal circumstances is not for the faint of heart: the setbacks and disappointments are sometimes dramatic and can cause you to question whether you’re really doing something God wants you to do.
My experience in South Carolina certainly taught me to trust God even in the middle of extraordinarily difficult reversals, and to find – by his grace – joy and a deeper sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. That shouldn’t surprise me: It was Christ’s own experience, and he promises the same for those who follow him.
Paul and Barnabas had a deep, abiding trust in God’s leading – that no season with God is ever without purpose and reward. The purpose, sometimes, is simply more of God’s joy, and being filled with his Spirit. That, friends, is more than enough: It means we are outfitted to be God’s witnesses wherever we are sent.
Have you experienced dramatic reversals and/or deep disappointments in the past, few years? Maybe you’re at that point now. If that’s you, I found this question very helpful when I was at a similar point: “Since I’m not getting what I thought I would get – what I thought God wanted – what does God want to do in and through me, in this disappointment?” If the disappointment feels a little like death, I get it. This is also true: God is all about resurrection.
Prayer: Father, I don’t get why I’m at where I’m at. It feels like everything I wanted – that you wanted – is falling apart in my hands. What is the way forward, God? Help me to see how you want to transform and renew me, even in this disappointment – this “death”. Amen.