Wednesday, September 24, 2014

This Changes Everything!

It’s time for a quiz – a fruity quiz. Are you ready for the fruity quiz? OK, here it goes.

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV).

Who wrote that? The answer, of course, is the apostle Paul. That’s from his letter to the Galatians.

When we think of Paul, we think of all those attributes. They well describe Paul’s life – or do they? Certainly his life in Christ – but not before that!

It turns out that in his former life – and by former life, I mean the one B-C (before Christ) and not some weird reincarnation thing – Paul was a mean, miserable S-O-B. Or more correctly, S-O-T – Saul of Tarsus.

By the way, Saul’s name was later changed to Paul. Saul is a Hebrew word meaning “asked for,” going back to the Old Testament Saul, who became the first king of Israel after the Israelites asked God for such a leader (1 Samuel 9).

Paul is a Latin word meaning small, applied to the New Testament Saul either because he was short or because he was small in comparison to the scope and nature of Christ. The name change is mentioned in Acts 13:9 with little fanfare:

“…Saul, who was also called Paul…” (Acts 13:9, NIV).

No big description of how it got changed, just that it did. From that point on in the Book of Acts – and the rest of the New Testament for that matter – the guy went by the name of Paul. Where the text calls him Saul, so will I; where the text calls him Paul, well, so will I.

Now for a little background.

It wasn’t long after the Christian Church was founded before trouble began. This new religious order, or sect, didn’t sit well with the Jewish leaders. They thought once Jesus was gone, His followers would just go away. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen. If there’s some group you wanna get rid of, you kill the leader and the group disbands; problem solved. However, that didn’t work in this case. Jesus was crucified – that was a horrible death – and His followers should have been scared to death by that.

The Jewish and Roman leaders weren’t expecting God to pull a fast one on them – the resurrection of Jesus. He came back from the dead – but not to haunt them. Jesus did not target them. He wasn’t into revenge. Instead, He came to bring new life to everybody. He came to dish out salvation – not retribution.

Anyhow, the Church – the new earthly body of Christ that began on Pentecost (as described in Acts chapter 2) – was growing and expanding. This troubled the Jewish leaders – and it troubled a young man named Saul. Saul was a Pharisee and an up-and-coming rising star in the Jewish leadership circle.

Acts chapter 9 starts out with Saul hell-bent on destroying those pesky Christians. Saul was dripping with venom and vengeance; he wanted to kill as many Christians as possible. He was already present – and giving his approval – at the stoning of Steven (Acts 8:1).

Now he was at it again. He had left Jerusalem and started out for Damascus to stomp out Christianity there. Why there? Well, Damascus was about 100 miles north of Jerusalem and a lot of Christians had fled there when the environment became hostile in the Jewish capital. Saul was gonna hunt them down and arrest them or kill them or whatever it would take to crush the cult – or what Saul considered to be a cult. And Saul was doing this in the name of God – ‘cause he thought God would want the fake religion with its so-called false Messiah to be eliminated.

Well, that was his plan, anyhow. God let things slide – for a while. I like to say, “I’m patient to a point; just don’t get me to that point!” Jesus Christ is patient, too, but Saul was really getting on His nerves, so something had to be done.

So, when Saul was on the open road – before he could strike again – Jesus decided to strike back! Jesus acted swiftly and suddenly. He didn’t give any warning.

The text doesn’t say what Saul’s mode of travel was, but tradition says it was by donkey. I’ll accept that. Why? So I can make this statement:

God knocked Saul off his ass and onto his ass!

What does God have to do to get your attention? Jesus basically whacked Saul aside the head and made him fall to the ground.

When you’re doing the wrong thing – going against God’s will – does God have to knock you down and knock some sense into you?

God will do whatever it takes to get His way – and to have His will be done.

A voice from heaven thundered, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This would be a little scary. Whoever this was knew Saul’s name and was not too pleased with Saul’s actions.

Saul was caught by surprise and had no clue what was going on. So he asked, “Who are you, lord?” That’s “lord” with a small “l.” A better translation would be, “Who are you, sir?”

There was a great light, but Jesus must have been standing there in some form, for later Paul said that he had seen the Risen Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul remarked:

“Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9, NRSV).

The big voice identified Himself as “Jesus,” the one Saul was persecuting. But how could that be? Saul wasn’t literally persecuting Christ, so why did Jesus claim he was?

Recall that Jesus once one pointed out that when you do something for or to the least of these, you do it to Him (Matthew 25: 40, 45). Thus, if you hurt Jesus’ followers, you hurt Him – especially since they are part of the Body of Christ and you’re causing harm to that Body.

Jesus told Saul to get up, get off his ass, and go to Damascus to finish the journey he started, but now with a different purpose.

Note Jesus didn’t give him detailed instructions. Instead, Jesus directed Saul to that city where he would be told what to do. Jesus was gonna let someone else instruct Saul – allow a mature Christian to guide and mentor the new believer. That’s called discipleship.

