Easter 4 (NL4)
April 22, 2018
A lot has happened since the story we heard last week, about Paul’s conversion. It’s been several years, and Paul is getting his bearings as an apostle and church planter. He has been affirmed by the Council at Jerusalem, as a legit apostle of Jesus Christ, and a witness, especially to the Gentiles. So now he’s off doing his thing. He had been traveling with Peter and Barnabas, but at some point along the way, they got in a fight and decided it would be best to go their separate ways (see, even apostles sometimes don’t get along!). The rest of Acts follows the path of Paul and Silas.
They had planned to go a couple places on their travels, but the Holy Spirit had advised them not to do that. So now, Paul and Silas find themselves without anywhere to go, and so they wander around until they get a vision about a man from Macedonia… so they take this as a message and head there, and find themselves in Philippi, which is where our story is set. And as they are wandering around, they are followed by this girl shouting fortunes at them. And that’s what kicks off our story. It’s a story with dramatic turns – a possessed girl, an angry mob, two men unjustly imprisoned, a dramatic breakout opportunity, and a whole family conversion. Let’s hear it.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“And Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to her, ‘I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”
It might be the only exorcism that came not out of a desire to heal someone in need, but out of sheer annoyance.
There is so much to love about this text, so many preaching possibilities. And yet every time I sat down with this text this week, I couldn’t get past this opening scene with the slave girl who has a spirit of divination, and the “very much annoyed” apostle, Paul.
When I can’t shake something like that in a biblical text, it usually means the Spirit is trying to tell me something, so I leaned into it, into this slave girl and Paul’s response to her, and this question arose: is there such a thing as “holy annoyance”? What might holy annoyance look like, and where might it lead us?
Maybe we start by describing annoyance in general. Is it something you’re familiar with? Yeah? How many of you have been annoyed? Who is annoyed by bad drivers? Who is annoyed by people not pulling their weight? Who here is annoyed by dishes or laundry being left around the house? Tell me – what are some other things that annoy you? [wait for answers]
There’s a real variety! And those things, those little annoyances – they eat away at us, right? They fester, they tear us (and possibly others) down, they frustrate us and maybe even paralyze us, keep us from wanting to do the good work we were made to do, at least do to it joyfully. Annoyances can really bog you down!
A friend of mine just wrote a piece about what she called “Two marriage hacks” – two tricks to have a happy and successful marriage. The first was to keep a running list of all the reasons you married that person in the first place, and all the moments that affirm that decision – and refer to it often. That one is fun, or can be. The second is much harder. It is to let go of the story you’re telling yourself. So when you come home from work and your spouse has once again left all their dirty dishes for you to wash, or won’t stop jabbering on about all the details about something you really don’t care about, or whatever your annoyance de jour is, you start telling yourself, “He doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t value my time as much as her own. He doesn’t keep my needs in mind. She is selfish” …That’s the story you need to let go of. And this goes beyond marriage, of course; it applies to any significant relationship. Those stories we tell ourselves about why people do annoying things are serving no one. They only tear away at your heart, at your relationship with that person, and maybe even your relationship with God.
That’s what annoyance can do. It can cause resentment, self-pity, self-righteousness, judgment. Annoyance can be mundane, or it can be very destructive, to our interactions with strangers as well as in our most important relationships.
So, if that’s annoyance… what on earth is “holy annoyance”?
Holy annoyance is the sort of annoyance that can serve as a catalyst for transformation. It snaps you out of whatever was keeping you focused on yourself, and moves you toward God’s will, toward life. It moves you out of your self-pity party, and ultimately leads to a conversion experience.
Just look at today’s story. Paul and Silas have been wandering around Philippi. The text tells us that this girl with the spirit of divination has been following them for many days – many days! – before Paul finally casts out that spirit. Can you think of any other story in which Jesus or an apostle goes days before attending to the needs of the people they encounter? I can’t! So Paul clearly had something else on his mind that he let this go so long. His attention was elsewhere, not where it needed to be. And it was that annoyance that finally snapped his attention back to the mission had been sent to do.
