Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saul's Second Chance

I hate being wrong—don’t you? Whether it’s something trivial or important, I really can’t stand the embarrassment of being proven incorrect. I remember one time when I was teaching a Bible Study, and in talking about another denomination, I misrepresented one of their central teachings. Someone in the class who had experience with that church body called me on it. I was confident of my position, but promised to look into it during the week. To my dismay, I looked into it, and learned I was wrong. I reported my findings to the class the next week and “took my lumps.” It ended up being a good thing, and I may have even gained a little credibility by admitting that I had been wrong.
We can only speculate about how Saul of Tarsus felt in the days following his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. We tend to think of Saul’s conversion in immediate terms; one moment he’s Saul the Christian hunter, the next he’s the Super Saint. And to be sure, coming face to face with the resurrected Jesus utterly changed him. But I have to think that mixed in with the shock and amazement and wonder was an almost sickening realization that his entire view of the world had been wrong.
It seems to be a very quiet Saul that we see early in Acts chapter nine, silently processing what had just happened to him. His way of looking at and understanding and functioning within his world had been wrong. His notions of what was pleasing to God had also been wrong. As if to underscore just how wrong he had been, God blinded him for three days. It was like God saying: “This is what you were, Saul—blind to the truth.” Adding insult to injury, Saul was depending on the help of a Christian—the type of person that up until then he had been trying to eliminate. Saul had a lot to think about as he sat in that house on Straight Street. He had to find out how wrong he had been before he could do anything right. It was a painful process—he wasn’t in the mood to eat or drink for those three days—but it was a necessary process. You may recall that it wasn’t long before Saul went public, candidly sharing what he had learned, pointing people to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises.
As far as the Christian Church is concerned, it is still the Easter season, and the story of Saul’s turnaround is a dramatic example of Easter in action. For it is nothing else than a conversation with the living Messiah that shook the foundations of Saul’s life. It was an audience with Jesus, once dead and now very much alive and well, that caused Saul to switch sides. Saul’s conversion is great circumstantial evidence for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Why else would someone like Saul change so completely? He had nothing to gain by following Jesus, and had far more to lose. He had been thoroughly convinced that he was doing the right thing until the risen Jesus appeared to him. Something new was about to blossom in Saul. Because of his contact with the Jesus of Easter, a new person was about to emerge from the old. Saul was getting a second chance.
It is at this point that we meet Ananias, who is one of those great saints of Scripture who makes up the supporting cast of God’s salvation plan. A Christian living in Damascus, he is contacted directly by the Lord and told to go minister to Saul of Tarsus, who is in a house on Straight Street. This would be like God sending a message to you saying, “Go to the house on Mentor Avenue and look for Osama bin Laden—he is expecting you.” Just as you might object to the idea, so Ananias offers up some mild protest, but then the Lord reveals His thoughts regarding Saul’s second chance: He says, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” As astounding as these words would’ve seemed to Ananias, they would be proven true. Saul would do all the things God mentions here and then some. And to his credit, Ananias goes and finds the man who had been one of the most intimidating enemies of the faith. All sorts of thoughts and feelings must’ve swirled through Ananias as he drew close to the man who had relished binding Christians and throwing them in prison to await execution. But Ananias speaks only words of grace, saying, “Brother Saul”—just think of it, Brother Saul—“the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately his vision is restored—moreover, his entire way of seeing the world is remade as he is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Now his second chance had really begun, and Saul, we can safely say, made the most of it.
Saul had to see how wrong he had been before he could do anything right. He endured those dark days, and now, because of the mercy and love of the very Jesus he had been persecuting, he was a new person. He was baptized into the Christian faith—the faith that held Jesus to be the Son of the Father; the true and greatest Passover Lamb; the Messiah from David’s family tree. Saul spent some time in the company of the Damascus Christians, and can you imagine what those conversations must have been like? Saul had been given a second chance, and he wasted no time in doing his first Christian preaching there in the Damascus synagogues. According to verse 22, Saul confounded the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ, and Saul would continue confounding his world with the cross of Christ Jesus as his message and a Christ-like life as his living letter to the world.
I say all that about Saul so that I can say this to you today: the life of Saul is proof that our God is the God of Second Chances. Our God wants everyone to admit how wrong they have been so that He can heal them with His mercy and fill them with His right-ness. Our God aches to forgive people and grant them a second chance. But here are the questions and you probably knew they were coming. How do you do at offering forgiveness and second chances to those who hurt you? Is this church a place where forgiveness and second chances describes how we deal with one another? Or is there another spirit at work?
I will never forget a statement made by Dr. James Bollhagen, a professor of mine. He said, “The church is not a place where people are granted forgiveness only if they can first prove that they don’t need it.” Did you catch that? I’ll say it again: “The church is not a place where people are granted forgiveness only if they can first prove that they don’t need it.” And yet so often that is exactly how Christians can act. It creeps so easily into any relationship—the withholding of forgiveness—a running tally of offenses committed—especially when the other person just doesn’t seem to care. We pass judgment on others, clinging to nuggets of conventional wisdom such as “A leopard doesn’t change his spots” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We should be overflowing with forgiveness and second chances. We should be quick to give people the benefit of the doubt and just as quick to explain things in the kindest possible way. If we’re not, then maybe we still don’t really get what Jesus is all about. Or maybe we just have to see how wrong we’ve been before we can do what’s right. If you have guilt about the way you’ve treated people, be honest about it with God. Think of the shame that Saul must’ve felt as he sat in darkness for three days. You are invited to admit your sin to the God of forgiveness and second chances. If you are ready to own up to your sin, Jesus is ready to forgive it. The same Jesus who paid for your sin with His suffering and death is the same living Jesus who can send you on your way with new vision and new priorities. You have been given a precious gift: you have another chance to let the grace of Jesus dominate your thinking and spur you on to action. Do not take this gift for granted. Confound your world with Jesus in your words and deeds, and let’s honor Him by being a second-chance kind of church.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Not Seeing Is Believing

