Friday, September 17, 2010

Taking A Pounding

Conversion of Paul
Acts 9:1-19

The Nail

A nail is only useful after it has been pounded on. Before that it is only an item-in-waiting, hidden away in some drawer or a tool box in a garage.

Sometimes we feel like a nail that is being pounded on. Events of life can often beat on us, battering our bodies and emotions. It may be an illness, financial woes, or mistreatment by other people. Why? Why do painful things happen to us?

1) Sometimes it is just life. There is no apparent reason except that "life happens."

2) It may be that we deserve some of the pounding. Some of our own behavior may be coming back to haunt us. Rudeness invites rudeness; lack of saving invites a gaunt retirement; laziness invites hunger.

3) It may be that we are the innocent victim of someone else’s evil. The evil are always looking for opportunities to take and harm. There have always been such people. "Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand." Micah 2:1

4) And it may be that God is pounding us to break our hard and stubborn hearts.

Paul’s Pharisaic Mission Work

When Paul set out on his mission trip he did so with a clear conscience and the full expectation that he was God’s righteous ambassador. But his heart and mouth was full of "murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples" (Acts 9:1). He was going to purge the synagogue of Damascus. If he found any in the synagogue who were Christians, he was going to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. There they would stand trial before the Sanhedrin.

This was not Paul’s first "mission work." When the preacher Stephen was killed with stones by angry Jews who rejected Jesus, Paul was there offering his full assistance. He watched over the clothing of the witnesses to Stephen’s death. These witnesses probably removed their outer robes to be better able to cast the stones. Paul approved of this murder (Acts 8:1).

The next we read of Paul is in chapter 9 when he begins his journey to Damascus to persecute Christians. But, there is a long gap between 8:1 and 9:1. In this gap Paul was on many other missions to harass Christians. That story is told in Acts 26:9-11:

I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.

The fuller picture of Paul in Acts is that he was exactly what he describes in Philippians 3: proud, over-confident, self-righteous, and yet, amazingly, very religious.

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (Phil. 3:4a-6)

Religion vs. Relationship

One of the scariest things about religion is that it often serves to make us
feel righteous, even when we shouldn’t and
feel justified, even when aren’t.

As a Pharisee in good standing Paul saw it as his duty to uphold the tradition of the elders of Israel. This didn’t mean he preached and supported the Old Testament; it meant he stood for the very traditions Jesus condemned in Matthew 15:8-9. A host of traditions grew up in Israel. These traditions included issues of cleanliness, righteousness, who was in and who was outside of Israel, and fellowship.

In time, these traditions became even more important than scripture in dictating terms of faithfulness to Israel and standing with God. If a story from the Bible didn’t fit with their new traditions, Israel neglected them. So, Israel forgot some of the beautiful stories of God’s grace and compassion, like his care for the Gentile widow from Sidon (1 Kings 17:8-16) and the Gentile warrior, Naaman of Syria (2 Kings 5:1-14). God’s love extended to all people everywhere.

But the job of the Pharisee became to narrow the scope of God’s grace and mercy to just a few people. First, it was narrowed down to those of Israel. Then, it was narrowed down even finer, where only a chosen few within Israel were right. The Pharisees were able to dismiss many within Israel as a "mob that knows nothing of the law - there is a curse on them!" (John 7:49). How is that for a loving disposition by spiritual shepherds over Israel?

What the Pharisees missed was the relationship God desires to have with people. They were making a connection with God contingent on following the letter of the law perfectly, something no one could do. They reduced truth to formulas, rulings and creeds. They failed to see that at the heart of truth is a man: Jesus. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Yes, God calls for our obedience, and Jesus says that we will be his friend if will do what he says (John 14:23; 15:14). And what does Jesus call us to do? "A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34).

God wants a relationship with us. He sent Jesus to be the basis and means of that relationship. This relationship would provide for eternal life, abundant life now and everlasting life later.

And Paul, along with many of the other Pharisees, missed that. He saw the Christians not properly following the Pharisaic laws, and he saw them following after this strange Galilean, Jesus, and he wanted to stop them, even punish them. He was full of zeal for the traditions of his fathers and thought he was in the right. Even when he helped kill the Christians.

How do you get the attention of someone like that?

The Hammer

A nail is only useful when it has been pounded and beaten. Prior to that, a nail serves no real purpose. But, pound that nail into a wall and you can hang a hat or picture on it. Pound enough nails into some lumber and you have a house. It is only through beating and pounding that a nail becomes truly useful.

