People are treasure

Scripture: Acts 9:1-19

 

Title: People are treasure

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • The role of doubt
  • Jesus and Saul
  • Ananias and Saul
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

There is a legend told of the wives of Weinsberg

–         The Duke of Weinsberg possessed an immense fortune in gold, silver and fine jewels, which he kept in his castle

 

The Duke had a falling out with King Konrad (the sovereign of the realm)

–         And so Konrad gathered his army and laid siege to Weinsberg demanding the Duke’s fortress, the massive fortune and the lives of the men within

 

Although the King had allowed for the safe release of all women and children, the wives of Weinsberg refused to leave without having one of their own conditions met

–         They requested that they be allowed to leave at sunrise the next day with whatever they could carry on their backs

 

Thinking the women couldn’t possibly make a dent in the massive fortune, the king decided to grant their request.

–         After all, he would be hailed as a generous and merciful king and most of the Duke’s vast fortune would still be left for him

 

But the king got more than he bargained for

–         The next morning at sunrise, as the women walked out, the entire army was stunned to silence as they saw each wife carrying her husband on her back – the wives valued their husbands more highly than silver or gold

 

Deeply moved by their love, King Konrad kept his word and no lives were lost that day.

–         People are the real treasure

 

Today is the second of three Sundays when we promote Tranzsend’s prayer and self-denial campaign

–         Tranzsend supports and resources NZ Baptist missionaries serving overseas

–         The theme for this year’s self-denial campaign is treasures handed down

–         Jesus is the greatest treasure God gave the world

–         That God gave His only Son to save us shows that people are treasure

 

Please turn with me to Acts chapter 9 – page 161 toward the back of your pew Bibles

–         Last week we heard how Jesus valued an outsider – the Ethiopian eunuch

–         Today we hear how Jesus treats one of his enemies as a valued treasure

–         From Acts chapter 9, verses 1-19 we read…

In the meantime Saul kept up his violent threats of murder against the followers of the Lord. He went to the High Priest and asked for letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he should find there any followers of the Way of the Lord, he would be able to arrest them, both men and women, and bring them back to Jerusalem.

As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you persecute,” the voice said. “But get up and go into the city, where you will be told what you must do.”

The men who were traveling with Saul had stopped, not saying a word; they heard the voice but could not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but could not see a thing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. For three days he was not able to see, and during that time he did not eat or drink anything.

10 There was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. He had a vision, in which the Lord said to him, “Ananias!”

“Here I am, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord said to him, “Get ready and go to Straight Street, and at the house of Judas ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying, 12 and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come in and place his hands on him so that he might see again.”

13 Ananias answered, “Lord, many people have told me about this man and about all the terrible things he has done to your people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who worship you.”

15 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. 16 And I myself will show him all that he must suffer for my sake.”

17 So Ananias went, entered the house where Saul was, and placed his hands on him. “Brother Saul,” he said, “the Lord has sent me—Jesus himself, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here. He sent me so that you might see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 At once something like fish scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he was able to see again. He stood up and was baptized; 19 and after he had eaten, his strength came back.

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

The role of doubt:

In Jane Austin’s novel Pride & Prejudice there is a great deal of tension between the two main characters, Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy

 

Elizabeth has strong feelings of affection for Mr Darcy but she is not willing to admit them – she is blinded by her prejudice

–         Elizabeth wrongly assumes that Mr Darcy has a bad character and her prejudice creates this armour, this defence, this shell around her

 

Mr Darcy also has strong feelings of affection for Elizabeth, which he is well aware of – unfortunately his pride gets in the way

–         He thinks himself so far above Elizabeth Bennett that he is not free to express his feelings without contempt

 

Prejudice blinds and pride binds

 

Acts 9 begins by telling us that Saul (a devout Jewish Pharisee) was on his way to Damascus to arrest the followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem

–         The same Saul who watched with approval as Stephen was murdered now fanatically persecutes the followers of Jesus himself

–         Saul was a religious extremist – a fanatic

 

The psychologist Carl Jung once wrote…

–         Fanaticism is only found in individuals who are compensating for secret doubts  [1]

–         In other words, the less convinced we are of our own position on a matter, the more strongly we are inclined to defend it

–         Our pride and prejudice acts as a shield against the truth which our secret doubts point to

