My spirit is broken, my days finished, my burial is at hand. (Job 17:1)
With COVID, politics, the economy, civic unrest, and uncertainly even in Christ’s Church, Job would surely find many kindred spirits in today’s world. Perhaps this bleak outlook contributes to our tendency to overreact. See yesterday’s podcast for more on that. So why not bring a gun to a knife fight if we’ve got nothing to lose? Or maybe if we push the others out of the boat, it can stay afloat just long enough for us to get rescued. This is the active side of Job’s hopelessness, of course, but there’s a passive one that we are familiar with, too. If our days are finished, then why bother at all. In the midst of his speech, Job has gone from anger to despondency in the blink of an eye, so why not believe that things can move in the opposite direction.
If I’m being honest, more times than I care to admit I have walked hand-in-hand with Job here in 17—not the mockers and provocateurs part—but the: If my only hope is dwelling in Sheol, and spreading my couch in darkness. If I am to say to the pit, “You are my father,” and to the worm “my mother,” “my sister, where then is my hope, my happiness, who can see it? Will they descend with me to Sheol? Shall we go down together into the dust? (13-16) part. Eeyore and Droopy were two of my childhood Muses. In fact, I have a political campaign window sticker on my car telling the world that I plan to vote next week for the Giant Meteor. Its campaign slogan is “Just End It Already.” I have it on my car’s window to maybe bring someone a chuckle—we can take ourselves a bit too seriously today—but sometimes I’m afraid there might be a kernel of desire lurking in the heart for Giant Meteor to win.
In today’s reading from Acts, Paul, like Job, finds himself surrounded by his enemies. We’re told in Acts 24 that the high priest, an advocate, and some elders prosecuted Paul before the Roman governor, Felix. Paul defends himself with the truth of the gospel and his calling; he does not lose hope; he does not attack and believes that there is hope—hope that the promise of Christ will be fulfilled.
Prior to his trial, before his to Caesarea, Paul had had an encounter with the risen Lord and was told, “Take courage. For just as you have born witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.” (23:11) This hope could explain why Paul refused to pay the governor a bribe following his first trial and what prompted his appeal to Caesar. The apostle, in fact, uses this as an opportunity to, yet again, declare the gospel both to Festus, the next governor and to King Herod Agrippa. Their final exchange is priceless.
The Agrippa said to Paul, “You will soon persuade me to play the Christian.” Paul replied, “I would pray to God that sooner or later not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am except for these chains.” (26:28-29)
I remember the first time I that I read these chapters. I recall thinking, Paul, you should have kept your mouth shut and Agrippa would have ended your imprisonment: The king even says that he would have. Why not just pay the bribe or just ask? It’s obvious that Felix wants to let you go. But this isn’t hope, it’s maneuvering. It’s making the best of the situation for survival. It’s wits, savvy, and the silken tongue. There is no doubt that the apostle could have gotten out of this mess, found a way to be released, but that would not be trusting in God—it would, rather, have been for Paul’s benefit.
No. It is hope that allows Paul to keep his calling and to trust that his ministry will move from Judea to Rome, the center of his world. Hope is his choice, as it should be ours. Paul places his in God’s Spirit and not in his own ability to work a situation for his or another’s benefit.
Hope allows Paul to look beyond, to find meaning in midst of apparent chaos, to find meaning in the good new that Christ has died for the love all and that God’s Spirit can claim anyone.