I wonder if that isn’t why we sometimes get beaten and pounded in this life? God is trying to make us into something useful. Even if the observable reasons seem to be that it is just the misfortunes of life, or we deserve it, or we are victims, maybe the real reason is that God is shaping us.
Could that be what happened to Paul?

On the way to his Pharisaic "mission," a bright light flashed from heaven and blinded Paul. The voice that spoke to him said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (Acts 9:5).

For three days Paul was blind. For three days he didn’t eat or drink. He had to be led around. Paul, the fiery, independent reformer bent on eradicating all signs of Christianity from Judaism, was reduced to a helpless, dependent child. The Bible gives us no indication of what he must have been thinking during those dark three days. Fear? Panic? Self-doubt? "Woe is me!"? We have no idea. But we know that he was helpless. Right now his self-righteous posture was failing him miserably.

Then the preacher came. Ananias laid hands on him. Paul’s eyes were healed and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately he got up and was baptized.

Why baptized? We know from other verses in the Bible that it has to do with sins being remitted (Acts 2:38) and being added to the body (1 Cor. 12:13). These certainly applied to Paul as well (Acts 22:16). And I think the immediate motivation for Paul is that he finally realized his legalistic righteousness availed him nothing. Everything of the flesh that he prided himself in - circumcision, pedigree, legalism and zeal - all failed him. Later, he considered all of these things as rubbish (dung, KJV; Phil. 3:8).

Baptism is a humbling experience. It means we accept that our own efforts to be righteous are not only insufficient, they are wrong. Legalistic righteousness, or self-righteousness, condemns. It keeps us from a saving relationship with Christ. Baptism means that we are no longer lord; Christ is now Lord (Romans 10:9).

In three days of humbling darkness Paul learned righteousness-by-law didn’t work, and he learned he wasn’t lord over his own circumstances anymore. He needed Jesus Christ. And when he received his sight he was baptized. Receiving his sight meant more than just seeing with his eyes; it seems to mean he could also see with his heart.

Paul was pounded on like a nail. And it hurt. But as a result of that pounding Paul became a Christian, and he became one of the greatest evangelists of the first century. The pounding he took made him into a useful instrument for the kingdom.

Useful Today?

Does that same principle of taking a beating work today? Can the things we suffer make us into useful instruments for God and other people?

I think of a young wife who lost her husband in the current war. He died of complications from his wounds four years after they occurred. During those four years she had the constant companionship of other wives whose husbands were severely wounded and handicapped. Now, she feels a separation from them. Also, her situation isn’t exactly like other wives whose husbands died over there and were brought back as heroes. She feels so alone she wrote an article about her experience. This woman has taken a terrible pounding that is so unfortunate and unfair. But she is finding something useful now. As a result of her writing she has found other widows in a similar situation, and she is building a whole new support system.

I have a friend who took a pounding from drugs. His health suffered. His finances suffered. He was arrested and taken to jail. He went in for rehab. Later he went on to college to get a counseling degree, and today he counsels other addicts.

You may be taking a beating today and think it is terribly unfair. And it may be. But it may also be a summons for you to see what God is trying to do in your life. For Paul it was to be baptized and become an evangelist. For a young widow it was to become a writer. For an addict it was to become a counselor. Instead of worrying and getting angry at the injustices in your life, ask instead, "God, where are you leading me?" And keep your heart open.

Warren Baldwin

Friday, September 10, 2010

How Can God Use Me?

1 Samuel 17

Have you ever asked "How can God use me?" That question will have different answers for different people.

Jack Lewis is an intellectual giant among preachers. He has two Ph.D.s, one from Harvard and one from Hebrew Union. When he was young he listened to a sermon about one of the prophets. The preacher talked about how the prophet may not have had much to offer, but he was willing to give God what he had - himself. And then God could use that however he wanted.

Jack said, "I listened to that preacher. His lesson wasn’t particularly outstanding in its development, but it emphasized something I needed to hear then. God could use any man who was willing to be used. I determined to do what I could with my life in service to God."

Years later Jack had his two Ph.D.s and began teaching at a Christian school. Today he can boast that he has trained as many preachers, missionaries and Bible professors as any other teacher in his church’s fellowship, all because he asked, "How can God use me?"

One night in the mid 1990s Jack would stand outside of the mansion at the graduate school that housed the faculty offices. Fifty years of his research and work was in the building. In the middle of the night fire billowed out of the broken windows. Jack stood there with his wife Annie Mae and said, "There goes a whole life’s work up in flames." Annie Mae said, "That’s not your life’s work, Jack, books and papers and notes. Your life’s work is out in the field preaching the gospel." And they were. Thousands of guys. All because Jack asked, "How can God use me?"

