Sermon June 9th, 2013 Unfinished Business Galatians 1:11-12
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011
I once met a person in church wearing a button that had a long list of jumbled letters on it. I said to the person wearing the button,
"All right, I'll take the bait. What do all those letters stand for?"
"Simple," he said. “Please be patient with me; God's not finished with me yet!"
That individual told me that he wore that button to remind himself – and others – that he still had a long way to go in his Christian life. When he looked back over the years, he could see how far God had brought him. And when he looked forward to the future, and thought about his Savior, Jesus, he realized how far he still had to go. Thus the motto: “Please be patient with me ‑ God's not finished with me yet."
In my opinion, a message like that keeps a Christian honest. We can honestly admit that God has already done much for us through Christ and the cross and the empty tomb. And we can be reminded that God’s influence in our lives isn’t complete. When it comes right down to it, God's not finished with me yet. And He's not finished with any of you folks either. There’s still much he wants to do in our lives. He has branches to prune. He has watering to do. He has much tender loving care to apply. It’s important to be brutally honest with God. It’s important to give God the credit – and the glory! – for what he has already done for us through His Son. It’s important to remember that our lives are in God's hands and that God never ceases to be at work in us, continually making us that new creation that the Apostle Paul talks about.
I’m sure that the Apostle Paul would have been glad to live by my friend’s motto. Of all people, he have been the first to admit that God wasn’t finished working in his life. Paul the apostle was an amazing Christian pioneer. But he certainly didn't start out that way. In the beginning, he was a diamond in the rough, fresh from the mine.
It took a long time for God to smooth out the rough edges of his life. It took God a long time to polish the surfaces. It took many long years for Paul to come to his full potential. And, as far as he was concerned, God got all the credit for the amazing change that had occurred in his life. God is working in our lives as well, molding us, like a master potter molds the clay, into something exquisite, beautiful to behold!
The Bible, God’s Word, answers two basic questions. The first one is:
"What must I do to be saved?"
And the second is the theme of today's message,
"How should I live the Christian life?"
The answer to the first question is simple and straightforward.
"What must I do to be saved?"
"Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved."
To believe in Jesus for salvation means, as the Holy Spirit enables us, we trust him above all else. It means that we believe that He went to the cross to forgive our sins and was raised from the dead for our justification. To believe in Jesus means that, as the Holy Spirit works, we submit our will to His will; we allow Him first place in our lives. To believe in Jesus Christ for salvation means to stop trying to save ourselves; it means that we swallow our pride and say, prompted and enabled by the Spirit, "Come, Lord Jesus. Be my Savior. Be my Lord. Take my life. It’s yours.” As God works, through Word and Sacrament, He overcomes our pride and our self‑centeredness. At the time of our baptism, in the twinkling of an eye, in a moment of time, we are transported from the kingdom of this evil world and made members of the Kingdom of God – adopted into God’s family. As faith is sparked in our hearts, salvation takes but a moment. But living out our salvation takes a lifetime.
The answer to the second question isn’t quite as simple.
"How should I live the Christian life?"
Well, I can immerse myself in God’s Word. I can make its teachings my precepts for living. I can continually look to Jesus – God's Son – who is the Author and Finisher of my faith. He’s my Guide on the journey. He has connected me to His community of faith – the church. It is there I grow and mature in Christ. It takes a lifetime to work out our salvation, under the watchful eye of God.
Paul – his name was Saul at first – had always been a religious man. He had always believed in God. But, in his early life, he fundamentally misunderstood God's will for him. In his early years, he made a false assumption. He assumed, without checking, that he was serving God by persecuting the followers of Jesus Christ and by trying to destroy the church. Like many people in our world today, Paul had been so busy doing what he thought was God's will, that he didn't take time to find out for sure. Paul carried on that way until God got his full and undivided attention. Many people in our day are just like Paul. They believe in God. They do their best to serve him. But they never take the time to check with God’s Word to see whether it’s really God they are serving, or whether it’s their own ego, dressed up in religious garb. Before he knew Christ, Paul was a very sincere individual. But, he was sincerely wrong. Before he knew Christ, Paul lived in his own little world – he lived in a bubble sealed off from spiritual reality. He needed something to jolt him back to reality. That jolt came on the road to Damascus.
Before Paul was converted, everything about Christianity irritated him. Before he was converted, his mission was to destroy this new faith. He was a Jew. He was a strong‑minded man. When he made up his mind to do something, he did it. People today might call Paul in his early years a fundamentalist – a fanatic – even a zealot. If Paul had a car in those days, he would have had a bumper sticker attached to it that said, "Israel -- Love it or Leave it."
When the Christian martyr Stephen was stoned to death, Paul was right there on the sidelines shouting "Go for it!" Before he met Jesus Christ, his heart was full of brutality, and violence, and hatred – all in God's name. We’ve seen this phenomenon in our world today, with devastating results! Like many extremely religious people in our day, Paul was absolutely convinced that he was doing God's will. Paul was a fanatic before Jesus Christ stepped into his life. He was an activist, a partisan, if you will – proud and self‑centered. He made one fatal mistake – a mistake that many people make: He assumed that he knew God's will. Paul was living proof of the truth of this verse from Mark, chapter 7, verses 6 and 7, where Jesus says:
6 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’ (N.I.V.)