A five year old boy got his hand stuck in an expensive vase. The vase was especially precious to his mother. The vase had been her grandmother’s and it had been given to her on her wedding day. No matter what the boy’s parents tried, his hand would not come out of the vase. Dad suggested breaking the vase as a last resort. Mom suggested contacting the family doctor. They were able to get in to the doctor’s office, and the doctor examined the vase to see if maybe someone with pottery skills could cut a section out of the vase without too much damage.
Then the doctor looked at the boy’s free hand. He took the boy’s hand, opened his palm, and curled the thumb toward the little finger. Then he asked the boy if he could do that with the hand inside the jar. The boy said, “I can’t do that. If I do, I’ll lose the quarter I’m holding.”
We often hold on to things because we’re afraid of losing what we know. We do not believe that we may actually have greater blessing if we let go and trust in God. That is the basic struggle we have with faith. That struggle is reflected in two statements that come directly from today’s gospel lesson. The first is from Jesus. He says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The second is from Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, who said: “Unless I see…I will not believe.”
Do you feel like I sometimes do? Lord, unless You show me the answer to my financial problems, unless you show me the answer to my problems at school, unless you show me how to function within this organization, unless you give me a break from the illness that I’m dealing with…unless you come across, I’m really not going to believe you are a loving, helping Father anymore.
But you and I can’t make deals with God. He says to us, “Believe in me, and I will show you more than you ever dreamed could happen in your life.” Now, this is not “stay positive and you will get ahead” type thinking. This is Jesus asking you to notice the people whose faith released his power—the Roman centurion, the demon-afflicted man, the woman at the well, the paralyzed man, and many more. God doesn’t make deals. He will always escape you until you see Him revealed in Jesus His Son. So often in our relationship with God, we are pounding on a door that is already unlocked. Jesus is the key. Getting to know Jesus and trusting in Him means that the door to God is open. Faith like that is so simple, yet it can be so hard for us to grasp.
A Christian was talking about the age-old problem of human suffering. “Why does God allow it?” he asked. A friend of his answered, “This much I know: I have seen a lieutenant send one of his men, a dear and trusted friend, to certain death because the mission had to be accomplished. And the man spent no time in asking why. He saluted and went. And in my own life sometimes I do not know why, and I am not asking. I am just saluting, if that is my post.”
In your own heart, are you willing, no matter what confronts you, to say, “God knows. He has a reason for allowing this to happen. I trust him. That’s enough for me.”
That is the challenge Jesus has for you and me. It was the challenge he had for Thomas. “Stop doubting and believe.” It sounds so easy. It’s anything but. There are so many pressures tempting you not to live a life of faith. Our own laziness and self-centeredness do not help, either. But Jesus won’t make deals, and he’s not interested in excuses. He just wants to know, are you willing to walk by faith and not by sight? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Let me assure you today this faith is a gift from God to you which comes when you repent of your sins and trust in the healing power of Jesus. He has saved you from eternal death and makes you a child of God. If you want to be and remain a child of God, it will mean letting Jesus work in you through faith, breaking through your doubts, and letting him say to you, as he did to Thomas, “You are blessed. You haven’t found all the answers to the questions in your life, but you have still believed in me. You are blessed.”
There was a woman who was well known in her community for her great calm in the midst of many troubles. Another woman went to visit her one day, thinking, “I’m going to find out the secret of her happiness.” And as she met her she said, “So you are the woman with the great faith I’ve heard so much about.”
“No,” came the reply. “I’m not the woman with the great faith. But I am the person with the little faith in the great God.”
Can you say the same?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blessed Easter

