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06-16 - Battle with Believers

          Has anyone ever let you down?  You had been counting on someone to do something for you or to follow through with what they had agreed to do, but they did not.  You might feel angry at that person, disappointed in their behavior, or even feel a little betrayed.  You have been let down.

          What do you do when someone lets you down?  Often, we will not allow ourselves to be put into a position of trusting that person again to follow through on their commitments.  There is an adage, “Fool me one, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  We tend to protect ourselves from being disappointed twice.

          It is hard for a stranger to disappoint us because we generally do not place a great deal of trust in a stranger.  But we do place trust in those who are close to us such as in our family or our church family.  So, what are we supposed to do when that disappointment comes from someone in our own church family?  It is dealing with disappointment from a fellow believer that confronts us in today’s New Testament passage from the Book of Acts.

          Luke shared with us that Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch from their trip to Cyprus and Galatia.  After a bit of time, Paul and Barnabas travelled to Jerusalem to meet with the other apostles to talk about a dispute that had arisen as to whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved.  Simon Peter was at this meeting as was James, the brother of Jesus.  Luke reported that at this meeting, “12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12). When the meeting was over, the apostles and elders issued a letter communicating their decision to accept the Gentiles without conditions to be part of the church.  The church, it seems, settled its differences presumably in a manner that satisfied everyone.  At least, this is how Luke saw the meeting.

Paul, on the other hand, had a more biting assessment of the reason for the meeting and its outcome.  Paul, in the letter to the Galatians said, “4 This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.  6 As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. 7 On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. 8 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:4-10).  Paul felt people from Jerusalem had interfered with his missionary approach to the Gentiles and sought to require the Jews to adopt the practice of circumcision to be part of the church.  After argument within the church, the decision was made circumcision was not required.

The leaders of the church then wrote a letter saying, “24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15:24-29).   

          But.  There is always a but.  But, “36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him [John], because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They [Saul and Barnabas] had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:36-41).  Huh. What happened here?  The two, seemingly inseparable evangelists Barnabas and Saul/Paul who together had faced a sorcerer and hostile crowds on the mission field had a sharp disagreement.  So sharp was their argument that Paul and Barnabas concluded that it would be better that they go their own ways and they part company. What on earth happened here?

          Let’s go back a bit and see if we can fill in the story a little more.  A couple of weeks ago, we spoke about the first missionary trip from Antioch to Cyprus by Barnabas, Saul, and John.  Why Cyprus and why John?

Why Cyprus? Cyprus was the hometown island of Barnabas.  Barnabas knew the island well and no doubt had family and contacts on the island (Acts 4:36).  It would be a good place to start the missionary journey.

Why John who is sometimes called John Mark and sometimes called Mark?  Paul would reveal to us in his later letter, Colossians, that John, John Mark, Mark was Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10).  Barnabas, ever the encourager, wanted to bring his younger cousin with him to Cyprus to develop him into an evangelist.  That seems to make sense.  But John, John Mark, Mark had some other important connections.  Let’s look at those other connections. 

Earlier in the Book of Acts, we would find that James, an apostle of Jesus, was arrested by King Herod and executed.  The execution of James pleased the Jews and so King Herod arrested Simon Peter, apostle of Jesus.  Peter, in prison and chained between two guards, was miraculously freed from prison by an angel.  Once out of the prison, we would learn that Peter, “Went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying” (Acts 12:12).  Peter, freshly released from prison, sought refuge in the home of very close friends, Mary and John, Mark, John Mark.  So this cousin of Barnabas was also a well known friend of Simon Peter. As the years developed, we would find that the relationship between Simon Peter and Mark, John Mark, John was very close.  In Peter’s first letter, Peter refers to Mark as his son (1 Peter 5:13), meaning a spiritual son to Peter.  It would make sense then that this cousin of Barnabas and close friend of Simon Peter would benefit from accompanying Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary trip to Cyprus.  We can understand this arrangement.  In a church environment we want to encourage younger members to become involved in mission trips or other ministries to broaden their experiences.  So, this young man was included on the first missionary trip to Cyprus.

A couple of weeks ago, we read in Acts, Chapter 13, how Barnabas, Saul, and John, John Mark, Mark travelled the whole island of Cyprus bringing the good news of Jesus.  Then in Paphos the three met with the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to share God’s word with him, a Gentile.  There the three also encountered the Jewish sorcerer, Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas, the child of the devil.  It was there that Paul condemned and made Elymas temporarily blind.  In view of the actions and testimony of Paul and Barnabas, Sergius Paulus believed in Jesus.  Luke then wrote, “13 From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13).

And there you see the first indicator of being let down.  As soon as the group had left Cyprus and made landfall in Pamphylia, John, John Mark, Mark left them, left Paul.  For whatever reason, this young man was uncomfortable continuing under Paul. Instead, the young man returned to Jerusalem. 

Why did John, John Mark, Mark leave the group?  We are not told the reason, but it could have been related to Paul’s behavior toward the Gentiles, and particularly an association with a Roman official.  Whatever the reason, we can discern from our reading today that Paul considered the young man’s departure an act of betrayal, an extreme disappointment to Paul.   

Luke recorded for us in today’s reading that Paul suggested he and Barnabas return to Cyprus and other lands to strengthen the churches.  Barnabas wanted to include John.  But Paul told Barnabas that, “38 He [Paul] did not think it wise to take him [John, John Mark, Mark], because he had deserted them in Pamphylia” (Acts 15:38).  In Paul’s view, John, John Mark, Mark had broken fellowship with Paul as soon as they landed from Cyprus.  Did Paul consider John, John Mark, Mark one of those who had infiltrated the ranks to spy on him and report back to Jerusalem?  We do not know.  But what we do know is that Barnabas and Paul were so sharply in disagreement on this young man that Paul would not accompany Barnabas on the trip Paul had suggested.

This is a painful scene because it shows a fraying of the fabric of the church and does not appear to have any sort of positive ending.  Unfortunately, there are many of you here today who can relate to this story because you have had a dispute, a serious disappointment, or a sense of being let down by a member of the church.  In that dispute, your fellowship with that other person may not have survived.  You may be here because that dispute led you to seek another church.  It is painful when distrust comes into the church and the account here that Luke offers does not seem to show us the better way to resolving and reconciling our differences.  When we hear about sharp disagreement between believers it is very easy for us to think about who is wrong in this situation.  We might think Paul was wrong and Barnabas was right or that Barnabas was wrong on insisting that John accompany them.

Was there anything in Luke’s account of this dispute that is helpful to us?  The answer is yes.  Even though Barnabas and Paul parted company, neither one of them parted company with the mission that held them together.  Rather than Barnabas or Paul quitting or giving up, they agreed that the time had come for two missionary trips instead of one.  These two men of great faith did not allow their egos or anger interrupt God’s plan to share the good news.  And so, Barnabas and John, John Mark, Mark left to retrace their steps in Cyprus so that they could strengthen the churches they had founded on the original trip.  Meanwhile, Paul and Silas left to start in churches found on the mainland and move the missionary message out to new locales.  Instead of collapsing God’s plan over a dispute, the missionary outreach doubled.

What else might we say about this situation with Barnabas, Paul, and John, John Mark, Mark?  First, in Scripture, we never hear about Barnabas again. Church legend says that on Cyprus, Barnabas was confronted by Jewish sorcerer.  The sorcerer stirred up the people against Barnabas and before a magistrate could be summoned to hear the charges against Barnabas, the crowds put a rope around Barnabas’ neck, dragged him out of the city, and burned him to death.  Second, we hear a lot about Paul.  We will continue to talk about Paul in the weeks ahead. And third what do we learn about John, John Mark, Mark?  This young man was mentored by Barnabas until Barnabas’ murder and this young man remained a close associate of Peter.  This young man would be credited with writing the Gospel of Mark.

But more than being mentored by Barnabas and being a spiritual son of Peter, we find in Scripture that the life of this young man and that of Paul would intersect again.  Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, wrote this in the closing paragraph of his letter, “10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)” (Colossians 4:10).  Oh, my goodness.  Paul, who accused Mark, John Mark, John of disloyalty in leaving the missionary trip was now acknowledging that this same man was a co-worker in ministry.

We see Paul acknowledge this same young man in a letter to Philemon.  As Paul closed that letter, Paul said, “23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers” (Phil 23).  Mark, John Mark, John had become a co-worker of Paul.

