Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sermon 9/7/08 'The Long and Winding Raod Part 4: U-Turns Allowed"

U-Turns Allowed
Acts 9:1-9

I was reading a blog on the internet called “Chillin’ At The Cabstand” and I came across an article entitled “Why Christians Will Never Admit They Are Wrong.” The author of the article concluded 10 reasons why Christians will not admit they are wrong. Some of them were kind of funny like number seven was that pastors would have to find a real job. I do admit that if Christians were proven wrong then I might not have very much job security and that would be a bad thing. The most interesting thing he said was the first on the list, “They are crushed to discover that they don’t have all the answers.” [i]
As we conclude our sermon series on “The Long and Winding Road” where we have been looking at different faith journeys in the Bible, I want us to look at the faith journey of Paul. Paul has an interesting background in which he did have to come to the realization that he did not have all the answers.
The initial story of Paul’s conversion is found in Acts 9. Luke must really believe this story is important because he actually records three different versions of it throughout the book of Acts. The story says,
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6 "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.[ii]
The first time we see Saul, who later changes his name to Paul is when he stands at the feet and gives approval of the stoning of Stephen. In this passage, he has gone to the high priest so that he can go to the synagogues in Damascus and arrest Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem.
You may be wondering why Paul would be doing this. In chapter 22 of Acts, while on trial for being a Christian, ironically enough, Paul tells the Jews that he too, at one time was a Jew who studied under a prominent Rabbi named Gamaliel. He was the person in Acts 5 who convinced the Jewish ruling body not to harm the Christians because if it was not of God, it would die out, if it was, then there would be nothing they could do to stop it.
Paul also goes on to say that he was trained in the strictest interpretation of the law and he was zealous for God. He was a Pharisee, meaning he believed that the Jews were to obey every letter of the law. Paul says he believed this so much that he was to the point of killing people who he thought opposed his view. Paul was a Jew among Jews. He was a fundamentalist to the extreme.
So here is Paul, traveling out to arrest Christians because they are not following the Jewish law. He is convinced that he is doing the work of God. All of sudden a light flashes before him and he hears a voice asking him why he is persecuting the one who is speaking. Paul is unaware of the voice, more than likely and asks who this is. He does use the word “Lord” for some reason. It is quite possible that he suspects it is a divine vision and voice, but he is not sure and confused.
Can you image what Paul was thinking next. The voice response by saying this is Jesus who you are persecuting. WOW. All this time, Paul has been following the thing that he truly and zealously believed and now he is finding out that he is very wrong. He has actually been working against the very thing he us now understanding to be the truth.
Oftentimes I hear people say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere about it.” I think Paul’s story blows this misconception out of the water. Paul’s problem was not that he was sincere; the problem was that he was sincerely wrong. He had closed off the possibility of Christianity being true and had gone as far as witnessing and giving his blessing to murder because of his belief.
Starting with the Person in the Mirror

In thinking through this story that Luke tells us three times, it makes me wonder why Paul would be so against Christians that he would hunt them down to put them in prison and even witness their death. He is a reminder that many people do some very harmful things in the name of “belief.” Christians today often get a bad reputation for treating people badly because Christians think so highly of themselves while devaluing other people. For a long time I did not want to admit the truth in this criticism.

The fact of the matter is that often times it is Christians who are very judgmental and hurtful to others. Sometimes it appears that the people who claim to be the greatest Christians are the ones who seem to hurt people the most. I think the reason this is the case is because we find it far easier to look at the faults of others and try to correct them than it is to examine our own hearts and repent and change. We would much rather see all the wrong in the rest of the world than to admit that we may be wrong.

I was reminded of this sad reality the other day when a good friend of mine told me she was almost brought to tears by a person at her work who almost made her cry in the name of Jesus. He asked her who she wanted to vote for and when she answered he accused her of not be a Christian. I know this is a long way from approving of her stoning like Paul did to Stephen, but it is this very same attitude of thinking we can do no wrong while everyone else is a blooming idiot that I believe leads us on the wrong road.

I do want to say that Christians are not the only people who lack humility, the atheist who wrote the article I mentioned earlier has just as a hard of a time admitting his fault as the guy who talked so bad to my friend. This issue of pride and arrogance is the main thing that will keep any of us from following the road God wants us to travel.

U-Turns Aloud

The good news in the passage is that although Paul has done some terrible things. He was self-righteous, egotistical, etc, God came to him on the road to Damascus and gave him a new direction in life. God was pointing him in a new way. He was told later to get up, be baptized, and wash away his sins.

I am convinced that God understands that we are going to get it wrong sometimes. This is why God allows U-Turns in our lives. I want you to understand that no matter what you have done in the past. No matter how messed up your you think your life is, no matter how self-righteous you have been, if you admit that you can and have messed up, then I want you to know that God can and will forgive you. You can make a change in your life. You can move in a different direction.

Not only does God want you to make this move, I believe Jesus still comes to us on our journey and reminds us when we are going the wrong way. Jesus still gives us the power to turn our lives around.

[ii] TNIV Acts 9:1-9

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