Even though Saul was converted by a miracle, he still needed counsel and direction from a fellow believer. That, of course, would bring Saul down a peg. Here he was a Pharisee – a scholar and a lawyer in his own right – and Jesus was telling him to take directions from some nobody. After all, Saul was a teacher of the Law; he wasn’t supposed to be a student! In any case, Saul was gonna be humbled, as we shall see.

The text says that, “The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one” (Acts 9:7, NLT). Bible scholars point out that we don’t know who those men were. Really? I know who they were. It’s not too hard to figure out.

They could have been other travelers who just happened to be going to Damascus, too. Or maybe they were folks going to the circus, the Damascus Shrine Circus. Seriously, though, I know who they were. They were Saul’s pals, his partners in crime, his cop entourage, his punishment posse. If he were going to Damascus to arrest any Christians he found there, then he would need some back-up. These were gonna be the arresting officers!

So, after Saul had seen the Lord – big “L” this time – he didn’t see anyone or anything else for days, because he was temporarily blinded.

Saul was blinded by the light – as the Manfred Mann song played. The light was so bright it removed Saul’s sight – as would happen if he had looked directly at the sun during an eclipse. But in this case, the light represented the glory of the Lord.

That’s what the shepherds saw when the birth of Christ was announced. The Gospel of Luke tells us:

“All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened” (Luke 2:9, CEV).

So the glory of the Lord caused Saul’s blindness. And this wasn’t a momentary blindness; it actually lasted three days (Acts 9:9). Yep, Saul was in the dark for three days. Does that remind you of anything?

Jonah was inside the belly of a big fish (or whale) for how long? Three days! Jesus was in the grave for how long? Three days!

“So what?” you say. “What does that mean?”

Maybe we can get a clue from the second part of verse 9: Saul did not eat or drink.

“So what?” you say again. “That doesn’t mean anything. He was probably just so agitated and anxious about not being able to see that he didn’t feel like eating anything.”

Well, that could be. But we are talking symbolism here. When you don’t eat or drink, it’s called a fast. Saul was fasting. In the Bible and in religious contexts even today, when people fast, what are they doing? They’re being repentant; they’re atoning for their sins.

Now let’s go back to the idea of three days in darkness, three days in a fish, three days in a grave. Do those have anything to do with sin? Yes.

Jonah flat out refused to obey the will of God. He was told to go to Nineveh and preach there (Jonah 1:2), but instead he fled and went in the opposite direction. He ended up on a ship – but there was no escaping from the Lord. God stirred up a storm (Jonah 1:4), which didn’t subside until Jonah was tossed overboard (Jonah 1:15) and then he was gobble up by that fish creature (Jonah 1:17). That was the consequence of disobeying God. And, while he was inside that fish, Jonah had time to pray. I mean, what else could he do? Whip out a deck of cards and play “Go Fish”?

So he prayed. Jonah chapter 2 recounts that prayer. It’s a very penitent prayer. Jonah was asking for forgiveness and offering up praise to the Lord at the same time. The three days in the fish allowed Jonah to repent of his sin – and forced him to turn to God instead of running away from Him.

Now let’s look at Saul. He was going against God by persecuting the children of God. Saul didn’t get tossed overboard, but he did get tossed to the ground, on his ass. And then he was blind – in darkness – for three days. Yep, that gave him time to repent, forcing him to turn to Jesus instead of opposing Jesus. That’s the meaning of religious conversion, by the way. It means to turn around – and turn to God.

The chorus of an old hymn applies here:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Anyhow, I mentioned three things, and the third is the three days in a grave. What does that have to do with sin? Jesus did not sin. Well, why did Jesus die on a cross? To save us – all humankind – from our sins. As part of that process, He spent three days in a grave – a borrowed grave, by the way, since He would not need it permanently.

The cross and the grave were part of the atonement – taking on the sins of the world and then removing them from the record.

In this way, Saul could identify with Jesus. Being in the dark was sort of like being in the grave for him, out of which he would begin a new life – one of service and devotion to Christ.

Have you buried your old life and decided to follow Jesus?

OK, three days was long enough. Time to move the story along. Something had to happen.

In the case of Jonah, the fish puked and the prophet was spit up on the shore (Jonah 2:10), and he went out and preached to the Ninevites as he was supposed to and the people repented.

In the case of Jesus, He was resurrected, and in this way offered the method for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

What happened in Saul’s case? He would once again get his sight back, with the help of some guy named Ananias.

Ananias, though, was no fool. He knew of Saul and his destructive intentions. So he was skeptical and hesitant when the Lord told him to go to Saul. He was thinking, “Can I really trust that guy?”

“Ananias protested, ‘Master, you can’t be serious. Everybody’s talking about this man and the terrible things he’s been doing, his reign of terror against your people in Jerusalem! And now he’s shown up here with papers from the Chief Priest that give him license to do the same to us’” (Acts 9:13-14, The Message).

But the Lord assured Ananias that everything would be OK.

