Greater Good From Lesser Evils (sermon text version)

Today’s message comes with an important re-working in light of situations like the terrorism we witnessed on Friday.  Those acts of war in Paris—these catastrophic events of desperate evil—will require a reaction of universal condemnation of both the violence and any rejoicing over what happened by anyone.

No sane person ought to rejoice in terrorism.

I believe that each person standing up to a microphone today owes the listeners a sense of reassurance that terrorism is wrong and that God will someday and in some way bring good from it.  Evil will be punished and Good will prevail.  With that preface, today’s message is not so much global like what happened in Paris or Beirut…as it is personal. What you can do when confronted with choices that are all lemons. Choices that are all bad but choose you must.

When we last left off with the Apostle Paul, he was still sitting in prison. For years, he’d been the personal on-call evangelist to Governor Felix who was our case study in how many obstacles there are to someone who is rich and powerful getting into heaven. Satan does what Satan can do by way of throwing obstacles at us, but way too often, we’re our own worst enemies. Felix had—from the world’s perspective—everything working for him. From eternity’s perspective, he had it all against him. A false sense of security that would only betray him in the end. A warped understanding of power and authority that would leave him without a leg to stand on. Riches that could buy him most anything earthly and temporal…but nothing heavenly and eternal.

Felix is now removed from office so even what he had is gone and he was replaced by Porcius Festus who really isn’t a whole lot better from Paul’s standpoint. More prison. More trials. More self-defense. It’s like someone simply hit the Restart button.

lemons.jpgToday, we’ll see an example of what to do when confronted with decisions that are less than ideal. How to make lemonade when the world offers us choices that are nothing but lemons.
How to yet achieve a greater good when confronted with nothing but greater and lesser evils.

Felix is gone and Paul has experienced a Restart even while in prison. But behind it all, there’s a greater good in the lesser evil in Festus. Living proof of the vastly misused Romans 8: 28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The new guy Festus’ actions—though improper and unjust—served to advance Paul’s ministry and God’s Kingdom in a myriad of ways. The greater good from the lesser evils.

Felix had been profoundly unpopular and the infighting between Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea led to an investigation and that recall of Felix out of his governorship. The good news is that the monogrammed towels GF at the governor’s mansion could still be used. No more Governor Felix but now a Governor Festus. It’s all good. Sort of.

Festus is new on the scene at the seat of Rome in Caesarea and is making his way through the province when he passes through Jerusalem. Not missing a trick, the Jews let him know of one of Felix’s loose ends. There’s this guy Paul in prison. Acts 25:1 Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, 2 where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. 3 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 may be new but he wasn’t born yesterday, so he figures he’ll do things by the book. They’d already presented the charges in v 2. But it wasn’t official. It needs to be done in Caesarea to be official.

4 Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. 5 Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.”

“If he has done anything wrong.” Open mind. That’s good.

6 After spending eight or ten days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. 7 When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove.

These chief priests and other Jewish leaders obviously have had Paul living rent free in their heads. It’s been 2 years and they still haven’t forgotten Paul and how ticked off they are! They still have serious charges…seriously false charges. They can’t let it go! They cannot prove a thing and yet, here they go again! Paul must be thinking he’s having a recurring nightmare. They’re still trying to dazzle the Governor with the same old shtick. Same old false charges. One wonders if that lawyer Tertullus was there again or if he through with billable hours and told them they’re on their own this time as he pondered how a prisoner got the better of a professional lawyer the last time. No mention of Tertullus, but here goes Paul. He gives his defense again.

8 Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

I wonder if Festus sort of felt like one of those judges on daytime TV. I only know these shows exist because they’ve been on while I’ve been in waiting rooms that have had a TV on. I always look at those judges and the people coming in who clearly don’t play well in groups and wonder about those people. Even the judge. Invariably there’s some petty and relatively unimportant thing that went bad and no one has the maturity to say, “Hey, you know this is really petty. Let’s just settle this ourselves.” But then again, they might end up like Alexander Hamilton and just have a duel and be done with it. I’m not sure that was the best system of conflict resolution but they did weird things back in the colonial era. And weird things, too, I guess back in the days of Festus.

9 Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, [Why a favor to these guys? Why???] said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”

Let’s rephrase: Hey Paul, are you willing to throw yourself to the vigilante justice crowd and let yourself be sacrificed in Jerusalem? Better there with a mess than in my back yard. I need to get you out of my jail, off my docket, and out of my life. I don’t want to go the same route as Felix since chances are good the next governor would have to get new monogrammed towels. I need to soothe tensions between the Jews and the Gentiles in my province to keep my job and to keep out of trouble. So how about it, Paul? Can we throw you to the wolves there in Jerusalem?

Paul, far from speechless, points out the obvious…that the seat of Rome where Festus is…is Caesar’s court:

10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

Appealing to Caesar. The right of every Roman citizen was to seek the highest court possible. It was kind of like appealing your way up to the Supreme Court in search of genuine justice.

Paul saw this as the lesser of two evils and God saw this as the greater good. Rather than go back to Jerusalem where Paul had already testified and would be sure to die, Paul remembered that God told him that he’d testify in Rome…and that meant Caesar. Standing trial before Caesar’s court might mean death (and eventually, yes, Paul will be martyred for his faith) but Paul was ready to die for the Gospel and had a promise from God that he’d testify in Rome also (Acts 23:11). So to Rome he’d go. He’d appeal to Caesar.

We’ve all experienced decisions we must make in which there is no genuinely good choice. It’s about making the best of a bad situation. Lemonade from lemons. Choosing the lesser of two evils, even while upholding our own integrity in the process.

