The Acts of Virgil
Dedicated to Havard Brazeal
PREVIEW Let Nothing Trouble You Saint Teresa of Avila
Daniel 14:31-39 They threw Daniel into the lion pit, and there he stayed for six days. In the pit were seven lions, which were given two human bodies and two sheep every day; but for this period they were not given anything, to make sure they would eat Daniel. Now, the prophet Habakkuk was in Judaea: he had been making a stew and breaking up bread into a basket. He was on his way to the fields, taking this to the harvesters, when the angel of the Lord spoke to him, "Take the meal you are carrying to Babylon, and give it to Daniel in the lion pit." “Lord," replied Habakkuk, "I have not even seen Babylon and know nothing about this pit." The angel of the Lord took hold of his head and carried him off by the hair to Babylon where, with a great blast of his breath, he set Habakkuk down on the edge of the pit. “Daniel, Daniel," Habakkuk shouted, "take the meal that God has sent you." And Daniel said, "You have kept me in mind, O God; you have not deserted those who love you." Rising to his feet, he ate the meal, while the angel of God carried Habakkuk back in a moment to his own country. On the seventh day, the king came to lament over Daniel; on reaching the pit he looked inside, and there sat Daniel. “You are great, O Lord, God of Daniel," he exclaimed, "there is no god but you!" He then had Daniel released from the pit and the plotters of Daniel's ruin thrown in instead, where they were instantly eaten before his eyes.
Mark 6:1-6a Leaving that district, he went to his hometown, and his disciples accompanied him. With the coming of the Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and most of them were astonished when they heard him. They said, "Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?" And they would not accept him. And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house"; and he could work no miracle there, except that he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
This week I got out the boxes of tapes of my old sermons and have been listening to some. I listened to a revival I preached ten years ago and was reminded of a man’s story that I’d like to share with you today.
About three months into a new parish, Virgil, the leader of the church, came up after a service and said, “Brother Jack, it used to be that I could just sit back, be comfortable and enjoy church services, just like I was in a movie theater. But I don’t feel comfortable here anymore.” For the next several weeks, this man wrestled with whether he’d find another church and be comfortable or whether he’d stick around to vote me out.
He wanted a new minister because he was being challenged to become an authentic Christian instead of just an observer. He’d been in church all his life, but now the Holy Spirit was convicting him to do the things that Christians are supposed to do, but his flesh and mind were just not geared for spiritual exercises. In that department, he was a 98-pound weakling and I was kicking sand in his face (unintentionally, of course). You see, though he was a believer and a church leader, he hadn’t yet been converted into a new creation.
It wasn’t as though he received the challenge all that often; I only preached there once a month – a lay speaker came the other Sundays. And it wasn’t because I picked on him; the last thing I wanted to do was alienate the church leader and his family. But I felt sad about what he said: sad for me and sad for him.
Feel Good Sermons
In this week’s District Link newsletter, there is an article written by a local divine instructing district pastors how to preach. The gist of the article is that preachers need to “dumb down” the messages and preach “nothing else” but “feel good” sermons so everyone might be comfortable in church. Some of you read this article and were concerned. I might be wrong, but, in my opinion, dumbing down the anointed Word is disrespectful of the very people who engage us to preach. You folks aren’t a bunch of dummies; everyone here is very astute when it comes to matters of faith. You know that the salary you pay me has been earned when I return from the throne room to preach His word. That’s what I’m called here to do. You give me ‘the leisure’ (if you can call it that) to go up there on your behalf; indeed, you send me as a missionary to the throne of Yahweh to get some little challenge for you, and you certainly know when I haven’t gone as you instructed.
So I’m sorry, sir, but I just can’t water down the water of life. I can’t teach traditions in the place of truth. My congregation may be small, but the people are certainly not dumb, nor are they seeking comfort at the risk of eternity.
