Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message on Acts 9; Date: 21 June 09

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How Much For Him

 

This is the third Sunday in our new worship centre at 90 Jellicoe St and looking back over the last two Sundays we have much reason for rejoicing. God confirmed his call on Living Grace. (At least this is my discernment.) It just so happened that the sermon series for new Christians concluded with the last two messages being preached here and these two messages – also just so happened – to pick up on the mission statement of Living Grace. None of this was my planning but I became rather excited when I seemed to recognize God’s hand in shaping the preaching agenda. The first message was on the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the second was on the power of God’s word. Both Sundays we prayed for the congregation and both Sundays we were rejoicing over people being filled with the Holy Spirit, receiving spiritual gifts, encouragement and healing. God confirmed our mission statement which reads: “One citywide people of God – operating in the power of the Word and the Spirit – to disciple nations – for the praise of His gloryWith the city as our focus – and then even nations – we do have faith – and long – for the power of the Word and the Spirit to “explode” in our midst. We believe for something big. Small as we are there is in our congregation the hunger for a move of God – an outpouring of divine glory – which is going to turn the entire Toowoomba region upside down for God. As Jesus taught us to pray: “His kingdom come – as it is in heaven so on earth” – even on the Darling Downs!

Looking back over the first two Sundays here at 90 Jellicoe St there is much reason for rejoicing. God confirmed our sense of call – also not forgetting his provision of $182,000 in pledges last Sunday. God is stirring us. With that in mind – what then should be the preaching topic – today – on the third Sunday in our new worship centre? What do you expect to hear next from God?

We may be in for a surprise. In the Bible – when God called the person of Saul into something big – to become the most important missionary to the nations – God also surprised him with some additional information. Here is what happened. At first Saul was not a Christian but a most passionate enemy of any believers and he acted on his hate. I read from the Bible – Acts 9:1-2: “ . Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 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

Then the Lord Jesus Christ called him and – today – with what is in our hearts – we will also learn from the nature of his call. I read from the Bible – the entire account – Acts 9:3-19a: “As Saul neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heave flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’ The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 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. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered. The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’ ‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’ But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength

This Bible account contains many “fun” themes for preaching and teaching – electrifying themes – such as: the possibility of Jesus appearing to us in a flash of glorious light and then speaking to us (as it happened to Paul – Acts 9:3: “ … suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him … ”), the richness of God’s communications with us (God gave Saul a vision of a man and told him the name of the man – Ananias – who would place his hands on him and in this way heal him; meanwhile God told Ananias the vision which he gave Paul and then further instructed him – even telling him the precise address of Saul in Damascus; Acts 9:11-12: “ … The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight … ”), the frequent importance of the laying on of hands for healing and the infilling with the Holy Spirit (as practiced by Ananias on Saul), then – last but not least – the influence one person can have in reaching the world with the good news of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:15: “ … This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel … ”).

These are great themes which make for great Sunday celebrations but not this Sunday. As much as Saul would become the greatest missionary, God also said – Acts 9:16: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my nameThese words of God spell out another truth – what we may not want to hear. The more God asks you to do in his name, the more suffering and persecution will come your way.

There it is – the message for the third Sunday in our new worship centre. We want a mighty outpouring of God’s Spirit on our region but are we prepared to have him also say to us: “I will show you how much you must suffer for my nameHave you come to Living Grace – or are you thinking about joining this church – because you are ready to share in our suffering?

Saul – immediately – experienced the first taste of mission success – but also persecution. Acts 9:19b-23 – I read again from the Bible: “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’ Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him … ”

Opposition will surely come to the preaching of Jesus Christ and the whole truth of God. [E.g.: In every meeting Annancondia would always minister salvation, deliverance, healing and the baptism in the Spirit but in many Western church circles a call to faith commitment is deemed offensive, any talk about demons is deemed offensive, trusting God’s promises for healing is deemed offensive and the Biblical term “baptism in the Spirit” is also deemed offensive … ] And – according to the Bible – there do not seem to be any exceptions – 2 Timothy 3:12: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecutedAnd in the same vein the Bible also says – 1 Peter 4:12-13: “ … do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you … ”

The words “persecution” and “painful trial” do not have a good a ring to them. What are we in for? Jesus said – Luke 6:22-23: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man … ” At the very least we can expect not to be popular and rejection hurts (and often it comes from within the church – from your own faith family – so it happened with Jesus and Martin Luther and Count Zinzendorf and John Wesley and Charles Finney and … ) – but then there can be other – more physical – consequences. I read a few more verses from the Bible – Hebrews 10:33-39: “Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution … You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property … ” The words “prison” and “confiscation of property” do not have a good ring to them either.

