Acts 22:2-16 – You Have a Story to Tell

The Journey of the Apostle Paul by Russian artist Romanov Vladimir, 2014

When the crowd heard Paul speak to them in Aramaic, they became even quieter. Then Paul said:

I am a Jew, born and raised in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia. I was a student of Gamaliel and was taught to follow every single law of our ancestors. In fact, I was just as eager to obey God as any of you are today.

I made trouble for everyone who followed the Lord’s Way, and I even had some of them killed. I had others arrested and put in jail. I did not care if they were men or women. The high priest and all the council members can tell you that this is true. They even gave me letters to the Jewish leaders in Damascus, so that I could arrest people there and bring them to Jerusalem to be punished.

One day about noon I was getting close to Damascus, when a bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you so cruel to me?”

“Who are you?” I answered.

The Lord replied, “I am Jesus from Nazareth! I am the one you are so cruel to.” The men who were traveling with me saw the light but did not hear the voice.

I asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

Then he told me, “Get up and go to Damascus. When you get there, you will be told what to do.” The light had been so bright that I could not see. And the other men had to lead me by the hand to Damascus.

In that city there was a man named Ananias, who faithfully obeyed the Law of Moses and was well liked by all the Jewish people living there. He came to me and said, “Saul, my friend, you can now see again!”

At once I could see. Then Ananias told me, “The God that our ancestors worshiped has chosen you to know what he wants done. He has chosen you to see the One Who Obeys God and to hear his voice. You must tell everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up! Be baptized and wash away your sins by praying to the Lord.” (CEV)

You have a story to tell. We all do. Your story is as special, powerful, and unique as anybody’s. Every person’s story is interesting, compelling, and needs to be told.

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul, considered the greatest follower of Christ of all time, tells his story. Paul was a Jew, an upwardly mobile mover-and-shaker within his world. He despised Christians and saw them as an aberration to the true worship of God. 

But Paul had an unexpected life-changing encounter with Jesus. It slammed him upside the head like a divine baseball bat. Whereas Paul really believed he was serving God by persecuting Christians, now he came face-to-face with the true reality that he was doing just the opposite – persecuting God!

As a result, Paul did a complete turn-around and experienced a powerful new life. He became a faithful Christian and took the good news of Jesus Christ to the known world. Paul knew something of forgiveness and never got over the grace shown to him.

This chapter of Holy Scripture is a good template for you to tell your own story. As you read Paul’s story, notice that he talked of life before being a Christian; the circumstances that happened for him to believe in Jesus Christ; and, explained what his life after becoming a Christian was all about.

A good, profitable, and healthy practice is to sit down and jot some thoughts down about your life before Christ, how you came to Christ, and what your life after becoming a Christian is like. Let your life-changing Christian event shape the story – whether it was like Paul’s, or a baptism, a church service experience, a family crisis, or whatever it was – the act of writing will help you make sense of your unique and special narrative.

Just as important, tell your story to others. There are people in your sphere of influence that need to hear what God has done in your life. They are in your life by God’s gracious design. You have a story to tell.  Let it out, my friend.

God of new life and new beginnings, I give you thanks for the person you have made me, where you have placed me, and the people you have surrounded me with. Help me learn to soak in your steadfast love and mercies each day. Let me imitate Christ’s humility and practice sacrificial love today, considering others before myself so as to bring you glory. Let me be someone who brings the fragrant aroma of Christ to those who do not yet know you. Let me not limit what you may do through me because of unbelief or fear. Thank you, Jesus, that you even promised that I may do greater works than you because your Holy Spirit lives in me. Trusting in your grace and not my abilities, I will tell my God story to all you send my way to listen. Amen.

Matthew 8:14-17 – A Changed Life

Jesus Heals Peters Mother In Law
A mosaic of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, from a Byzantine Church, c.1100 C.E.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.” (NIV)

One of the great realities we run headlong into with the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus has the authority to heal and transform the world… and me. Forty-one years ago, today, I experienced the reviving and revolutionizing work of Jesus Christ. I realize not everyone has a specific time they can point to when God does something miraculous, and I also do not expect that everyone’s experience of the divine must conform or be like my own. No, my encounter with God was just that, mine alone. Yet, I hope you find some encouragement and solace in my brief story.

I was probably the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus, let alone to have shown any promise toward the pastoral and religious life. I had serious reservations about the veracity of faith, the relevance of church, and the importance of religion. Although, outwardly, my family made attending our local church mandatory, inwardly, I felt the entire Christianity thing to be boring, irrelevant, and contrived. I was much more likely to behave passive-aggressively than piously.