 

Now some people think doubt is a bad thing and certainly too much doubt can be a bad thing

–         If we doubt ourselves all the time then we lose all confidence and find ourselves living in constant anxiety

–         But we still need some doubt

–         Doubt causes the carpenter to measure twice and cut once

–         Doubt causes the scientist to find a proof for her theories

–         Doubt causes the Christian to seek the Lord’s will in prayer and in studying the Scriptures

 

Doubt is not the same thing as fear

–         Too much doubt can lead to fear but a little bit of doubt handled in the right way can lead us closer to the truth

 

Doubt is a bit like salt

–         Too much salt and the meal is ruined

–         But just the right amount of salt brings out the flavour (or the truth)

 

Jesus said to his followers – you are the salt of the earth

–         I wonder if one of the things he meant by that was…

–         Live your life in such a distinctively good way that it causes those who don’t yet know Christ to doubt their own beliefs

–         Those seeds of doubt may start people on a journey of seeking Jesus

 

Doubt is not necessarily the enemy

–         Doubt is what motivates us to check our facts and find out the truth

–         The apparent absence of doubt suggests a proud and arrogant heart

–         While a little bit of doubt indicates humility

 

The people who built the Titanic could have done with acknowledging their secret doubts – it would have saved many lives

–         Instead they over compensated by arrogantly claiming their ship was unsinkable

 

The reason there was so much tension between Mr Darcy & Elizabeth Bennett was because they were both un-willing to acknowledge their doubts

–         Perhaps the reason Saul was so obsessed with persecuting the followers of Jesus was because deep down he had his doubts about being a Pharisee

–         Underneath it all Saul suspected that Stephen was right about Jesus

–         But Saul’s pride bound him and his prejudice blinded him

 

It appears that Stephen’s witness to the risen Jesus strengthened by his example in asking God to forgive his murderers, affected Saul profoundly

–         Stephen’s martyrdom really got under Saul’s skin and made him less certain about his previously held beliefs

 

Jesus & Saul:

In contrast to Saul’s pride & prejudice we see Jesus’ grace & truth

–         The gospel of John tells us, the Spirit of Jesus is a Spirit of grace & truth

–         Jesus embodies grace and truth – he weaves the two together

 

By appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus and asking, “…why do you persecute me?” Jesus is confronting Saul with the truth, in a gracious way

–         The most obvious truth here is that Jesus is not dead, he is risen – which makes it clear that Jesus is the Messiah of God and consequently the followers of Jesus are right, while Saul is wrong

–         All at once Saul’s pride & prejudice is undone

 

Another difficult truth for Saul to face here is that by giving Jesus’ followers a hard time Saul was actually persecuting Jesus himself, God’s Messiah

–         The followers of Jesus really are the body of Christ

–         When we suffer, Jesus suffers

–         And when we are kind to other believers, Jesus feels that kindness too

–         What was it Jesus said?

–         “What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me?”     

–         People are the real treasure

 

That Saul was wrong and that he had been persecuting God’s Messiah were painful truths to face

–         A third (more comforting) truth for Saul is that Jesus values him enough to intervene to save him

–         Jesus does not destroy Saul, even though Saul has been seeking to destroy him

–         Jesus does not threaten Saul with punishment, even though Saul has been persecuting him

–         Nor does Jesus ignore Saul

–         Instead, Jesus seeks to restore right relationship by being truthful about how Saul’s actions are affecting him

 

Jesus sees the potential (the treasure) in Saul and offers him a way out of his fanaticism

–         There’s no force or fear or coercion from Jesus at all

–         It’s like Jesus is simply giving Saul the information he needs and then trusting Saul, freeing him, to choose for himself

 

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes about his own conversion, saying…

“I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being… given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either… I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say ‘I chose’, yet it did not seem possible to do the opposite. …I was aware of no motives. …I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most I have ever done.”  [2]

 

I understand Lewis to be saying here that he turned toward God freely

–         He was not motivated by the fear of hell or the promise of heaven

–         He simply surrendered his armour, let down his defences and opened himself in trust to the truth and grace of God

 

In verse 6 Jesus gives Saul a choice wrapped up in the command…

–         “…get up and go into the city where you will be told what you must do”

–         By obeying Jesus’ command Saul shows that he believes Jesus to be raised from the dead