A colleague was just telling me his call to ministry was that way. His mind was elsewhere for many years, while God pestered him about his call to ministry. He kept shaking it off, doing his own thing, until finally he said, “Okay, fine! You win! I’ll go to seminary!” Had he not been so annoyed, he would have kept his eyes on his own will instead of God’s, and perhaps never answered that call. Holy annoyance.
Now we don’t all receive a call to ordained ministry. But for all of us, annoyance, whether mundane or severe, always has the power either to keep us distracted, or to set us on a godly course, if we’ll let it. Whether it sets you down the path of distraction, or the path of God’s will, is a matter of how you view it.
We’re pretty good at letting it nip at us and be destructive. To be continually distracted by it, you can keep telling yourself that same story of self-pity, self-righteousness, and judgment. (“Hang up and drive!” “Wash your dishes, would you??” “Stop tapping your fingernails like that, it’s driving me nuts!!”) But what is necessary for mere annoyance to become holy annoyance?
In my life, I have found that when I’m annoyed by something, or angered, or frustrated, it ultimately has very little to do with the thing annoying me, and more to do with the way that thing rubs up against something going on with me. Whatever is the irritant triggers something in my heart, or my past, or my belief system, and I react – I get annoyed. So there is the key by which to turn destructive annoyance into holy annoyance: figure out what is going on in you that’s causing your reaction, what value is being threatened, what belief is being challenged, what negative memory is being brought up. Dwell there for a little while, considering how that irritation might be pointing you toward a change, a conversion, in your heart.
And, like Paul, call upon the name of Jesus Christ to drive out the annoyance, and turn it into new life. I don’t mean, pray that the annoying thing would go away. I mean, ask Jesus to show to you how this revelation can be used to point you toward God’s work.
And then, trust God, even if you don’t see results right away. This event with the girl and the spirit really isn’t the point of this story. The real meat of the story is later – Paul and Silas get arrested for “disturbing the peace,” they are flogged and beaten, and they are imprisoned. This is not going well for them! But there they encounter other prisoners and bring the hope of Christ to them through song. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. That holy annoyance had sent them to prison to witness to those prisoners!
But wait, there’s more! An earthquake releases the captives, but devastates the jailer, who is about to kill himself for the shame of his failure. This prompts Paul to reach out to him, saying, “No, don’t do it! We are still here!” And through this encounter, the jailer comes to faith in Christ. He reaches out in love to these criminals, washes their wounds, feeds them a meal, and he and his whole family are baptized.
You see what happened? God needed Paul and Silas to be in jail at that particular time, so that they could witness to the jailer, so that they could be loved and cared for by their enemy, so that a whole family could come to faith through their witness. There is conversion in this story – of the jailer, his family, and I’d argue also for Paul and Silas – and that conversion started with an annoyance. A holy annoyance.
Who could have known that the annoying slave girl with the spirit of divination was exactly the tool God was using to bring the jailor to Christ?
I have been wondering all week whatever happened to that girl who had the spirit. What was her life like after Paul, in a fit of annoyance, cast out the spirit? We will never know, of course. And those who observed this might never have known the path that this event set these men upon, the way that the girl’s exorcism led to new life for a Roman jailor and his family, the way it brought hope to some prisoners, and the way it deepened the faith of a couple of apostles. We often don’t see the whole story of how God works.
And, sometimes we don’t see how an annoyance, if we take it seriously, and discern how that annoyance might be moving our hearts, ends up guiding us or placing us exactly where we need to be. Annoyance can certainly be a holy experience. Indeed, when we call upon the name of Jesus, it can bring about a conversion that leads to new life – for us and for the world.
Let us pray… Annoying God, you are always nagging us, urging us, prodding us to examine our hearts, and showing us how we might turn them toward you. Help us to see all those things that annoy us as entry points to discern your will for our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.