The authentic message of our faith, when preached in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, is to be compared to the messages Jesus lived. His life was the message. Everybody who has a Bible has access to the history of his life, so it’s very hard to tell you untruths on that subject. You would certainly catch me if I was promoting falsehoods.
We also know that the Word of Yahweh is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, not comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Every message from the Word should stretch the intellect and present challenges to one’s life style. (Such challenges have been traditionally known as “Calls to Discipleship.”) Those who are converted will welcome the challenges of the Word. Those who are not converted will face the challenge of whether to remain in church, go somewhere more comfortable or just go camping and forget about the whole thing. In any case, the Holy Spirit knows what he’s doing and, if we are to receive conformation of his plan for our church, we must trust his judgment. Confirmation comes when
Matthew 11:5,6. The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
We’re working on it! And so is our Father.
But back to Virgil, my uncomfortable friend. In the fall, he did vote for my removal, but I was there on a two-year commitment, so the Bishop overruled him and I was reappointed. It was his theater, so he decided to stay on. But very soon after that Charge Conference, his wife died suddenly and horribly. Of course, he was devastated. Right after this, he lost his job of 18 years. Two heavy monkey wrenches had been thrown into the gears of his life, and his machinery came to a crashing halt. Immediately, he found that his world was less and less comfortable and the challenging Word in his church more and more comforting. Something began to happen inside him.
A spouse’s demise and the loss of longtime job security at the same time would devastate most men of fifty years of age. But instead, these tragedies became the triggers to discharging an explosive conversion. The Holy Spirit made something very good for Virgil out of something very bad.
Romans 8:28 We know that all things work together for good [notice under what conditions this is true:] to them that  love God, to them who are the  called according to his purpose.
Things were beginning to work for him as his conversion took hold and Virgil met the challenges Yahweh had put before him.
It wasn’t that his wife held him back – nobody can rob a person of free choice in matters of faith. Nor that the job was a bad witness – although working sixty hours every week just can’t be in the divine plan. But his life had always gone fairly well and he’d always managed to make easy and comfortable choices. He’d been on the broad road for fifty years and didn’t know the geography of side roads, alleyways and dead ends – he’d never even considered such detours – until now.
But now, like Habakkuk the prophet, the Holy Spirit took him off the broad way by the hair, set him down on the narrow way -- and gave him a swift kick in the posterior. From there, Virgil began to climb Jacob’s ladder a couple rungs at a time. And the few folks left in the church saw the change. He was elected Lay Leader. Then he attended Lay Speaker school and got his license. He helped serve Communion. He listened to the messages on Sunday morning and actually became excited at the prospect of doing something to indicate his Christianity. He wrote out a testimony of how he had come to faith and gave it to me. About the time we left that parish, Yahweh had given him a new wife – a professional Christian worker who had sold out to Jesus years before. And the Father used her to put the last few turns on his life.
I hadn’t heard a thing about Virgil for many years until one day I received a phone call from him to return to preach a revival. What a shock it was to find that Virgil had become the pastor of that church five years before. I was very proud and humbled at what Yahweh had done with him. I felt like my own ministry had been justified too.
Another thing I noticed was that the church hadn’t grown much in the last decade. Virgil was doing good work in that country parish, but he would always be a ‘home boy’ in the eyes of others. He couldn’t escape the fact that everyone had known him all his life, remembered the tricks he played in childhood, remembered his poor high school scores, remembered his departed wife, remembered his earlier lack of commitment, remembered his criticism of the minister – all this was in the past. But it was far more comfortable for the people in that community to remain dumbed down to the old Virgil rather than challenged by the new.
Also, that church was a stigma in the community – it belonged, others thought, to just certain people – people the rest didn’t necessarily like or want to be around – folks who’d been on those pews for fifty or sixty years – folks who were wealthy for that area, yet resented by the many slothful squatters living in shacks thereabouts. The church was also very small with no room for youth programs that nobody would attend anyway. There was nothing there to attract new people; in fact, there are very few new people to attract, the church is so far out in the sticks. Sound familiar?
