“Silent witness: Lots”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Dating back as far as two hundred before Christ, the Fortress Antonia is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. In fact, historians tell us that at one point, nearly every one of the “who’s who” of the ancient classical world all passed through this very spot--people like Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, Roman generals Titus and Pompey, Roman emperor Hadrian, as well as Mark Antony, Jewish historian Josephus, the apostle Paul and Herod the Great. It’s even the place where Pontius Pilate once sat in judgment over Jesus Christ.
So what do we know about it? Some thirty five years before Christ, Herod redesigned it, then rebuilt it with walls sixty feet high, and four towers, each one a hundred and fifteen feet high, to serve as a fortress, a palace, and a residence for the governor himself. Then he named it after his good friend Mark Antony, calling it the Fortress Antonia. Close to forty acres in size, it was large enough to hold a full legion of soldiers--some five to six thousand men!
And if you were to visit there, you could even see the place where Jesus was mocked, tried, and condemned. It’s where soldiers threw a purple robe over His shoulders and pressed a crown of thorns onto His head.
And deep inside that fortress, you’d find one thing more--circles and lines carved into stone. It’s where Roman soldiers once played games to pass the time, games of chance like “Knucklebones,” “Tic-Tac-Toe,” and a game they called, “The King’s Game,” where the winner could be “king” for the day, and the losers would be forced to obey his commands.
Even today, there are still any number of “games of chance” that people like to play, like poker, blackjack, or roulette. Think of the lottery and powerball. If you’ve played the game “Rock Paper Scissors,” you know what I mean.
And in the book of Acts chapter 1, we find one more. But this was no game. This was a decision blessed and directed by none other than God Himself.
Listen to the words of Acts chapter 1, starting at verse 12: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers” (Acts 1:12-14).
It’s easy to say that, after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the book of Acts is one of the most important books of all. For if it were not for this book, we wouldn’t have a clue as to what happened after Jesus suffered, died, and rose again, and how the gospel spread from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. And we would know next to nothing about the apostle Paul.
Pastor and physician Martyn Lloyd Jones called this book, “that most lyrical of books.” He said, “Live in that book. It is a tonic, the greatest tonic I know of in the realm of the Spirit.”
And Bible commentator James Boice wrote, “Humanly speaking, Christianity had nothing going for it. It had no money, no proven leaders, no technological tools for propagating the gospel. And it faced enormous obstacles. It was utterly new. It taught truths that were incredible to the unregenerate world. It was subject to the most intense hatreds and persecutions.”
And it all started here in the book of Acts.
So what’s going on? The book begins as Jesus, now risen from the dead, ascends into heaven. As the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
And just as soon as He ascended into heaven, the Bible says the disciples returned to Jerusalem, a “Sabbath’s day’s journey,” (which was right about a half a mile). And what did they do? The very first thing they did was pray. They “devoted themselves to prayer,” with the women, with Mary, Jesus’ mother, and with His brothers.
And along with that deep, fervent prayer, there was work to do, important business at hand--to replace the one who had betrayed them, who had failed them, that one named Judas.
Which raises a question--why replace him? I mean, sure he was, for a time, one of the twelve disciples. Why not just get along with eleven?
Two reasons--one, because Jesus had once said in the book of Matthew: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel'' (Matthew 19:28). Since Jesus chose twelve men to follow Him, then twelve there would be.
And two, because Scripture also said, (in the book of Psalms), “Let another take his office,” (Psalm 109:8).
But who would they choose, and how would they choose him?
Now I suppose you could say that Peter could have picked someone himself. He was, after all, the leader, the foremost of all of Jesus’ disciples. Everyone looked up to him.
But that’s not at all what he did. Instead, as he stood before that group of one hundred and twenty men, he asked for the Lord’s guidance and blessing. Then he said in verse 21: “(Choose) one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when He was taken up from us--one of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
And there were two--one named Joseph, also known as Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and another named Matthias.
Can you see them, Justus and Matthias, along with Peter and Andrew, and James and John, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening with amazement to Him preach beside the Sea of Galilee. When He fed the five thousand, they too ate their fill of fish and bread, and they witnessed His miraculous gifts of healing in Capernaum and Chorazin. On Palm Sunday, they raised their voices in praise as He rode a donkey into Jerusalem, then watched Him die on that cruel, wooden cross.
They had heard it all. They had seen it all. And though the gospels never mentioned their names, they were there on every page.
Which tells us one incredibly important fact about our Christian faith. What we believe isn’t based on myths or legends. None of this, whatsoever, is something somebody made up. Instead, as Peter once wrote: “We didn’t follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (II Peter 1:16). And John wrote in his first epistle: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our own hands--He is the Word of life” (I John 1:1).
Jesus died. Jesus rose. Jesus ascended in heaven. And Jesus will come again. Of that there is no doubt!
But how would they choose between the two--Justus and Matthias?
Thankfully, they didn’t have to choose. Instead, they would ask God to decide. So they prayed in verse 24: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two You have chosen to take the place in his ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”
Then verse 26: “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”
If you’ve ever had the chance to see, in person, a symphony orchestra, it’s quite an experience. First, any number of incredibly talented musicians all take their place, filling the stage. The percussion stands in the back, the cellos and brass are on the right, and the flutes and woodwinds sit front and center.
But before the symphony can even begin, there’s two more that have to come out onto the stage to the thrill of the crowd--first, the first violinist, then finally, the director. It’s as if all the other positions in the orchestra are there only to serve these two.
And you know, out of all the musicians in the orchestra, which are the hardest to find? The conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, once said, “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm...now that’s the problem.” And he said, “Yet, if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
Matthias was just like that. For the last three years, he sat on the sidelines, waiting, watching, and learning--second string, second fiddle--always wondering what God would have him do. Then finally, at just the right time, when the church was ready, and when Matthias was ready, God called him too. That is, after all, what his name meant. “Matthias,” short for “Mattathias,” meant, “Gift of God.”
In a very real way, we’re all just a bunch of Matthiases here, waiting, watching, and learning. And just like him, we too are people who have been touched by the power of Christ. For years, we’ve followed Him, and we’ve witnessed the life He gives through His life, death and resurrection. And now He gives even us the command to go and tell of the things we’ve seen and heard.
In the words of Garrison Keillor, “Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. I once sang the bass line of ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ in a room of three thousand Lutherans. And when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, and partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. But in joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.” Then he said, “These Lutherans are the sort of people you could call when you’re in deep distress. If you’re dying, they’ll comfort you. If you’re lonely, they’ll talk to you. And if you’re hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!”
In a career lasting more than fifty years, Science Fiction author Kurt Vonnegut wrote fourteen novels, three short story collections, and five plays.
And of those fourteen novels, the very last one was called, Timequake. It’s a story about people who’ve lost all control over their lives. And rather than being able to determine their own destinies, they’re forced to enter a “timequake” where they can’t help but repeat the same bad choices over and over again, with no possibility of change or hope of redemption. Then when the “timequake” finally ends, those same people are gripped by something he called PTA, “Post-Timequake-Apathy,” where they lived in a constant state of despair.
But there’s one character, a man named Kilgore Trout, who isn’t bound, like everyone else, by fear and despair. And as the story ends, he begins to help others by saying, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”
And isn’t that a description of every Christian’s experience? We were sick. But now we’re well again. And there’s work to do.
May God bless us.
As You once called St. Matthias, dear Father, so call us too. Then help us, by Your grace, to do the work You’ve called us to do, for Jesus’ sake. Amen