Last week I preached in church for the first time. My job involves speaking to large groups of people, yet the nerves still set in, amplified by pictures that wouldn’t work and audio that was down. As the person who introduced me explained, having had a classroom next to mine he was sure I would be loud enough. I was. It was daunting, an honour, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
To prepare I decided that, alongside prayer, meditation and reading around the passage, I would listen to other people’s talks on the subject and get (steal) some ideas. There are pretty much no talks on this passage. The passage before and after Acts 9v19b-31 have talks aplenty – but not this bit. Writing was an evolution from feeling I had nothing to say, to far too much; but what I came back to was who this was really about; and it wasn’t a) me or even b) Saul, the story’s central character. I found it extremely difficult, but also a fascinating challenge as I explored the Biblical times, motives and exactly what kind of basket was mentioned in the passage (think wicker laundry basket).
An unexpected element of the preach was all the people I spoke to about it who never actually heard it – of which maybe you’re one. I chatted with the writing group at work about leaving out a lot and choosing what to keep, I left a wedding – well not early – but so I could get some sleep before the day, explaining why I had to go. In all these discussions I summarised the main points in response to the natural question ‘so what are you speaking on?’. It’s a good challenge to have and focuses your mind on what you are actually saying, as well as getting to share it as a story.
The summary? God changes people’s lives no matter what they’ve done. God’s love is such good news that they live their lives for Him telling everyone this good news, without worrying what will happen to them personally. So why don’t I do that?
Maybe you believe that or maybe you don’t, but in case you’re interested in what I actually said, here it is below…
*some specific details and illustrations to location and church have been edited.
**I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine the enthusiastic gesticulation and booming teacher voice, but there was plenty of both.
The worst lives can change.
This morning we’re continuing our series on Amazing Acts and I know that 5-11s have been looking at the stories of this particular man.
The person central to our story is Saul. Now for a long time, Saul, who is later on known by the name of Paul, was one of my least favourite Bible characters. The reason for this came from 2 Corinthians 11v24-28… “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, 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, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
Saul got shipwrecked not once, not twice, but three times. Saul didn’t just get picked on, he was practically killed. Saul seemed like the most super spiritual, and quite frankly most irritating, person ever. The closest I’ve come to being shipwrecked is when Matt tried to waterlog my kayak on church camp last year and the closest I’ve come to death is jumping off a tree at Go Ape when I did actually think I may die. It took me a while to realise but I had completely missed the point of Saul’s story. What this story in Acts tells us is that even the worst lives can change and how those changes apply to us here and now.
First of all, we need to remember what Saul was really good at and what he enjoyed up to this point:
- holding coats while Christians are killed;
- arresting Christians;
- finding Christians to get them arrested;
- ‘breathing out murderous threats’ (Acts 9v1).
The Bible doesn’t say he killed any Christians, but he was certainly out to get them.
And the first thing that changes about Saul that we see in this passage is what he says:
“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 living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9v19b-22)
If you had to tell someone three sentences about yourself, what would they be? Mine might be…
- I love writing.
- I work in London.
- I am a Christian youth leader.
I imagine Saul’s top three sentences might have been something like this:
- I hate Christians.
- Christians should all be in prison.
- My favourite thing to do is arrest Christians.
But suddenly Saul has started saying…
- I love Jesus!
- Everyone needs to follow Jesus!
- Jesus can save you – become a Christian!
Everyone is ‘astonished’ and ‘baffled’ by Saul – and I’m not surprised. Just like you might not believe someone who often lied to you, they can’t believe what Saul is saying. It’s so different from what he was saying before.
If I was Saul I might have waited a little while, let this memory fade before I start speaking, but Saul doesn’t wait for the fact everyone hates him to die down, he speaks about Jesus AT ONCE.
To illustrate this, I’ve stolen this image from a book I’ve read recently. Imagine someone you knew was about to drive to a destination. You know there are two roads. One is overgrown and hard work, but it gets you there safely. The other road is lovely and wide, but half way there it drops off a cliff… Would you warn them?
Of course you would! You would phone them, you would run after the car waving your arms to stop them and make sure they take the right road.
And Saul had suddenly discovered the right road! He had found a path to eternal life! To a future with hope! He wanted to make sure everyone knew which road led to heaven! Why wouldn’t he share this good news straight away?! How often is this our attitude? We have this great news, but we sit on it and let fear and embarrassment get in the way of sharing this path to Jesus and an eternity in Heaven.
So…presumably, because Saul was telling them such good news and how to be saved, everyone listened carefully right? Wrong.