What do we expect will happen to us? Are we not here on a Sunday morning to be refreshed and lifted up? Do we not value our faith as something that completes a good life-style? Then – many a time – do we not also pick up on the consumer mentality of our Western nation and shop around for the best church in town – and – many a time – what we define as “best” is the very avoidance of any suffering because we want easy convenience: a comfortable building (I certainly appreciate the gas heating in winter), a worship service that is not too long (God may still be healing people but 1.5 hours is long enough), nothing weird (e.g.: being “drunk” in the Spirit or the other week someone here discovered gold-dust on her hands after worship), a good program for the children and personal service on call.

This may not be quite true for our intentions at Living Grace but – speaking for myself – I think that I have some of these tendencies within me because they are so dominant in our consumer culture. Yet, the truth is what God said about Saul – Acts 9:16: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my nameHere at Living Grace we may also suffer various forms of persecution – from gossip, lies and negative press to legal restrictions, law suits and even imprisonment (as was a real possibility for two pastors – Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot – in Victoria; the Australian Christian Lobby wrote in a newsletter [October 2003]: … You will remember that the case revolves around whether the Pastors pointing out the reality of what Islamic teaching has to say on Jihad is vilification, and also apparently on whether the fact that they have claimed that the only way to God is through Christ, is vilification of Muhammad).

Then what about – one day – sharing the fate of many overseas Christians. One of our short-term mission trips may not have such a happy ending.  A few months ago we tried to sponsor the immigration of Wilson Vai who is trapped in the Kouankan Refugee camp in Guinea. This month one of our Lutheran church magazines (Asia Focus, June 2009) printed his latest report – I quote: “The military has detained Pastor Siaffa along with his wife Jeneba … They are trying to close the church … [Camp authorities are all Muslim.] … One thing that is also happening on the camp is that they have stopped … Christians from doing gardening and farm work. Where will these people get food from? … I worry a lot … The Camp authorities try to force Pastor Siaffa to go back to Liberia [where he would be killed because he used to be a Muslim] … If the world cannot come to our aid, we will surely perish … The women are suffering in particular … We are under serious persecution … ”

We better prepare ourselves and count the cost of being a member of this church. The more we want to be used by God and the more we want to reach out to others around the world, the more we will be in the thick of persecution. Yet – no matter what lies ahead – we have no reason for complaints – ever. Saul certainly whinged about nothing. He knew that he had been a persecutor himself. The blood of Christians was on his hands when Jesus saved him. Can you imagine the shame which came over him after he recognized that he had been on the wrong side of God. He thought that he was safe-guarding the honour of God against these blasphemous Christians – they were so wrong – but then he was so wrong. Jesus Christ – the promised Saviour – asked him: “Why do you persecute meWhat a shock to the system! Saul could say nothing in return except to seek more clarification which betrayed his ignorance and ineptitude. He asked: “Who are you, LordIt was Jesus.

Saul then spent three days in Damascus – fasting food and drink – praying around the clock. He had been so wrong and now God had intervened. God came to him. God was so good to him. He deserved nothing but – nevertheless – was baptized for salvation and filled with the Holy Spirit. Even years later he would be so grateful, writing to one of his congregations – 1 Corinthians 15:9-10: “ . I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God, But by the grace of God I am what I am … ” This was worth whatever it may cost him – down the track.

You and I – we are in the very same position. By the grace of God we are what we are. None of us has been on the right side of God. None of us is without sin. The Bible explains – Romans 3:22-26: “ … There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus … ” Romans 5:8-11: “ . God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us … when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son … ” Saul was not the exception. None of us deserves anything from God. God doesn’t owe us anything – humanity from the beginning has turned against him and we keep turning against him – but he has broken into our world with redemption. He came to us and invited us to be forgiven – freely – by his grace – on account of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

What gift of life and – therefore – whatever we are asked to do now is okay. The Bible is right – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “ … You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodyHow can we ever repay God for salvation? We have gained the price – eternal life with God – whatever we suffer in the present. Saul who was later named Paul summed up the sentiment – 2 Corinthians 4:8-18: “ … We are hard pressed on every side … perplexed … persecuted … struck down … [But] we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles [what understatement] are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all … ”

How are we feeling now on this third Sunday in our new worship centre? Despite the prospect of persecution do we maintain joy among us – undiminished joy in the service of a great God? We may not have been quite ready for a somber message on suffering – after all this is our honeymoon period at 90 Jellicoe St – but – and this is where another surprising twist makes us learn still more about God – with God the suffering of persecution is at the same time a season of joy.