“The Lord said to him, ‘Go, because I have chosen him to serve me, to make my name known to Gentiles and kings and to the people of Israel. And I myself will show him all that he must suffer for my sake’” (Acts 9:15-16, GNT).

Notice that Jesus pointed out that Saul was God’s chosen vessel or instrument to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. It seems God chose the most unlikely person to do that. Not the person we’d pick, considering Saul was completely opposed to the Gospel. But God was right, of course. Read Paul’s letters and it’s obvious why God chose Paul. Paul was a brilliant, passionate, and compassionate man willing to suffer the abuses he once meted out.

So, Ananias obeyed, unlike Jonah. Recall that Jonah did not want to save the people of Nineveh, and that’s what ultimately caused him to be a fish dish.

Ananias went to Saul. He laid his hands on Saul and Saul’s sight was saved. How that actually happened is interesting. Acts 9:18 says,” something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes” (NLT). Scales? Were they caused by too many omega 3 fish oil pills? No, Saul didn’t overdose on vitamins and supplements! But scales are symbolic. It could be another connection to Jonah’s whale of a tale, but we can do better than that!

The scales do represent a fish – the fish as a Christian symbol. That’s right: after Saul’s conversion, he was oozing Christianity!

And, once he could see again, he saw everything in a different light – the difference between a low-powered conventional light bulb with a yellow glow and a bright L-E-D bulb with a blue cast simulating daylight. What a difference! The brightness allows you to see everything – all the dust and dirt. The new light of Christ allowed Saul to see all of his flaws and how wrong he was to target the Christians.

Later, before King Agrippa, Paul recounted his conversion experience, as recorded in Acts chapter 26:

“I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene.  Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death.  Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.

 “One day I was on such a mission to Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. About noon, Your Majesty, as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions.  We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.’

“‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.

“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’” (Acts 26:9-18, NLT).

Does Paul say anything about his conversion in any of his letters? Well, of course he does. He writes several paragraphs about it in his letter to the Galatians:

“Let me tell you, my friends, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin.  I did not receive it from any human being, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me.

“You have been told how I used to live when I was devoted to the Jewish religion, how I persecuted without mercy the church of God and did my best to destroy it. I was ahead of most other Jews of my age in my practice of the Jewish religion, and was much more devoted to the traditions of our ancestors.

“But God in His grace chose me even before I was born, and called me to serve Him. And when He decided to reveal His Son to me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the Gentiles, I did not go to anyone for advice, nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead, I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus. It was three years later that I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks. I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord's brother.

“What I write is true. God knows that I am not lying!

“Afterward I went to places in Syria and Cilicia. At that time the members of the churches in Judea did not know me personally. They knew only what others were saying: “The man who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy!” And so they praised God because of me” (Galatians 1:11-24, GNT).

When Paul writes his first letter to his buddy Timothy, he also talks about his life-changing experience:

“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me trustworthy, appointing me to His service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:12-16, NIV).

That’s why Paul could say in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!(2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).

Or, to use another translation:

“This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT).

When Paul speaks of being a new creation in Christ, he’s not just using a pretty little phrase! He really means a new creation – a new creature!

He went from murderer to missionary, from persecutor to preacher, from a monster attacking Christians to a model for Christians.

When we read Paul’s letters, we think how great Paul was – but don’t forget how bad Paul was before that! It’s hard to believe that the same person who outlined the Fruit of the Spirit was the same person who was crushing that fruit and trying to crush Christianity.

Saul to Paul was a momentous change. Again, he went from persecuting Christians to being persecuted as a Christian. So when he talks about new life in Christ, he’s not talking about a little cosmetic change; he’s talking about such a huge difference in your life that nobody can believe you’re the same person. That’s what Jesus meant when He said you must be born again!

People will ask, “Is that really you?” You used to go partying and drinking and doing drugs and selling drugs and robbing people and whatever other vile acts you used to commit – but now there’s no trace of any of that. Even if you never did any of those things I just mentioned, I’m sure you’ve done stuff in your past that you now regret. Yes you have and yes I have. But that’s all behind us now. We live in newness of life. We can’t be chained to our past!

I know someone who went through his Gothic phase a few years ago. He would always dress totally in black, had the chains on his pants and around his neck and sometimes on his arms. He even wore black fingernail and toenail polish. Oh yeah, and he suffered from Depression, which just added to his dark outlook.

He says he’s now past that phase. When he was over at my house recently, he said his feet ached so he took off his shoes and socks – to reveal bright pink toenails! I’m thinking, “What phase is this?” He claims his daughter painted his toenails while he was asleep. His daughter is three, so I don’t think she really did that.

Going from black to pink polish may be a radical change – but that’s not the kind of change I’m talking about here.

I’m not interested in a modification. I’m interested in a transformation!

Look at cars. Each year, car manufacturers tweak the design and make a little change here and there – but then every few years, they come out with the totally resigned model. The only thing that’s the same is the name. If they took the nameplate off, you’d never guess it was the same kind of car.

