September 4, 2016 “Gear Up” – Acts 9:23-31
September 4, 2016 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last month I got my “gear buzz.” I love gear, whether it’s for fishing or for car repair or for a computer project. A few weeks ago it was for our church backpack trip. On a bed at home I laid out a sleeping bag and pad, a water filter, a flashlight and cooking utensils and even a little star chart that all went into my pack. On a table in the Gathering Place I set out the gear our group would carry, a stove and fuel bottle, a first aid kit, a saw, maps and some paper towels. I got a thrill just looking over equipment and supplies neatly arranged and ready to go.
You may get that kind of feeling gearing up for other events: pens and a notebook and maybe a calculator for the first day of school; pillows and clothes and a new laptop for your first year at college; new shorts and a hydration pack for a long bike ride; suitcases and a digital camera for a big vacation. Fishing, golfing, running, scrap booking, brewing bear—name what you like to do and it feels good to gear up for it.
Read between the lines in the second half of Acts 9 and you see that Saul geared up for his mission after his conversion. Although, verse 20 gives the impression he took off at a running start. “…and immediately,” we’re told, “he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is the Son of God.’” He recovered from his shock and blindness as we heard last week, and within a few days was out on the streets preaching Jesus, that’s “all she wrote.” At least it’s all Luke wrote.
For perspective turn over to Galatians chapter 1 and read what Saul himself told later about this time in his life. To explain the source of the Gospel he preached, he insisted it was not his own invention or someone else’s fabrication. As Bryan taught in a sermon at the beginning of June, it was a direct revelation from Jesus. But Saul still needed time to process what Jesus showed him. So Galatians 1:17 mentions an interlude Luke skips over in Acts. After just a short time, “several days” it says at the end of verse 19, preaching in Damascus, Saul went into the region of Arabia.
As Bryan explained, Saul did not go to what we think of as Arabia, down into the Sinai Peninsula, into the deserts of Saudi Arabia. What the Romans called Arabia was the kingdom of Nabatea, centered in what is now Syria and Jordan. Damascus itself was in present-day Syria. Saul went east and south just a bit, into the desert and among people of a different background and language.
We don’t know how long he stayed in Arabia before returning to Damascus. But Galatians 1:18 tells us that it was three years after his conversion before he came to Jerusalem. The only time frame Luke gives us is verse 23 with Saul back in Damascus, “After some time had passed…” persecution forced Paul to run for his life.
Paul may have done some preaching in Arabia. II Corinthians 11:32 suggests he ruffled some feathers there. The Nabatean governor under King Aretas, got involved in that plot to kill him in Damascus. Yet as the ancient church historian Bede points out, Paul never mentions preaching in Arabia. In Acts 26:20 Paul’s own description of where he preached is “first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles.”
So the classic understanding of Paul’s Arabian sojourn is that it was a retreat for reflection and preparation. He preached right off that Jesus was the Son of God—he learned that much from Ananias and the other disciples mentioned in verse 19. But to be able to do what we see him doing in verse 22, “proving that Jesus was the Messiah,” took more time, more study, more preparation from the Lord. He had to gear up.
The Greek word for “proving” Jesus was the Messiah is symbibazōn, which means “to knit together.” It’s proof by assembling evidence like an attorney does in court or a scientist does through experiments. You knit together a demonstration of what you want to prove. Saul took passages from the Old Testament and assembled them to show other Jews how Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies. He preached what he had “knit together” there in Damascus. But it took time to prepare, time for study of the Hebrew Bible, time to pray for direction and insight, time to work it all out. Saul was gearing all that up in Arabia.
In Eastern Orthodoxy there is an ancient tradition of hermit monasticism, of monks who go off alone to be with God. They retreat from the world to pursue spiritual growth and wisdom. But from the start, beginning in the third century with St. Antony of Egypt, the purpose of hermits was not just to get away from the world and people. Yes, Antony spent long years, from age 18 to 55, in withdrawal and solitude. But then he opened his door, received visitors and started to share all the wisdom he had learned in solitude. As orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, it was “a withdrawal in order to return. A monk must first withdraw, and in silence learn the truth about himself and God. Then, after this long and rigorous preparation… he can open the door of his cell…”
Antony and other eastern monks followed Saul’s model. He withdrew from his first preaching at Damascus so he could spend time in solitude, prayer and study in Arabia. He returned as a stronger advocate for Jesus. Verse 23 says he “became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews” in Damascus.
Today, withdrawing or pausing awhile to prepare, to gear up, is not very popular. Americans are people of action rather than quiet reflection. We are enticed by leaders who say they will get things done. We want our education on-line and on-the-fly rather than going off for four years or more to study for a career. Colleges are chopping arts and humanities from their curricula because those subjects don’t offer a direct path to a job.