Jesus at “Home”
Jesus had a dilemma not unlike Virgil – he went back to his home turf and didn’t find much faith. The people who knew him from childhood derided him, and the people in the church referred to him in terms of his family, whom they knew and probably didn’t like much; and in terms of his trade –Jesus was a second career preacher, you know. After he taught there, not much happened. When he saw he couldn’t build that Nazareth church up, Jesus just moved on. He took what seems like the more comfortable way instead of sticking in there. He’d go instead where contempt wasn’t fueled by familiarity and faith was more desperate for miracles. However, as we see in our hindsight, his narrow way was to move on. There were other preachers in Nazareth complete with their portfolios of dumbed down sermons just waiting to get in there.
As for Virgil, moving on wasn’t to be his path. Most of the people who attended that little church were now elderly. The younger folks had either gotten old themselves or had not been comfortable and moved on to either the broad road that leads to destruction or some other mission in life. Although there were only a few folks left, mostly far older than Virgil, they too needed a prophet. They too needed to hear the word of life. They had, in a spiritual sense, brought this pastor up and they’d seen him change over the course of the years as a result of his conversion. Why, they could still remember the old Virgil well enough, but they respected the new. He was challenging their minds with his recent learnings – making some stretch their traditional belief patterns and see new truths. And he was challenging their old bodies with the way he now led his life as an example. No, it was never his mission to move on as it was Jesus’. It was Virgil’s mission to stay there and see the church through while there was yet one person in the pew. Besides, unlike in Nazareth, no other preachers would go that far out for so few or so little.
Here and Now
As I wrote out Virgil’s story this week, I thought about Daniel’s trials, especially in the lion’s den. (That’s why I picked this lesson from the apocryphal section of Daniel.) Virgil paid dearly for his conversion. For those who find themselves enduring similar afflictions that Virgil faced sometime in their lives, there’s often some little Habakkuk let down by the hair just in time to bring comfort in the midst of danger or affliction. And I thought about Jesus finding little faith at home: even when nothing earth-shaking is happening in our church, even when our faith seems at its ebb, even when signs and wonders aren’t all that evident, still there are the faithful hurting who respond to our need to heal.
I also considered the situations of similar small churches. Many would consider these as dying churches; but maybe the Holy Spirit has them where they are purposefully. As a result of his helping to keep the faithful few together, those few have determined to stick in there and gladly enjoy true yoke-fellowship with one another and with Jesus. Yet we’re not afraid of those narrow paths that threaten to expand both our minds and our faith. Our numbers may be getting fewer, but our faith in His divine providence is getting greater. They may say we’re dying, but we’ll never die. We’ll hold the fort for whatever his divine purposes may be even if we know them not until we’re gathered to His bosom.
In the meantime, we pray and wait in expectation. The signs and wonders we expect aren’t to be found in any other local churches, large r small, living or ‘dying.’ Perhaps Yahweh will honor our little churches with the distinction of ‘signs and wonders.’ Wouldn’t our faith shoot up like fourth of July fireworks if we were to witness the dead raised?
Speaking of the dead being raised: another thing that applies to tiny churches is the fact that when all the saints who have been seated in our pews all these years are resurrected to glory or judgment, when the present minister and church workers go on to their reward, then Yahweh will undoubtedly pluck up some little Habakkuk from some comfortable padded pew to take up the cross and follow, to keep the church vital, to preach the Word and challenge the mind, to heal, to pray for and against, and to preserve the convicting witness in our communities – you need not worry about that. We know who holds the future for we know who holds our hands.
In the meantime, let’s persist in our callings and be faithful to our mission, our parish and our church. Let nothing distract us or dissuade us from expanding our minds and faith and going forward on the narrow way. Stay the course. Fulfill your calling to the fullest extent. For every calling is great when greatly pursued (Oliver Wendell Holmes).
July 2, 2003