How many times have we broken promises to ourselves? Diets. Exercise routines. Quitting smoking. Stopping drinking. Spending more time with children. Being more generous. Leading a more God pleasing life.
Jesus explains our dilemma succinctly, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
The more aware of our own weaknesses we become the more discouraged we are tempted to be. And if you’re in trouble… think about the people around you. Do you really believe that the people in your life who grieve you the most, who frustrate you to no end, who seem to always work against you – the ones you’ve been working on, or praying for or doing your best to avoid – will they ever truly turn over a new leaf?
Do people ever really change?
Today we hear about the world’s most amazing transformation. The day that Saul became Paul. You know him as the guy whose name is on our church.
Saul as Scripture teaches us was a devout Jew who helped lead a movement to violently persecute the early Christians. We first find Saul at the murder of Stephen. While we don’t know every detail it is fair to suggest that Paul was an influential player in a plan to kill those who were preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This account in Acts says Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”
On his way to Damascus Saul is confronted by a bright light and the voice of God. It was a force so startling that it knocked him to the ground. It left his fellow travelers speechless as Jesus’ verbally confronts Paul about his actions.
Saul – Why are you persecuting me?
In the encounter Saul was blinded and told to continue on to Damascus where he was to wait for instructions. It was there that a man named Ananias was sent by the Lord. Through the touch of Ananias’ hand and the proclamation of God’s word Jesus gives new sight to Saul, who now filled with the Holy Spirit is immediately baptized and sent to preach the Good News, now as the Apostle Paul.
Paul would go on to preach and teach with no equal in the history of the world. Jesus said Paul would suffer for the sake of Jesus name. Boy did he suffer! Paul was imprisoned multiple times, run out of town, beaten and they tried to kill him… while he pressed on to reach everyone possible with the Gospel. Despite the persecution he faces, 13 New Testament books are attributed to Paul. There is no more prolific or effective missionary in the history of the world.
Saul – a true enemy of the church, has a butt-kicking interaction with Jesus and is turned completely 180 degrees. Paul is a new man.
And this shows us that God is in the business of total transformations. And that’s a very good thing for us!
We may not all have wrap sheets like Saul, but we all require a total turnaround.
We come into this world gripped in sin. That’s the reality of living in a fallen world. As a result, - we are born staring death in the face. Short of an encounter with Christ we are headed to hell as even our best attempts at living the holy life don’t cut it.
Thankfully Jesus still comes to us. In our baptism like Saul we are filled with the Holy Spirit, connected to Christ and given life as a new creation.
As we hear His word God shapes our heart and reshapes our life.
And as we all know God places people and moments into our life to bring our focus back to where it needs to be – on Him.
Yours may be the loss of a job. Death of a friend. A hardship. A painful suffering. Just like Saul some of us have been thrown on our backside so that Jesus can turn us around. For others of us these holy confrontations aren’t as obvious. Saul wasn’t the only one transformed in that encounter. Ananias was a faithful Christian, but when Jesus asks him to go to Saul, he really doesn’t want to do it. “I’ve heard about this guy,” is Ananias’ response, but Jesus doesn’t withdraw His request.
When Ananias musters up the courage to follow Jesus, He is able to be used to transform Saul into Paul, to remove the scales from his eyes and witness His new sight. Ananias goes from being a believer sitting quietly on the sideline to having the miraculous happen through him. He is able to go to the man he saw as an enemy and call him brother. What if God were to give you the ability to see all of your enemies differently? But what about the user who gets clean and then goes back to using? What about the cheater who toes the line and then falls into another affair? What about the newfound Christian who loses her spark and falls away from the Church?
Were they ever really changed?
God’s transformation in our lives isn’t a one-time deal. The Apostle Paul didn’t go on to lead the perfect life. He was a difficult man. Paul’s temper got the best of him on more than one occasion during his missionary journeys.
At one point Paul records his own frustration over the weakness of his flesh. In Romans 7:15 he admits, I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.
The Christian life is not the perfect life. It isn’t about the pursuit of better behavior. It isn’t just about being a better dad, or mom, or spouse, or neighbor. The Christian life is believing that through the power of the Holy Spirit people can change. They can change every day as God’s mercy comes new every morning. Today I’m a new man forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit empowered to live the life that God wants me to live.
I believe that God gives me the strength to accomplish His will for my life. Because I know that Jesus is the change.
The change isn’t simply a better look, or a better attitude, or a couple steps headed in the right direction. We are changed through God’s forgiveness and restoration that is ever before us because of what Christ has done for us in His death and resurrection and what He continues to do.
And because of Jesus your baptism isn’t a one-time ordeal. Baptism brings daily change. The Christian life isn’t about sinless living, but instead about freedom from sin. Sin can no longer control you and through your faith in Jesus sin will no longer take you to hell.
We are now forgiven forgivers. And therefore to live today as part of God’s kingdom on earth means to be a believer in second chances, to see that the lost can be found and that the losers will eventually win. To see my enemy as my brother. And to see myself as someone who was lost but now is found.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus used the church to transform Saul. He called on a faithful believer in Ananias. He sent the Holy Spirit, He had Saul baptized and placed him in the company of the disciples to be encouraged and mentored.
This is still Jesus’ design for His Church today. Church exists to change people. To transform lives of hopelessness and despair into lives that draw their strength from the promises of God.
We come to church to be reminded of God’s love for us. Even when we aren’t feeling love from anyone else around us. We come to hear His words of forgiveness and to receive his gifts through Holy Communion.
You are the Church. And so God is calling you to speak His truth into all the situations of your life. As you do, some will be thrown to their butt. Some will be encouraged to step out in faith. In this God will restore them, He will transform them, He will change them. Do people ever really change? Well, not on their own. But with Jesus change can happen every day.
Pastor Mark Ball