Finally, in a letter to Timothy, Paul gave this instruction to Timothy, “11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).  Paul had come to see Mark as a helpful co-worker in bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.  This Mark was the same man that Paul had refused Barnabas’ request to join them in going back to Cyprus.  The very same man that caused Barnabas part company.

If we avoid the temptation to use this additional information about the Barnabas, Paul, John, John Mark, Mark story to fix blame for the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, what might we learn?  I think there are two things I want to conclude with.

First, Paul was right but not about differing with Barnabas.  Paul was right when he wrote to the church at Corinth that we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and we have received the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19).  We see here that it is never too late for two believers, in this case Paul and John, Mark to reconcile with each other.  If we have separated from another believer, then we should do everything possible to keep the door open to forgiveness and reconciliation and look for the opportunity to reconcile.

Second, our mistakes and misjudgments do not have to define our future.  We can and will make mistakes in our life but that does not mean we are excluded from an abundant life in Christ.  Peter denied Jesus three times and he wept bitterly for his denial believing that he had made an unresolvable mistake.  But Jesus forgave Peter and restored him.  Thereafter, Peter became known for his faithfulness in sharing the good news of Christ.  Peter’s mistake did not define him for the remainder of his life.  Neither did the disagreement involving Paul and John, John Mark, Mark define either of their futures.  As we make mistakes, we must not let our mistakes define our future. We need to repent of our errors, seek forgiveness, repair what has been broken, and then keep moving forward on the mission God has given each of us. 

This is the good news story of what Barnabas, Paul, and John, John Mark, Mark did together as fellow believers in Jesus Christ to the glory of God.  Amen and Amen. 

06-09 - Battle with Non-Believers

“Lord, let me know and understand which comes first, to call upon you or to praise you, to know you or to call upon you? But who could call upon you without knowing you?  For without knowing it, he might call upon another instead of you.  Or rather must you be called upon to be known?  But how can they call upon him in whom they have not believed?  And how can they come to believe, without a preacher?” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 1).

These questions come to us from Augustine, a 4th century pagan turned Christian theologian, in his deeply inspired book, Confessions.  Augustine was working out in his mind the process by which individuals come to faith in God.  Augustine wanted to know does someone call God first or do they need to know him first? Does someone praise God before calling upon God?  Or is it in calling God that a believer comes to know God?  Augustine provided no answers to his own question.  But Augustine did provide one critical observation in the process of one individual coming to faith.  Augustine asked, “And how can they come to believe, how can someone come to faith, without a preacher?”  The answer to this question is they cannot.

Augustine’s questions and conclusion that a preacher is indispensable in the process of coming to faith are not original.  Augustine’s questions come from the Apostle Paul in a letter to the Romans.  Paul wrote, “12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:12-14).  Paul’s point, echoed by Augustine, is that preaching is an indispensable part of people coming to faith.  Preaching does not only mean that someone stands in front of group and shares the good news of Jesus.  To preach means to share Jesus.  To share Jesus in a conversation between two friends is preaching.  In this context, every believer is to be a preacher.

          And so, this week we continue to explore the life of two preachers.  One was named Barnabas.  The other preacher was named Saul, who was also known as Paul.  As we come to explore today’s passage, we might note that whenever these two preachers were mentioned together Luke would write, “Barnabas and Saul (or Paul).”  Barnabas’ name always appeared before Saul or Paul.  The reason for that is that in ancient writing, and generally in modern writing, the more important character appears first.  Barnabas was given this priority status over Saul.  Now that we are coming to Iconium, the roles are reversed for Luke wrote, “1At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1).  Paul and Barnabas had walked into Iconium to preach the good news of Jesus.  As usual, they began their preaching at the synagogue, only this time Paul was the primary speaker with support coming from Barnabas.  What did Paul say to these people in Iconium,  We don’t have exactly what was said but it probably followed closely to what Paul had told the people in the last city they visited which was:  23 “God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised….26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.  32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus…34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay...38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (Acts 13:23, 26-33a, 34a, 38-39).

          Paul and Barnabas’ message was quite simple.  God has given the world the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. Sadly, the religious leaders and Romans did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and instead conspired, killed Jesus, and buried Jesus’ body.  Yet, God would not be mocked, and God’s plan would not be defeated.  And so, God raised Jesus from the dead.  Anyone who believes in Jesus stands before God free of all sin.  The response to Paul’s preaching in Iconium was immediate in that “a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1b).

          What had happened?  Two strangers walked into the city of Iconium and spoke about Jesus, his life, his mission, his death, his resurrection from the death, and the offer of salvation from God to all who would believe in Jesus.  They spoke first to the devote Jews and to the Greeks who feared God but who were not Jews.  These strangers, Paul and Barnabas, spoke with passion, conviction, and authority. They did not speak as though they were inviting people to join them on a new exciting once in a lifetime adventure or to join a social movement of some sort.  Paul and Barnabas pleaded with the people to accept God’s salvation for their lives.  It was not a once in a lifetime message, it was a once in all eternity message.  It was if Paul was saying “Please don’t turn away from Jesus, he is your only chance to not just escape eternal punishment but also gain the right to be called a child of God and be with God forever.” So deeply convicted was Paul about this message that he was able to show his listeners the marks of abuse, whippings and beatings with rods, he had received because he dared to share God’s good news in Jesus.  When I think about Paul and Barnabas as they shared Jesus, I am embarrassed by weakness in my own attempts to reach people for Christ.

          In response to Paul’s pleadings, his listeners believed. These people were told by Paul and Barnabas that once their believed they were a new creation in Christ.

          Let’s think about that expression, a new creation in Christ.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the message, I was recently reading the writings of Augustine, a 4th century theologian from North Africa. Augustine wrote about his life as an infant.  He said that as an infant he would have cried when he wanted food and cried for discomfort in his body.  He do so as every other baby does so that an adult can address their complaint.  Augustine said, when crying was not enough, as an infant he would have wailed to make the adults do his bidding.  He would have acted with jealousy and selfish impatience to get others to do his bidding.  But then Augustine said this about his behavior as an infant.  “What does it matter to me now, when I cannot recall a trace of it?”  Augustine had no memory of being an infant.  This is the heart of Paul’s message about salvation from our sins of the past.  “What does it (our sin) matter now, when God cannot recall a trace of it?”  In accepting Christ, we become a new creation, as though our infancy jealous and selfish impatient behavior is now long ago dead and yet we are still alive.

          Paul’s listeners believed, leaving behind their old lives, and leaving behind their old ways of thinking with allegiances to people and organizations that went with it all.  “3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.”   Paul and Barnabas showed no signs of moving on and instead likely were making plans to formalize a church in Iconium to help raise these new creations.

          But.  There is always a but.  “2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers (Paul and Barnabas as well as the new disciples)…4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them (Paul and Barnabas) and stone them” (Acts 14:2, 4-5).  And there is it once again.  A plot was formed against the Christians.  This is the pattern.  The leaders conspire to get someone to make serious charges against the Christians and make a demand for justice.  The leaders then help usher those claims before a court or council they control. A verdict is made against the accused and the leaders stand back and say the accused had his day and we respect the decision of the jury, court, or council.  This was done to Jesus, it was done to Stephen, and now was being planned for Paul and Barnabas in Iconium.

          Why did the leaders react this way toward Paul and Barnabas?  In many respects they did not react to Paul and Barnabas at all.  Instead, they were reacting to Jesus.  As did the religious leaders in Jerusalem rejected Jesus, here in Iconium the religious leaders rejected Jesus.  The leaders could not see Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah, the chosen one that Moses had spoken about.  They were looking for a grand and great leader not a humble servant. They were looking for someone who would affirm them and their steadfast adherence to the sacrificial practices, their fasting, and hard application of the law.  Jesus did none of that.  Instead, Jesus challenged their lack of mercy and their belief that they could do anything so long as they sacrificed for their sins.  These leaders who had waited so long to become leaders could not imagine losing that status and so they plotted and conspired to kill the messenger rather than change.

          Luke said that the existence of the plot became known to Paul and Barnabas, and they left Iconium to continue to preach in the neighboring towns and countryside.  The preaching must continue otherwise how will the people come to faith in Jesus.

