I am an unabashed fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and am also an admirer of Peter Jackson’s movie franchise based on Tolkien’s works. In The Two Towers, there’s a scene where Theoden, king of Rohan, is visited by Gandalf the good wizard. Much to his dismay, Gandalf discovers that his one-time friend has been possessed by the evil wizard Saruman, who seeks to control him. In addition, Saruman’s lackey, Grima Wormtongue, has become the king’s advisor, whispering deceptions into his ear and manipulating every decision he makes. Gandalf confronts Wormtongue, takes control, and casts him out. Then he frees Theoden from Saruman’s spell, and the king is able to breathe the free air again. Once more, he can lead his people, defend them, and live in honor.
In Acts 13:4-12, Paul and Barnabas had a similar encounter. Instead of a king, it was a Roman proconsul named Sergius Paulus, and instead of a wizard and his lackey, it was a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas. A proconsul was the governor of a Roman province, appointed by the senate for a one-year term. Sergius Paulus have been successful, because evidence shows that he actually served for three years. We don’t know all about the relationship between the proconsul and the sorcerer, but it seems that Elymas served in some sort of advisory capacity, perhaps as a religious leader. He was determined to keep Sergius Paulus from receiving the Gospel, because that would make him lose the considerable power that he had gained in the region. Interestingly, Paul cursed him with the same punishment that he himself had experienced—temporary blindness. Just like Gandalf who drew Saruman from Theoden like posion from a wound, Paul and Barnabas exorcised the sorcerer’s demonic control from the proconsul’s life. Sergius Paulus received the Lord and was set free from manipulation at the hands of the blinded sorcerer.
We need more Gandalfs, more Pauls and Barnabases, in our country today. We spend so much time listening to the Wormtongues and Elymases all around us that we fall victim to their manipulations. Just as the king and proconsul were held captive by deceptive voices, so the people of America fall prey to the whisperings of those who would mislead us by smoke and mirrors.
Everybody knows the expression “smoke and mirrors.” It refers to the practices of illusionists who want you to believe that they have some real kind of power. A puff of smoke distracts you or conceals what is really going on. Mirrors bend light to alter your perception of reality. Mirrors also get you focused on yourself rather than on the thing that matters most. When you’re dazzled by yourself, it’s hard to see what’s going on next to you.
Today’s charlatans use the same tricks of the trade. The media blows smoke whenever it wants to distract your attention, and wherever it wants to distort and cover up the truth. Politicians use mirrors to get you to focus on yourself, your issues, your needs, and your own special interest group. Then, individuals get caught up in all the smoke and mirrors and become sorcerers of their own, regurgitating whatever they’ve heard others say, and adding their own hatred, intolerance, and prejudice to the mix. Facebook is plastered with smoke and mirrors. And for those who are less technological, car bumpers serve the same purpose. We become part of the propaganda machine for whatever cause we mindlessly support. Oh, how we need Gandalf and Paul and Barnabas! Oh, how we need Jesus to set us free from the spin doctors of our society!
Recently, the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage in all fifty states has raised an outcry among many conservative evangelical Christians. The fact is—it’s a done deal, whether you wanted it or not. To continue the fight and complain is to waste valuable energy at best, At worst our arguments employ smoke and mirrors tactics to divert attention from the fact that Evangelicals have the worst divorce rates in the nation, with my own Baptist denomination leading the pack![i] Instead of conveniently pointing our fingers at others and shouting about those evil sinners who are violating biblical marriage, we ought to quit using smoke and mirrors to distract ourselves from the fact that we really need to be taking a good look at ourselves.
People are in an uproar over the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, upset that WalMart is no longer selling it, and that the Dukes of Hazzard has been taken off TV. We argue whether it should fly over government buildings or whether it should be on monuments—so much argument that KKK rallies are at an increase and Confederate monuments are being vandalized. People are dead wrong on both sides of the issue. The fact is that our smoke and mirrors are covering up the fact that African American churches are burning in the South and that racial tensions are escalating out of control. And while we’re talking so much about the Confederate flag and gay marriage—have you heard the word ISIS lately? It seems like we’re so busy fighting with each other that we’ve forgotten who the real enemy is.
And this is what the enemy wants—to get us turning on each other and forgetting that America leads the world in incarcerations and suffers from a plague of police brutality. Christian churches and denominations have gotten caught up in all the rhetoric, too. As long as we can wave our rainbow and Confederate flags, we can take our eyes off of issues like poverty and Biblical illiteracy, lack of commitment, and lazy spirituality, consumerist discipleship, and a narrow conception of the Gospel that continues to define the Church as an institution rather than an organism. Oh, how we need Jesus!
In John 9:39 (NASB), Jesus says, "For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” We need to remember that it is for judgment that JESUS came into the world—not for judgment that WE are in the world. We need to quit throwing punches at the people we think are our enemies, and quit trying to convince them to see things differently. It’s not our job to make them change, because it’s Jesus who opens the eyes of the spiritually blind, and Jesus who blinds the eyes of those who think they see. And you might be surprised at the ones who are really blind and who can really see! So go ahead—have your opinion on social issues—but declare your independence from the need to fight about it! Leave it to God to convict your neighbor. That’s God’s job. You—just love your neighbor! That’s your job.
[i] Sylstra, Sarah. Are Evangelicals Bad for Marriage? A new study says Protestants are more likely than non-religious Americans to divorce, but some disagree. FEBRUARY 14, 2014. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/february-web-only/are-evangelicals-bad-for-marriage.html. July 4, 2015.