Daily Devotional for Monday, January 11, 2021 from Rev. Eric Douglass

For our Monday meditations, we have begun a series on ‘early church life,’ as found in the Book of Acts.

Meditations on the Early Church: Insight

Acts 8:18-20: Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!
One note for this meditation: ‘Ceres’ was the Roman goddess of farming.

Simon was a magician. That much was known, but not much else. No one knew where Simon came from, or where he learned his trade, or even when he came to our city. He just seemed to pop up here and there, doing his little magic tricks. At first, these tricks were cute, like telling the children which cup contained ‘the magic rock’. It made me laugh. And the children loved him. He would pull a coin from behind their ears, and then give it to them. I even invited Simon into my home, just for the amusement.
But Simon changed over the years. People told me that he had run out of money, and so could no longer do the ‘cute stuff.’ Now his acts were larger, and his magic took on a darker tone. I remember the first of these events. Simon told the people in the town square to follow him out to a farmer’s field. Azaiah, the farmer, was tilling the soil. Everyone waved to him, as he was a well-loved elder, and his farm provided nearly half the wheat in the town’s market…along with a smattering of dates and figs.
Only Simon didn’t wave. Simon didn’t smile. Standing between Azaiah and the crowd, he raised his voice so that all could hear: “The goddess of the farm, the great goddess Ceres, has cursed this land.” A shock rippled through the crowd, followed by a stunned silence. “The owner has failed to give sacrifices befitting the goddess.” Then Simon took a stalk of wheat from the field, ripped it in half, and added: “This is how the goddess will rend this harvest.” Simon turned on his heel and left the crowd, stunned and open-mouthed.
Later that month, the crops of Azaiah stopped growing, turned brown, and withered. But it was not due to drought. The priestess of Ceres began wailing in the streets, crying out that Azaiah had disgraced the goddess, and destruction was coming: “No sacrifice…no harvest…no food…no hope.” Over and over she repeated her chant, swooping from one side of the street to the other. People began returning to the temple of Ceres, and bringing with them grain and wine and gold for the sacrifices, doing double what they had in years past.
One person did note that she’d seen a hooded man sprinkling something in Azaiah’s field, but her voice was small and remained unheard in all the commotion.
After that incident, the fortunes of Simon seemed to turn. He suddenly had more money to spend, and went about with smiles and hugs, congratulating the people for turning away the wrath of Ceres…and warning them that they must continue giving…giving until it hurt. The fields again returned to their bounty and the harvests were good. And the people believed in the power of Simon.
It was not long after the ‘Ceres incident,’ that a band of strangers came to town. Little was known about them, but the effect of their presence was immediately felt. When they went to the market square, they were immediately accosted by our local beggar, Joram. Now Joram was a pitiable case, for he was in a farming accident where his foot got caught in a plow. The local physician tried to help, but his leg was mangled beyond repair. When the small amount of money he’d saved was gone, Joram was forced to wander about town with a beggar’s cup.
Only these strangers did not back away from Joram. They took him by the hand, blessed him in the name of Jesus, and told him to walk.
Now, most legitimate magicians and healers would have found this ‘technique for healing’ on the shocking side. I have seen healings, and it is a delicate art, with techniques passed down through families and apprentices for generations. There are special hand movements and powerful amulets and strings of magical words. At the very least, such healings occurred in the temples, with the statue of the god looking down compassionately. But not with these strangers. They simply ordered him to stand, and Joram stood! He walked about in a circle, laughing and crying like a little kid getting a birthday surprise.
Even Simon was impressed! He followed the strangers about, watching their ‘techniques’ and listening to their teachings…like a student to a rabbi. The whole episode was shocking to me, for Simon had bound himself to Ceres…and I watched with confusion. Then the strangers had the Spirit of God descend on one of their members…something I had never seen before. They laid their hands on his shoulder, back, and head, and the thing just happened. I don’t even have the words to describe it.
That’s when Simon stepped forward, his eyes wide with awe. He knelt before the stranger named Peter. Gold coins sparkled in his outstretched hands. “Give me this power…so I can lay hands on others and give this Spirit to them.” I stared open-mouthed at Simon. Those coins had come from the Temple of Ceres…where he forced others to make offerings, on pain of curses and destruction. Now he was offering Ceres’ money to ‘buy’ the power of this Jesus. That’s just not right!
In that moment, I saw Simon for what he was: a small-minded man who believed in nothing but making money, who had accidentally stumbled upon a real God. I turned away from him…and his little magic tricks and his threats and his emptiness of soul. My eyes found Peter…and I reached out…for I, too, had stumbled upon a real God.

Our Lord:
We have chased after the gods of this world:
our eyes attracted by their glitter,
our minds held by their promises of wealth,
our hearts charmed by their charisma.
Yet the gods of this world are not gods at all.
Failing to deliver on their promises,
they steal back their visions of happiness,
leaving us in a worse state than when we began.
You, too, have come to us with visions,
only these turn into a reality
that leaves us satisfied, at peace.
And so we have come to believe that you are…
Our God.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.