          What then do we learn for ourselves from this passage of Scripture?  First and foremost, we are reminded that God has a salvation plan for you, me, our family members, our neighbors, and the strangers we will meet and the people we will never meet.  No one is excluded from God’s plan.  And God’s plan is simple.  God sent his Son as the truth, the truth about God.  He sent his Son as the Way, the way to God, He sent his Son as the Life, the life in the present and the life eternal.  To complete the plan, God’s Son paid the price by going to the cross for the sin that would keep us from God.  And to show the power of God over life to fulfil the promises of this plan and demonstrate that life is eternal, God raised Jesus from the dead. And finally, Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the good news of God’s plan brought to all people through God’s own Son so that in believing in him we would become new creations with God having no recollection of our sins.  You and I are here because someone cared enough about us to share with us the good news, the message of eternal life.  Someone cared enough about us that they wanted us to be saved and safe not just for a day, a week, a month, a year, or even for our lifetime but for all eternity.

          What then is our obligation having received and believed in God’s Son and his message of truth, way, and the life?  It is to live by imitating Jesus and to share the good news of Jesus with our family, friends, neighbors, and strangers.  As new people come to faith, we are to help make them become Jesus’ disciples able to share the good news with others.  What we are called to do is simple, but we need to like Nike says, “Just Do It.”

          In this country we are blessed that we can do our part of God’s plan without fear of being stoned, whipped, beaten with rods, or any other act of physical violence.  We can do our part of God’s plan without fear of losing our jobs, our homes, or our property.  What do we risk then in sharing the Jesus?  We might risk some strange looks or a few hateful comments.  What is to be gained?  Eternity for those who come to faith.  We need to be like Paul and Barnabas.  We all need to be preachers, deeply convicted preachers of God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ.  Sounds like we need to “Just Do It.”  Amen and Amen.

06-02 - Spiritual Battles

There is one thing in life we all have, and it is one thing in life we tend not to talk about with others.  What is that? We have or will have a spiritual struggle.  Many, if not most of us, will be reluctant to talk about the depth of that struggle with others.  We don’t talk about a spiritual struggle with another person because we don’t want to be a burden.  We don’t talk about a spiritual struggle because the other person will not understand us.  We don’t talk about a spiritual struggle because we don’t want others, and we especially don’t want God, to think differently about us.  We don’t want to talk about spiritual battle and some Christians have peculiar beliefs about the supernatural.  They believe in a supernatural place called heaven but do not believe hell exists.  They believe in supernatural beings called angels but do not believe in demons.  They believe in the supernatural person of the resurrected Jesus but do not believe in Satan or the devil.  Jesus was quite clear there is a heaven and a hell, there are angels and demons, and he did raise from the dead and Satan, the evil one, is alive among us.  And so we deal with the reality of a spiritual struggle in ways that are not helpful or productive.  Let’s walk through a very familiar Biblical illustration that show the existence of spiritual forces pushing against us.

The illustration comes from Genesis, Chapter 3.  The man and woman were in the Garden of Eden.  It was a wonderful place of paradise.  There was food to eat, water to drink, and the man and woman shared perfect fellowship with each other and, most importantly, they each shared perfect fellowship with God.  There was one commandment to follow, and they were following it perfectly.  Then, as the man and woman were minding their own business, a serpent appeared in the garden.  But this serpent could speak.  The serpent spoke to the woman, 1b”Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’” (Genesis 3:1b-3). So far, so good.  The serpent asked a question and the woman without hesitation or struggle spoke the truth to the serpent affirming what she knew to be true and correcting what seemed to be the serpent’s misunderstanding of God’s word.  This is a wonderful illustration of a life faithfully lived in harmony with God. 

But then something happened.  The woman was confronted by a spiritual force that sought to separate her from God and her husband.  She was not looking for this spiritual force.  The spiritual force, in this case in the form of the serpent, came looking for the woman.  The serpent said to the woman, 4 “You will not certainly die...  5 For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).  The tactics employed here by the serpent were simple.  He used word games, half-truths, and different meanings to God’s words to corrupt the truth.  The woman started her day just fine was now in a spiritual battle.  The woman is beset with the questions, “Is what God said true?  Is there an opportunity here to become like God?”  The way the woman dealt with the struggle shows the natural human pattern for dealing with spiritual struggles.  She had a perfect relationship with her husband and a perfect relationship with God, and yet share talked to neither of them about her spiritual struggle.  The woman did not recognize that spiritual forces were aligned against her. Instead, she kept those questions in her mind and heart.  And “6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6).  A spiritual force had persuaded the woman, had corrupted her spirit to not believe God but instead to believe in a lie.  This was and has become the typical human response to spiritual battles.

Our New Testament reading today dealt with a spiritual struggle and gives us further insight into our spiritual battle.  We would find that Barnabas and Saul were sent from Antioch by the Holy Spirit to the island of Cyprus to proclaim the word of God.  Barnabas and Saul were accompanied by John, sometimes called Mark and at other times called John Mark.

Luke described the battle this way.  “6 They [Barnabas, Saul, and John] traveled through the whole island [of Cyprus] until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus” (Acts 13:6).  Here, Luke tells us straight up that the evangelic outreach on the island of Cyprus suddenly encountered a person who represented a spiritual force that was contrary to these missionaries.  We were told that the missionaries, Barnabas and Saul, along with John, we sent at the direction of the Holy Spirit of God.  We are told this so that we would know that the missionaries were acting under the spiritual force of righteousness.  Luke said they encountered a man who said his name was Bar-Jesus and this man was a sorcerer and false prophet.  The name bar-Jesus can be read as, “son of Jesus.”  This could be the man’s real name, meaning he was the son of a man whose name was Jesus.  But I favor the reading that the man had given himself this name, bar-Jesus, because the man wanted Barnabas and Saul, as well as others, to believe he was closely aligned with Jesus.  But Luke tells us that the man was a sorcerer, a man who deals in supernatural with magic or as a medium, and that the man was a false prophet.  A prophet is someone charged by God to speak God’s words to the people.  A false prophet claims he speaks God’s word but usually does so by corrupting or changing the meaning of God’s word.  The sum of Luke’s description was that the man who had encountered the missionaries was a supernatural force who presents himself in name, words, and deeds as having supernatural relationships.

This man, bar-Jesus, Luke said, “7 Was an attendant [advisor] of the [Roman] proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:7).  Bar-Jesus was an advisor to the Roman official, likely the Roman official responsible for the entire island of Cyprus.  So, this man, Bar-Jesus, of supernatural relationships, had moved himself into the position of governmental influence.  But the proconsul, Paulus, wanted to hear what Barnabas and Saul had to say.  A meeting was held, and Barnabas and Saul shared the story of Jesus Christ with Paulus in the presence of Bar-Jesus.

 Luke tells us though, “8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith” (Acts 13:8). There are a couple of things going on here.  First, Luke refers to Bar-Jesus by a different name, Elymas.  Luke seemed determined to remove any reference of Jesus from this man and refer to him for what the man was, Elymas, meaning sorcerer, not son of Jesus.  Second, Elymas had a mission and that was to keep the proconsul from coming to faith in response to God’s word.

You can almost see Jesus’ parable of the Sower come to life here.  We will recall Jesus said that Sower spread seed along the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the rich soil.  Jesus explained that “19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (Matthew 13:19). Barnabas and Saul were sowing the seeds, the word of God, and Elymas was trying to snatch up those words before the proconsul Paulus had a chance to understand the words.  Elymas, no doubt citing his supernatural relationship and understanding, was likely perverting and corrupting what Barnabas and Saul said to dissuade Paulus from faith.  Jesus said those who snatch away the word of God are from the evil one, the supernatural being of Satan.

We then come to a turning point.  Seeing this corruption of God’s word occurring, Luke said, “9 Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:9-10). 

Luke recorded for us three important points.  First, name of the man opposed to the missionaries changed again.  He was at first bar-Jesus or son of Jesus, then Elymas, meaning sorcerer, and final the son of the devil himself.  This man who claimed supernatural connections was now identified clearly as deriving his spirit from the devil.  As such, this man was completely opposed to the missionaries who are filled with the Holy Spirit.  The encounter between these men then was a spiritual battle. 