In a perfect world, the choices would be perfect. But ours is a fallen world and the choices aren’t always good ones.

So here are some biblical thoughts to help you when faced with less than ideal options:

  1. Mark 12:17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.” Identify what belongs to God in the situation and make sure that is not compromised. Paul knew that truth, testimony, and devotion belonged to God. The verdict and the trial would be Caesar’s. Jesus modeled it. Paul simply followed the way that Jesus walked ahead of him.
  2. John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Identify the most loving thing you can do for the benefit of others and do that. That’s what Paul did. Death was ahead no matter what, either back in Jerusalem or ahead in Rome. Paul embraced the uncertain future trusting that God who had promised Rome would faithfully bring fruit from Paul’s testimony between now and his end. Rome, he knew, was promised.
  3. Romans 12: 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” Identify where the faith issue is most obvious and press into it. It took greater faith for Paul to trust what was ahead—a promised yet uncertain future path, than for him to take matters into his own hands to get his own vengeance. Greater faith than for him to guess what was certain: that he’d end up dead if he went back to Jerusalem. Paul believed God even if vengeance upon the false-accusing-Jews would never happen in his lifetime. Paul did not go back to Jerusalem, round up a bunch of Christians to fight for him and to try to get his pound of flesh, calling down fire from God upon those false accusers. Had Paul chosen the path of self—the taking of matters into his own hands—it didn’t mean that God was obligated to deliver Paul from bad choices. The truth is God is not obligated to rescue us from what we’ve chosen even if He can deliver us to serve the greater good.
  4. Psalm 37:7 “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” Identify where the peace of God rests. The peace of God is resting in Paris—and available to all who seek it—even if we can’t see it clearly there. Why? Because it’s not always the same as world peace. It’s not external and on the streets, but within and by faith. God does not want us making compromises with our enemies which might be peace in a different sense, but certainly not in the godly sense. The peace of God isn’t the same as peace the world gives. Peace with God comes from having that sense of shalom—an undivided heart…undivided by doubt, undivided by sin, and undivided by self-interests of human pride, expectation of reward, and rebellion against God. Paul wasn’t looking at this for what was in it for him. He was patiently trusting God with the outcome. It was trust in God that told Paul to appeal to Caesar and be patient.

So here we are, confronted by worldwide terrorism and the hard, dire, really bad choices in a global sense. Everyone from the terrorists to the victims is a sinner from God’s perspective. So what do we do?

Before the terror in Beirut and Paris occurred, back when my sermon was done on Friday morning, my contemporary application was this: In a far more muted sense, in the US, we’ve been in the middle of debates and campaigns for the 2016 Presidential Primaries. Every one of the candidates on both sides is a sinner. We’re faced, irrespective of political party, with imperfect choices.

So what do we do on a global scale or on a personal scale?

My advice…and Paul’s advice…would be to do what Jesus did and what Paul did. Let’s recap:

  1. Don’t compromise on what belongs to God. Don’t give God’s authority over to the Caesar. The truth, testimony, and our devotion belong to God. Don’t compromise that.
  2. The most loving thing isn’t always the nicest thing. The loving thing is sacrificial. Self-sacrifice isn’t the same as irresponsibility. Sacrificing self for the benefit of others is a responsible move. Why? Because the next generation needs today’s truth and Christian testimony every bit as much as we needed it. We don’t need to throw ourselves to the wolves in order to be loving. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do looks more like tough love, speaking the truth in love. Both the truth and the love are important. Don’t compromise truth or love on the altar of expediency, in search of the quickest Band-aid, or trading truth and love for a tin halo of nice;
  3. Don’t contrive ways to punish others or gain your own revenge. That’s not your job. Your job is to pursue grace and faith and truth and love…and leave the punishment, the revenge, the getting-even-with-‘emism, and the perceived disparity of blessing to God. Will He not do what is right? Felix, last week, you’ll remember…he had it all. And yet he had nothing. To a world, Felix might of epitomized the 1% and economic injustice. To Jesus, when He looked down from heaven, what did Jesus see? Felix was a guy who worshiped the wrong god. Big picture here, folks. We treat each other with grace and faith and love and truth…but in the end, God is more about elevating … changing people’s hearts far more than their circumstances.
  4. Seek shalom. That peace of God and peace with God which come from having that undivided heart…undivided by doubt, undivided by sin, and undivided by self-interests of human pride, expectation of reward, and rebellion against God. Learn His truth. Live like Jesus. And have faith. That’s the key to a true and lasting peace.

Today, my heart grieves for Paris and Beirut. Do I believe that God can bring a greater good even from great evil? Absolutely! Perhaps only in a Kingdom perspective and eternal view. If people see how unsatisfactory a life is without God, then perhaps they will return to Him. The Paris of WWII—the last time they experienced this kind of carnage—the 1940’s Paris was far more Christian than the Paris of today. Generations of people have abandoned God and His truth and yet when confronted with unadulterated evil, the survivors stated that they saw “the final” flash before their eyes and described the carnage as “hell”—biblical images both! Perhaps this great evil will awaken the citizenry and bring people back to Jesus for the kind of comfort needed when faced with unspeakable tragedy. The kind of comfort only a good God can bring. Jesus said, John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We’re in a world of bad choices, of fallen options, and limited information. But we can be still before the Lord and know His peace. He can bring greater good from greater and lesser evils. He did it in the life of Jesus and of Paul and He can do it in your life as well. Let’s pray.

Categories Chapel Worship/News | Tags: | Posted on November 16, 2015

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