Monday, July 7, 2008

This week's sermon- Persecutor to Promoter

Acts 9:1-31.
Earlier in Acts we read that Saul was a witness to the murder of Stephen. He then started the first persecution against the early believers in Jerusalem—dragging off men and women and throwing them into prison. It says in the beginning of this chapter that Saul threatened the early church with every breath. To him, persecution was as easy and natural as breathing. He was not content to simply oppose the early Church; he wanted to stamp it out. Saul went to the High Priest to ask for permission to continue his persecution and the go ahead for a major expansion in his efforts to wipe out any who professed that Jesus was the Resurrected Messiah. He wanted to go to all the synagogues and ferret out the believers. At this point in time, all believers were Jews who believed the Gospel message. They were all members of local synagogues, while also gathering with fellow Christians. Saul was not a Jew looking to persecute Christians, he was a Jew looking to bring down other Jews he thought were heretics to keep them from making other good Jews heretics as well. At the stoning of Stephen, Saul was there and looked after the outer garments of those who murdered him for preaching Jesus. This was Saul of Tarsus. He was a determined man. He would stop at nothing to see this sect destroyed and driven out. Until he met Jesus face to face.

As he neared Damascus, a light from Heaven flashed around him. God got his attention. It is funny when we think we have to get people’s attention for God. God is quite capable of commanding complete attention, he does not need any help from us, and we may even be providing a distraction instead of the focus we intend. God got his attention. Luke says Saul fell to the ground, he was overcome. And then he heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Saul did not know who it was; he asked “who are you?” But immediately Saul is convinced that whoever is speaking to him is worthy of the title Lord. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” And there is no further response from Saul. Suddenly the man who had been so convinced of his own right-ness that he would stand by while others were put to death—the one who would seek out others to put them under arrest, the one who had been breathing out murderous threats—has nothing to say. When we have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus Christ, we suddenly are no longer concerned with “our point of view.” We become completely convinced to our core of the perfect righteousness of Christ and that our own righteousness is filthy rags.

There is another man named in this story. Ananias was a faithful believer living in Damascus at that time. He was minding his own business one day when out of the blue, the Holy Spirit tells him to do something preposterous. God tells him to go to find Saul of Tarsus, hunter of Christians. God even gives him the address. He says, “Go, he is praying, and he has had a vision of you coming to restore his sight.” Ananias was flabbergasted! You have to understand that for Ananias, this would be the equivalent of saying to us “Go, there is a man who has been an active terrorist/extremist who has been hunting down Christians. I want you to go find the house he is staying in and be involved in his receiving back his sight.” Our first response would be “What?!? Give him back his sight? Then he will know what I look like and can add me to his ‘must persecute’ top-ten list! If he can’t see, maybe that is not such a bad thing!”

Ananias reminds God of just who he is talking about… Why do we do that? God tells us, “I want you to reach out to this person or that person.” And our response is to remind God just what kind of person they are. “But God, they are not very nice, they lie, they cheat, they steal office supplies. How could you possibly want me to minister to them? They are not ‘Kingdom Material.’” But God does want us to minister to them, and guess what, whoever ministered to you last may think the same things about you! We are not perfect, and God reached out to each of us in spite of our many innumerable faults. He wants us to reach out in turn to others who are not living right so that they can also receive his grace.

God had plans for Saul. He was to be the messenger carrying the gospel to the Gentiles. And Ananias does not have to worry about Saul getting off free and easy. While God is telling Ananias to go, he is showing Saul all that he will suffer for the name of God. Those whom God has chosen for his work very rarely live charmed lives. Saul when he was called Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10 that he wanted to know the fellowship in sharing in Christ’s sufferings, and invites Timothy in 2 Tim. 1:8 to join him in suffering for the gospel. Suffering, on any level, brings us further into a personal identification with Christ. Our faith is tested and we develop perseverance. Our strength is exhausted and we see God’s power at work. Suffering was to be a part of the life Saul lived for the gospel of Christ, and God was showing it to him in advance.

Ananias is obedient and comes to lays hands on Saul. Saul regains his sight. Immediately, Saul makes an outward sign of his conversion by being baptized. He eats, regains strength, and we see that he now has a different message to spread. Verse 20 says at once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. Everyone is taken off guard. No one knows what to do with this. Verse 22 says he baffled the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. By proving it. Here is a man who last week was getting permission to hunt down heretics, and now he is preaching their message better than they were.

His old cohorts were baffled. Suddenly he stopped making sense to them, and they started hatching a plan to silence him, as he had silenced others. It is because of what Saul himself wrote under the name of Paul in I Corinthians 1:18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” That power of God has to come into our lives before we understand it. Saul did not understand it before his Damascus road experience, but once Christ came into view it changed not only Saul’s life, but it has left for us a witness and a testimony to the power of God at work.

The Christians didn’t know what to do with Saul, the Jews wanted to kill him, but Barnabas came in quietly and took him under his wing. Because of Barnabas, Saul found a place in the community of believers in Jerusalem. Saul began to have conversations with those of the Grecian Jewish community. He wasted no time going to those he had been plotting with to destroy Christians to tell them about his personal encounter with Christ. It is not surprising that they respond just as violently to him as they had the others who had shared with them about Jesus. They tried to kill him, so the believers sent him North for his own safety.

It is interesting what Luke tells us next. The believers had a time of peace in that region. The church was strengthened and encouraged in the Holy Spirit, and it continued to grow. Saul’s buddies may not have converted, but that does not mean that his conversion went unnoticed. Saul’s conversion made such a huge impact that not only did the persecution stop, but the church even grew faster. People wanted to know what it was about these believers that could convince someone like Saul to change his tune. God used both his time of rebellion and persecution, as well as his time of conversion and reformation to grow the early church.

I hope that you have experienced an encounter with Christ. If not, I would encourage you to do what it says in James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” God who gives generously to all without finding fault. God who met Saul, killer of the saints, on the road to Damascus, changing his life forever, will meet you where you are, regardless of who you are or what is in your past. All you have to do is ask.

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