Then there are the toys called Transformers. They transform from cars into robots – they’re totally different than what they were at the start.

And, of course, Christians use the image of a caterpillar turned butterfly to illustrate being transformed.

That’s how your life should be as you walk with Christ. You should be growing spiritually. You should be growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Today I should see the resigned model of you – not the old rusty clunker.

If auto makers put that much time and effort into redesigning a car, don’t you think you should spend a little time and energy redesigning you? Oh yeah, and you’ve gotta do it with God’s help or the change won’t be complete or permanent.

By the way, in the Bible, a person’s name changes when there’s a total life change – and I don’t mean how Paul becomes Paulette after a sex change operation! That’s a freakin’ metamorphosis in body, but not in spirit. We’re talkin’ new creation in Christ, not a new creation in plastic surgery!

Here are just a few examples of Biblical name changes: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Simon became Peter. Their lives totally changed and they became more aligned with God and His will. That’s also true for Saul who became Paul.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to change your name. When you serve Jesus, you’re aligned with the Name Above All Names. When you follow Him, you have His name – because you are a Christian, which means Christ-follower.

What lessons can we glean from the conversion of Saul to Paul?

1) God will get your attention – somehow. If He has to knock you down first, He will. But He will get you back up and allow you to soar in what He has called you to do.

2) God will give you an opportunity to repent and to listen to Him. Jesus may shut your eyes to shut out the distractions, but He will then open your eyes to see things in a new light.

3) God will prepare you and equip you for your new way of life. The Holy Spirit will give you the wisdom and knowledge you need, along with any other necessary tools. If God wants you to do something, He will make sure you’re able to do it!

4) God will put people in your life who will help you. You’re not living in a vacuum; you’re living as part of the Body of Christ. And there are lots of members in that body; Jesus may send some your way as you journey on The Way.

Accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior changes everything! Are you ready to be new and improved? A new car is nice, but a new you – transformed by the Holy Spirit – now that’s the best upgrade ever!

Be transformed! Be a new creation in Christ! You’ll be better for it – and so will be the world! You’ll be a living example of just what Jesus Christ can do! Everyone will be amazed by the power of God in your life! What an awesome God we serve! Amen!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Do You Understand?

Did you ever get an urgent call? You’re busy working on something and someone calls and asks for your help – so you have to stop what you’re doing and go. And you hope it’ll be worth your while.

That’s what happened to Philip. Who’s Philip? He wasn’t one of the twelve disciples, but he was appointed by them to care for the widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6: 1-6). Later, though, Deacon Philip’s buddy Stephen was stoned to death because of his faith, and the church was persecuted. Philip fled to Samaria, where he preached the Gospel and performed miracles (Acts 8: 4-7). He won many converts to Christianity. It was in the middle of this effort that God called Philip away and told him to head down the road to Gaza.

Acts 8: 26-40 describes what happened. Philip encountered some guy from Ethiopia – but not just anyone – the treasurer of that country. The man was employed by the Kandake (or Candace) of Ethiopia. That’s a title meaning “Queen,” just like “Pharaoh” was the title of the king of Egypt.

The Ethiopian was a eunuch.

One commentator writes, “That he was a eunuch described his paradoxical station in life: to oversee the handmaids of Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians, he was qualified by having been castrated, having been made something other than an ordinary man; most likely in the eyes of his male contemporaries, something less than a man. … But he had so excelled as an overseer that the Queen had put him in charge of her entire treasury. What was biologically central to his manhood had been taken away from him surgically, but he was powerful, wealthy, and traveled in style, in his very own chariot.”

Verse 27 says the eunuch “had gone to Jerusalem to worship.” That sounds rather routine, doesn’t it? Well it wasn’t a casual journey. Jerusalem was a long way from Ethiopia – wherever that was. Some scholars suggest it was located in the upper Nile area, in what is now Sudan – or perhaps it was located closer to where the current Ethiopia is. It really doesn’t matter; it was definitely in Africa some place.

Once the Ethiopian official got to Jerusalem, he wasn’t exactly accepted. There was this old law in Deuteronomy which excluded him. Brace yourself; this contains strong language:

“No man who has been castrated or whose penis has been cut off may be included among the Lord's people” (Deuteronomy 23: 1, GNT).

Or, to use another translation:

“No eunuch is to enter the congregation of God” (Deuteronomy 23: 1, The Message).

Why would such a person be excluded? Well, in ancient times, sometimes a man’s private parts were crushed or cut off to show devotion to pagan gods. The Jews, however, only cut off part of a man’s penis, in a ceremony called circumcision. But apparently some pagans cut off the whole freakin’ thing!

Anyhow, the Ethiopian eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship. Some say he wasn’t allowed in the Temple; others say sure he was – but not when anyone else was around. According to these scholars, the guy could go into the Temple by himself to offer his sacrifice – but couldn’t be there when others gathered for prayer and other stuff – or that would violate the Deuteronomic law.