Yet Scripture shows us a Christian pattern that moves slower. Information and decisive action takes a back seat to quiet reflection and prayer. To learn and do the will of God you must withdraw from activity. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. The apostles waited for the Spirit in the upper room. Saul went out into the desert.
You and I need times of retreat, time away from smart phones and computer screens, time away from noise and activity, time to be with God. On my first sabbatical here I discovered how important a retreat alone is to being a pastor. I realized I need to spend a week by myself every year to pray, study and prepare for the year ahead. I’ll do that again at the end of next month.
Not all our retreats need to be long and private, however. Week by week, we each need shorter, simple spiritual sustenance through time away from the world in worship with God and His people. Each Sunday worship is a mini-retreat, a micro-desert experience to gear up for the next week. We withdraw from work, from school, from worries at home. We leave all that and come to sing and pray and study together so we may know and understand ourselves and God better. Then we return to the world with something to share, some wisdom, some joy, some peace which we’ve found in our time away.
Saul needed preparation, needed to gear up for another reason. He was going to face rough times. As I said, they plotted to kill him in Damascus. They watched the gates to keep him from sneaking away. He only escaped in verse 25 by the desperate expedient of being lowered down the wall in a basket in the dark of night.
Last week we saw how Saul’s life reversed drastically when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. This is another example of that reversal. The persecutor became the persecuted. The man who wanted to arrest and kill Christians was now running for his own life. Without his heart geared up in the Lord, he might have quit right then.
That dangling basket was only the first of many narrow escapes for Saul. Verse 26 tells us that when he arrived in Jerusalem even the Christians were suspicious of him. And why not? Just a few years ago he stood and cheered for those who murdered the first Christian martyr. Only the intercession of Barnabas got him accepted. But then Saul started trying to prove Jesus was the Messiah to the Hellenists, the same people he had helped stone Stephen. So verse 30 shows him escaping again, back to his home town in Tarsus.
Retreat and quiet with the Lord prepared Saul for his trials. Strength he gained in communion with Christ enabled him to stand up to those who opposed him. His gearing up carried him through not only attempts on his life, but through beatings, prison, and shipwreck. As he speaks of the source of his strength in II Corinthians 12:2 he refers back to a vision in which he was “caught up to the third heaven.” That kind of spiritual experience could only have happened in a time when he withdrew to be alone with God.
Christians have found strength in solitude with God through the ages. Mother Teresa is being canonized as a saint today in the Catholic Church because she wrestled alone in prayer with God and then went out into the streets of India to do what the Lord asked of her. Our friend Janet just shared on-line a quote from her saying, “See how nature–trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence, see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… we need silence to be able to touch souls.” As her journals published a few years ago show, Mother Teresa’s silent times were not easy for her. She was filled with doubts. But God sustained her through all those years of love and care she gave to the poor.
You and I will have our own doubts, our own trials and tests and temptations. This year’s election makes us wonder how to be Christians in this country. The needs of the world seem overwhelming. Our own problems finding meaningful work and raising children and staying sane when everything around us is crazy are overwhelming. To live and follow Jesus through it all we need spiritual resources, we need to gear up.
Just like Mother Teresa, it’s not easy. In our Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus said that following Him would cost us. One large part of that cost is the time and energy it takes to get away for a little while to gear up in the Lord, to pray, to study His Word, to listen for His voice. We may need like Mother Teresa to silently confess our own doubts, fears and sins and seek God’s gracious love and assurance.
I invite you to gear up. The thirty minute per day “retreat” it will take to read the New Testament in our Community Bible Experience next month is one way to do that. Five or ten minutes of daily prayer and Bible reading might be a good start this week if thirty minutes seems impossible right now. Gear up for your own life and work for Jesus through time spent with Him alone. Maybe you need a longer retreat, a whole day or a weekend. Find a way to do that. Like Saul, devote yourself to study and prayer with Jesus. Make it a solid habit. It will keep you ready and equipped for His service.
And remember that every Sunday worship gears you up. It’s time to pray and be quiet, to learn the Word and enjoy the presence of Christ. You have the week ahead of you. Job, family, finances, vacation, study, entertainment—all of it conspires a little, or maybe a lot, to take your faith away. Jesus just needs a little of your time to give it back. If you will include that time in the cost of following Him, then He will equip you with the love and joy and peace which come from knowing Him well.
Let this time right now at His Table be one more opportunity to gear up. Jesus Christ is here, ready to be with you if you will only be with Him. Eat and drink in His grace in these moments. Praise Christ your Savior now and prepare yourself to praise Him all week. Gear up!
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 See Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 39-40.