The calm after the storm (First Advent)

The first Sunday of Advent 2020 is upon us. The traditional theme of the first week of Advent, symbolized by the lighting of the so-called Prophet’s Candle, is hope in the prophesied coming of Christ. By a happy coincidence, this is also the last Sunday of the month, on which I would have been writing about hope anyway. And by an even happier coincidence, I can continue with our exposition of Acts in a way that fits.

Hmm. Maybe “coincidence” isn’t the right word…

The apostle Paul, shipwrecked on the island of Malta, had survived sea and storm only to be bitten by a poisonous snake. The island’s residents saw this as a judgment of the gods: The man must be guilty of something terrible! But in a somewhat humorous description by Luke, Paul nonchalantly shook the serpent off his hand while everyone watched to see if he’d suddenly swell up and die. When he didn’t, the superstitious residents did a flip-flop: Wait, he’s not a murderer, he’s a god!

So much for the reliability of opinion polls.

Meanwhile, Paul and his shipmates continued to enjoy Maltese hospitality:

Publius, the island’s most prominent person, owned a large estate in that area. He welcomed us warmly into his home as his guests for three days. Publius’ father was bedridden, sick with a fever and dysentery. Paul went to see him and prayed. He placed his hand on him and healed him. Once this happened, the rest of the sick on the island came to him and were healed. They honored us in many ways. When we were getting ready to sail again, they supplied us with what we needed.

Acts 28:7-10, CEB

Publius, of course, is a Roman name. He may have been the governor, or simply the richest person on the island. And when Luke says, “He welcomed us,” whom does he mean by “us”? Did Publius actually invite all 276 of the people from the wrecked ship, including the prisoners, to stay at his home? That had to be “a large estate” indeed. But whatever the truth of the matter, the point is that the man treated Paul with warmth and generosity.

And Paul returned the favor. Compared to the striking stories of Paul’s gift of healing from earlier in Acts (magic handkerchiefs!), this one seems almost pedestrian. Publius’ father wasn’t blind or lame or demon-possessed. He had dysentery, and possibly “Malta fever,” an infection commonly contracted from tainted goat’s milk. Paul paid the man a pastoral visit. Soon, everyone on the island had heard how this stranger had healed Publius’ father, and those who needed healing themselves flocked to Paul.

We don’t have to imagine that this all happened within the three days that Paul was a guest on Publius’ estate. Paul and the others were forced to spend the winter in Malta, waiting for the sea to be safe to sail again. Paul had three months (Acts 28:11) to do his healing work. And at the end of their stay, the Maltese honored him in tangible ways, including providing the supplies they would need for the remainder of their voyage to Rome.

What does all this have to do with hope?

Again, consider the very ordinariness of the narrative. Contrast this with the dramatic stories of conflict and trouble Paul had faced before in unbelieving environments. Think back to the terror of the storm they had just survived.

This story is like the calm after the storm. The dramatic rescue from disaster is certainly important to our sense of hope; we need to see the hand of divine protection and providence in the worst of circumstances.

But the everyday friendliness of the people of Malta is also encouraging in a quieter and less dramatic way.

These are clearly people of pagan beliefs. Yet they welcome a shipload of nearly 300 strangers with a warm fire; their most prominent citizen even welcomes some or all of them to his home. There is no indication that Paul ever preached the gospel to them, or that any of them became believers during his stay there — indeed, it would be unusual for Luke not to mention it if they had.

Of course, it’s scarcely imaginable that Paul could be with these people for three months and not tell them about Jesus, about the God in whose power he was able to heal them. But what we have in this story is that Paul quietly “shows up” with an attitude of humble service. He gathers firewood. He pays a visit to an ailing and elderly man. He heals him without fanfare. After that, he heals anyone with a need. And the people reciprocate by giving him tangible aid as well, helping him toward his promised destination of Rome.

I don’t know about you, but I find such a story of mutual hospitality to be full of hope. Things won’t always go that way, of course. But as we wait for the Advent of Jesus, we can embody his humility and compassion in simple and practical ways that others would appreciate. We can, in other words, show up ourselves, as Paul showed up in Malta.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make a friend, and be reminded of why we still have reason to hope.