Moving along, now that the eunuch had left Jerusalem, his life was about to change!

He was reading in the chariot. Yes, he was texting while driving! Well, he probably had a chauffeur or chariot driver – but he was texting! And what was the text?

Isaiah 53. We know it as the description of the Suffering Servant. Philip heard the guy reading that and asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

It was bold for Philip to even approach the chariot – and even bolder to ask the man that question. It wasn’t Philip’s own power, however. It was the Holy Spirit who gave Philip the boldness, the courage, to do this.

Why would I say that it was a bold move? ‘Cause Philip probably looked like a sweaty bum after walking all those miles along the hot, dusty road – and here was this foreign dignitary – the treasurer of an African nation – in a chariot, a luxury vehicle.

And how did the Ethiopian respond to Philip’s question? Did he shoo him away and tell him to get lost? No, he welcomed Philip. He was humble enough to accept Philip’s help.

Even though the guy was smart – a highly-educated number-cruncher – he didn’t understand what he was reading. Then along came Deacon Philip, who just happened to know how to interpret the Scripture verses.

Let’s pause to ponder what the eunuch was reading. As I said, it was stuff from the prophet Isaiah. Somehow he had that scroll to read. I don’t know how he got it. Maybe he bought it at the Temple bookstore, as if they had one of those back then.

I think it’s amazing that of all the Jewish Scriptures – that’s the book he had. There are nine references in the book of Isaiah to his home country, Ethiopia. That’s remarkable, considering what a distant land that was. Here’s just one example, from the 18th chapter:

“Those Ethiopians are tall and their skin is smooth. They are feared all over the world, because they are strong and brutal. But at that time they will come from their land divided by rivers, and they will bring gifts to the Lord All-Powerful, who is worshiped on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 18: 7, CEV).

Now let’s look at the passage the eunuch was actually looking at. We’ll read it directly from the Old Testament – Isaiah 53: 7-8:

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
    And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Unjustly condemned, he was led away.
No one cared that he died without descendants,
that his life was cut short in midstream.
But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people.
(Isaiah 53: 7-8, NLT)

Not a very uplifting passage, but it is one packed with meaning.

Philip applied this description to the Messiah, telling the eunuch – and us – that Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. We, of course, focus on the overall context of the passage. But the eunuch probably concentrated on the line that Jesus died without descendents. That would certainly get the eunuch’s attention – because, after all, he could not have kids himself. That option had been taken away from him.

But Jesus provides restoration. The blood of the Lamb brings wholeness. Do you understand what this would mean for the eunuch? He would once again be a whole man as far as the Kingdom of God was concerned. A few chapters after this passage appears in Isaiah, the words of the prophet speak to the Ethiopian’s situation and future acceptance. In Isaiah 56, we find these words:

Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves 
to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’
And don’t let the eunuchs say,
‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’
 For this is what the Lord says:
I will bless those eunuchs
who keep my Sabbath days holy
and who choose to do what pleases me
and commit their lives to me.
I will give them – within the walls of my house –
a memorial and a name
far greater than sons and daughters could give.
For the name I give them is an everlasting one.
It will never disappear!
(Isaiah 56: 3-5, NLT).

So, another fulfillment of Scripture. Isaiah’s on a roll here, isn’t he? Now we’re gonna find out how that was fulfilled.

After Philip did his teaching, and the two guys had a great discussion of God’s Word – the eunuch exclaimed, “Look! There’s some water!” (verse 36).

That would be no big deal to us – we’ve got many bodies of water around us – Lake Ontario, Irondequoit Bay, Sodus Bay, the Genesee River, the Finger Lakes, a bunch of creeks and ponds. We see bodies of water all over the place.

But Philip and the Ethiopian were in the desert! Verse 26 says they were on the “desert road.” There wasn’t supposed to be any water around! But lo and behold, they spotted water!

Do you understand? God just happened to provide a place for the next piece of the action!

The Ethiopian asked, “Why can’t I be baptized?” (verse 36). You can sense the enthusiasm in his question – but also a bit of caution.

He probably expected Philip to say, “No, you can’t be baptized; you’re a eunuch.” After all, he had been excluded from the Temple for that same reason.

But, surprisingly, Philip said, “Yes, you can” (verse 37). There were no restrictions or limitations. Yes, dear sir, you can be baptized – you can enter the fellowship of believers. All you have to do is believe.

So, they got out of the chariot and Philip performed an impromptu baptismal service. Imagine the scene. Here’s this big black dude and this Middle-Eastern dude. They strip and get into the water.

I don’t know if they wore underwear back then, but I’m guessing they didn’t. Or if they did, they removed their undies. That’s how Philip discovered the guy was a eunuch, no doubt. Otherwise he wouldn’t know and we wouldn’t know.

I don’t think the guy said, “Let me get some swimming trunks out of the trunk of the chariot.” Nope, that’s not likely.

In any case, whether they were clothed or not, Philip followed the directive of Jesus. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave the Great Commission:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28: 19-20, NIV).