–         But as Saul gets up to leave he discovers that he cannot see

–         The fact that Saul was blinded points to the objective reality of the experience – Saul could not discount what happened to him – it was real

 

Verse 9 tells us that Saul was blind for three days, during which time he did not eat or drink anything

–         A total fast like this was both a sign of repentance and an act of humility in seeking God

 

Ananias & Saul:

People are treasure – that’s a statement which implies grace and truth at the same time

 

Paul Windsor, who was the principal of Carey College when we were training for ministry, had a grace & truth graph he liked to show us – sort of like this one

 

On this graph we have four quadrants as indicated by the colours yellow, blue, red and green (This being an election year I need to stress that these colours do not represent political parties – I’m not telling you who to vote for)

The yellow quadrant represents those who are low on truth and low on grace

–         Before his encounter with the risen Jesus, Saul was most likely in the yellow quadrant – full of pride and prejudice, low on grace & truth

–         Nationalism thrives in the yellow quadrant

 

The blue quadrant represents those who are high on truth & low on grace

–         They might hold the Bible in high regard and have strict moral standards but have little tolerance for those who don’t share their point of view

 

The red quadrant is those who are high on grace and low on truth

–         The reds are sort of the opposite of the blues – the reds are light on judgement and repentance, high on forgiveness and mercy

 

While the green quadrant represents those who are high on truth and grace

–         Those in the green believe that God offers salvation to everyone, although not everyone accepts it

–         God is able to forgive even the worst of sinners but His forgiveness is not automatic or unconditional – God’s offer of salvation requires a response from us

–         Forgiveness and salvation are conditional on faith, repentance and us forgiving others. As Jesus taught us to pray:

–         ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’

 

Jesus exemplifies perfect grace & truth together so you want to be in the green quadrant if you can

–         Ananias was in the green quadrant too – he embodies Jesus’ grace and truth together

 

Ananias also shows us a healthy way to handle our doubts

–         When the Lord Jesus asks Ananias to place his hands on Saul so he may see again, Ananias is a bit reluctant at first

–         He expresses his doubts in Jesus’ request saying…

–         “Lord, many people have told me about this man and about all the terrible things he has done to your people in Jerusalem…”

–         And you want me to welcome him and heal him?

 

Jesus doesn’t reprimand Ananias for airing his doubts

–         Jesus is big enough to handle our doubts and he understands Ananias’ concerns: Ananias is measuring twice before he proceeds – he is making sure he understands correctly

 

If (or when) we have doubts about something we are generally best to lay those doubts before the Lord in prayer

–         Be honest with God about what we are thinking and feeling

–         Ask God to show us where the doubt is coming from

–         Is this an unholy doubt put in our mind by the evil one to mislead us

–         Or has God put the doubt there as a caution in our spirit so that we check our facts and measure twice to avoid error

–         Either way when we are honest with God about our doubts, asking Him to clarify His will in the situation, our pride & prejudice is undone and we open ourselves to grace and truth – fanaticism doesn’t get a toe hold

 

When handled in a good way doubt actually leads us closer to the truth

–         The outcome of being honest with Jesus about his doubts is that Ananias learns more of God’s plan for Saul. Jesus responds saying…

–         Go, because I have chosen him to serve me, to make my name known to the Gentiles and kings and to the people of Israel. And I myself will show him all that he must suffer for my sake.

 

Having dealt with his doubts in an open and healthy way Ananias is now free to approach Saul without prejudice

–         And so Ananias steps out in faith and obedience to Jesus

–         He goes to Saul, lays his hands on him and says: “Brother Saul”

–         There is so much grace and truth in those words

–         ‘Brother Saul’ communicates to Saul that he is forgiven and accepted as one of the family – he is welcomed into the Christian community

–         Saul has done nothing to deserve this acceptance but grace isn’t getting what we deserve – grace is getting what we need

 

As Ananias spoke something like fish scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he was able to see again

–         It’s like Jesus has freed Saul from his armour and answered his doubts

–         After that Saul wasted no time in being baptised

 

Conclusion:

Let me tell you a story about a boy we will call Jim…

–         Jim was a quiet kid – not shy exactly, more of a deep thinker

–         He attended a Primary school where people from the local church came once a week for half an hour to talk about God and the Bible

