by Roger McCay
27 December 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 25:1-12
Link to Audio Version
There is a lot of talk about the vaccine for the coronavirus these days. Many folks want it, and many folks (like me) are skeptical, with no plans on getting it. Regardless the position as to personally receiving the vaccination, though, most of us can agree that, in the vaccine’s distribution, high on the list of priorities would be to get the vaccine to certain groups of people first: first-line healthcare and emergency workers; our most vulnerable population, the elderly; and those who are particularly vulnerable due to health conditions. The reasons for this, at least for most of us, seem self-evident, right, good, and fair. Prioritize giving it to the folks who are most likely to be exposed as they help others along with those with the highest potential of dying from the virus, no matter their race, religion, creed, income, or what-have-you—if they want it.
Yet, some of the discussion at the CDC is alarming, and it is apparently affecting certain leaders’ ideas as to how the vaccine should roll out (you may have read or heard about some of this already in the news). There are those who are making recommendations that prioritize certain population segments over the elderly based on the issue of race. For example, the CDC approved unanimously the recommendations of Dr. Kathleen Dooling, who acknowledged that more lives would be saved if the elderly had priority access. Yet (and her slides are published online if you want to look at them), in her ethical decision-making, she has a consideration called “Mitigate Health inequities.” There she shows, and the CDC approved, the rationale that “non-healthcare essential workers” (which the New York Times points out comprises 70 percent of the work force) should get the vaccine before the elderly. Why? Well as she highlights, “Racial and ethnic minority groups [are] disproportionally represented in many essential industries,” and “Racial and ethnic minority groups [are] under-represented among adults [older than] 65.” Thus, the elderly should be moved down the list of priority (despite their have the highest morbidity rates). So, as another advisor to the CDC, Harald Schmidt, has said (quoted in The New York Times), “Older populations are whiter. Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.” Hence, according to such people, if you are an old white person, other categories of people who are not white should be prioritized over you to receive potentially lifesaving measures because you are white.
In a twisted way, it seems these folks think this is some sort of justice: payback for being white, I suppose. Yet the stated ethical rationale is utterly racist, with, lying behind it, a fear of forces who are filled with spiteful envy, who hold the threat of cancel culture, violence, and just plain being a screaming nuisance over the heads of decision makers. We’d have to do a state-by-state analysis to see how closely our state leaders are holding this CDC advice, and that information is also published online and being implemented even now. But if our leaders, making life and death decisions, succumb to this bully pulpit, or blindly make their decisions, following tainted guidance from the CDC or whoever, a reverse of justice is taking place, an injustice.
There are so many things that come in life that are or seem unfair or unjust. We could talk about the many people incarcerated who are innocent; unfair wages; the socioeconomic divide; one person being favored over another for seemingly arbitrary or prejudicial reasons; being born into a family that will give you all the advantages versus one that will burden you with all the disadvantages; people possessing good health versus people burdened with bad health; and on and on. And, perhaps, some injustice that happened to you still gnaws at you.
Of course, you all know the cynical question you hear sometimes when someone complains that something or other is not fair: “Who told you that life is fair?” And while that’s not always true, the fact is that sometimes we do not get justice in this life. Sometimes we don’t get what we are due or think we are due. Sometimes, as the saying goes, bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the government comes through, and sometimes not. That’s just living in a fallen world.
Now, are such truths reasons to despair? And, where is the Lord in all this?
Injustice, unfairness, and misfortune are surely discouraging, like taking a hit in the gut. It hurts, and it’s difficult to get over, for sure. It’s suffering. Yet such is not a reason to despair. For in the midst of such suffering, the Lord is where he always is, doing what he always does. He is with us, his people, working all things for our good, even overcoming injustice for good (Rom. 8:28). And that’s what he’s doing here with Paul. Paul was fully aware of this, as he had written Rom. 8:28 years before. Further, remember when Jesus appeared to Paul after he’d first been arrested in Jerusalem? Acts 23:11:
11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Jesus’ presence, his promise, and his encouragement were such to sustain Paul throughout his whole ordeal of unjust imprisonment. And, like Paul, we, the Lord’s people, are also blessed with Jesus’ presence, promise, and encouragement when we are faced with injustice and trouble.