Yep, that’s what Philip did. Do you understand how momentous and life-altering that was?

Jesus was always going out to reach the outcast and the marginalized – and that carried over into the establishment of His Church. The first person to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead was a woman, Mary Magdalene (according to Mark 16: 9). Women were marginalized in that society, but Jesus chose a woman to be the first evangelist.

Now, in this Scripture reading, we learn that the first Gentile convert to Christianity was a black man!

Do you understand the impact of this?

First of all, he was a Gentile. He was a God-fearing man and he was certainly studying Judaism, but he really wasn’t a Jew.

Second, he was a foreigner. Earlier in the book of Acts, Jesus had told His disciples,  “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV). We know Jesus’ ministry was in Judea, and that’s where the Christian Church started (specifically in Jerusalem). And Philip was in Samaria (Acts 8:4) just before this encounter on the desert road. Now, with the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian, the Gospel would travel back to his home country. And Ethiopia was a distant land – what could be considered the “ends of the earth” – or certainly the edge of the known world at the time. So Jesus’ prediction was already coming true, and this was happening in the 8th chapter of the Book of Acts, very early in the history of the Church.

Third, the official was an African. He was black. He looked very different from the folks in the Middle East. As the first Gentile convert, he symbolized that the Church would include all races.

Fourth, he was a eunuch. He didn’t have all of his male parts. But he was accepted anyway, just as he was. He stripped off his clothes to be baptized – and put on something better. Part of his maleness was gone, but this just proves what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV).

The eunuch’s race, background, and gender identity didn’t matter. He was now one in Christ, just as we are. Our differences melt away when we are gathered as the Body of Christ.

The Ethiopian discovered that Jesus is both Savior and Lord. Jesus is both our Lamb and our Shepherd – the sacrifice for our sins and the Savior atoning for our sins.

The prophecies in Isaiah were not just dusty words recited on a dusty road in the desert – they became the Living Word in the actions of Jesus the Christ and in the explanation of Philip the Deacon.

Can we draw any lessons from the story of Philip and the Ethiopian? Nope. Not a one. Of course, I’m just joshing with you. We can certainly learn from this, as we can from all Scripture passages.

1. When God says go, you gotta go. And I’m not talking about using the bathroom before a trip. I mean, you should go before you go. That’s good advice. Even the eunuch probably did that before he got into his chariot. But we’re talking about being led by the Spirit. God guides and provides. Turn down the offer, though, and you’re on your own. You may end up going down the wrong road. Philip was on the right road at the right time, because he listened to the Spirit’s call. It was the desert road, the road less traveled, but it was where he was supposed to be. How about you? Are you on the right path?

2. Expect some action where you wouldn’t normally expect some action. Like the eunuch in the bedroom. Oh, that was a low blow! That was a hit below the belt! Actually, that’s not where I’m going with this. I’m really still talking about that desert road, where the action took place – even though it should have been in Jerusalem. Do you understand that?

The guy was in Jerusalem…
…That’s where the Temple was, but that’s not where he got saved.
…That’s where the disciples were, but he didn’t hear the Gospel from them there. In fact, he didn’t hear it from them anywhere. It was Deacon Philip, and not the disciples, who made the eunuch the first Gentile convert.
…That’s where the Spirit came down at Pentecost, but he didn’t catch the Spirit when he was there. (In fact, nobody from Ethiopia is mentioned in Acts 2 during the Pentecost event.)

The eunuch heard the Gospel – and accepted it – on his way back home. Not in some grand place, but along the desert road (or maybe even a deserted road, as it was the route less traveled). And not by one of the apostles, people with first-hand knowledge of Jesus – but by Philip, who had just as much authority to proclaim the Gospel as we do.

God’s will is often done in the most unlikely spot and by the most unlikely person – but someone of God’s own choosing. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit – and the stuff of miracles.

3. When you need wisdom, ask for wisdom. The Ethiopian was reading the Scriptures and didn’t understand them. God sent somebody to help him out. The Lord actually gives us two ways to instruct us in His Word – the Holy Spirit, who provides understanding – and the assembled Church. The purpose of a sermon is to shed light on the Scriptures. And Bible study allows us to share our thoughts and interpretations of the Biblical text. Why not take advantage of these opportunities to learn more about the Word of God?

4. When you see a chance, take it. Philip didn’t pass up the opportunity to share the Gospel. He literally met the eunuch right where he was – physically and spiritually. The guy was on the road and Philip went up to him. And the guy was reading Isaiah, and so that’s where Philip started the discussion.

That’s what Peter was talking about in what we call his first letter: 

“Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope” (1 Peter 3:15, CEV).

5. When a person needs acceptance, accept him or her. Kingdom-building is bridge-building. If someone’s of a different race, so what? If someone’s gay, so what? If someone’s marred by physical or emotional scars, so what? Extend love to them all, and extend the right hand of fellowship.