Standing Outside the Tomb

Today we stand outside an empty tomb. Of the four great religions of the world resting on personalities, the Christian religion is the only one that even talks about an empty tomb in relation to its founder. Abraham died some two thousand years before Christ, but the Jewish people never claimed he is resurrected. In fact, his tomb is still carefully preserved in Hebron in southern Palestine. No resurrection is ascribed to Buddha, either. In fact, Buddhist scripture says that when Buddha died it was “with that utter passing away in which nothing whatever remains behind.” Mohammed died at Medina on June 8, 632, and he is buried there, and thousands of Muslims visit his tomb annually. So millions of Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims do not claim resurrection for the founders of their religions. They lie in dust in their tombs.
But in Christianity, we have something else. We have a broken seal, a stone rolled away from the door and an empty tomb. Jesus does not rot in a Palestinian grave. He lives and is ruling over all things. For He is risen, just as He said. And because He has risen, we can boldly claim that Jesus is the Son of God. His teachings are truth with a capital T, God has accepted the sacrifice of his Son for the reconciliation of the world and all believers in Jesus will rise to eternal life. Now, if the Easter bunny led any of you here this morning in the spirit of “everybody goes on Easter,” allow me to disturb you enough to see what this day is really all about. It is about an empty grave—for Jesus and for you.
This empty Easter tomb signals that God’s mission of rescuing human beings for eternal life is complete. Jesus has done it all. The only way to explain why God came up with this plan—and why Jesus went through with it—is because he loves you and treasures you. He loves and treasures you, even when you do not love or treasure Him.
Was there a single day this past week that you planned without first taking your schedule to the Lord in prayer? Have you been trying to salvage a crumbling relationship by purely human means? Have you agonized in loneliness and wondered why God isn’t speaking to you—and yet your Bible remains closed, your baptism forgotten, and Holy Communion ignored as a living source of God’s power?
Truly, when you and I examine our lives, we must confess that we often live as if Jesus didn’t really exist as a personal reality in our lives. We often live as “practical atheists” even though we call ourselves Christians. We live the “as if” life—as if Jesus were still in the tomb, dead, and not alive in our hearts and homes today. The apostle Paul speaks for all of us when he says, “My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself doing what I really loathe…I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power…the evil I don’t really want to do I find I am always doing…who can set me free from the prison of this mortal body? I thank God there is a way out through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And so you and I need to say this happy Easter day, “Lord, be merciful to us sinners. Don’t give us what we deserve. And thank you, Jesus, that there is a way out of the tomb of selfishness.” It is Jesus who leads the way out of the tomb. It’s Jesus who is the way out of the grave. Jesus was crucified and buried to cancel out your sins, and he stood outside of the tomb that first Easter so that you can be confident that you will also stand outside of your tomb on the Day he returns. Your grave will not be able to hold you down. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. It is the defining event in the history of this world. Will you let it be the defining event in your life? Will you let the reality of a living, personal God change everything about you?
In the gospel reading for this Easter we see Mary Magdalene come face to face with her resurrected Teacher. I don’t think it’s possible to put into words the emotional impact this encounter would’ve had on Mary. And yet, Jesus says, “Let’s not get caught up in the moment, Mary. You need to go and tell that you have seen Me.” If the resurrection of Jesus is real to you and me, then we are going to talk about it. We are going to tell others about a Savior who died but came back to life and is still alive. We’re going to speak about the risen Jesus in the hospital and the rehab center; the nursing home and the funeral home; and especially at the graveside. We won’t let the name of Jesus go unsaid. How can we, when we know that He has defeated death and stands outside of the tomb?
There was a young administrative assistant in an office building who exemplified what I am talking about. Jesus was a personal reality in her life, and she did talk about him with other people. In fact, she made such an impression on a sailor who visited the office building one day that he wrote a letter to her employer. He told her boss how he had come into that man’s office, lonely and scared to death about sailing again. He needed to talk to someone. So when the woman at the desk greeted him, he asked if there were any jobs available, and if there weren’t that was okay. And he said, if only a person had something to count on, or something worth dying for, then things wouldn’t be so bad.
Then he related how the woman smiled, and said, “Jesus is coming through and He’s worth dying for.” He said he just stared at the woman because she talked as if Christ was alive and a good pal of hers. In fact, he recalled, he was so struck by her comments that he sort of expected Jesus to walk through the door. It was that real.
He was only in the office ten minutes, but the brief encounter made such an impression on him that it changed him somehow. He was no longer scared like he was before. He wrote: “It was as though she had said, “I want to make you acquainted with my Friend Jesus. You ought to get to know each other since He’ll be going your way.” I’m nineteen and I never knew before that there was a God like that who would go along with a guy like me.”
“I never knew before that there was a God like that.” That’s the God that you can know in Jesus Christ—a God who is real and alive—a God who moves us to “show and tell” others about Him so that His power can change their lives, too.
Life-changing power is available to you this Easter day. Unlike other world religions whose founders lie as dust in their graves, the tomb of Jesus is empty. He is risen, just like he said he would be. Because of this, you can be sure that nothing can stand in the way of your connection to Him. We who used to be lost can now call God “Our Father who lives in heaven.”
He wants you to let Him live at the center of your life right now. He wants you to let Him remove the crippling power of fear from your life. He can do this because He stands outside of his own tomb. Trust Him to pull you out of yours today and for eternity.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday

Jesus, I will ponder now
on Your holy passion;
with your Spirit me endow
for such meditation.
Grant that I in love and faith
may the image cherish
of your suffering, pain and death
that I may not perish.