Sunday, January 25, 2004

Conversion of St. Paul or Third Sunday of Epiphany
Acts 9:1-22
Psalm 67
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 21:10-19
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

God will bless us; And all the ends of the earth shall fear him.

This week we again run into the situation of having two excellent sets of lessons. Which do we use? To add to the difficulty is the fact that the Gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany makes little sense without hearing the lesson from the Third Sunday. Today's Midweek Oasis will ramble through both sets of lessons, perhaps finding a connection between Paul's conversion and Jesus' words at the beginning of His own ministry.

God's Word has a way of cutting to our hearts, bringing out emotions that we may not even know are buried there. God's Word convicts us. He causes us to see into the very depths of our souls. When we look very closely at ourselves, we realize how deeply we have grieved our Lord by our rebellion. We grieve with Him, knowing that there is no one but ourselves to blame for our separation from our Creator. Though in this world we may seem blessed, prosperous and successful, the separation from God will lead to nothing but death. Through God's Word we realize that we are nothing, that we have nothing without Him.

Nehemiah learned that Jerusalem had fallen and was in ruins while in exile. He asked King Artaxerxes to allow him to return to rebuild the city. Though Nehemiah faced opposition from the neighboring nations and the intense poverty of the Jews, the wall was rebuilt and gates rehung in just fifty-two days. The people - men, women and children - gathered together to hear the reading of the Law of Moses, something that had been ignored for some time. For many hours, the people stood in the square and heard the Word read and explained. It cut to their hearts and they grieved.

In this lesson, Nehemiah tells the people not to mourn and weep. "This day is holy unto Jehovah your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:9-10, ASV)

Yes, God's Word cuts to our hearts and convicts of our sin. The people knew they had forgotten the Lord their God and they wept, but this was not a day for mourning. It was a day of joy because there is much more to God's Word than conviction. In His story we also hear the promises of God that He will be with us always. We hear of His faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. He calls us into a relationship, intimate and real. With conviction comes forgiveness; mourning is overcome by His joy.

Saul persecuted Christians. He tells us in the passage from Galatians that he was zealous for the traditions of his fathers, doing everything he could to put a stop to the Way. He was successful, advancing quickly through the hierarchy of the religion of the Jews. He was on his way to Damascus, after having been involved in the stoning of Steven. He had with him letters giving him the authority to destroy the Church and any who were following the teachings of this Jesus of Nazareth.

Then, he was stopped on the road by a blinding light and the words of the Master. "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" (Acts 9:4b, ASV) He heard the Word of God and was cut to the heart. "Who art thou, Lord?" he asked, knowing any voice from heaven must be from God. "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: but rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do." Saul did as he was told and fasted for three days until Ananais came to the home of Simon to lay hands on him for healing and so that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Saul was baptized and immediately began preaching the truth about Jesus Christ.

I wonder how we would react if we suddenly went blind while walking down the street. We would probably take a trip to the doctor, get a C.A.T. scan or visit with a therapist. We assume voices from heaven are chemical imbalances in our brains or an overactive imagination. Paul went where he was told to go, fasted and prayed while he waited. Through this experience, Paul, who had been zealous for the teachings of men, became a preacher of that which is only given by God. He persecuted those who believed, but eventually suffered incredible persecution. He would not have it easy, though he was chosen from birth for his role in God's Kingdom. He would be arrested, beaten, imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel.

You would think all this would be a call for anyone to mourn and grieve, but Paul saw the joy of God's salvation in Jesus Christ. He willingly suffered for the sake of all those who came to know Christ through his preaching. The experience on the road to Damascus could have made Paul feel sorry for himself, after all it would change everything. He could not see, he was being called to go against everything he knew to be right and true. But as Nehemiah told the Jews, "…neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength."

Jesus warned His disciples this would happen. In Luke 21, Jesus tells them about the signs of the end of the age. "Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 and there shall be great earthquakes, and in divers places famines and pestilences; and there shall be terrors and great signs from heaven." But that is not the worst that will happen. "But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you, and shall persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name's sake."

