Download the Worship Folder & Announcements for Dec. 31
Fill out a card to record your family’s online worship attendance
For supporting the ministry of the Gospel at Salem
Worship Series: Life & Light
Worship Theme: Safe!
Lesson & Sermon Text: Acts 9:1-19 (EHV)
Music (in worship folder):
- CW 71 The Old Year Now Has Passed Away
- CW 69 Across the Sky the Shades of Night
- Martin Luther College: I Will Rise
- CW 385 Chief of Sinners Though I Be
- CW 588 Abide with Me
Pastor Jake Schram
There’s been something on my heart lately. It’s a bit hard for me to broach the subject because Christians are often awful at what I’m about to talk about. People don’t usually like to hear things they do poorly. That includes Christians. That includes me. I think Acts chapter 9 might be the best way to start talking about this. Then I will fill you in with what’s on my mind.
Saul was the absolute worst of sinners. He was a jerk. He was trash. He was a villain. I mean just look at what our text tells us. He was breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. Guess what that means? If he were living in the present day, he’d be waiting outside our church to intimidate you and to threaten your kids. He would have already contacted the government for the authority to take you to prison, burn your house down, or worse. Maybe he would even end your life. He wouldn’t care if you were a man or a woman. He equally discriminates against both. In his no-holds-barred style of persecution, he’d do anything he could get away with to put another Christian in shackles or six feet underground. He had been there when they killed poor Stephen. Stephen was one of those guys that was so nice you couldn’t help but be a little jealous. At the same time, you root for guys and girls like Stephen because they make the world a better place. Well, Saul was standing right there as Stephen was killed, urging people to throw the stones that ended Stephen’s life. Saul was not a good man. Saul was not the type of guy anyone wanted in the church. No way, no how! I’m sure there were many whispered conversations, justly putting Saul as the focus of their jokes, fury, and hate. Like said, this was not the kind of person anyone wanted in the church...But God did! “What...are you serious???” I am and God was even more serious. Let me tell you a little more of how it all went down.
Saul is on his way to Damascus, carrying out his usual unholy business of finding Christians to take as prisoners to Jerusalem. God had enough and was going to put a stop to this. God has other plans for Saul. As Saul is traveling, bright lights (way brighter than even the light of day) flash around him. A voice is suddenly heard. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul is confused, he’s currently blind from the lights, and he’s very much afraid. He’s scrambling, trying to figure out what is going on. Saul has many enemies and thinks he might be dealing with one of them. At the very least, he realizes he is dealing with someone very powerful. “Who are you, Lord?” The word “Lord” here is more like master or someone in authority. I’m not so sure Saul realizes he’s talking to God yet. He’s about to realize it! The voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Imagine all the things going through Saul’s mind. “Uh-oh. Jesus? You mean the guy I’ve devoted my whole life to erasing every trace of from the face of the earth? And now I’m blind and on my knees and at his complete mercy? This is not going to end well for me.” He is probably picturing Jesus about to deal the finishing blow. With fury and glorious vengeance he’s about to wipe out Saul’s very existence. Maybe he would disintegrate Saul on the spot. It’s no less than he deserves. The moment comes and Jesus doles out to Saul...instructions. Jesus had put an end to Saul’s sin, but not his life. Jesus had much bigger and better plans for Saul.
Every time I hear this historical account, I am reminded of something I don’t like to be reminded of. I am a lot like Saul. I may not have killed anyone, but there have been times I’ve been angry enough to feel like it. I may not have put Christians in prison, but there was a time I would have done the same thing if I could have gotten away with it. I may not travel from town to town in search of committing sin, but I sure do bring my sinful nature with me wherever I go. How about you? Do you relate with Saul? Have you threatened or screamed at your loved ones in a heated moment? Do you think you are always right, even when you are obviously wrong? Do you try to get your way, regardless of the consequences, regardless of what God wants in your life? Even as I am saying this, I bet some of you are shifting the blame, thinking, “I know someone else who fits that description more than I do.” When it comes down to it, we realize we all have something in common with Saul. We are all sinners.
Sin has made us its slave and we have welcomed it. God should drag us out and put an end to us. He has every right to. It would be righteous judgment for Him to leave us to our own devices as we rush at breakneck speed to eternal damnation. As Jesus looks at us and is about to pronounce the foregone judgment of hell, he instead gives us instructions on how to live, i.e. what is best for us and those around us. How can he do that? We’ve already proven we don’t always follow them. Jesus can do this because he has changed the judgment, the verdict given to us. When Jesus died for all of our sins, he took away the punishment due to each of us. But he wasn’t done yet. He didn’t want you to be a slave to sin and so he sent his Holy Spirit to work in you. He defeated sin on two fronts. He wiped away your sins so they cannot be held against you. Then he created a new person in you. The Holy Spirit allows you to follow his loving commands. You are no longer a sinner in God’s eyes. You are saint because of Jesus’ work. Whenever you sin, it’s forgiven in Christ and you can start fresh in the Holy Spirit. You are no longer a slave to sin, but a child of Christ.