In our passage today, the Apostle Paul has been languishing in prison for two years on the whim of a tyrant, Felix. Felix knew Paul was innocent but wanted a bribe from him, which Felix did not get. So, Paul languished. In ch. 25, here, a new governor of Judea has now entered the scene, Festus. He was quick and efficient in getting down to business, heading to Jerusalem only three days after entering the country.
Upon meeting with “the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews” for the first time, it is telling of them that one of their primary orders of business was the Apostle Paul. That the Apostle Paul still lived must have just eating them alive. Festus, probably wondering “What on earth!” must have sensed something going on there. Perhaps, too, Felix had briefed him on the situation. So, Festus wisely refused to bring Paul to Jerusalem, at that point—a decision that saved Paul’s life because of the Jews plot to ambush Paul’s convoy and murder him. Instead, Festus told them that if they had any charges against Paul they should come to Caesarea and lay them out.
About a week and a half later, Festus, sitting on his judgment seat, listened to the Sanhedrin’s representatives’ numerous charges against Paul, of which they could produce no evidence whatsoever, as they were all a load of garbage. Paul, in his defense, pointed this out, claiming innocence. They had nothing on him. The whole thing was a farce—an injustice.
Despite knowing this, Festus was a political man and was trying to find favor with the Jews he was tasked to govern—perhaps with quid pro quo in mind. He wanted something from them, so he was willing to give them a little something. Paul had been reduced to a bargaining chip.
So, he now asks Paul if he wanted to go to Jerusalem for trial. Which, if Paul had not done what he did, would certainly have been the way things moved forward from there. Paul’s response to this is rational and true (vv. 10-11):
10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
No-one in this crowd was fooled. This whole trial was a farce. Paul’s languishing in prison was unjust. Paul’s being sent to Jerusalem was a sure death sentence for Paul. So, Paul called out Festus concerning Festus’ failure of character. There was no need to go to Jerusalem, as Paul, a Roman citizen, was already before the right authority to be judged. The judge in question absolutely knew Paul was innocent, as Paul points out without mincing words. It was a sham. No justice would be found in Judea.
Thus, with no other options, Paul called his trump card: “I appeal to Caesar.” With the Lord’s promise and the law of Rome concerning such appeals (it had to be honored, as such an appeal was the right of every Roman citizen), Paul knew this was a sure bet. Yet appealing to Caesar was risky (to say the least), as Nero (the beastly tyrant) was the Emperor at the time (someone we’ll look at more closely in our upcoming study of Revelation). Justice, therefore, even in Rome, was not a guarantee. Regardless, Paul knew for certain that he’d get to share the gospel in Rome, which was Paul’s desire anyway (Rom. 1:10).
Looking ahead in Acts, we know the Lord’s promise was fulfilled. Paul made it to Rome, and he was able to minister the gospel, which he did with a gusto.
Sometimes the Lord negates injustice in an immediate sense, like when he freed Peter (Acts 12). Sometimes he lets injustice run its course, like when Stephen was stoned and James was martyred (Acts 7 & 12). Sometimes the Lord lets injustice go on a while, in order to move pieces into place and get things just so, in order to accomplish his purposes, like he did with Joseph in Gen. 37 & 39-45, and also similar to what’s going on here with Paul. Whatever the case may be, in our trust in the Lord, we can find reason to rejoice. Indeed, both Paul (in Rom. 5:3) and Peter write that we can rejoice in suffering various trials: 1 Peter 1:6-7:
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Enduring injustice and trials is a method of testing and of refining the genuineness of our faith. It’s a means of sanctification, enhancing our endurance and character and hope. Through it all, Jesus is there with us, the Holy Spirit helps us, strengthening us and getting us through.
You may have heard of Joni Eareckson Tada and know of her diving accident back in 1967, which left her as a quadriplegic. You may be familiar with her international ministry, Joni and Friends, that reaches the disabled and their families, ministering to them on several levels—giving them help and hope.