Paul’s zeal for God, as the Bible puts it, was zeal without knowledge. He had a great deal of energy that he was using in service for the Lord, but that energy was causing harm and destruction. Instead of building up God's kingdom, and building up God’s precious people, Paul was tearing it down. I firmly believe that Paul would have continued on that way until his dying day, if God hadn't stepped into his life. Paul was the kind of person who wouldn't be stopped by normal means. I'm reminded of the story of an Arkansas farmer who had a visitor from the city one day. Much to the city slicker's amazement, the farmer took a two by four, walked up to his Missouri Mule and clobbered him over the head with it. When the other man asked what he was doing, the farmer answered, "I have to do that to get his attention!'
God had been calling Paul for quite a while, but Paul wasn't listening. God's Holy Spirit had been speaking to Paul, but Paul had been ignoring that still small voice. When I was a young adult, still living at home, my family lived in Richmond, B.C., just south of Vancouver. We had a beagle with the original name of "Snoopy." Snoopy was a city dog who spent the majority of her time in the house or penned up in the back yard. But every once in a while, Snoopy would find a way to escape from her back yard prison. She would run through a gate left open or crawl through a hole in the fence. And once Snoopy was free, she would run around frantically, making up for lost time. That beagle would run, nose close to the ground, at a full gallop, drinking in all of those forbidden smells – smells of the free world. My brother and I would call her, but she would ignore us. We had to literally track her down and bring her back home.
That dog reminds me of Paul. God was calling him, but he was so busy doing what he thought was God’s will, he was so very preoccupied, that he didn’t actually hear what God was saying. God had to go out and physically bring Paul back to his senses. He did that on the road to Damascus. On the road to Damascus, Paul came face to face with Jesus of Nazareth.
Over the years, I’ve told people that there are two basic ways to obtain information about God. One is to guess. That’s called SPECULATION. And the other is to have God Himself tell us what He wants us to know. That’s called REVELATION. It seems to me that Paul spent his early life trying to guess God's will. But his speculation misled him very badly. Now, on the road to Damascus, Paul would be subject to the direct REVELATION of God, through Jesus Christ. Think about it this way: Paul the non‑Christian knew about Jesus Christ. He’d heard stories of Jesus' resurrection, and of Jesus’ miracles. He knew about Jesus Christ, but this knowledge made no real difference in his life because he didn't believe it. He knew about Jesus Christ. But he didn’t know Christ. There was no relationship there. On the Damascus Road, however, Jesus of Nazareth was transformed from a shadowy figure – an enemy – to a Friend a Teacher, and a gracious Savior.
We must never forget that it was God who reached out to Paul, not the other way around. God, as He always does, took the initiative. Paul wasn’t looking for the Lord. He thought he knew Him. He thought he was serving Him. On the Damascus road, it was as if Jesus was saying to Paul:
"I want to use you in my kingdom. Even though you’ve tried your best to destroy my church, I will have mercy on you and I will grant you a new start in life. I have great things in store for you!"
In my opinion, the Apostle Paul is one of the best examples of the transforming power of God's Word that you will find in the entire Bible. Paul is "Exhibit A" for the miracle of conversion. Before his conversion, Christians feared and avoided him. After his new birth, he became a respected leader and teacher. After he came to know Christ, he admitted his past mistakes. He swallowed his pride. He received God’s forgiveness. After he became a Christian, you can be sure that he was haunted by memories of the way he had lived. After his new birth, he had no trouble understanding the terrible destructive power of sin and of assuming you know what God’s will is. These are his own words – from First Timothy chapter 1, verse 15:
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst. (N.I.V.)
After his conversion, Paul had no trouble believing that God could forgive a person, no matter how grievous their sin. Now that he knew the answer to the first question we raised a few minutes ago -- "What must I do to be saved?" – he could concentrate on the second -- "How should I live the Christian life?"
The Apostle Paul had many abilities that God could use. He was zealous for the truth. He was a man of action. He was well educated. He knew many people. Knowing Jesus Christ brought out his true potential. Paul lost his violence, and his hatred, and his arrogance, when he came to know Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. God used Paul in a very special way in the life of the early Christian church. He became one of the greatest Christian leaders. Millions of people down through the years have been influenced by his inspired words.
The Apostle Paul learned that salvation is God's idea, not ours. If God hadn’t intervened in Paul's life, Paul would not have been saved. Paul always gave God all the credit for what had happened in his life. The Scriptural truth is that God wants to work in the lives of all people. Our task, as the Holy Spirit works through the Word and the Sacraments, is to stop refusing him. God wants to mold and make us into the kind of people He want us to be. When you think about it, a life transformed by the power of God is a wonderful witness to the world around us. For many people, one life, transformed by Jesus Christ, has more impact on them than a whole library of theological books. May God continue to work in your life and mine. May we be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, "Please be patient with me, God's not finished with me yet." Amen
Let us pray. Dear Heavenly Father: As Christians, we know – and have personally experienced – the power of your Word. Keep on changing us. Keep on guiding us. Let your light shine out through us. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen