The following is the sermon manuscript I used on November 12, 2017, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.
For more on this series, see our Introduction.
Sermon Text – Acts 26
Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. And that brings a world of darkness into the light.
This is unbelievable news for governors, like Festus. This is terrible news for self-pious kings like Agrippa. This is spectacular news for repentant murderers like Paul.
The light exposes the dirt on the finery worn by kings and princes. But it is the hope of freedom for the prisoner in a cell.
The light lays bare the nakedness of emperors. It shows that the pursuit of justice has a price tag, that doing the “right thing” – or even the legal thing – comes about only if it’s politically convenient. The light shows the blindness of those in power to the sufferings of those not like them. For those who exalt themselves, the light shows that they are dying.
But for those made to see by God, the light clothes the humble in righteousness. For those made captive by oppression – or even those made captive by their own sin – the light shows the path of escape through the prison walls. For those who wish to escape sin and death, the light shows the One who has conquered both.
This is the contrast that’s on display in this scene. Paul, a prisoner of two years, has already managed to survive one governor, Felix. He is a governor who – as we learned at the end of chapter 24 – has kept Paul in chains for political convenience. He wanted the Jews to owe him a favor, so he kept a man he knew was innocent in prison.
Now Festus is taking charge. And like many people new to a position of worldly power, he wants to clean house – or at least act like he is. The veterans among us remember what it’s like to get that new commander come in – you know, the one who’s going to change everything and turn the unit around? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but they always think that they will. That is Festus as we saw last week at the start of chapter 25.
But Festus’s power is only partial power; it’s a worldly power. Festus is supposed to be the shimmering light of Roman might in the province of Judea, but to the Jewish people he is only a representative of the darkness of empire and oppression. He was the darkness of the prison cell of captivity.
So Festus – like every governor of Judea before him – needed a faux light to keep the darkness of rebellion against the empire from rising. He needed a proxy king, and that king was Agrippa. Like all of the Herods before him, Agrippa was a king in name only, a king whose only really powers were the token powers given to him by the Romans. To them, he was less than a proxy; he was a tool that lacked the real light and might of real power. To the Jews . . . well, at least Agrippa was a Jewish king.
So the end of chapter 25 that sets up the scene in our chapter is comical. Here in the audience hall of a fake king, an unwanted governor stages a theatrical display in order to prevent a rebellion and keep his job. But they do it with such pomp! Here they are in their beautiful robes, countless attendants addressing their every need, a parade of soldiers in their finest uniforms standing guard, and the prominent men of the city fawning for their approval.
Governor Festus needs Agrippa to appease the Jews and maintain power. Agrippa knows that the only, limited power he has is on loan to him from the Romans. Yet both love basking in this light of their own making, the light reflected off the shields and helmets of their guards, the light reflected by the expensive rings that signal their “authority.”
Sisters and brothers, the fake light that they put on display before Paul was darkness. Where is their finery, now? The shields and helmets of their soldiers are not just blemished, not just rusted, but after 2000 years they have all crumbled to dirt in Caesarea. Their rings were stolen long ago from their tombs and have been melted down a thousand times since then. Their clothes and their flesh have long since rotted away. The jaw bones they used to offer fake praises to one another are now dust.
In Luke’s gospel, his first volume before writing Acts, Jesus says these words: “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
We are in a rare season when things that have been hidden for years are coming to light. Since the movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, was publically accused last month of sexual harassment, assault, and rape, dozens of other men have been accused of similar crimes. Many of these horrifying acts were kept secret for years and decades by fear and intimidation and money and power and abuse of the legal process. This isn’t completely new or something that pertains only to the entertainment industry. Politicians – from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump and now to Roy Moore – have had similar claims made against them.
The light of the gospel will reveal all that’s kept hidden in darkness. Today, tomorrow, and ultimately on the day of judgment – everything that’s been hidden will be revealed.
For those who love the light, the revealing of things that are hidden is a joyous time. It’s a time of justice. It’s a time of redemption. It’s a time of healing.