But I began to rethink and revisit my doubts and epistemic assumptions about all things God and Christianity. The love of Christians around me stirred the internal upheaval. I had come to view the world as a cruel place and saw other people through jaded lenses. Relationships were for me a necessary evil. So, when love and grace entered my orbit, it threw me into sort of an existential angst. Having come to settled-thinking in my understanding of a dark world and having learned to navigate it with the tools of sarcasm and skepticism, genuineness and authenticity were a complete monkey wrench in my cosmology.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Jesus touched me. My small sin-sick heart was healed and enlarged. I walked away completely changed. I cannot accurately say what happened any more than I could tell you how a transplant doctor puts a new heart into the chest of a person. I can only speak to the results: newfound joy instead of nihilism; new desires to bless others and the world instead of looking for ways to disengage from people; new speech and wanting to edify and encourage people instead of sly words of putting others down; and, perhaps most surprising of all (to me) a thoroughly new desire to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Pastor Tim

The love of God in Christ made all the difference for me – and still does, all these years later. I stand in a long Christian tradition of outsiders and misfits entering the kingdom of God through spiritual metamorphosis – going all the way back to today’s story of Jesus healing and transforming.

In the first century, Jewish women were not allowed as far inside the temple as Jewish men.  Lepers could not go in, at all.  Centurions and Gentiles could only get into the outer court, emphasizing that they were outsiders.  In the synagogue service, women sat in the back, under the balcony. There were pious men who would pray, not in a spirit of humility, but thanking God they were not women.  In this healing account of a woman, no one asks Jesus for healing; he just walks into a house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law just because he wants to!

Christ’s authority, concern, and healing power even extended to the demonic realm. It perhaps goes without saying that most people would not want to hang-out with demonized people who carry a load of problems and sickness with them; they are yet another example of the classic outsiders.  If we take seriously that Jesus is our model for ministry, then we need to take passages like this seriously and connect with outsiders and bring them to Jesus.

The Old Testament quote comes from Isaiah 53:4. Sickness relates to sin – not always personal sin, but from living in a fallen and fundamentally broken world.  In other words, when the biblical text says that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, it is saying that Christ takes our sin upon himself. His healing acts are tied to the cross.  There is new life and spiritual health in the cross of Jesus Christ.  We come to the foot of the cross as spiritual beggars, looking for grace and mercy in our time of need because Jesus has the authority to extend healing and deliverance from every sin and every sickness and every problem known to people.

Through Jesus Christ there is and can be healing for damaged emotions, broken hearts, pain-ridden bodies, and sin-sick souls. There shall be joy through mourning. There is life through death. A new day will dawn, carrying fresh grace and unique mercies for the journey ahead. Behind it all is the God who is still in the business of renewing minds and hearts, and reforming attitudes and actions through extravagant and inexhaustible love.

God of all creation forgive my foolish thoughts and errant ways; clothe me in my right mind; and, calm my troubled heart. My soul is off, and I cannot seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me the strength and clarity of mind to find my purpose and walk the path you have laid out for me. I trust your love, God, and know that you will heal this stress, and mend my spirit. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, bring me clarity with the light of God, through Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – A Testimony of Deliverance

psalm 116.1-2 pic

I love the Lord because he hears
my requests for mercy.
I’ll call out to him as long as I live,
because he listens closely to me….

What can I give back to the Lord
for all the good things he has done for me?
I’ll lift up the cup of salvation.
I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people.
The death of the Lord’s faithful
is a costly loss in his eyes.

Oh yes, Lord, I am definitely your servant!
I am your servant and the son of your female servant—
you’ve freed me from my chains.
So I’ll offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to you,
and I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people,
     in the courtyards of the Lord’s house,
which is in the center of Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord! (CEB)

As the Church’s Prayer Book, the Psalms were originally crafted for public as well as personal use. The Psalter is meant to be prayed, sung, and spoken out loud. The Psalms address the human condition and encompass the full range of human emotion. There are times when we are so distressed that we are unable to form words – and the psalms help us say what is in our heart. There are also times when we are so elated that we have no words to express our joy. The psalms assist us with this, as well. Today’s psalm is such a response.

The psalmist is beside himself with appreciation and praise because of answered prayer. Although the he does not provide what that answer was, this psalm is a staple for the Jewish people at Passover to specifically thank the Lord for the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The event appears less important than the reality that God listens.

The Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and bends his ear to catch our prayers.

Because of such mercy, the psalmist pledges fealty to the Lord and commits to following through with promises to God. “I love the Lord,” is the cry of his thankful heart. The psalmist gave public testimony that prayer does indeed change things. At times when our own prayers seem to just bounce off the ceiling, it is good to hear from another that the Lord still answers prayer – that life can be different than its present confusion.