Second, Paul’s words show how a spiritual battle is most often waged against us.  Paul said his opposer used tricks and deceit of every kind to pervert the ways of God. Another way of saying this perhaps is that this man played games with words, spoke half-truths, and gave different meaning to God’s words that corrupted the truth, just as the serpent did with the woman in the garden.  This makes this man a child, a son of the devil, who Jesus said was the father of all lies (John 8:44).

Finally, Luke recorded that Saul was also called Paul. In this short passage with the opposer’s name changing, so too does Saul’s name for he is known only as Paul after this spiritual battle.  And to bring conclusion to the spiritual battle and to accentuate the change in names, the Holy Spirit working through Paul blinded the opposer as had been done to Saul when he opposed Jesus.  In the end, the proconsul Sergius Paulus believed and “was amazed at the teachings about the Lord” (Acts 13:12).

What does this all mean to us?  There is one point I want us to focus upon today.  That point is that we today are engaged in spiritual battles whether we know it or not.  Now some people here won’t believe that statement but let’s consider some numbers. 

In the United States, about 60% of the people are religious and believe in the spiritual dimension of their religious beliefs.  If you are a Christian, then you should find yourself in the 60% category.  Another 21% of the people say they are neither religious nor spiritual.  They believe themselves to be soulless beings, atheists.  For today, we won’t consider them further because these people are easily identified and offer opposition to our faith only in the form of mockery.

Finally, there is another 22% of Americans who believe themselves to be spiritual but hold to no religious beliefs.  They will say things like, “I am a very spiritual person, but I just don’t believe in all of the traditions of the Bible.”  I have met many people who are “spiritual.”  I suspect that everyone here has met someone who claims they are spiritual but not religious.  When these people say they are spiritual but not religious, what they are saying is that they do not believe in a spiritual relationship with the God of the Bible, nor with Jesus Christ as the son of God, and certainly not with the Holy Spirit of God.  But they believe in a spiritual life meaning they must have a spiritual relationship with some other spiritual being or presence, none of whom from a Christian perspective are good.  This is the group from which the spiritual battles will come.  A full 20% of the people in this country will engage in spiritual battles with the faithful.  They will present their views, sometimes argumentatively and other times gently and politely, against Christian beliefs using the tactics of the devil.  They use word games, half-truths, and give different definitions to God’s words.  They may as bar-Jesus did use titles that try to claim a relationship with Christ such as Progressive Christianity, but they are not Christian.  The intent and the effect are to pervert and corrupt the truth of God, the truth that our eternal lives guaranteed by Jesus, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit to guide, direct, and comfort our lives.  When we have such conversations with “spiritual” people we need to recognize that whether we asked for it or not we are in a spiritual battle.  The person speaking to us is opposing the Holy Spirit within us, just as had happened in our Scripture reading today.  When that happens, and it has happened to you and will happen again, you are in a spiritual battle even if it does not feel hostile.  The Apostle John was very specific on this point.  John wrote, “But every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world” (1 John 4:3).  Remember over 20% of Americans are spiritual but deny Jesus of the Bible is from God.

What are we to do?  I think there are three things we can do.  First, hold onto God and tell him what is happening.  Second, grab hold of another faithful Christian so that you are not tricked by being alone.  And lastly, we should follow the lead of the proconsul of Cyprus and “be amazed at the teachings about the Lord” (Acts 13:12).  Bring into your life, daily, some element of God’s word to be amazed and to protect yourself from the deceit of others.  When God called out the Hebrews and prepared them to go into a world with countless spiritual people, God told the Hebrews to prepare themselves this way, “These commandments [My Word] that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). God’s direction was not just to honor God but to protect His people from the inevitable spiritual battles that they would face.  God’s direction is still our best defense.  Turn to God, hold fast to other faithful people, and be amazed at the teachings about the Lord and protect yourself in the spiritual battles that await each of us.  Amen and Amen.

05-26 - You Are One of Those, a Christian

          If someone says to you, “You are one of those, a Christian!”, how should you receive their words?  Is their statement, “You are one of those, a Christian” intended to be a statement of fact?  Or is that statement an accusation that you are a religious troublemaker, “a Christian”?  Or does the statement, “You are one of those, a Christian!”, intended to mean you are politically a potential subversive?  Or is that statement a compliment?  The answer is “Yes,” to all those questions.  If someone says to you, “You are one of those, a Christian!” it is a statement of fact because you follow Christ.  It is an accusation that you are a religious troublemaker because you believe the only way to God is through Christ.  You are also politically subversive because your primary allegiance is to God through Jesus Christ and not to the government of the nation in which you reside.  If someone says to you, “You are one of those, a Christians!” then it is a compliment because you are a person known by the fruit of the Holy Spirit which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

          The first time someone was known to have said to another person, “You are a Christian!” was about 2,000 years ago in the city of Antioch.  Then Antioch was in the Roman province of Syria.  Today, we would locate the city in the southern part of modern-day Turkey.  Two thousand years ago, Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire.  There was Rome, of course, the largest and most important city of the empire.  Rome was followed by Alexandria in Egypt as the second largest with Antioch coming in third.  At that time, of the approximately 800,000 residents of the city, there were only about 25,000 who were Jewish.  The balance was pagan of one sort or another.  There were few, if any atheists, in ancient times.  It was in this city; people were first called “Christian” with all its various meanings.  How did that happen and what difference does it make to us today?

          We begin our understanding with the words of Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, the acts of the apostles.  Luke wrote, “19 Now those [disciples of Jesus] who had been scattered [from Jerusalem] by the persecution [led by Saul] that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word [about Jesus] among Jews” (Acts 11:19).  Persecution is the targeting of a particular group for hostility treatment based on their ethnicity or religious beliefs.  Persecution of the early church began shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven by the Jewish authorities, leading eventually to the killing of a faithful man, Stephen.

          But rather than ending the early church, the death of Stephen had for the Jewish authorities an unexpected effect.  The early church began to spread.  In our opening scripture today, Luke said disciples left Jerusalem because of the death of Stephen and went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.  A later Roman follower of Jesus, Tertullian, said this about persecution.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”   Tertullian would write, “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That's why you can't just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are” (Apologeticus). 

And so, these disciples, witnesses to the martyr’s death of Stephen, went to Antioch to share the good news of Jesus with the Jews of the city. But something else happened in Antioch that had not occurred in Jerusalem.  Luke wrote, “20 Some of them, however, men [Jesus’ disciples] from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks [the pagans] also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them [disciples/missionaries], and a great number of people [Greeks] believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21). Luke described an unexpected development.  Jesus’ disciples, all originally followers of Judaism, not only shared the good news of Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, that was expected, but also they shared their story with non-Jews, the Greeks, pagans, and these people believed as well.  In Antioch, there were now gatherings of Jesus’ followers with a Jewish heritage meeting together with people with a pagan heritage to worship the same God. These two groups, that previously would have nothing to do with each other, were now believing in the same Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

Luke wrote, “22 News of this [Jews and Greeks worshiping together] reached the church [the apostles] in Jerusalem, and they [the apostles] sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22).  The news of Jews and Greeks worshipping together was hard to understand and hard to believe.  Jews and pagans with their long history of mutual distrust, hatred, and disgust for one another now, suddenly, were worshipping together.  It was as though each had been broken free from the bonds of their own traditions to begin something new.  This news had to be investigated and so the apostles sent their best man to Antioch, Barnabas or bar Nabas, the son of the encourager, comforter, and consoler.  If anyone could sort through the truth of Antioch and set things straight, certainly someone of the stature and credibility of bar Nabas could do so.

Luke continued, “23 When he [bar Nabas] arrived [in Antioch] and saw what the grace of God had done, he [bar Nabas] was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He [bar Nabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24). What bar Nabas saw stunned him.  God’s grace had been poured out.  When God pours His grace upon us, it is not an act of God coming down to us.  It is an act of God raising us up toward Him.  God poured out His grace on these people, Jews and Greeks, raising them up to put aside their mutual histories and traditions so that God could knit them together as a new creation, a single church holding in common that Jesus had come from God and died for their sins and had risen from the dead.  A new creation had come into existence upon the earth, the church of the New Testament, the church not of two flocks but of one.