At first hearing this sounds almost offensive. Adrian and Kym Kath’s grandson Lukas – a newborn baby – is on the waiting list for a liver transplant to save his life. Where is the joy in that? Then another woman dropped in at our place – one evening – with tears running down her cheeks. She was close to a nervous breakdown – straining under family and work commitments – sickness and depression. Where is the joy in that? The whole logic of today’s message seems confusing. Do you agree? Where is this going? There we are (at first) – thrilled with God – hungry for an outpouring of God’s Spirit on Toowoomba – but then warnings about persecution dampen the excitement – and the thrill is not what it used to be – only to come back again – to be released again – now – with the promise of joy in suffering.

What is God up to? I read to you again various Bible verses from before and I will read to you their fuller version and ask you to take note of the constant references to joy. Jesus said – Luke 6:22-23: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you … Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven … ” Hebrews 10:33-39: “Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution … You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions … ” 1 Peter 4:12-13: “ … do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you

In all of these references there is joy in suffering – even leaping for joy – because we are heading in the right direction with the sure promise of eternal glory and reward. Our homes may be confiscated but we know – for sure – that we have better and lasting possessions in eternity. It is the eternal future that counts.

Yet, there is more. The last Bible reference talked about “participating in the sufferings of Christ” and “having the Spirit of glory and of God rest on us in persecution”. When Saul was persecuting Christians, he did what he wanted to do and seemed to be in control of so much – the court system, the life and death of others. He was feared and respected – on top of his world – but Jesus confronted him with the truth. In a later report about his conversion Saul also shared that Jesus had said to him – Acts 26:14: “ … [It is] difficult for you to be kicking against [the] goads [i.e. pointed sticks used to drive livestock]Saul was not at peace with what he was doing. His conscience was pricking him. He had people killed and got what he wanted but there was no peace in him.

Jesus knew and saved him and as consequence Saul the persecutor would suffer persecution himself but with the difference that – even then – he was feeling a whole lot better than before. Now he was at peace and full of joy. One day he was attacked by a mob, then stripped and beaten by the magistrates, severely flogged, thrown into prison with his feet fastened in the stocks, but then the Bible records – Acts 16:25: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God … ”

When persecution comes, then – more so than even at other times – the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us – bringing us affirmations of God’s love and joy. We experience that the less we are in control – the more we despair of the circumstances – the more God comes through with his power – and his joy. Saul would write to this effect to one of his congregations – 2 Corinthians 1:8-11: “We do not want you to be uninformed . about the hardships we suffered … We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life … But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead … ” As we keep obeying and trusting God – even in the midst of suffering – he can fill our hearts with his power and his joy and his peace.

The following is a written account from a persecuted pastor in China. He and some other Christians were in jail [abbreviate and retell in your own words]: “One morning the director of the prison called me to his office … ‘In cell number nine is a murderer named Huang … We’ve decided to send him to your cell. From now until the day he is executed we want you to watch over him … ’ … I broke the news to my cell mates and everyone was terrified … ‘Brothers, before we believed in Jesus, we were just like him … We need to have mercy on this man and treat him as if he was Jesus himself.’

When Huang was brought into our cell the next morning … he spoke filthy words … He was ferocious and full of hatred … In cell number nine the prisoners had treated him like an animal, kicking and punching him … The moment Huang entered our cell he knew something was different. All of us showed him love and sympathy … I asked everyone to give Huang some of their precious drinking water … Then I gently cleaned the dirt and dried blood from his face and mouth … Huang didn’t say a word. He just sat there with his eyes wide open and stared at everyone … At lunchtime we each gave some of our rice to our new cell mate … I used a spoon to feed Huang. After lunch we all softly sang a song I had taught them, based on Matthew 6:25-34, Our Heavenly Father is great in mercy … Then I spoke about the words of Jesus from Matthew chapter six …

Dinner that evening happened to be the time for our weekly mantou. All the brothers looked at me. I knew they were so hungry. I told them, ‘Today we’ve already shared our rice and water with our new friend Huang, so we can eat our own mantou tonight, but I hope you’ll share some of your soup with him tomorrow.’ I fed Huang first and then started to eat my own meal.

When I took the first bite of my mantou I felt like crying. A tender voice welled up inside me, saying, ‘I died for you on the cross. How can you show me that you love me? When I am hungry, thirsty, and in prison, if you do these things to the least of my brethren, you do them unto me.’ Immediately I knew God wanted me to sacrifice what was left of my mantou and give it to Huang. I bowed down and wept. I said, ‘Lord, I’m also starving. I feel so hungry.’ A Scripture from the Bible came to mind, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or danger or sword?’ Romans 8:35.