The next three verses say this…
“After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.” (Acts 9v23-25)
The next thing that changes is what Saul does…
For the first time, Saul is running away – this is the first time that lots of people want to kill him. But it’s definitely not the last. They want to kill him because of what he is saying, just like he wanted to arrest people for saying these exact things before.
Saul starts to trust the people around him. I want you to imagine there is a line across the room here, from yes to no. (The children and the youth group took part here.)
Would you…lend your pencil to someone who broke your last one?
Hang out with someone who likes the same music as you?
Give your favourite soft toy to someone who had pulled theirs apart?
Trust someone who arrested your friends?
This was the dilemma the disciples had…Saul believed Jesus was the Son of God, wanted people to become Christians but had a previous employment history as a Christian hunter.
Everyone is astonished, they can’t believe it. Saul’s life has done a 180 and now he’s telling everyone about Jesus. But now the Jews, who liked him before, want to kill him…
So to help the transition, perhaps Saul could just arrest a few Christians here and there, not as many as before, gradually take it down to nothing while he ups the preaching. But Saul’s actions had to live out what he was saying, otherwise people wouldn’t believe him. They were confused because his behaviour now was so different.
Saul was full of the Holy Spirit. His behaviour changed because he now knew Jesus. I read recently about Justin Welby’s response to becoming a Christian, wasn’t that he didn’t want Jesus in his life, but that becoming a Christian might stop him having fun. When you know Jesus, your actions change because you want to please him. How often do we use that as an excuse? People won’t be interested in Jesus because they’ll have to change what they’re doing. That’s not our business – that’s God’s. We are called to share this good news and to act accordingly so that others can see Jesus in us.
So instead of chasing Christians, Saul is now dodging Jews who want to kill him because they disagree with what he says.
One way that Saul stays the same though, is that he never lets fear get the better of him.
So Saul takes a risk because he needs to.
Here are the walls of Damascus.
They’re pretty high, and if I thought jumping out a tree attached to wires that can take 20 tonnes was scary..this is another thing altogether. Here we have the type of basket Saul might have been lowered in. You would have to trust someone a lot to let them lower you in this. I did plan to use the scaffolding and we could have practiced lowering our pastor from the roof as an illustration but sadly we sold the scaffolding. I don’t know about you but I would have been terrified of falling. I would have been terrified of everyone threatening me. Would I have done what Saul did? Why does he do it? Why doesn’t he just go and live quietly and avoid the entire problem? Let’s see…
“When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9v26-31)
Saul’s driving force has changed. Where he was driven by hatred, he’s now driven by love. Love for God, and through the Holy Spirit God’s love for people.
The distance from Damascus where Saul became a Christian, and Jerusalem is equivalent to about 2 and a half hours drive if you don’t get stuck in traffic on the M25 or have to do 50mph through roadworks, all in a comfortable car with air conditioning. If you were to walk, according to Google maps it’s approximately 41 hours, with no Costa stops. Saul must have walked for a few days to reach Jerusalem. When he gets there, everyone is pleased to see him right? Nope, he’s just left a load of people who wanted to kill him to find that those preaching God’s word are scared of him, and that here are a load of other people want to kill him.
Why doesn’t Saul give up? Saul knows who his life belongs to, and he’s not afraid to lose it. What matters is people hearing about Jesus. That’s why Saul wasn’t boasting before. His life was no longer his to lose. His focus was God.
Does what you do and what you say show you’re a Christian? What motivates you? Are you being driven by God or by your own way of doing things? Are you held back by fear of what could happen, or what others might think?
Saul doesn’t let anything stop him. He might be terrified, but he doesn’t let that stop him from sharing the good news of Jesus with anyone who will listen.
Nothing should stop us from telling people about Jesus, not fear, not embarrassment. Jesus is the best news we’ve ever heard – he loves us. Maybe we’ve forgotten just how good that news is.
Maybe you don’t feel you’ve behaved in the way God wants. But if Saul was on his way to arrest Christians, and Jesus wanted him as a friend, don’t you think he wants you too? Don’t you think he wants your friends to know Jesus? How else will they know unless you tell them? How else will they know unless you live it out?
Maybe you’ve done things you’re not proud of and need to say sorry, maybe you feel like you’ve turned your back on God and you need to stop running away from him, or maybe you want a little bit of Saul’s boldness, even if you don’t want his death threats. If any of these are you, if you want to know Jesus more and share him then we’d love to pray for you. Please be brave and come to the front, I’d love to pray for you and I know our young people are great at praying too. Let’s pray…