Sermon for 07-18-10: “Can You Hear Me Now? Part 2: Paul”

July 22, 2010

Scripture Text: Galatians 1:11-24

The following is the original manuscript of the sermon.

A couple of months ago, we had to put our dog Presley to sleep. Very sad—unusually sad for me, and I’ve certainly lost other pets over the years. Some of you who’ve known me only since I’ve been at this church might be surprised by this admission, because I often said mean things about him when he got older. I lost my patience with him. I yelled at him a lot. If it’s any consolation, in his old age, he had gone completely deaf, so it’s not like he heard me! He had just become increasingly high-maintenance in his old age—he would do annoying and disobedient things that he didn’t do when he was younger. Guess he figured he was too old to care anymore. More than a few times in the past couple of years I’ve thought, “I’m never having another dog!”

I’m only going to share this with you because Lisa and the kids are out of town. You can’t tell them I said this, OK? A couple of weeks ago, Lisa and I were at the greenway, and we passed a woman who had a little Springer Spaniel puppy. And I thought, “I think I want a new doggy!”  Well, we’ll see…

Presley and I jogged probably over a thousand miles together when he was younger. At our previous church down south in Forsyth, Georgia, some parishioners had a large pond in their backyard. We would jog by their house almost daily. Presley had never been swimming before, and I knew that English Springer Spaniels are supposed to love swimming. They’re made for it. They have webbing between their paws that help them glide through the water. Their ears are made to keep water out. So one day when we were jogging by, I thought, “I bet Presley would love to swim in that pond.” I walked him by leash over to the edge of the pond. He wasn’t interested. I threw a tennis ball onto the water. He just watched it float away. He clearly didn’t understand the concept of swimming.

I tried a few more times to get him interested to no avail. I thought, “This is ridiculous! The dog should want to swim.” I walked the dog onto our neighbors’ dock. I took the leash off of him. Presley walked to the far edge of the dock and was watching with interest some ducks swimming in the distance. He had no idea what I was about to do… I crept up behind him. Reached underneath his hind legs and upended him, face-first, into the water. He’d have to swim now, I thought. And I watched his blurry brown-and-white image sink down, down into the water—getting smaller and smaller.

You know, it was probably no more than five seconds or so, but a lot of thoughts can cross your mind during that time.

My first thought was, “Hmm… The water is deeper than I thought it was.” My second thought was, “I didn’t think he’d sink like that!” My third thought was, “Dogs are born knowing how to swim, right?” My fourth thought was, “How am I going to explain to my kids that I drowned their dog?” But then it didn’t matter… He bobbed his head out of the water and swam… Just as if he’d been doing it his entire life! He swam way out into the lake in the direction of the ducks. He swam back to the shore. He swam as if it were the most natural thing in the world—because, of course, it was. Presley was born to swim—he didn’t know it, though, until I gave him a push.

Well, sometimes we need a little push, even to do the things we were born to do. I’ve been involved with our church’s job transition ministry, which meets monthly to help people who are unemployed find new leads, polish their interviewing skills, and learn to network more effectively—more than anything provide encouragement and support during a difficult time. My sincere prayer is that out of this difficult experience they could find work that would better align with their unique set of gifts, skills, and abilities. Maybe getting laid-off is just the push they need to do the thing they were born to do. Well, I hope so!

Paul says in today’s scripture that he was born to do this ministry—to be the apostle to the Gentiles, to spread the Christian faith all over the Roman Empire. He was set apart by God before birth to do it.

Well, it certainly didn’t seem that way early on. As he says in Galatians he had been a violent persecutor of Christians. He was trying to squelch the Christian movement. The Book of Acts tells us that he was on the road to Damascus with marching orders to arrest Jewish Christians, and Jesus Christ stopped him dead in his tracks. Paul saw a light and fell to the ground. He heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul”—he was called Saul before his conversion—“why do you persecute me?” Paul said, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”1 How ironic that this fierce and violent persecutor of the early Church would become its greatest apostle!

Paul was born to be this apostle. This means that when Paul was a  young man being tutored as a strict Pharisee under a famous rabbi named Gamaliel, God was with him, working through that experience. When he enthusiastically adhered to the strictest interpretations and most minute details of the Law, teaching others to do the same, and opposing those who failed to live up to his standards, God was him, working through that experience. When out of a misplaced zeal he violently persecuted the early Christians, God was with him, working through that experience.

When God called Paul, in other words, this call did not represent a sudden departure, an abrupt change of plans… God was not improvising. Instead, from the beginning, God was working through Paul’s background, experiences, his corrupted free will and at times sinful choices in order to shape Paul into the apostle that he would later become. From the very beginning of time, indeed, for all eternity, God had this plan for Paul’s life—not because Paul was anything special, but because God was gracious to him.