Bar Nabas was glad, he was rejoicing, to see this marvelous new creation that God had brought to life and what God was doing to sustain it and grow it. And so, bar Nabas encouraged the missionaries and the disciples.  The response by bar Nabas makes me think back to the advice the Jewish leadership received when the Sanhedrin wanted to put the apostles to death at the beginning of the persecution.  Luke wrote, “34 A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men [the apostles] be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he [Gamaliel] addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men… 38 [Therefore, in the present case] I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:34-35; 38-39).  Bar Nabas could see that the coming together of Jews and Greeks could only mean one thing, this was from God and could not be stopped. There is an important lesson here for us.  We, as a church, cannot expect anything we do to succeed if what we do is of human origin. If we are going to do something as a church and we pray, “God bless us in what we are about to do,” then we are seeking to call God’s grace down to us.  If, however, we have prayed and God has revealed to us through prayer what He desires us to do, then God’s grace pour down on us to lift us up toward Him.  When that occurs, when we do what we are called to do by God, then it will not fail because it is from God.  Bar Nabas rejoiced because he saw something arising that could not fail because it came from God.

After a short while, bar Nabas, could see that he and the original missionaries were not going to be able on their own to pastor and lead the growing church of Antioch.  That is a great problem to have.  Luke wrote, “25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he [Barnabas] found him [Saul], he [Barnabas] brought him [Saul] to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people” (Acts 11:25-26).

          Here again, we see the leadership of bar Nabas.  He was a respected member of the inner circle of the church of Jerusalem with significant influence with Jesus’ Apostles.  So great was bar Nabas’ influence that the apostles gave him that name, bar Nabas, as a sign that he was a man who acted like the offspring of the Holy Spirit.  And when news of this new creation of Jews and Greeks in Antioch reached the ears of the apostles, they sent bar Nabas to investigate.  He was a man full of the Holy Spirit and well respected.  And what bar Nabas found was wonderful.

But more than just wonderful, bar Nabas showed the influence of the Holy Spirit over him in two significant ways.  First, leaders in the church must use opportunities to bring others into the work of the ministry.  So, bar Nabas sought others to come and work with him in Antioch. Second, bar Nabas saw the need to involve Saul in the work at Antioch.  Why Saul?  There were two reasons.  First, Jesus had told Ananias, the man who was sent to baptize Saul, that “This man [Saul] is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15b).  Saul had been commission to bring the good news to Greek and Jews and now, in Antioch, bar Nabas could see that mission had begun. Saul must be made part of it for doing so was of God.  Second, bar Nabas understood the overarching ministry of the church is reconciliation. The work in Antioch began because Saul persecuted Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem causing them to flee to places like Antioch.  Involving Saul in the work of the church in Antioch would provide a tremendous witness to the power of God to reconcile wounds among believers.  Bar Nabas, full of the Holy Spirit, understood that Saul working with those he had once persecuted to bring glory to God would reconcile a division within the church.  Bringing Saul into Antioch would require God’s grace to be pour out lifting every one of them up closer to God.  There is something powerful when God transforms your enemy into your ambassador.  Scripture says bar Nabas and Saul taught together for over a year and the church grew because wounds had,  been healed. 

 “17 (Therefore,) if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).  Bar Nabas’ decision to bring Saul into the church of Antioch helped Saul experienced reconciliation with God and within the church.

Now as the church of Antioch, this odd combination of Jews and Greeks, grew, the church became visible.  Other people, Jews and Greeks alike, people of high standing and authority as well as common people, began to notice of this new thing, this group of people of all histories coming together as one.  Luke said it was at this point that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26b). 

It is hard to tell from the ancient histories to know for sure who called the group in Antioch, Christians.  There is a case to be made that Jews who refused the missionaries’ message of Jesus called those who did Christians to make it clear these people were not Jews.  Ancient histories show that the Jews thought of the missionaries as troublemakers because they were willing to share the testimony of the Gospel of Jesus and so they called them Christians as a way of identifying the trouble making people of the city.  Ancient histories also suggest that the Romans started calling the group Christians because they held their allegiance was to Christ not Caesar.  This meant being called a Christian was a dangerous title suggesting the people were politically subversive.  Or perhaps the word Christian was developed to reflect a people who desired peace for themselves and their neighbors.  This meant being called a Christian was a compliment.  All those titles fit then, and they fit today.  If you are a Christian, you are not a Jew, not a pagan, you are a troublemaker, you are a political subversive, and you are to be complimented because you are reconciled to God and have the ministry of reconciliation.

What else does this scene in Antioch teach us for our life today? First, the church then formed because of the grace of God.  Nothing has changed.  Our church exists and will only continue to exist by the grace of God.  Over the decades, God has poured out his grace on the people who form this church to bring them together on this spot to worship Him and serve in His name.  We have an varied collection of backgrounds melded together as a new creation.

Second, anything this church does, meaning anything we might do, must be done through God otherwise, if what we do is of human origin, it will fail.

Third, we who call ourselves Christians have been reconciled to God. God is no longer interested in our past lives and prior sins.  That has all been taken care of.  What matters now is remain faithful to Him and that we pursue a ministry of reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, like the New Testament church of Antioch we should be willing to be called Christian because we are a new creation.  We are troublemakers who believe in imitating Jesus Christ and doing as he commands.  We are political subversives because we believe our allegiance is to God not to the body politic.  We are to be lifted up by God’s grace to act in accordance with the Holy Spirit and be loving, kind, peaceful, and generous people.  This week wear well the words, “You are one of those, a Christian!” Amen and Amen.

05-19 - Becoming an Encourager

          “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” William Shakespeare used this line in his play Romeo and Juliet to convey that the naming of things is irrelevant.  Perhaps names are irrelevant since Shakespeare’s time, but that was not always true.  In the ancient near east, for example, names mattered.  The meaning behind someone’s name mattered.  And the names people were known by mattered most when someone’s name was changed during their life.  For example, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude.” Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, meaning “he strives with God.”  And, of course, Simon, son of Jonah, had his name changed by Jesus to Peter, meaning “rock.” Changing someone’s name during one’s life was intended to reflect a profound truth about the nature of that person. 

So, ask yourself this question, “If your name was changed to match a profound truth about you, what might that truth be?  What character trait do you think most defines you?” If you were using a contemporary guide to the meaning of names, and you are wise, then would you change your name to Sophie or Drew, both mean the person is wise.  If you are a leader, would you change your name to Duke or Deanna? If you are a healer, would you change your name to Jaylen or Jason?

          Today, as we continue our exploration of the life of a man named Saul, we will see that Saul met a man whose name was changed and that change was most profound. At birth, this man’s name was Joseph. Later in life, after the man became a Christian, Jesus’ Apostles changed Joseph’s name to reflect the fundamental truth about this man, and they gave him the name, Barnabas.  We pronounce and spell his name as a single word, Barnabas. But in the ancient near east, the word “bar” meant “son of.”  So, Barnabas was more likely accentuated, bar Nabas, “son of Nabas.”  Depending upon the Bible translation, Nabas means encouragement, comfort, and consolation.  Joseph most profound character trait then was to be seen as the “son of the encourager, the comforter, and the consoler.”  The word Luke used that was translated as encourager is the Greek word, paraklesis, which describes the act of calling people closer together, onto closer intimacy and stronger comfort.  Joseph was seen as the son of the one who does this drawing of people and provider of comfort.  In many respects, Joseph, bar Nabas, was behaving as the offspring of the Holy Spirit, parakletos, meaning the divine intercessor, consoler-advocate, and comforter.  This description of Joseph seems to fit a description of him found in Acts 11:24 where Barnabas is described as “24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith”.  What’s in a name?  A name means a lot if it is given to you as a sign of your relationship with God and how that relationship is lived out.

          And so, with that background about bar Nabas, we pick of the story of Saul.  We will recall from the last couple of weeks that Saul had been a Jewish Pharisee, a deeply religious man who trained under one of the greatest rabbis in Israel’s history.  But Saul lost his way and instead of using his intellect, Saul began, in Jerusalem, breathing out murderous threats seeking to destroy anyone who dared to follow Jesus.  After persecuting Christians in Jerusalem, Saul began pursing Christians into the city of Damascus.  On the way, Saul had an encounter with Jesus that transformed Saul from breathing out murderous threats against Christians to preaching God’s Word seeking Jews and Gentiles to come and accept Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah.  Last week, we saw that Saul began his ministry in Damascus, moved to Arabia, then back to Damascus.  For nearly 3 years, Saul suffered at the hands of the Jews.  He was whipped, receiving 39 lashes on three different occasions.  He was beaten with rods on two occasions.  He was imprisoned and was without food, water, and clothing.  And for all the physical abuse Saul experienced, he made few, if any, disciples to Christ.  Then Saul escaped those seeking his death who had surrounded the gates of the city /of Damascus, all the while awaiting to seize Saul.  Saul escaped their clutches and finally made his way back to Jerusalem, where Saul had grown up, became a man, and was educated in the Hebrew Scriptures.