When my dear wife had a spine surgery six years ago and awoke from it unable to move her legs, I prayed. I asked for mercy. I pleaded for grace. And I did it for hours at the foot of her hospital bed. I remember that I stubbornly would not accept the fact that she could not move her lower body.  And I decided to stand there and pray until I got an answer from God.

Eventually, I prayed myself asleep. My wife woke me up sometime in the early morning the next day. She told me to pull back the covers and look at her right big toe…. She could give it an ever-small twitch. We called the nurse, who was so excited that she called everyone she could get a hold of. With a dozen hospital staff huddled around the hospital bed, my wife proceeded to give that big toe a hearty move. The staff erupted with clapping, and I am not kidding when I say that we had a party with noise and shouts in a hospital room at 4am. Nobody cared we were going nuts. I certainly did not.

Yes, God is still in the business of answering prayer.

Through the hard times, the good times, and the confusing times, the Lord is our constant ballast for all seasons of life, whether good or bad. And I love God for that abiding presence. I can also give testimony that through all of the adverse situations my wife and I have faced, we have learned to stop, be still, and find that all we ever wanted we already have, even when everything changes.

Perhaps you are reading this today and feel some desperation, maybe some wondering, if God pays any attention to your plight. Yes, the Lord does. You are not alone. We all have times of needing freedom from whatever chains are keeping us in bondage. So, I offer this prayer for you….

O God, who in Jesus Christ called us out of the darkness and into your marvelous light; enable us always to declare your wonderful deeds, offer thanksgiving for your steadfast love, and eternally praise you with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Eternal God, for the sake of Jesus, send your Holy Spirit to the person(s) praying along with me now who need healing of body and soul, or who seek deliverance from a difficult and debilitating situation. Be gracious to drive away all that is unjust and crippling and mercifully make whole that which is broken. Grant deliverance from the power of evil and provide true faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, who suffered on our behalf and rose from death so that we too can live with joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.

Merciful God, you are the source of all healing and wholeness. We give thanks to you for your love. As we wait in expectation for the coming of the day when Jesus shall return, when suffering and pain shall be no more, please reassure us by your Spirit of your mighty power and help us to trust in your great love.

May your unending compassion be poured out to these your people who long for your hope to explode within them – to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign together, one God, now and forever. Amen.

John 3:31-36 – Considering Christ

Jesus 6th century mosaic
A 6th-Century Byzantine mosaic of Jesus

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.  For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (ESV)

When Jesus ascended to heaven, he left instructions to his disciples to pray and to witness (Acts 1:1-11). Jesus only asks of us what he himself does or has already done. The life and ministry of Christ on this earth was marked continually with prayer and bearing witness. Just as Jesus Christ bore witness to what he saw and heard as the Divine Word, so his followers are to do likewise. The evidence and the veracity of Christ’s witness is the giving of God’s Spirit – the One whom confirms this testimony to us.

I, personally, have found Jesus to be precisely whom he claims to be. I have come to accept his testimony as gracious, truthful, and life-giving. I have wholeheartedly embraced the New Testament Gospel accounts of his birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension. This belief came neither quickly nor easily for me – it resulted from an honest straightforward reading of the Bible; and, the wooing of the Holy Spirit.

It really isn’t my job to convince you of Jesus Christ’s authenticity and trustworthiness. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it is my task to bear witness of the things I have seen and heard concerning Jesus. My life has been thoroughly turned upside-down because of Jesus. With Jesus, I have been invited into the life of God. By the wounds of Jesus, I have experienced healing of damaged emotions and recovery from spiritual hurts inflicted by others. Through union with Christ, I have grace and forgiveness of things I have done and left undone. With Jesus as my Friend, I enjoy loving attention and am never dismissed by him.

For those who have not read the Gospel accounts and refuse Christ, then, for honesty’s sake, please have the integrity to give Jesus a hearing before you dismiss him with a slight of hand. It is one thing to genuinely not know much about Jesus, and it is quite another thing to ignore him when you have knowledge about how to find out about him.

For those of us who have read the New Testament Gospels and accept the testimony of Jesus, we come back again and again to his life-giving words and seek continually to follow him in his way of mercy, purity, and peace. We bear witness to how Jesus has changed our lives and offers a life worth living.

Everyone with faith in Jesus has a life-giving connection with God.  Those who don’t, don’t. If you disagree with this, then contend with Jesus himself. Give him a hearing. Watch him in action.  Observe how he deals with people. See if he lives up to his words. Then, bear witness to what you have seen and heard.

In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, I pray to you, the God and Father of all:

For empowerment by the Spirit, that I may be a faithful witness

For those who wait on You, that they may find renewal

For all people, that they may acknowledge the kingdom of the ascended Christ

For all who are struggling with broken relationships

I commend myself and all for whom I pray, to Your mercy and protection through Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Amen.