Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 2, 2020

Text: Acts 26:12-18

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Dear Friends in Christ, He rules the world in truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love… Those words may seem out of place on an air-conditioned August weekend, but you probably recognize them as coming from the beloved Christmas hymn:  “Joy to the World.”  Let’s keep that opening phrase in mind as we make our way through the sermon this morning:  He rules the world in truth and grace.

Continuing in our series on the Apostles’ Creed, today we take up the statements where we confess that Jesus “ascended into heaven” and “is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” Taken together, these two truths speak about the power of Jesus Christ. They underscore how the risen and ascended Lord Jesus now rules the world in the interest of his church and his children.

The Bible account chosen to illustrate these two great truths revolves around an event in the life of the Apostle Paul. Through his personal conversion story and the various events he later experienced as he carried out his calling as a Christian missionary, Paul could testify from firsthand knowledge how the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ indeed

REIGNS ON HIGH

Our text for today takes us to the latter years of the Apostle Paul. After making three extensive missionary journeys, Paul returned to Jerusalem. There, he was quickly and violently opposed by the enemies of Christianity. They were intent on killing him because of the Christ-centered message he preached. To avoid that, he was taken into protective custody by the powers that be.   

It is kind of a long and involved legal story involving two Roman governors, but eventually Paul appeared before the second one who had invited another regional leader by the name of King Agrippa to hear Paul’s case. Paul was granted an audience with them and told them his story. 

Our text is a part of this conversation. Here Paul explains how it is that he – once an avowed enemy and active persecutor of Christians himself – came to faith in Jesus Christ, and how it altered the trajectory of his life.

12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

There are many things we could talk about here, but we’ll limit ourselves to developing two main thoughts, both of which underscore the power and grace of Jesus Christ. And both of which have relevance for us as Christians today.

The first is to contemplate the turnaround in Paul. Perhaps the place to start is to consider this question:  How come Paul hated Christianity so much that he would dedicate so much time and energy to its elimination?

Answer:  Largely for the same reasons why many people don’t like it today. Paul didn’t like what it stood for. Because it directly attacked his pride and his sense of control when it came to spiritual matters.

You see, Paul was raised as a die-hard do-it-yourselfer when it came to getting to heaven. He was thoroughly trained and steeped in what we might call “the doctrine of spiritual self-sufficiency.” At the center of this system is the false promise that a person can earn God’s favor by doing the right things and observing the right ceremonies. In such a system there is no need for a Savior because you are your own Savior.

The message proclaimed by Jesus Christ and his followers was, of course, entirely different. Jesus said the key to salvation is not in trumpeting one’s worthiness before God, but confessing one’s unworthiness and need for a Savior. Salvation does not come through trying to counterbalance sin with a certain level of performance, but in finding forgiveness of our sins through trusting in the work of that Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sadly, such a message was and still is extremely hard to stomach and personally threatening for spiritual do-it-yourselfers like Paul. So, Paul proudly enlisted himself as an enemy of Christ and spared no effort in trying to root out Christians.

But then everything changed. You heard Paul describe it. A blinding light from heaven. Everyone crumpling to the ground. The voice of Jesus first confronting Paul for his past actions, then commissioning him for a calling Paul wouldn’t have imagined in a million years. Because at that moment Saul the persecutor of Jesus Christ was transformed into Paul the believer and soon-to-be proclaimer of Jesus Christ.

Paul experienced personally – first physically, then spiritually – the power and reign of Jesus Christ – who, from that moment on, certainly ruled Paul’s world with grace and truth.

Here’s the connection: he does the same for us. How is that we believe in Jesus as our Savior? By nature, we were no less enemies of Christ than Paul. By nature, Paul tells us in his letters, we were spiritually blind, spiritually dead, and hostile toward God.

But then God converted us. He brought us into his family. Conversion literally means “turned around.”  And that’s what God has done for us. He turned us around from unbelief to faith. Now we are no longer adversaries of God, but children of God.

What God did for Paul, he also did for us. In less spectacular fashion perhaps, but no less miraculous. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 2: “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”

God made us spiritually alive the moment the Holy Spirit brought us to faith in Christ. For many of us this took place at our baptism as infants when the work of Jesus Christ was applied to us through water and the Word and we were brought into the Family of God. For others, it was the moment we came to understand who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection. 

The point is that we didn’t find God. God in his grace found us. How blessed we are! Like Paul, he now rules our world with truth and grace.

Let’s go broader in our understanding of Christ’s reign and power. That’s the second thought we’d like to develop. After commissioning him to be a Christian missionary, among the things Jesus told Paul was this: I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. 

There is an assumption behind this promise. It is not hard to figure out. Someone needing to be rescued will have to be rescued from something that makes rescuing necessary in the first place. In other words, Jesus is telling Paul that his life as a missionary was not going to be easy. And it wasn’t. In fact, it was hard. But true to his promise, Jesus was always there for him.

Let’s talk about this applies to us. There is a question we’ve all wondered about, but we’re often hesitant to vocalize because the very asking seems to border on sacrilege. It’s a question the enemies of Christianity routinely use to discredit our faith. It’s the question the Christian author Philip Yancey used as the title of one of his early books: “Where is God When It Hurts?”

Or another way of putting it, does God truly rule the world in truth and grace? If so, how do we square this with certain things?

Like the emotional stresses and uncertainties and tensions and loss of control that accompany living through a pandemic?

Or the swirly, cloudy pattern of another hurricane preparing to bear down and wreak havoc on friends and relatives who live on the East Coast?

Or the nightly news reports of civil unrest and confrontations within our major cities?

Or the tone of political conversations and opinions and angry accusations that light up social media and make us wonder if we have truly come to the end of polite civil discourse?

How do we square this with global problems and random violence and the personal hurts of financial setbacks and health challenges and frayed relationships?

Does God rule the world with truth and grace? And the answer is yes. He does. But it takes a proper understanding of what this means.

Let us beware of buying into any form of “prosperity Gospel” that is based on the general, but faulty, assumption that God’s goal should be our personal happiness. It isn’t.

God’s goal is for us to live with him in heaven where we will then enjoy perfect happiness forever. That is his goal. Consistent with that goal, he will not allow us to reduce him to a good luck charm or a genie in a bottle or a Monopoly “get out of jail free” card or some sort of magic eraser for all the things we would like to be erased in our lives.

Rather, in a sinful world God wants us to know we are not home yet. So, he allows us to deal with things. To wrestle with things. To struggle with things. To pray about things. But, like he did for the Apostle Paul, he also promises us that he will rescue us.

That rescue comes in the form of iron-clad promises to never leave us or forsake us. Therefore, we must never interpret God’s silence at a particular moment in our lives with his absence. Because he is always there.

That rescue comes to us in the form of Word and Sacrament. There we are routinely told and reminded of the depth of his love for us. Jesus literally died for us to take away our sins and assure us of our place in heaven. His life on earth was not easy or pain free. Neither will ours, because a servant is not above his master.

That rescue comes to us in the form of fellow Christians who uphold us and give us strength through their presence and their prayers.

So, when we think we’re starting to sink in the murky waters of all the things that trouble us and afflict us and negatively impact us, God is there. He throws us the rope of his Word and promises and sacrament and cross and we climb onto the life raft of his grace, knowing we are safe and secure, despite what churns around us.

And then we know that God does indeed rule the world in truth and grace. Amen.