But if you and I are honest with ourselves, we all know those areas of our lives that still love the darkness. And for us in those areas, the revealing of what’s hidden should not bring us comfort – it should literally scare the Hell out of us. It doesn’t have to be a place of sexual immorality. But we all know those places and parts of our lives that are in rebellion against the light of God.
And, indeed, what’s scarier, there are places of our rebellion that we are too blind to see. Times when we harm our neighbor, neglect our spouse, abuse our bodies, chase after idols. In a kind of twisted logic, many of the men being exposed now didn’t even realize they were doing anything wrong at the times they did it. And like them, we so often find convoluted ways of justifying our own behavior to ourselves, pushing us so far into darkness that we cannot even see the acts we commit as sinful.
That’s the story of Paul. Paul thought he was pursuing the light when he was murdering Christians and persecuting Jesus himself. Paul thought his zealousness, his “raging fury” was righteous and good. But he was only an agent of darkness, a pursuer of evil and death . . .
. . . until Jesus knocked him down.
Until his exposure to the true Light of the World literally blinded him. And in his physical blindness suddenly all of his sins became as clear as day! The faces of those he had handed over to be murdered now no longer looked like the faces of blasphemers and heretics – they were the faces of the children of the very God he claimed to love.
Yes. Of the King and the Governor and all of their finery, nothing of them remains visible to us today. Only the light that was shone through their prisoner remains.
Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. And that brings a world of darkness into the light.
Paul had the appearance of a prisoner to a world filled with darkness. But in reality, he was the only free man in the room. And his mission was to show the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the world – to the Gentiles and to the Jews. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead undid the basic structure of a world made dark by human sin. The sin of Adam, that had plunged the whole world into darkness, was undone. Sin had brought death and through the cross and through the empty tomb Christ had conquered both!
“Do you believe the prophets?” Paul asks Agrippa. “Are you sanctified by faith in Jesus?” was the message Paul was given by Christ to preach. Those who love the darkness respond in sly words like Agrippa’s. “You would persuade me to be a Christian?” This is not the statement of a person on the verge of belief. It is a joke from a man who is power who is used to prisoners groveling before him, begging him to have mercy. To Agrippa he himself was the master of life and death – as much as the Romans allowed him to be anyway. And here was Paul trying to convince Agrippa that the king’s life was in the hands of the executed criminal, Jesus.
Yes, those who are in darkness respond in sly words like Agrippa. Or they respond with disbelief, like Festus. “Paul. You are out of your mind!” There are fish in deep parts of the oceans where darkness makes complete sense. They have learned to survive and even thrive without the light. So, too, is the condition of much of humanity. To them, like the fish of the deep ocean – the light makes no sense at al.
The analogy of salvation that describes the sinner as someone drowning in a deep ocean – and the gospel as a life preserver thrown by Jesus – is completely wrong. Apart from Christ, we are not struggling swimmers.
We are dead at the bottom of the ocean.
And Christ is the one who swims to the depths to pull our lifeless bodies up. He fights the currents downward for miles. He himself drowns. And he himself becomes the life preserver. He himself pulls our lifeless bodies up to breathe new life into our lungs.
To us who have been saved by Christ, there is still much darkness we see in the world. There is so much, it is difficult for us to bear. Paul bears it in his chains. He bears it in the memory of his sisters and brothers who were being killed. We bore it last week when we saw dozens of our sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus gunned down on what should have been a peaceful Sunday morning of worship.
Where was God in the midst of such tragedy? Where was the light in such unbelievable darkness perpetrated by a man who loved the darkness?
The cross tells us that wherever we are gunned down, Christ has already been gunned down with us. The cross tells us that whenever we are a prisoner, like Paul, Christ has already been made a prisoner for us and with us. The cross tells us that wherever we suffer and whenever we face the darkness of death, there is no darkness we can enter that he has not entered into first.
And the light of his empty tomb has obliterated the darkness. As John says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” As Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation. Take heart. I have overcome the world. Behold! I make all things new.”