In our text, Saul is having a hard time understanding this. He’s dealing with the guilt and pain of everything he’s done. He’s not eating or drinking at all. He’s being haunted by his past. I’m sure the Christian community wasn’t helping. How could they forgive all the things Saul had done? Some of them had lost friends and relatives because of Saul. To accept Saul into their fold would have been unimaginable. Meanwhile, a follower of Jesus named Ananias was in Damascus. The Lord had instructions for him too. “Ananias,” God calls to him. Ananias, with the Holy Spirit creating that new person within him, is ready to serve. The Lord then tells him to go find a guy named Saul and to go help him. Ananias is like, “Wait. Saul? No. no. no. no, Lord. You don’t want to do that. I’ve heard about this guy. He hates you. He hates your people. All he wants to do is arrest and kill us all. God, I think you may have finally made a mistake. Are you sure you want me to help him?” I like to think at this moment, God raises one holy eyebrow towards Ananias. Then he sets Ananias straight. “Not only do I want you to help him, but this Saul is going to proclaim my name to the ends of the earth. He’s even going to share God’s Word with kings. He’s going to write more books of the Bible than anyone else. Now go to him!” Remember, Ananias has the Holy Spirit working in him so he is able to follow God’s instructions despite his own judgment. He knows God is right even if he doesn’t feel that way. So Ananias goes. He finds Saul, forgives him for his past sins, and calls him, “Brother.” He then heals Saul’s sight and baptizes him.
Did you notice something in that last passage? There is not a single word of accusation. There is no screaming. There is no throwing of past sins in Saul’s face. Saul is free to confess anything he has ever done because everything he has ever done has been forgiven in Jesus. In an instant, he has gone from chief of sinners to “brother.” He is part of the Christian family. Sure, Saul has a lot of learning to do. He has a lot of growing to do. However, he is simply included in the family of believers, despite his sins. He is accepted as one of their own and has a safe place to do that learning and growing.
We’ve now come full circle to what I really want to talk about. Now that we’ve heard Saul’s account from Scripture, I think we can talk about it. We as Christians often aren’t very accepting of people. We take one look at someone who has struggled with homosexuality or pornography or alcoholism and we rail on them. We pound them into the ground with our words. We make them the butt of our jokes. All this, while we carry out our own just as damning, but less taboo sins. Or maybe we carry out the exact same sins we are so quick to condemn, but no one has caught us yet. In doing so, we’ve created an unsafe atmosphere to confess and grow in. “But Pastor, they are sinners!” It’s true, but so are you! One sin of any kind puts us at the mercy of our God. Imperfect people cannot expect to get into a perfect heaven. Your sins may look different, but the result is the same. Everybody puts up a big fat zero on the scoreboard of earning eternal life. When it comes to salvation, none of us is any better than anyone else. I hope you know the rest of the story. That by God’s mercy and Jesus’ death, all of those sins are wiped away. Every single one of them. And so it makes me so very sad when I hear someone say something like, “I’m usually very forgiving, but I can’t forgive something like that.” It’s a shame, because God forgave something like that. It’d be nice if we could all be a little more Godlike. The Holy Spirit works in us so we can.
When we rattle on about specific sins and hunt people down who commit them so we can constantly berate, that’s not helping. It makes people afraid to confess their sins or get the help and support they need from their Christian family to get out of that sin. Think if that would have happened to Saul. Saul knew what he had done was wrong. He wasn’t eating or drinking and was hopelessly guilt-ridden. Ananias knew Saul had already felt the wrath of the law and the weight of his sins. Thus, he extended a helping hand and the Lord’s forgiveness. The Lord’s love shining through Ananias was just what Saul needed. Saul’s love for the Lord would shine through him for the rest of his life.
Let me give you an example that might be uncomfortably real for some of you. A study in 2006 (Internet Filter Review) stated about half of Christian households struggle with pornography. I’m not accusing or trying to draw out anyone dealing with this particular sin, but in all likelihood someone in this church struggles with pornography. That’s not exactly the sort of thing that is easy to talk about. But can you imagine what would happen if a person could bring it up safely? And not just that sin, but any sin. The sins are still wrong and bad, but then people could hear from their own Christian brothers and sisters that they are forgiven in Christ. They could find people to hold them accountable, others who have struggled with the same sin and have helpful hints and tips for leaving that sin behind. People wouldn’t have to fight sin alone. As a family, we can help encourage and strengthen each other. Jesus told the world, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (Luke 5:31).” We can help doctor the spiritual health of one another.
I’m sure most of you know what it feels like to be alone. Maybe especially this past year. You may have been cut off from others and felt lonely. You may have had failures that drove you down in the dumps. The Devil loves those one-on-one matchups. But God tells us we are never alone. Not only will God never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), but he has given you a family to confess to, others who struggle with many of the same things you do. Jesus tells us we are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11). What a blessing we can be to one another.
God has created a safe place for us. We can confess our sin to him and he remembers it no more. “What sin? I don’t remember any sin.” Christ died for those sins, even the ones that are hard to talk about. Those sins don’t have to have power over you anymore. God has also granted us the Holy Spirit so we as a family of believers can show the safety that comes with the LORD. This place is safe for sinners. This place is safe for me!