I wrapped the rest of my mantou in a handkerchief and placed it inside my clothes, saving it for Huang. Immediately peace and joy returned to me. The next morning’s breakfast consisted of watery noodle soup … We all shared with Huang, but he wasn’t happy even with his larger portion so he shouted to the guard, ‘I’m going to die! Why don’t you give me a good sized meal? Are you trying to starve me before you execute me?’

Right then the Lord told me, ‘Hurry, take the mantou from your shirt and feed him.’ … Immediately Huang’s stony heart broke. He dropped off his chair, knelt down on the floor, and wept. He said, ‘Older brother, why do you love me like this? Why didn’t you eat your bread last night? I am a murderer, hated by all men. Even my own parents, my brother and sister, and my finance have disowned me. Why do you love me so much? … ’ … I know that this was the time the Lord wanted me to share the gospel with him. I told Huang, ‘It’s because Jesus loves you that we are treating you nicely … ’” (Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway: The Heavenly Man, London: Monarch Books 2002, p141-145).

Did you notice how the pastor struggled to share his mantou with Huang? He bowed down and wept, crying out to God: “Lord, I’m also starving. I feel so hungryYet, when he obeyed – wrapped the rest of his mantou in a handkerchief – saving it for Huang – immediately peace and joy returned to him. Where the Spirit leads – and be it hard – there are affirmations of love and joy which he keeps pouring into our hearts.

[By the way I like how God was gentle with the pastor. He did not grow impatient when the pastor was reluctant at first but he affirmed him with love – Bible words from Romans 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or danger or sword?” This is how it was also with Ananias. When God told him to pay Saul a visit, Ananias baulked, saying – Acts 9:13-14: “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints … ” But God did not get angry with Ananias and gently explained to him the circumstances – Acts 9:15-16: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument … ” This was on top of saying earlier that Saul was praying and had received a vision from God about Ananias. God is good and knows how we feel in times of persecution.]

Then did you also notice how Jesus responded to the pastor. He said to him: “I died for you on the cross. How can you show me that you love me? When I am hungry, thirsty, and in prison, if you do these things to the least of my brethren, you do them unto meJesus again revealed his heart to the pastor. He died on the cross for him – out of love – which invites love in return – and now he also loved the murderer Huang – so much so that he told the pastor that what he was doing for Huang he was doing for him (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Here we get a glimpse of what is meant by the earlier phrase “participating in the sufferings of Christ”. Jesus showed the pastor that he loved Huang so much that whatever this prisoner was going through, he was suffering himself. In the same way God’s heart keeps breaking over us – over you. It was love that made Jesus endure torture and death on a cross – for us – suffering in his own body what we should have suffered – as our substitute. And Jesus keeps loving us until it hurts. When Jesus stopped Saul in his tracks on the way to Damascus, he asked him: “Why do you persecute meJesus didn’t say: “Why do you persecute the church – these people over thereNo – Jesus experienced every imprisonment – every disadvantage – in his own person because he loves us so much.

And as Christians we are drawn into that kind of love which aches with pain over a lost world. Many years later Paul would list some of his experiences in the Bible – 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 – I read: “ … Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits … I have … often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked … ”

All of this was bad enough but then he adds: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burnPaul was heart-broken – burning up from the inside – over any brother Christian who would fall into sin and drift away from Jesus. And this is also our pain – our sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering – because we also have numerous new Christians who have made a good start with their faith but then slide back into their old life of sin.

We care and this ache for others goes so far that Paul – not only forgave those who hurt him (and floggings and lashings are not that easy to forgive) – he wrote – Romans 9:2-3: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for [them] … ” On the one hand this is madness – choosing (if it was possible) to spend eternity in hell – so that others would be saved. But – on the other hand – this is love – sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.

I come to a close. Yes – we want God to do something big in Toowoomba. We want the kingdom of God to draw near and turn our region upside down. But – what we want – comes with a cost. The call of God comes with the words – spoken first to Saul and now to us: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” “I will show you how much you must suffer for my nameThere will be opposition to our preaching and everything may be taken from us: possessions, freedom and life. We will ache with the pains of a loving heart – for fellow Christians and those that lash out against us. We cannot bear to see anyone lost for eternity or even miss out on what God has in store for them in this life.

Now – pause for a moment – are we – are you – willing to pay this cost? This is our third Sunday in the new worship centre – these are days of laying a foundation – are you prepared to suffer in the service of Jesus? If the answer is “yes”, then we can keep dreaming “big” because God can do anything with a surrendered life – a church that is obedient to him. We ask him to speak the same words over us that he spoke over Saul: “This man – this church – is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of IsraelWe say “yes” to God. Amen.