          As comforting as it might be for Saul to return to Jerusalem, Saul knew he would not be welcomed back to Jerusalem by the high priests and Pharisees.  Saul would be seen by them as a traitor, someone to be scorned and held in contempt.  In returning to Jerusalem, Saul would seek to join with the other apostles and disciples of Jesus.  But Luke tells us, “26 When he [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he [Saul] tried to join the disciples, but they [the disciples] were all afraid of him [Saul], not believing that he [Saul] really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).  Let’s not go by this point too quickly.  Saul, this apostle of Jesus, whipped and beaten in his ministry in Arabia, threatened with death in Damascus, an outcast to the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, now stood alone because he was also shunned by Jesus disciples in Jerusalem. Alone.  Aloneness hurts.  Aloneness, loneliness hurts us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Loneliness hurts.  Loneliness hurts us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  American musician and songwriter, JJ Heller, in her song, “What Love Really Means,” described loneliness this way: “He cries in the corner where nobody sees.  He’s the kid with the story no one would believe. He prays every night, ‘Dear God, won't you please?  Could you send someone here who will love me?’”  The relief of loneliness requires the cooperation of only one other person.

          At this very moment of Saul’s crisis of loneliness, Luke said, “27 But Barnabas took him [Saul]” (Acts 9:27a).  I love this very short piece of Scripture.  First because it begins with the word “But” and I encourage everyone to sit up and take notice whenever but is used in the Bible because it usually means God is going to set things straight.  Second, I love it because it says, “But Barnabas took Saul.”  Bar Nabas, the son of the encourager, consoler, comforter, the man seen to be full of the Holy Spirit, broke into Saul’s loneliness and listened to Saul’s story.  The prayer of JJ Heller’s song, “Dear God, won't you please? Could you send someone here who will love me?”  To break into the loneliness of another, to have someone say, “I am here, please tell me,” is an act of love.  And so, bar Nabas listened to Saul.  We need to draw into our life as Christians that we possess the same Holy Spirit as bar Nabas.  With that same Holy Spirit, we too could and should love someone and break into their loneliness.

          But more than simply listening to Saul, bar Nabas did one other important thing.  Bar Nabas believed Saul’s story.  An encounter that breaks into the loneliness of another is one thing but to be believed shatters the walls of silence that others have constructed around you.  Luke wrote, “27 But Barnabas took him [Saul] and brought him to the apostles. He [Barnabas] told them [apostles] how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him [Saul], and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). Bar Nabas broke into Saul’s loneliness, shattered the wall of silence surrounding Saul, and then advocated for Saul with the apostles.  Bar Nabas, the son of the encourager, asked the apostles to believe Saul and to see in Saul’s story the blessing God was bestowing.  Bar Nabas put his reputation and standing with the disciples on the line. To Saul, bar Nabas was such an encourager because bar Nabas listened, believed, and then risked his standing in his own community to advocate for Saul.  Bar Nabas provided for us an example of the Christian response to the outcast.

          What was the result?  “28 So Saul stayed with them [the disciples] and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28).  Saul was now part of the Church that was moving and growing in and around Jerusalem. Saul would later describe this unity of the church this way, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…24b God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:3, 14a, 24b-27).  Bar Nabas, with the Holy Spirit working through him, had broken into the loneliness of Saul, and acted by calling people closer together, onto closer intimacy and stronger comfort.  Bar Nabas helped to make Saul forever a part of the living body of Christ. 

          I think being accepted and part of the body is something every human being desires. The Greeks called this bringing together into unity, Koinonia, a fellowship of the close association between persons, emphasizing what is common between them and by extension, participating, sharing, contributing, and gifting in one another as an outcome of such close relationship.  We all want to be part of the life that is going on around us and to contribute to it.

Again, later, Saul would write to the church in Corinth, the body of Christ in Corinth, “I always thank my God for you [the followers of Jesus in Corinth] because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He [God] will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).  Saul took this concept of unity of the body of Christ among believers and made it clear that such unity first comes from fellowship, koinonia, with Jesus.  Jesus calls believers to be inseparable part of himself.  A believer is to be in fellowship with both Jesus, for all eternity, and in fellowship with other believers through the Church with a bond so tight as to make one feel as though they are part of a body.  This is what Saul experienced in Jerusalem through the work of bar Nabas, the son of encouragement.

 We all then have a child-parent relationship with God and we have been gifted with the same Holy Spirit.  Saul would later say that “To some people the Spirit gives a message of wisdom. To others the same Spirit gives a message of knowledge. To others the same Spirit gives faith. To others that one Spirit gives gifts of healing. 10 To others he gives the power to do miracles. To others he gives the ability to prophesy. To others he gives the ability to tell the spirits apart. To others he gives the ability to speak in different kinds of languages they had not known before. And to still others he gives the ability to explain what was said in those languages. 11 All the gifts are produced by one and the same Spirit. He gives gifts to each person, just as he decides” (1 Corinthians 12:8-11).  Every believer here has been gifted in some way.

But.  But if bar Nabas’ name is to mean anything as the “son of the encourager” then it must be true that each believer is also the daughter or son of the encourager, the Holy Spirit as well.  If that is true, then each believer has been equipped to call people closer together, onto closer intimacy and stronger comfort.  There is no law, there is nothing that stands in our way, from becoming an encourager of another.  We need to break into other’s loneliness.  We need to listen to others, particularly the outcast.   We need to believe and then be willing to advocate for those who need a voice and to bring them fully into the body of Christ. Let’s all be called bar Nabas. Amen and Amen. 

05-12 Don't Quit

                    This Mother’s Day, it is natural for me to think about my mother. She lived a simple life with traditional New England ethics.  She did not show her emotions in public.  She completed her work before she played.  And she never gave up and she never quit.  I would like us to pick up today on that last thought about quitting.

          To quit, what does it mean to quit and what is the significance of quitting to our faith life?  The English word, quit, came into use long ago in the Middle Ages and it was originally meant to convey a decision “to release.”  People began using the term in context of releasing their rights to property, to land.  The idea of releasing one’s rights to property, to quit, eventually came also to mean a person was giving up their participation in some part of life.  One could quit a game, a job or even in a matter one’s faith to quit Church or even quit God.  “I quit!  I give up!”

          To quit something of faith is always a serious matter. Some years ago, I was aware of a church where people became dissatisfied with the way things were going.  One by one people from the church said, “I quit!” And they ended their relationship with the church with lengthy letters that listed complaints about this and that. Several people who quit moved to another church but just as many people, if not more people, quit going to church altogether.  This latter group quit, they gave up their opportunity to hear God’s word, to worship God, to fellowship with other Christians, to be encouraged in their faith and to be a source of encouragement to others, and to serve others in the name of Christ.  It is always a life-changing decision to quit in a matter of faith.  Today, I would like us to look at the life of a man named Saul and his decision not to quit, not to give up even when it would have been understandable to do so.  Saul’s decision to continue, to not quit, had significant implications for his life and for our lives as well.

          We spoke last week that Saul had been a Pharisee in Jerusalem turned prosecuting attorney against Christian.  Saul was breathing out murderous threats against Christians.  Saul, on his way to Damascus, to arrest more Christians had an encounter with the Lord Jesus and, in a matter of days, was transformed from breathing out murderous threats against Christians to breathing out God’s word to encourage more people to become Christians.  Saul became a very powerful preacher proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God.  From our Scripture reading today, we would hear these words from Luke: 

22 Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him” (Acts 9:22-23a).

What Luke does not tell us is that those words, “After many days had gone by” equal a time span of about 3 years.  Shortly after Saul had started preaching more and more powerfully in Damascus, Saul left the city of Damascus to go elsewhere.  So, in the space between the end of verse 22 and the beginning of verse 23 is a time span of 3 years.  Where was Saul?  What was he doing?  Had Saul quit just as he had started his work in the name of Jesus?

          Not hardly.  Saul, later known as Paul, said in a much letter to the Galatians written years after he left Damascus that he, Saul, left Damascus and went “into Arabia” (Galatians 1:17).  Arabia?  What did Saul mean by Arabia?  Did he mean the modern-day countries of Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Iraq, perhaps, or Kuwait. It is possible Saul went to these regions, but not likely.  In Saul’s days, Arabia was most usually referred to as the lands to the south and east of Jerusalem, where the Nabateans lived with their capital city of Petra, largely in the lands of modern-day Jordan.  The Nabateans were independent people with their own monarchy and not under the governance of the Romans Empire.

It is likely that this is the region, Nabatean, that Saul went to after Damascus.  Why did he go?  Some have suggested that Paul went there for quiet reflection and study of the Scriptures to prepare himself for ministry.  That does not seem likely since Saul had years of training in the Scriptures as well as a special revelation from Jesus.  Luke said that immediately after that revelation, Saul began in Damascus preaching and teaching that Jesus was the Son of God and God’s Messiah in powerful and astonishing ways.  Saul was already involved in proclaiming the good news of Jesus, he would not likely want to go and contemplate life in the desert for years. Instead, it seems much more likely Saul went to the Nabateans (Arabia) to proclaim the word of God, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

What is interesting to note, however, is that there are no accounts of Saul’s ministry in Arabia.  There are no letters of Saul to the churches that he established. There are no stories of his time in Arabia and the work completed among the people of Arabia.  It does not appear that Saul could point to much accomplished in those 3 years of Arabia.  What happened?  Was God listening to Saul’s prayers?

Although there are no letters to Arabian churches and no accounts of the Arabian ministry in the Book of Acts, we might have is some understanding of what happened to Saul while in Arabia.  In a letter to the church at Corinth many years later, Saul now Paul said this, “23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).  Saul certainly had experienced a lot of hardship and brutal treatment in his time as an apostle of Jesus.  These abuses were also chronicled by Luke in the Book of Acts.  But when we compare the extensive list of hardships Saul gave in 2 Corinthians to those hardships found in the Book of Acts, we would realize that many of Saul’s hardships listed in 2 Corinthians are not found in the Book of Acts. This suggests that the hardships not in the Book of Acts came before Saul’s involvement with the other apostles of Jesus, meaning these things, these hardships happened in Arabia.

It seems likely that while in Arabia, Saul was scourged, lashed with a whip, five times, beaten two times with rods, and imprisoned.  Yet for all that misery, there were no churches established by Saul in Arabia.  Saul endured mistreatment in Arabia and Saul saw little, if any, fruit for his efforts.  One might wonder, did Saul say, “Where are you God? Do you not see me?  Do you not care?”  Yet, despite the physical suffering and the immediate lack of accomplishment, Saul did not quit.  Saul did not give up in his desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Not only did Saul experience severe hardship, but Saul the first to persecute the Christians, was became the target of the Jews desiring to kill him.  We then read in from the Book of Acts, “23 After many days had gone by (that is Saul’s time in Arabia), there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him [Saul], 24 but Saul learned of their plan” (Acts 9:23).  Saul, in Arabia, was about to be killed and so Saul returned to Damascus. Saul was being pursued out of Arabia by Jews who wanted Saul’s death.  “Day and night they [the Jews from Arabia] kept close watch on the city gates [of Damascus] in order to kill him [Saul]” (Acts 9:24).  Saul’s pursuers wanted Saul but did not feel so emboldened as to enter the city to find him.  Instead, those seeking Saul waited at the gates to the city making sure Saul could not escape their grasp.  But! There is always a but.  “25 But his [Saul’s] followers took him [Saul] by night and lowered him [Saul] in a basket through an opening in the wall” (Acts 9:25).  Saul did not quit.  Instead, other Christians, likely former Jews, lowered Saul in a basket through a window in the city walls allowing Saul to leave the city without using one of its gates.  Saul was safe and it was then he made his way to Jerusalem.  We will pick up Saul’s journey to Jerusalem next week.  But one of the things we will discover is that Saul was not welcome in Jerusalem and had to flee again for his life.  Yet, Saul did not quit.

What we have seen then was that Saul was a man who originally sought to kill and imprison Christians changed by an encounter with Jesus to then preach the gospel of Jesus and in doing so became a man beaten with rods, scourged, whipped, and now threatened with death.  There does not appear to be any success in Saul’s efforts and yet, Saul did not quit. Instead, this Saul would continue to serve the Lord and preach to other people seeking to have them share in the good news of Jesus Christ.  Saul did not quit.

How does Saul’s decision not to quit help inform us about our faith walk?  What might we learn from Saul when our faith journey becomes difficult, painful, or fruitless?  Let’s look at two things.

First, Saul, now Paul, in expressing his decision not to quit, would later write to the early Christian church powerful words of faith and endurance.  Saul wrote:  Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart…We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:1, 8-10).  Saul said first we do not lose heart because we base our life on the reality of God’s mercy that has saved us from eternal destruction. We need to say that to ourselves more often, “I am saved.  Wow. Thank you, God.”  Second, we acknowledge to other Christians the reality that sometimes our life can become difficult and painful.  So, we share with one another, “I am hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, and feeling abandoned.”  That can be our reality and we should share it with other Christians. The world, our non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and even our non-Christian family members really won’t care about our difficulties.  But our Christian brothers and sisters ought to and will care.  Because when, as our opening song said, “Let’s be real, let’s be honest.  I’m angry, I’m tired. I have that down on my knees feeling.  Take this cup from me.”  When we can share the depth of those hardships, our burden with other Christians, we are no longer carrying them on our own.  In fellowship and with encouragement from other Christians we are reminded that despite our hardships and brutal treatment, we are not crushed, in despair, or destroyed.  However, if we quit, if we give up on God, on church, then we lose the opportunity for Christian fellowship, encouragement, support, service, and worship of God. All of which sets us up to be crushed, in despair, and destroyed.

Second, Saul, in expressing his decision not to quit, learned that, “1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-3).  First, Saul learned that faith and belief in Jesus as his savior brought him peace with God.  Peace with God.  Think about the power in those words for a moment, Peace with God.  That sense of calmness and wholeness had eluded Saul and led him to persecute the church in believing somehow that violence done in the name of God would bring him peace with God.  Thrashing out at others did not bring Saul peace and it never would. Likewise, quitting a relationship with God would never bring peace.  We must be in a relationship with God if we want peace.  Saul, knowing that he was at peace with God and God was at peace with him, helped Saul to see those hardships of life, the beatings, the whippings, hunger, thirst, and imprisonment were not from God.  Those hardships of life were acts that came from a world and people in that world that were not at peace with God.  Saul could deal with the hardships of life “14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14).  Saul could do so because Saul knew that hardship and pain are not given to him by God. God gives us peace.  Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  Saul did not quit because Saul knew peace comes from God.

As the refrain of the open song said, “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, quit.”  Stay with God.  Stay with the body of Christ, his Church.  Don’t quit having the opportunity to hear God’s word, to worship God, to fellowship with other Christians, to be encouraged in your faith, to be a source of encouragement to others, and to serve others in the name of Christ. 

05-05 Brining Order and Light

          A poet once wrote these words about contemporary society, “If Chance [Randomness] is the Father of all flesh, then disaster is his rainbow in the sky, and when you hear, ‘State of Emergency,’ ‘Sniper Kills Ten!’ ‘Troops on Rampage.’ ‘Youth Go Looting,’ Bomb Blast School!’ It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”

          “If Chance [and not God] is the Father of all flesh, then disaster is his rainbow in the sky.”  The poet’s words are a somber start to the message today, but they are necessary words.  These words are necessary because they help us to put into context all that has gone on this past week and to prepare us to understand the message of hope offered in our Scripture today.

          This past week we saw headlines of eight officers shot in North Carolina, four dead, students protest in support of terrorists, barricade themselves in building, wars rage, thousands are dead, the list goes on. Is there something common to all these events?  Yes. Those involved are simply worshipping their maker, who is not God.  All these events are born by people whose mind and spirit are divided, wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy.

          Even those who did not participate in headline making news this past week but who were unfaithful in their marriage, abusive of their children, angry and hateful toward others, or simply leading others down the wrong path of life were worshipping their maker, who is certainly not God.  Those involved in these events outside of the headlines did so because they too have a mind and spirit that are divided, wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy.

          This is the same mind and spirit that we find in the man of our New Testament reading today.  A man named Saul.  Who was this man, Saul?

          Saul was born in approximately AD 5, about the same time as Jesus, in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia (in modern-day Turkey). He was born to Jewish parents who possessed Roman citizenship, a coveted privilege that their son would also possess. In about AD 10, Saul’s family moved to Jerusalem. Sometime between AD 15—20 Saul began his studies of the Hebrew Scriptures in the city of Jerusalem under Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most celebrated and brilliant rabbis and teachers of Hebrew Scriptures in all of Israel’s history. Steep in the rich training of Rabbi Gamaliel, Saul became a Pharisee, a respected member of the religious community of Jerusalem.

          Shortly after Jesus commissioned his apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, Saul burst onto the scene.  He is presented in the Bible as a prosecuting attorney of the Jewish Sanhedrin moving crowds to stone Stephen to death and imprisoning other believers in Christ found in Jerusalem.  To the Jewish officials, Saul had become an effective weapon of persecution shouting threats of violence, imprisonment, and death against the early Christians.  The Bible says Saul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1a).  Now we might think that Luke’s description of Saul as issuing “murderous threats” might be done for some dramatic effect, but I think Luke was telling his readers something important about the mind and the spirit of Saul.

          Saul was a man who had studied the Hebrew scriptures diligently under one of the greatest rabbis in history.  Saul was a well-read man accustomed to the nuance of language and the art of speaking and reasoning with others to draw them into a deeper understanding of God.  And yet this same man was now seen as inciting crowds to stone people to death and issuing murderous threats to others.  There is no evidence Saul sought in any way to reason with the followers of Jesus of what Saul believed was their errors in understanding God.  Saul, with his years of thoughtful training in the Scriptures, had become a man capable only of physical violence and murderous threats of physical violence.  Saul had become a man who was divided.  The man of reason had become a man of violence.  Saul had become wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy.  Saul had become a man who was internally uncertain and had great darkness about him.  Saul had a deep unrest about himself and a contradiction within his soul.  Saul was no longer worshipping God.  Step by step, Saul had walked away from God until Saul no longer understood God or himself.

We like to think that somehow, we humans are so much different from our ancient ancestors, much more sophisticated and no easily led astray.  How we express ourselves today may be different, but we are more like our ancient ancestors than we are different from them.  If in us there is a deep unrest, a contradiction within our souls, a darkness about us, or an internal uncertainty as was the case of Saul, then our mind and spirit are struggling to worship God leading us to be divided, feeling inferior, and profoundly unhappy. 

          Paul pursued his persecution of Christians with greater zeal, acting as though if he could just work harder persecuting the church then his darkness and profound happiness would be resolved.  Nothing changed for Saul.  Doing more and more of the things that divide our spirit ever resolves the conflict within us.  Nothing can change until God intervenes.  In Saul’s case, God intervened in a dramatic way.  On his way to Damascus, God chose to strike Saul with a blinding light causing Saul to fall to the ground.  In the moment that followed, Saul heard from the heavens, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city [Damascus], and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:4b-6).  Saul who had become all about physical threats, intimidation, imprisonments, and even death was blinded by this encountered with Jesus. Everything about Saul’s physical life suddenly became weak and humbled.  Those with Saul guided Saul to a house in Damascus where Saul fasted. For three days, Saul did not eat or drink.

          Saul entered an experience not unlike that of Jonah, whom Saul would have studied diligently under his rabbi.  In Jonah’s case, Jonah knew what God wanted of him, but Jonah rebelled against God.  “17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Acts 9:17).  During those three days and nights, Jonah fasted and had time to pray. During this time with God and God alone, God began stitching the dividedness within Jonah to bring unity. Jonah’s desire to walk away from God was resolved and in his healed state Jonah would walk with God.  After the three days, Jonah was released from the fish and began the mission to which God had called him.  Saul now blinded for three days and three nights had time to fast and pray.  Saul had time to consider Jesus’ question, “Why are you persecuting me? [And not worshipping me] in context to all that Saul knew from the Scriptures.  It was time for God to begin healing Saul.

          I believe too often we think that Jonah and Saul as well as others in our life could not be equipped to do what God wants them to do until God first breaks them down, so God can build them back up new.  I think too often we hold to the belief that unless someone hits rock bottom there is no opportunity for them to build their life back stronger.  That type of thinking is not true.  When my wife recently went to the Emergency Room for treatment, no one said, “Yes, I can see she is in need of healing but first go home and let her condition and symptoms hit rock bottom, then come back.” Neither the Emergency Room does not work that way, nor does God take people who are divided, wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy and break them further so that He can build them up.  God does not take people who are internally uncertain, having a great darkness about them and have a deep unrest and a conflicted soul and then cast then down so that they hit and break apart at rock bottom so He can build them up.  God heals are wounds, he does not first make them worse.  God binds up the brokenhearted, he does not first crush them.

          In the case of Jonah and Saul, God began healing them as they were.  In Saul’s case, God caused Saul to lay aside what Saul had been doing with physical violence and threats and to again pick up Saul’s love of God’s Word.  In bringing Scripture to mind again, God brought light to Saul’s thinking.  God was not dividing Saul.  God was bringing unity to Saul’s mind.  In bringing Scripture to mind again, God brought order into Saul’s soul.  God was not breaking Saul.  God was healing the Saul’s spirit.  God did this healing for Jonah and for Saul and God will likewise heal each of us.

          We would read about Saul that after three days of fasting, “17 Then Ananias went to the house [where and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (Acts 9:17-19a).   

          God moved in Saul’s life to heal him and to give him the blessing of the Holy Spirit.  The first thing Saul did then was to be baptized.  The division within Saul had been closed by the completed work of Christ and Saul could not imagine waiting one more moment for baptism.  Saul could not wait one more moment to express through baptism his love for Christ.  Luke then reported, “20 At once he [Saul] began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 9:20-22).  Saul immediately set out to preach and to reason with fellow Jews that Jesus is the Son of God and that Saul set out to prove through the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah.  Saul was now doing what he had been trained so many years to do, preach the word of God, and the people were amazed.

          What then do we make of Saul’s experience?  I think there are three things for us to consider.

First, most of us will never have the same conversion experience as Saul.  Most of us will not move from a life of physical violence and breathing murderous threats to being blinded by the light and then preaching the word of God three days later.  Saul’s experience was unique.  Most people who are now Christians have undergone a more gradual process of conversion. Regardless of the process, gradual or sudden, all share the same experience of moving from death to life, from chaos and dividedness, unto a life of order, unity, and light.  Saul who once breathed murderous threats received the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit all believers receive.  Saul would say “22 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). Saul’s words are great evidence that he had been healed by God.

Secondly, “when you hear, ‘State of Emergency,’ ‘Sniper Kills Ten!’ ‘Troops on Rampage.’ ‘Youth Go Looting,’ Bomb Blast School!’ It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”  Those who make headlines with violence and chaos do so because they, like Saul, do not have God in their life.  Those who do not make headlines but cause injury, pain, and hardship to others behind closed doors do not have God in their life.  When making headlines or not these people are profoundly unhappy, meanspirited because they are lost.  They are spiritually lost.  Missing from them is anything resembling the Spirit of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a).  They are lost in their own anger and hopelessness, and they will remain that way unless God’s intervening Spirit comes and heals them.  We should pray for them and recognize that we cannot heal them.  They must be healed by God.  And when we sense that healing is occurring, we should act like Ananias did for Saul and come to convey the grace of God upon them.

Lastly, even Christians can become lost in their own anger, tiredness, and hopelessness.  When we find ourselves in this state, and most of us will at some time experience a dividedness within us, we need to know that we are, in that moment, no longer worshipping our maker, God.  When we find the Spirit of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” is not within us, then we must stop.  We must stop and pray, “God heal me.  God heal the dividedness within me.  Bind up my broken heart.  Mend me. Restore your Spirit within me.” Friends, know that when we pray for restoration and healing, God will honor that prayer.  He has no desire to break us or cast us to rock bottom.  God will heal us and bring us to that place where we can once again worship Him as our maker.  Let us pray.   

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