Hardness of Heart

A good friend is going through a difficult divorce, and she grieves the loss of her marriage, the loss of her friendship with her husband, and the loss of man he was when they married. As is the case in some hard breakups, her pleas for counseling and reconciliation are rejected. He has set his face on a course away from her and there is no turning back. In biblical terms, he has become calloused, and has “hardened his heart” against her.

This phrase comes up often in the Scriptures, as the people of God hardened their hearts against the law, the Word, the love, and the mercy that God extends. We are a stubborn lot, aren’t we? Isaiah describes it as the people “growing dull” and becoming hard of hearing, and what they do hear, they refuse to understand (Isaiah 6:9-10). God must feel like it is akin to raising rebellious teenagers all the time. 

There are few things in life that sting as hard as rejection. I’m sure you have felt that sting. I know I have! Paul dealt with rejection all the time and today’s reading is no exception. He had just delivered a day-long impassioned speech about the good news of Jesus Christ as the “hope of Israel,” and some believed … but some did not. Arguing ensued, and he was reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s words that described the same rejection of God’s Word thousands of years before.

Acts 28:25-31 (Common English Bible)

25 They disagreed with each other and were starting to leave when Paul made one more statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke correctly when he said to your ancestors through Isaiah the prophet,

26 Go to this people and say:
You will hear, to be sure, but never understand;
    and you will certainly see but never recognize what you are seeing.
27 This people’s senses have become calloused,
    and they’ve become hard of hearing,
    and they’ve shut their eyes
        so that they won’t see with their eyes
        or hear with their ears
        or understand with their minds,
            and change their hearts and lives that I may heal them.

28 “Therefore, be certain of this: God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles. They will listen!”

Both men concluded that we don’t receive God and all of God’s benefits because we don’t want to turn away from our lives and be healed of our sin. We don’t want to change our hearts and behaviors. Is this true in our world today? I think the evidence is there.

Is this true in your life?

Even committed, church-going Christians can reject God, if only in little ways. While we don’t reject our belief in Jesus as the Messiah-Savior, we reject God’s call to live in unity in our churches. We reject God’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, with an emphasis on the neighbor who doesn’t look like us. We reject the Bible’s instruction to welcome the immigrant into our homes. We reject our responsibility to take care of the widows and orphans. We reject the invitation to have the mind of Christ when we post polarizing political rants on social media. We reject the command to obey the law when we speed, cheat on our taxes, and litter. Let’s face it … we reject God’s call to change our lives every day.

Today’s passage is a wakeup call for the heart. Is Paul describing us? Where is God calling us to change our hearts so that we may be healed?

May the Holy Spirit convict us so that we might repent and be pleasing in God’s sight.

Wake Up Call by Kathy Schumacher

Undercover Evangelist

Many years ago, a friend of mine underwent a series of surgeries to correct a defect in her sinuses that made Atlanta’s high pollen counts unlivable. As she was preparing for the first one, we met in my office for pastoral care and prayer. The hospital stay would be at least a week, and she fretted over leaving her four children and husband to fend for themselves. “But I believe God is sending me into a mission field” she proclaimed. She had packed thank you cards, small boxes of chocolates, and small New Testaments in her bag. “Instead of laying in the bed feeling sorry for myself, I plan to be a cheerful witness to the power of God as I heal.” A week later when she was released, her bag was depleted and she was full of stories of orderlies she had prayed with, nurses who asked questions, and more than one person to whom she had given a New Testament. This friend reminded me that wherever we go, we are being sent into a mission field.

This was Paul’s attitude as well as he made his way to Rome to appeal his arrest before Caesar. Along the journey around the Italian peninsula, he witnessed to crowds at every port. Upon arriving in Rome, he was received by the Christians there in a manner fit for an Emperor. But like the Palm Sunday processional that welcomed Jesus, the week would end with his imprisonment.

Acts 28:11-16 (Common English Bible)

11 After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had spent the winter at the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with carvings of the twin gods Castor and Pollux as its figurehead. 12 We landed in Syracuse where we stayed three days. 13 From there we sailed to Rhegium. After one day a south wind came up, and we arrived on the second day in Puteoli. 14 There we found brothers and sisters who urged us to stay with them for a week. In this way we came to Rome. 15 When the brothers and sisters there heard about us, they came as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. When Paul saw them, he gave thanks to God and was encouraged. 16 When we entered Rome, Paul was permitted to live by himself, with a soldier guarding him.