Nehemiah faced similar persecution. The neighboring kings tried to convince the Jews not to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They tried to discredit Nehemiah and intimidate the people. In the end, the wall was rebuilt and the Law was read, and the enemies knew that it all had happened because God was with the Jews.

Psalm 67 is a prayer for God's blessing. We begin by hearing a plea for God's grace, for God to bless His people. The reason for this prayer is not self centered, or even centered on the needs of men, but rather so that God and His salvation might be known among the nations. The psalmist's hope is that all people will praise Him, that they will sing for joy because of His mercy and grace. God blesses so that the blessed will be a blessing. With every blessing He is glorified. "And all the ends of the earth shall fear him." (Psalm 67:17b, ASV)

Fear of God is much different than fear of the world. Fear of the things in this world can be positive or negative. We react to fear with defensive action - run away or fight. Those moments of fear can actually save our lives by causing us to react to our situation in a way that will avoid a greater evil. However, fear can also bring harm. Irrational phobias limit our living. Fear can cause us to do harm to another because we will do anything to gain control over the situation. Fear is something that must be understood and used appropriately.

Those who fear God are not those who will run away or fight. The fear of God causes one to honor Him and live their lives in accordance to His will because of their reverence for Him. God blesses those who fear Him so that they will live in a manner that brings honor to His name and others into the right kind of fear. Without His Word, we fear Him as we fear the things in this world. His Word changes the way we see things - ourselves, the world and even God. Paul's roadside experience changed his understanding of God. Before, Jesus was a scourge, a plague on the Jewish people. The Way needed to be stopped. When Paul heard the Word of God - Jesus - he was convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

There is that confession we heard about last week. That confession is the bond that holds us all together. It is the one thing that brings unity among the people called by Christ's name. At one time Saul was willing to do anything to stop that faith, and then suddenly one day the Word of God changed him. Peter and Paul were not the same. They had different gifts and were called to different ministries - Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. They had their disagreements about the way things should be done. Yet, they were bound together by the Holy Spirit and one confession of faith, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Paul wrote the Corinthians about the body of Christ. "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, ASV) All who hear the Word of God and believe are bound together no matter whom they are. Each is blessed to be a blessing - given gifts to share the Word of God with others so that the blessings of God will flow to others. We need each other; we can't do it on our own. Peter needed Paul and Paul needed Peter. The Church needed both men because God willed it to be that way.

While the blessings are shared, so is the suffering. "And whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." Just as Nehemiah suffered persecution, so too did Paul and the Apostles suffer at the hands of those who wished to stop the Word of God from being spoken. Jesus never promised our Christian life would be a rose garden. He warned that we would be persecuted and imprisoned. But He also promised that He would not leave us alone. We will be given the Word of God in our hearts and in our mouths to speak before them. "Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate beforehand how to answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand or to gainsay." (Luke 21:14-15, ASV)

Jesus did not suffer any less. Early in His ministry He went home. While there He taught in the synagogue as was the practice in those days. He read from the book of Isaiah, a chapter that prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. When He completed the reading, He rolled up the scroll and said, "Today hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears." As we will hear next week, they spoke well of Him and were amazed that a carpenter's son could speak of God's grace. Yet, they never accepted Him even though He was their own.

We may not experience Christ as Saul did on the road to Damascus. We might never know the opportunities or have the gifts with which Peter and Paul were blessed. It is unlikely that we will suffer the same type of persecution that the apostles experienced in those early days of the Church. The one thing that is certain, the thing that binds us together with all believers throughout time and space, is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and that He is with us in our life of faith. He blesses us to be a blessing, gives us the gifts to share the Gospel, puts the Word of God into our own mouths so that we too might share the faith that brings repentance, forgiveness and salvation.

He cuts to our heart, His Word reaches into the very depths of our souls convicting us of our sin and causing us to grieve our separation from Him. Even more so, however, His Word calls us to be one of His own, bestowing upon us the grace of God that we might be saved from ourselves, gifted for service to glorify Him in this world. Thanks be to God.

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