What I want us to reflect on is that Paul’s experience answering God’s call is not an exception. Remember, I said last week that all of us Christians—by virtue of our faith and baptism—are called by God. That means that like Paul we’re all set apart before birth to do in our own way the same thing that Paul did. We are called to be witnesses. We are called, in other words, to love God by loving and serving others, pointing them in the direction of Jesus, who lived, suffered, died, and was raised from the dead so that all the world would have an opportunity to be reconciled to God—to be saved, to experience eternal life, to experience first-hand this life-changing love of God in Christ for whom we are created and through whom we continue to have life.

If—before we were born—God knew us and had a plan for us, that means our lives have meaning and purpose. Our lives are directed toward a goal that has been set by God—not because we’re anything special, but because God is that gracious to us.

Think about what this means…

Lisa, my wife, is a master puzzle-builder. She loves jigsaw puzzles. She likes 1,000-piece puzzles at a minimum—anything less she could do in her sleep. But 2,000 pieces are more her speed. Think about all these tiny, jumbled-together, seemingly random pieces fitting together seamlessly—not being forced to fit, but fitting perfectly, with their partners—small parts coming together to make a whole. Order out of chaos—a beautiful picture emerging very slowly, through fits and starts, over time. Our cat, Peanut, by contrast, is a master puzzle-destroyer! He will occasionally intervene to undo much of the progress that Lisa has made—shattering parts of the puzzle, pushing them off the table to the floor. He’s been known to carry off pieces of the puzzle in his mouth. And we know this because they have little teeth imprints on the pieces! But Lisa is undeterred. Once she starts she is going to finish that puzzle no matter what it takes! Her goal is to make something beautiful, and she will accomplish that goal one way or another.

God has a goal for  our lives and for our world—and God will accomplish it. You know how you look at the puzzle box to see the goal—the finished picture? God has shown us the finished picture in the resurrection! That’s our future! In a sense, it’s already finished, even if we don’t always see it that way! It’s not up to us to bring about the future or make it successful. God’s got that under control. The future is in God’s hands, not ours. And knowing this ought to help us cope with adversity; with trials; with suffering; with whatever setbacks come our way.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is dealing with a major setback. In Paul’s absence, very persuasive and articulate people have come from Jerusalem—the center of the Christian movement at the time—and they’ve come into these young churches that Paul started, and they have sown great confusion among these new Gentile believers. They’ve told them that Paul—the guy who first brought them the gospel—had it all wrong. If they wanted to be fully Christian, they would have to first become Jewish—for men, that meant they had to get circumcised. They said that Paul was only a second-hand apostle anyway. He didn’t know Jesus when Jesus was living on earth. And what he knew about the gospel he learned from the from the real apostles in Jerusalem—and he even misunderstood what they were saying!

They were calling into question everything Paul stood for—the very reason he was doing what he was doing. Their attack was personal and ugly. Yet Paul stood firm—even when it meant standing alone. And Paul was O.K. with that—because that’s how much he believed in his call.

I wonder how I would do if I were Paul. You see, like Paul, I really want to be faithful to Jesus, but I also want to be well-liked! I’m not comfortable when people are unhappy with me. It sometimes causes me to doubt myself. I want to make people happy! I want to please people! I want to avoid conflict! I want to do the easy thing instead of the difficult thing! I want life to be smooth-sailing. I crave comfort, convenience, safety, and security. More than anything, I want to be… happy. And I guess the bottom line is that I’m worried that this living my life centered on Jesus Christ and directed toward other people isn’t the way to get there!

Paul, by contrast, doesn’t seem nearly as interested in personal happiness as I am. Because, make no mistake, the problems he describes in Galatians are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul quickly lists some of the many ways in which he’s suffered for the sake of his call: he was beaten many times on many occasions; stoned and left for dead; imprisoned many times; shipwrecked; lost at sea; left hungry and thirsty without food; left cold and naked; in constant physical danger from many different people. Ultimately, we know he was executed in Rome.

Were these happy experiences for Paul? No! And yet…

Do you imagine, as Paul was led by the Romans to his execution—after all these years of struggle and strife—he thought, if only I hadn’t answered that call? No way!

Do you think that by answering the call, Paul experienced a lasting kind of happiness and a deeper kind of joy than he would ever have known otherwise? You bet!

How could it be any other way? After all, in answering the call, Paul was doing the very thing he was born to do!

What about you? What were you born to do? Will you say “yes” to Jesus—when he calls you, whenever he calls you, wherever he calls you—and find out?

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