Jesus had promised Paul that he would visit Rome in Acts 23:11, and here he was in the famous ancient city. This fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that the Gospel would be taken to the “ends of the earth,” as Rome was the farthest point in the world as it was known.

Paul was not confined in a normal jail cell but was kept in a rented house chained to a guard that would rotate out every four hours. Can you imagine the conversations he had with them? Here was Paul, held in captivity, yet he had a captive audience for his testimony that changed throughout the day.

My friend’s and Paul’s story are great reminders that even in harsh or unwanted circumstances, we have opportunities to tell others the Good News of Jesus Christ and be undercover evangelists. Patients and prisoners can preach hope to those attending to them just as effectively as Billy Graham did in the stadiums.

Where is God calling you to be an undercover evangelist? Are there people in the grocery store or the hair salon who need to hear what you have to share? 

Both my friend and Paul were prepared for any opportunity that God opened up. They practiced their stories and were winsome and sincere. So get ready! Your time is coming, too. Watch for it.

Undercover Evangelist by Michelle Robertson

Be Bold

On Halloween night in 1938, CBS radio listeners tuned in for Orson Wells’ weekly Mercury Theater program. That night’s program was a production of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” a tale of an alien invasion in New Jersey. The show was done in a fake news bulletin style, and it was clearly stated in the beginning that the piece was fiction. But listeners who tuned in later were led to believe that they were actually listening to breaking news, and some called the police, newspapers, and other radio stations in great confusion.

The next day, newspapers across the country spread rumors of mass stampedes, multiple suicides, thousands of people fleeing their homes, and national panic due to the broadcast. Further investigation showed that very few people actually listened to the low-rated show, and the “nation-wide panic” that ensued was greatly exaggerated. To this day, many people still believe that the broadcast resulted in a hysteria, but there is no data to support that thinking. Wells was accused of deliberately deceiving the listeners and his career was tainted by the experience.

 In our reading from Acts today, we see an impressive group of local Jewish leaders who are willing to listen to Paul despite knowing that “people everywhere are talking against” him. Rather than buy into the rumors and then amplify them, they gathered in large numbers to hear him witness from morning to evening about being chained to Christ who was the “hope of Israel” as he described it (verse 20).  Some were convinced, some were not, but all listened and heard the good news proclaimed.

Acts 28:17-24 (Common English Bible)

17 Three days later, Paul called the Jewish leaders together. When they gathered, he said, “Brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, I’m a prisoner from Jerusalem. They handed me over to the Romans, 18 who intended to release me after they examined me, because they couldn’t find any reason for putting me to death. 19 When the Jews objected, I was forced to appeal to Caesar. Don’t think I appealed to Caesar because I had any reason to bring charges against my nation. 20 This is why I asked to see you and speak with you: it’s because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

21 They responded, “We haven’t received any letters about you from Judea, nor have any of our brothers come and reported or said anything bad about you. 22 But we think it’s important to hear what you think, for we know that people everywhere are speaking against this faction.”

23 On the day scheduled for this purpose, many people came to the place where he was staying. From morning until evening, he explained and testified concerning God’s kingdom and tried to convince them about Jesus through appealing to the Law from Moses and the Prophets. 24 Some were persuaded by what he said, but others refused to believe.

I wonder if it was Paul’s description of being chained to Christ that made them open to receive his message. Here was a man who was literally chained to a Roman guard while he was awaiting to appeal his arrest before Caesar, yet he still boldly spoke the truth everywhere he went to whomever would listen.

Boldness is the key when it comes to our testimony. How bold are you? Do you talk to the stranger on the plane about your faith? Does your doctor know you are a Christian? If being a Christian was a punishable offense, would there be enough evidence in your life to arrest you for it?

Paul’s example of bold tenacity is a clear reminder to us today to take advantage of all those opportunities where someone might be ready to hear about Jesus. We, too, are chained to the hope of Israel … and the world.

Bold Sunrise by Michelle Robertson