Looking Back-sermon text version

who am iThis is the season of Thanksgiving—a natural time for reflecting and remembering with gratitude all the blessings in your recent history.

What do you see when you look back over the past year or years? Is your heart filled with gratitude or do you have other thoughts about your life?

Today, we’ll see some looking back in the life of Paul who you will remember was falsely imprisoned these last 2 years. The last thing one would expect when Paul looks back would be gratitude…but I get ahead of myself.

Acts 25:13 A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. 14 Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. 15 When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. 16 “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges. 17 When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. 18 When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. 19 Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.

Looking back over the situation, Festus sees unfinished business from 2 years ago. Governor Felix had left him with a loose end—a falsely imprisoned Paul. And looking back over it, Festus totally gets it that Paul is under arrest because of his belief in Jesus Christ and the Resurrection.

20 I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. 21 When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.”

Festus places his own actions in the best light possible and acknowledges to King Agrippa that Festus is not well equipped to think about Jewish stuff. Instead of saying that Roman law didn’t really address Jewish law and freeing Paul, (and risk getting the Jewish faction in Caesarea all riled up for more of the same kind of revolt that undid Felix before him) Festus looks back and explains away his role in perpetuating this injustice. He didn’t know what to do…or have the moral courage to do it if he did…so what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Delay, do nothing, and hope the situation goes away. Festus was no doubt relieved that Paul appealed to Caesar.

What a stroke of luck to be able to pass the buck! It reminds me of the scene in White Christmas where Wallace and Davis and the Haynes sisters are singing “Gee, I wish I was back in the army… to encourage General Waverly who was also looking back at the glory days of military life.

  • When I was mustered out
  • I thought without a doubt
  • That I was through with all my care and strife
  • I thought that I was then
  • The happiest of men
  • But after months of tough civilian life
  • Gee, I wish I was back in the Army
  • The Army wasn’t really bad at all
  • Three meals a day
  • For which you didn’t pay
  • Uniforms for winter, spring and fall
  • There’s a lot to be said for the Army
  • The life without responsibility
  • A soldier out of luck
  • Was really never stuck
  • There’s always someone higher up where you can pass the buck
  • Oh, gee, I wish I was back in the Army

Festus was looking back and not so much grateful as relieved. He was off the hook. He passed the buck on up to the next level.

22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.” He replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.”

23 The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him.”

Passing the buck had just one little problem. What to state on the governmental form regarding the charges. I wonder what Paul thought of this. Looking back, Festus even declares to Agrippa, his sister Bernice–the whole pomp and circumstance crowd—that Festus found he had nothing to put on the form. Paul, after all, was innocent.

In light of Festus’ statement, did Paul suddenly look back and wish he hadn’t appealed to Caesar? No. Because promised Rome was ahead. “As you have testified before the Jews, so also you must testify in Rome.” Looking back for Paul was not for the purpose of justification or regret. Looking back was only to remember with gratitude.

What about you? What do you think about at Thanksgiving? Or on any other day really? What do you see when you look back? I hope it’s gratitude.

Acts 26:1 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: 2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.

“I consider myself fortunate,” Paul says. Wow! He’s been a prisoner for 2 years and counting. He’s outlasted one governor and stymied a second one. What does Paul see when he looks back? Gratitude for all of life’s circumstances—both good and difficult—given by the hand of the same God. And it reminds us that God who is good…is all about redemption. And no one is redeemed out of paradise. Cutting short the vacation at the beach is not the same as being delivered out of hardship. Paul was grateful for it all.

He looks back and remembers where he’d been and what he was. Paul was grateful to be able to share his testimony once again (the 3rd time in Acts):

4 “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? 9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. 12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. road sun13 About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ 19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen– 23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

Paul has looked back over his childhood, his upbringing, his early career and this life-changing encounter with Jesus—a life-giving, life-changing event! And I love Paul’s attitude. “I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike.” It’s looking back with gratitude at all the right things. He wasn’t grateful for his pedigree or his zealous persecution of Christians. He was grateful that in spite of all that, Jesus rescued him and had mercy upon him. And grace beyond that! Instead of punishment for all that persecuting, Jesus gave him the most fruitful missionary work of any human being to walk the planet apart from Jesus Himself.

If the definition of justice is getting what we deserve, and mercy is not getting what we deserve, then grace—that unmerited favor—is getting what we do not deserve in place of what we should have gotten. Paul understood grace because it had changed his life in radical ways.

It’s interesting that Paul states before King Agrippa who was familiar with Jewish sects in a Roman world that Jews and Gentiles alike (who BTW were grumbling against each other in Caesarea) were to be united in receiving this grace of God. You want healing of the races, of communities, demographics, or of ethnic groups? Give them the Gospel! The Gospel unites what Satan tears apart.

Festus might not have known the details of theology and argument, but he already knew that this whole Jew-Gentile thing got his predecessor in trouble so:

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

Paul goes for the spiritual jugular. Do you believe the prophets? There is more contained in that question than just a yes or no answer. Do you believe the prophets? If you do and I know you do, then do you believe what the prophets said would happen? Sure you do! Then take the next step: I want you see that Jesus is the foretold Messiah.

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

He evaded answering the question and responded with a question of his own. He could see exactly what Paul was asking. Agrippa probably had a very uneasy spirit knowing what Paul said was true and the finger of Jesus was pressing in on Agrippa’s heart with the invitation to receive Him.

Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

Jesus was knocking. Agrippa needed to open the door. Paul even says so.

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long– I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

All who are listening today is not just referring to Agrippa and Bernice and Festus and a few court officials. Paul’s testimony is told 3 times in Acts so that you will listen. I will listen. We will hear Jesus knocking and open the door. That we would be Christians and become what Paul was…except, hopefully, for the chains of prison.

30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

They all knew Paul wasn’t doing anything deserving of death…deserving of imprisonment. To them Paul could have been set free. But it wasn’t a guarantee even if Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar. Could have. Not would have. But looking back, they experienced a bit of conviction at the imprisonment of an innocent man. The knocking on the door by Jesus and at this point, at least, they only look back and see that Paul ought to regret his decision to go to Rome. Hindsight, looking back as 20/20 vision, the choices from Agrippa’s and Festus’ perspective would have been Paul could appeal to Caesar or be free. But that assumes a lot. Not the least of which is that the government would have the moral courage to do what was right.

To them, Paul’s 20/20 hindsight ought to bring regret. Paul, however, looks back with gratitude. He knows he’s a sinner saved by grace.

He knows what he deserved in terms of wrath and justice from God. He knows that Jesus is real and alive and not only delivered him from that wrath, but Jesus paid it Himself with His very own blood at the cross. And then Jesus gave Paul a ministry second only to His own. Amazing! Looking back, how can there be regrets? Paul is grateful for grace and purpose.

There’s a lesson here for you and me as well. Do you have a problem? Paul did. But like Paul we can find some gratitude in it. Praising and thanking God will go much farther to solving it than regrets, grudges, bitterness, resentment, or taking revenge.

And gratitude needs to be more than a once a year deal accessorized by a turkey and accompanied by football. Looking ahead, Thanksgiving ought to be our daily heart condition as we reflect upon all that God has done for us.

Looking ahead, Paul sees Rome in the distance and it’s assured because God promised it. And there’s purpose for him in going to Rome. More testimony before small and great alike!   Looking back, Paul sees no regrets. Only gratitude for deliverance, mercy and purpose…as God’s amazing grace.

Let’s pray.

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