–         In many ways it was an easy half hour – you listened to a story, answered some questions if you felt like it and did an arts and crafts type activity

–         Religious Education (or RE for short) they called it

–         Way better than long division

 

Jim’s RE teacher (Mrs McFarlane) was really nice – always remembered people’s names, always talked about her three kids, Ruby, Hope and Josh and sometimes gave them home baking

 

One evening over dinner Jim (who was about 9 years old by this stage) asked his parents why they didn’t go to church

–         “We don’t believe in God” was the reply his dad gave. His mum didn’t say anything

 

This made Jim wonder whether the Bible stories he had heard in RE were true or made up

–         He figured his dad must know best and decided that he wouldn’t believe in God either

 

One Wednesday, just after the RE lesson had finished, Jim approached Mrs McFarlane and said to her, “I don’t believe in God”

–         The classroom teacher (Mr Dench) was clearly embarrassed that Jim had said this and gave him a stern, disapproving look – as if to say, “Jim, that’s rude – you should apologise.”

 

But Mrs McFarlane just smiled and said…

–         “It’s okay. Tell me James, why do you say that?”

–         “I’m not sure exactly. Dad says that God is just pretend, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. And you were talking about being honest today so I thought I should tell you the truth.”

–         “I see”, Mrs McFarlane replied. “Well James, you don’t have to make up your mind about God just yet. You may feel differently when you are older. In the meantime I want you to know that you are welcome to continue attending my RE class if you want to. God still believes in you even if you don’t believe in him. He is big enough to handle your doubts”

 

Since it was morning break Jim left it at that and went outside to play with his mates

 

For a long time he didn’t give his conversation with Mrs McFarlane a second thought, although he did still attend her RE classes – she made a nice brownie

 

Ten years passed. Jim was 19 now and attending University

–         He had his restricted license and was driving home in the dark one night when he lost control on a corner and collected a cyclist

–         Jim was okay but the young guy on the bike was in a bad way

–         Although Jim had never been to church his parents had still raised him to do the right thing and so he never even thought about doing a runner

–         He called 111 on his cell-phone and asked for an ambulance

–         Then he waited with the cyclist until help came

 

For some reason (he wasn’t sure why) Jim remembered Mrs McFarlane’s RE class and that conversation he had with her 10 years ago where he had said he didn’t believe in God and she had said, “God still believes in you. He’s big enough to handle your doubts.”

–         In that moment, while he looked at the injuries he had caused, it didn’t make sense to not believe in God

–         He found himself saying under his breath, “God, if you are there and you really do believe in me then please make this right – let him live.”

 

Jim was a long time being interviewed by the police – they weren’t in any hurry to process him. They were being careful to do everything by the book so he wouldn’t get away with it

–         Jim kept wanting to know how the cyclist was but no one would tell him

 

When Jim got home his dad was livid – there was no grace with his dad, just plenty of hard truths

–         Jim didn’t have anything to say – he knew he was in deep trouble

–         He just stayed in his room for three days without checking Facebook once

 

Eventually the police came round and sat him down in the living room with his parents

–         The cyclist was going to live and (much to the constable’s disgust) the boy’s do-gooder parents had asked them to go easy on Jim

–         Jim would lose his licence for a while but he wouldn’t do jail time

 

Jim was relieved. He didn’t get the punishment he knew he deserved – he got the grace he needed

 

Jim asked the police for the cyclist’s name so he could visit him in hospital to say ‘sorry’ but the police wanted to check with the family first

–         A few days later they phoned back. His name was Josh – Josh McFarlane

–         Jim felt like he had been punched in the chest – could it be?

 

He took the shuttle from Kenepuru to Wellington hospital telling himself he wouldn’t stay long – just long enough to apologise and leave

–         But when he got there Josh was sleeping, so Jim sat in the chair & waited

–         Half an hour passed before Jim felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and a soft voice in his ear saying, “James, my friend. I’m so pleased you came.”

–         It was his RE teacher, Mrs McFarlane, Josh’s mum

–         There was no recrimination, no judgment, no condemnation

–         Just a kind smile and a warm hug to answer his doubts about God

 

Let us pray…

 

[1] Quoted in John Stott’s commentary on Acts, page 172.

[2] Quoted in John Stott’s commentary on Acts, page 173.

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