Summary: A series of exploding manhole covers in Washington is compared with the series of unexpected and disruptive events in Paul’s life. Surviving becomes a matter of one’s vision of where we have come from and where we are going.
It all started in Georgetown. On M Street, in broad daylight, a manhole cover suddenly exploded into the air, flying six feet straight up and landing with a heavy clatter. There were no injuries, but there were fiery flames, an acrid smell, cars dodging one another, pedestrians pumping adrenaline. What was this all about? No one seemed to know. Just a fluke? Just one of those things?
A day or two later, in another part of the city, toward downtown, another manhole cover exploded, sending lunch hour pedestrians scurrying for cover and man-on-the-street TV reporters gathering quotes. But again, no explanation. Some theories. Pepco had statements to make about overheating junctions. We shook our heads and smiled puzzled smiles. No one was worried – yet.
But then there was another day, and there were two exploding manhole covers. And then another. And another. And finally, I believe, a total of seven eruptions around town, suggesting that something special was happening. But no one quite knew what. Something potentially very destructive was occurring, and so the resources of the power company, the public works department, the fire department, you name it – they were all on the case. They have all been drawn away from their normal pursuits, and were trying to solve the case of the exploding manhole covers. Whatever else they were supposed to be doing is all set aside now, because this sudden series of soundoff sewers had grabbed their attention.
Many of us experience life like that. Exploding manhole covers. Some of you have gone through a whole series of dangerous, disastrous, things. Medical, legal, financial, family relationships, employment, children. You are fed up to here with disasters. But you are not alone.
The Apostle Paul went through a series of critical events. It seemed as though things were pushing him inevitably toward total disaster. In the short space of about two years he had gone from being a free man, taking a business trip to Jerusalem, to a prisoner facing punishment and maybe even death. Paul had faced a whole series of unforeseen, unexplained, unwanted disasters; manhole covers had seemed to explode right in his face. Let me take you through his story.
The story begins back in Acts, chapter 21, when Paul arrives in Jerusalem to discuss with James and the other leaders the issue of how non-Jews can be brought into the church. Paul had not only won the debate, but had found that there was great enthusiasm for his mission among the Jerusalem believers. All they asked was one little public relations favor – would Paul please take four of the Jewish believers through a purification ritual in the Temple, and that would satisfy the skeptics. If those who were not sure about Paul were to see him taking young men through a very traditional Jewish ritual, well, that ought to take care of everything. What an innocent beginning for a series of disasters!
The first explosion came when some people who had seen Paul in the Temple misinterpreted what he was doing. They thought they saw him taking Greeks into the inner court, where only Jewish men were allowed. On the basis of their misinterpretation, they began to stir up the crowds. Pow! There’s the first exploding manhole cover. Have you ever tried to do the right thing, only to have it blow up in your face? You tried to give them what they wanted, but they took it the wrong way; they misread what you were doing, they added up two and two and got five! Pow! Like an exploding manhole cover, brought about by trying to placate somebody unwilling to see the truth.
Well, not only were these dunderheads riled up, they managed to get the whole city in an uproar! They ran from street to street and from door to door, shouting accusations and making it sound like there was a four-alarm fire. Paul was seized and dragged off, and who knows what they might have done?! Pow! The worst sort of exploding manhole cover is the unthinking, fierce, hot anger of those who think they are doing the Lord’s work! Lord, deliver me from riled-up saints! I’ll take my chances with the sinners any time! The folks who thinks that it is God’s will to destroy you are dangerous indeed! How could Paul have guessed that this was coming? The crowd dragged him off.
And then, what? Pow for the third time! Another explosion, this on in the guise of the Roman army. The tribune and his centurions and his soldiers stopped the crowd from beating Paul, but then clapped Paul in chains and hauled him off to the barracks! Why? Well, why not? If you have the power, why not use it? And so Paul’s third exploding manhole cover, the next unexpected dangerous turn of events, was to be arrested by the Roman soldiers for no particular reason. Sort of like the Army officer who was quoted as saying that he had to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it! Because we can do it to you, we do it to you. Because we can get away with it. Pow! Exploding manhole cover. Paul arrested.