On the 50th anniversary of her accident (with her body being a prison for all that time, not for any evil she had done) she wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition website. I wish we had time this morning to read you the whole article. It’s amazing. But her testimony is one that is not just head knowledge. It is one that she’s lived with for a long time, moment by moment, suffering. In her article, Joni shares about her lifelong struggle: confined to a wheelchair, unable to use her arms and legs, suffering from a displaced hip and scoliosis, dealing with constant pain, having survived cancer. And she points to how she rejoices in these sufferings. She writes:
Decades of study, paralysis, pain, and cancer have taught me to say, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps. 119:71). I won’t rehearse all of suffering’s benefits here. Many of you know them by heart. Like the way God uses it to shape Christ’s character in us (Rom. 8:28–29). Or how it produces patience (Rom. 5:4). Or how it refines our faith like gold (1 Pet. 1:7). Or gives us a livelier hope of heaven (James 1:12). And on and on.
If I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am, because I’m not the paragon of virtue I’d like to think I am. Suffering keeps knocking me off my pedestal of pride.
The core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin and self, and to keep rescuing me…. My paralysis keeps pushing me to “strive to reach for that heavenly prize” (Phil. 3:14).
The process is difficult, but affliction isn’t a killjoy; I don’t think you could find a happier follower of Jesus than me. The more my paralysis helps me get disentangled from sin, the more joy bubbles up from within. I can’t tell you how many nights I have lain in bed, unable to move, stiff with pain, and have whispered near tears, “Oh, Jesus, I’m so happy. So very happy in you!”
She then shares the ten little words, given to her by a friend in the 1970’s, that set the course for her life: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”
Looking back over 50 years, in all that the Lord accomplished through suffering, Joni then testifies concerning that wisdom:
It has everything to do with God and his grace—not just grace over the long haul, but grace in tiny moments, like breathing in and out, like stepping stones leading you from one experience to the next. The beauty of such grace is that it eclipses the suffering until one July morning, you look back and see five decades of God working in a mighty way.
My friends, whatever the injustice or suffering in this life, God’s got it. He overcomes. It’s like Joni said, “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” The Lord is always with you. That is his promise (Matt. 28:20). He stands with his people in the midst of their trial. As such we can claim the Psalmist’s praise and comfort in Psalm 91:
91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Jesus is our hope in the present and for the future. In his promises we stand. With Paul we claim the promise, looking to our hope in Jesus, saying, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).
My friends, be encouraged. Whatever your personal trial and struggle might be, take courage. Let us find this encouragement in the now and in the future. Let us find it in the Lord, our ever-present, loving, all-powerful Savior. Let us glory in his grace! Call upon him!
Elizabeth Eliot, in a book called Suffering is Never for Nothing (a collection of some of her writings) wrote, “Suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth.” That’s a good blurb, and it’s on the front of your bulletin. But here is the longer quote:
And I learned in that experience who God is. Who He is in a way that I could never have known otherwise. And so I can say to you that suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth. I am. I am the Lord. In other words, that God is God.
I Am is with you. The Lord is with you. We possess his promises that are utterly sure. Because of our solid rock, our fortress of strength, our Lord, let us take courage in the face of whatever difficulties or injustices that life throws at us. He has overcome the world, and in him we have victory. Since the Lord is with his people, we should stand confident in the face of injustice.
 Kathleen Dooling, “Phased Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccines,” pub. 23 Nov 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/acip/meetings/downloads/slides-2020-11/COVID-04-Dooling.pdf; Abby Goodnough and Jan Hoffman, “The Elderly vs. Essential Workers: Who Should Get the Coronavirus Vaccine First?” pub. 5 Dec 2020, updated 20 Dec 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/05/health/covid-vaccine-first.html; Tucker Carlson, “Race, the COVID-19 vaccine and our betters’ embrace of eugenics,” pub. 19 Dec 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/tucker-carlson-race-vaccine-new-eugenics.
 Madeline Farber, “Coronavirus Vaccine Distribution Plans: State-by-State Breakdown,” pub. 14 Dec 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/health/coronavirus-vaccine-distribution-plans-state-by-state-breakdown.
 Joni Eareckson Tada, “Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident,” pub. 30 July 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/reflections-on-50th-anniversary-of-my-diving-accident/.
 Elisabeth Eliot, Suffering is Never for Nothing (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2019), 15.