When there’s a sale at a department store, exclusions apply. Exclusions don’t apply at the church! And you don’t have to wait for a sale! Salvation is available now! And it’s free! So, too, should be love and acceptance offered by fellow believers.

Philip did not hesitate to accept the Ethiopian eunuch as a fellow believer, and did not hesitate to baptize him.

Right here, right now, do you accept Christ? Right here, right now, do you accept someone who might be different than you as a brother or sister in Christ? Sure, that might be tough. How was Philip able to do it? He was led by the Spirit. Do you trust in the Lord enough to let the Spirit guide you, too?

Do you understand what an impact that will have? Take the challenge and find out! You might win someone over to Christ. You might make someone realize that God accepts people just as they are and just where they are – and then the Holy Spirit can get to work making them whole again. That’s powerful. That’s the power of God in Christ. Amen! 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Are You Showing Off or Showing Up?

Luke chapter 12 starts out with Jesus teaching the people, giving them a warning against hypocrisy, and telling them not to fear anybody but God. Jesus was doing His thing. He was instructing the crowd.

But then Jesus was interrupted. You know what that’s like. You’re busy doing something and someone barges in on you, or calls you, or sends you a text message. Jesus was frequently interrupted, too. You might recall when the Jewish leaders snatched a woman out of adultery – that was a big interruption. But we’re not going there today.

In the passage before us today, some guy in the crowd shouted at Jesus, ““Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Luke 12: 13, NRSV).

We don’t know if the guy was entitled to part of the estate and his brother was being a stingy jerk, or if everything legally went to the brother and the guy here was jealous and wanted part of it.

In any case, how did Jesus respond? He said, “Friend, who made me a judge over you to decide such things as that?” (Luke 12: 14, NLT).

Whoa! Jesus asked, “Who made me a judge?” Isn’t He THE Judge – the only one who really is qualified to judge people and circumstances? Isn’t He gonna judge the world?

The guy did address Jesus as “teacher” as in “teacher of the law,” and this was a legal question. But, to be honest, it was a petty little question. Jesus really didn’t wanna deal with it. It dealt with earthly stuff, and He was teaching about heavenly stuff.

So, instead of answering the guy’s request directly, Jesus told this story:

“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” (Luke 12: 16-19, NIV).

Yep, the rich man had it all figured out. He reveled in his grandiose plan. Notice he didn’t plan on building an addition onto to his barns – or just adding more barns. No, he was gonna tear down the barns and build even bigger ones! Why would he do that? Why would bigger barns be better than more barns? He wanted to show off! Huge structures are more visible than a bunch of small ones!

He had his plan, man. He was all set. It was a beautiful thing. Or so he thought.

He got a very unwelcome response: “…But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”” (Luke 12: 20, CEV).

Jesus was telling a story and said the man was a fool. The “Name Above All Names” was calling somebody a name! That’s so mean! Of all people, certainly He should know better than to name-call! Why did He have to call the guy an idiot? Jesus was so mean!

He was right, of course. The “rich fool” could see all the new buildings on the ground – but could not see the new burial ground! It was all fantasy, no reality.

Does this parable teach that we shouldn’t save for a “rainy day”? Does this mean we should not plan ahead? Of course not. That would be foolish in the other extreme.

The key is how you live your life and how you plan your future. Do you try to plan too much of your future without letting God in on your plans? Do you even consider God’s will for your life when you think about your future?

The rich man removed God from his earthly life – and so God removed his life from the earth.

A lot of people see this parable simply as a warning against hoarding stuff. After all, leading into the story, Jesus said, “Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12: 15, NLT). That’s clearly an admonition against having a lot of stuff, right? If that’s what you get out of the passage, that’s fine. But that’s not really the point. There’s a lot more to it than that!

The rich man had a lot of crops ‘cause he had fertile land. Where did that fertile land come from? It came from God. But the man relied on his own efforts for security and prosperity. He did not acknowledge the source of his blessings.

By the way, there’s another version of this parable. It’s not just found in the Gospel of Luke. Get out your Bible and turn to the Gospel of Thomas. No, don’t do that. I’m just messing with you. It’s not in your Bible. I don’t care if you have a Protestant Bible or a Catholic Bible; it’s not in there. Thomas didn’t make the cut, but it was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains some wacky stuff, but there’s some useful material, too. And here’s one of the useful things. Thomas 63 contains a simplified version of this parable. It goes like this:

“Jesus said, ‘There was a rich man who had much money. He said, ‘I shall put my money to use so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouse with produce, with the result that I shall lack nothing.’ Such were his intentions, but that same night he died. Let him who has ears hear’” (Thomas 63, Lambdin translation).

That really gives you a sense of the rich guy’s ego. He thought only of himself – wanting an easy, enjoyable, luxurious life for himself and no one else. He thought of the future only in terms of earthly life, not eternal life.

Guess what? The man could not take even a grain of grain with him into the next life!

The parable has some parallels in the Old Testament. How about we take a look at them? Well, OK.