God’s answer to that question for you may be different. I have friends who serve as missionaries in Africa, Brazil, Europe, Asia, the Unites States and Canada. The serve in those places because they asked, "How can God use me?"

I have friends who are firemen and emergency personnel. I have friends who are school teachers, nurses, doctors, mechanics. I have friends who are construction workers and big game guides. They faithfully serve God in ways he makes available to them. The question they ask is, "How can God use me?" The answer to that question may differ for us individually. But let’s make sure we asked the question. And let’s listen to God’s answer.

A young boy once asked, "How can God use me?" I don’t know if he actually asked the question out loud, verbally. But it was in his heart. And God answered his question.

"Be a servant to your brothers. Help them out."

"My brothers? You have to be kidding? God, when I asked, ‘How can you use me?,’ I wasn’t asking to be a servant boy. Don’t you have anything else for me to do?"

God must have said, "He who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. I want to see how you handle the little chores. Do as I say. Serve your brothers."

"Ok, Lord, I will serve. What shall I do?"

"Take some food to your brothers and their boss."

No service in the name of Jesus Christ is really "small service." We use that term: "serving God in the ‘small things.’" But the small things are often big things. A $1.00 bolt that gets left out
of an airplane can cause millions in damages, not to mention loss of life. What is the real value of a $1.00 bolt on an airplane if it is carrying our family members?

In Matt. 25 we see a glimpse into the heart of God regarding the "small things" we do in his name. (Verse.34-40) The small things become big things when done in the name of Jesus.

How can God use me?

"Ok, Father, I’ll take the food to my brothers." This young man was about to learn that faithfulness in the small things opens doors of opportunities to the big things.

Jesse knew he was sending his son into a war scene. But did he think his son would be in the war? I doubt it. What kind of a father would let his son go off into a war unprepared? Untrained? (1 Samuel 17:17-19)

But God knew. God knew it was a war scene. And God let David go. What kind of a God is he? A God who can see things we can not. God knew there were two battles being waged that day in the valley of Elah.

One battle was being waged by Goliath, a big hunk of a man. Nine feet tall, armor weighing 125 to 200 pounds. His shield was larger than a man. Everyday Goliath would come out and taunt and challenge the armies of God. (17:8-11) Everyday his insolence and bravado sent chills into the hearts of Saul and his men.

This was David’s first battle scene so far as we know. And it was a big one. All the soldiers knew that. None of them would take up Goliath’s challenge. They cowered in fear.

And then David said, "I’ll go fight him."

"You? You’re only a boy, a delivery boy. You do good with bread and cheese. But that guy out there is not a sandwich. He is a soldier. A big one. He’d break you in half with his bare hands."

And David said again, "Let me go. I’ll fight him." When he tried on the armor he said, "I can’t wear that stuff."

With the blessing of the commander David ran down to the stream. He looked into the
clear water for the stones he wanted. He picked out some smooth ones, put them into his bag and went after the bear of a man.

Goliath wasn’t impressed. (V.41-44) And David wasn’t impressed with Goliath. He ran at him with his sling, threw the rock and knocked the giant to the ground. David won.

He started out delivering cheese and he ended up delivering Israel.
He started out tightening $1.00 bolts and ended up flying the plane.

And it all started with an attitude of heart: "God, how can you use me?"

I told you there were two battlefields that day. One was in the valley of Elah. A valley where men pitched tents, cooked over open fires, sharpened swords, tested their bow strings, and laid awake at night worrying about the next day. A battle where men hurled insults and challenges to each other. A battle where men dreamed of killing.

The other battlefield that day was pretty much ignored by most people. It still is today. It was the battlefield of heart.

This battle was really fought and won in someplace other than the valley of Elah. For David it began sometime before. In 1 Sam. 16:12 God told Samuel, "I pick the boy David." Then, the Spirit of the Lord came upon David IN POWER (16:13).

Fighting a giant was really nothing to David. The spirit of God reigned in his heart. Fields of battle are much easier to win after you’ve won the battle of the heart. That is why David could say to Goliath, "I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty" (17:45). And, "This day the Lord will hand you over to me." This wasn’t really David’s battle - it was God’s.

And this explains why Saul wouldn’t fight Goliath. 1 Sam. 16:14 says the spirit of Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit took his place. Saul lost the great battle, the battle of the heart. So Goliath really was a giant to him.

On that day many years ago there were two battles. One between armies. One in the hearts of men. In a sense, Golaith doesn’t even matter in the story. He was only filler. The real story was about a young boy who asked, "God, how can you use me?"

What do you think God’s answer to you will be when you ask that question?

Warren Baldwin