Job 27: 16-23 (NLT)

Evil people may have piles of money
    and may store away mounds of clothing.
But the righteous will wear that clothing,
    and the innocent will divide that money.
The wicked build houses as fragile as a spider’s web,
    as flimsy as a shelter made of branches.
The wicked go to bed rich
    but wake to find that all their wealth is gone.
Terror overwhelms them like a flood,
    and they are blown away in the storms of the night.
The east wind carries them away, and they are gone.
    It sweeps them away.
It whirls down on them without mercy.
    They struggle to flee from its power.
But everyone jeers at them
    and mocks them.

Psalm 39: 4-6 (NLT)

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
    Remind me that my days are numbered—
    how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.”
We are merely moving shadows,
    and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
    not knowing who will spend it.

Psalm 49: 5-13 (NLT)

Why should I fear when trouble comes,
    when enemies surround me?
They trust in their wealth
    and boast of great riches.
Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death
    by paying a ransom to God.
Redemption does not come so easily,
    for no one can ever pay enough
to live forever
    and never see the grave.
Those who are wise must finally die,
    just like the foolish and senseless,
    leaving all their wealth behind.
The grave is their eternal home,
    where they will stay forever.
They may name their estates after themselves,
    but their fame will not last.
    They will die, just like animals.
This is the fate of fools,
    though they are remembered as being wise.

Jeremiah 17: 9-11 (NLT)

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?
But I, the Lord, search all hearts
    and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
    according to what their actions deserve.”
Like a partridge that hatches eggs she has not laid,
    so are those who get their wealth by unjust means.
At midlife they will lose their riches;
    in the end, they will become poor old fools.

So, that’s all poetry (that doesn’t rhyme) with basically the same message as the parable. The rich man planned on putting his crops in barns – bigger and bigger barns – instead of putting his crops into the hands (and mouths) of the needy. He wanted barns on the ground – but instead got a burial in the ground. That’s grounds for some deep thought! Six feet deep!

How does this parable affect us?

Jesus gave us the answer in the last verse of the parable: “…a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God” (Luke 12: 21, NLT).

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were promoting all sorts of rituals, but God isn’t interested in rituals so much as a contrite and loving heart. People weren’t being told how to have a relationship with their Creator. So, getting to the heart of the matter, those religious leaders were hoarding Yahweh for themselves!

Are you doing that? Do you say, “I’m saved. So I’m gonna sit back and relax. Others be damned!” And I do mean damned – ‘cause if you’re not saved, you’re doomed – doomed to a life without God – in this world and the next!

You don’t really want that for others, do you? The rich man wanted to show off his wealth and planned on doing so with giant barns. Are you just showing off? “Look at me; I’ve got a Bible!” Or, if you’re doing the hoarding thing, “Look at me; I’ve got a bookcase full of Bibles!” Are you giving ‘em out for others to read, or are you just showing them off?

Instead of showing off, God wants you to show up! Show up for church. Show up for Bible study. Show up for ministry to the community. Do something with the riches God has provided to you.

And realize that those blessings – both big and small – come from God. As the book of First Chronicles tells us:

“Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks ,and praise your glorious name” (1 Chronicles 29: 12-16, NIV)

The biggest blessing God has given you is Jesus Christ. Don’t hoard Him. Don’t just keep Him to yourself. Share your faith in Jesus with others. Help them out with things physical and spiritual. You will thus be planning for the future – yours and theirs.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus put it this way:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6: 19-21, NLT).

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus further said:

“Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Luke 12: 33-34, NLT).

Again, it’s not about how much stuff you have. I don’t care if you have 3,000 pairs of shoes like Imelda Marcos. I don’t care if you have 5 drawers of thong underwear. I don’t care if you save empty dog food bags. It doesn’t matter. That’s your business. But have you helped anybody? Have you done anything to advance the Kingdom of God?

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, says you’ve gotta have the right priorities:

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all His glory. So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like Him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and He lives in all of us” (Colossians 3: 1-11, NLT).

Did you catch that? Paul says Christ is all that matters. Paul has more to say about riches in his first letter to Timothy, which reads:

“Anyone who teaches something different disagrees with the correct and godly teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those people who disagree are proud of themselves, but they don’t really know a thing. Their minds are sick, and they like to argue over words. They cause jealousy, disagreements, unkind words, evil suspicions, and nasty quarrels. They have wicked minds and have missed out on the truth.

“These people think religion is supposed to make you rich. And religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have. We didn’t bring anything into this world, and we won’t take anything with us when we leave. So we should be satisfied just to have food and clothes. People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain” (1 Timothy 6: 3-10, CEV).

Don’t fall into that trap! You don’t wanna be a rich fool, do you? Don’t be building up barns when you should be building up the Kingdom!

So, are you showing off – or are you showing up and serving the Lord? I hope you’re gonna glorify the Lord with me! Let’s do this! Let’s go on a treasure hunt: searching for the riches of Christ and sharing Christ with others. We’ll be richly blessed instead of richly foolish! Now that’s a plan for the future!