Sunday, August 31, 2014

Walking in the Light - Acts 9:20-31

Walking in the Light
Acts 9:20-31
Introduction:  Back when he was “younger,” (around 4!) one of our church youth memorized the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and the video was posted online… What a great retelling of a story that reminds us of God’s amazing grace!  It’s a story so simple a child could tell it, yet so important we find it not once, but three times in the Book of Acts (Acts 9,22,26).  We’ve spent three weeks now walking through the first of those accounts in Acts 9. The story of Saul’s conversion is simple in substance and yet profound in its implications: We are saved by grace, and we are saved for a purpose, to have a part in Jesus’ mission, for the glory of God.
The Big Idea: We need to faithfully tell the truth about Jesus even when it is difficult, and always look for ways to encourage others on the Way.
I. Called to Witness: Faithfully tell the truth about Jesus (20-25).  We’ve spoken quite a bit during this series in Acts about the Spirit empowered witness of the church. Jesus is building his church, and he has chosen to work through humans to accomplish that. He could have sent angels flying through the sky, blasting a trumpet declaring “Jesus Christ is Lord!”  Wait a minute, according to the vision John received in Revelation 14:6,7, one day he’ll do something like that,
 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.  7 And he said with a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."
But until that day He has instead chosen to use humans, fallen humans redeemed by His grace, to preach Jesus, and to call others to repentance and faith! He told the disciples “…you will be my witnesses, even to the end of the age…” (Acts 1:8).  Immediately following that commission He is taken up to heaven, and ten days later, He sends the Holy Spirit. From Pentecost to parousia our mission is to be His witnesses, to make disciples (cf. Mt 28:18-20).
·        A Clear message: "And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He [This One] is the Son of God." (20). 
First of all we see the urgency of the message. Once Paul is healed and filled with the Spirit there is not delay, “Immediately he began preaching in the Synagogues…” He came to Damascus with a different agenda, to go to those same synagogues with the intent of seeking out and bringing back in chains any followers of the Way.  But as Paul was on his way he found THE WAY, (or better, was found by Him!). Paul’s mission was changed, transformed, and redirected. Now his message was centered on Jesus.  The language is quite striking: First of all, the verbal tense describes the initiation of a new, ongoing activity, “He began preaching…”  This wasn’t a one time act, it was a new mission, a new life purpose, on going and characteristic of this new life Saul had begun.  “He preached Jesus that this one was the Son of God.” The Scriptures had spoken of a promised Son, the decedent of David who would have an eternal reign and be called the Son of God.  This One, Jesus, and no one else, fulfilled that promise and that expectation. As Peter said, “There is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by Him (cf. John 14:6).
·        A Convincing testimony: “And all who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?"  (21).
The transformation of Saul of Tarsus was radical and undeniable. His fervent opposition to the church beforehand was only matched by his passionate preaching of the gospel after his conversion. All who heard him were “amazed,” i.e. “utterly astounded.” The same word is used to describe the reaction to the miracles of Jesus, to the resurrection, and to the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost. Something supernatural had happened. The change in Saul was unexplainable from a natural, human perspective. It was astounding evidence that something real had happened, that something supernatural had changed the zealous rabbi and persecutor into a bold proclaimer of the Gospel. Listen, you might think, “My testimony is no Damascus Road experience!” Maybe not, but it is a God story, a supernatural intervention of the creator of the universe in the life of a sinful human. You may not be where you wish you were in your Christian life, but if you know Him, I am sure you can say you are different! People will hear a humble, honest, witness of the grace of God. I once was lost, but now I am found, I was blind, but now I see! 
·        A Ready Defense“But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ…” (22).
Evangelism isn’t merely a debate, seeing who can raise the strongest argument for unbelief or for faith. Nor is it simply a logical presentation of the facts which leave no doubt that Jesus is who He claimed to be. Evangelism is testimony, witness, sharing God’s Word, and recognizing that only the Spirit can bring life and lead someone to repentance and faith. Even so, fallen humans will send up smoke screens all the time, they will use Bill Nye’s “reasonable man” argument, and hide their rebellion behind the fa├žade of human reason (implying that belief in the supernatural must be “unreasonable”).  That is where apologetics comes in, being ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us. Our faith is reasonable! The Jews hated Saul, because he blew away their smoke screens and tore down their hiding places, and showed the overwhelming evidence that Jesus Christ is Lord. 
·        An Unavoidable Offense: “…When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him,  24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him,  25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.  (23-25).
Later Paul would write, “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed…” The message of the Cross is an offense. For the Jews it spoke of someone who was cursed by God, as Paul wrote in Galatians, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, “…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’…” How could the Messiah have been crucified? The very suggestion was offensive to the Jewish mind. The offense runs much deeper however. The Cross speaks of grace, of God intervening, of our need and inability and weakness, of substitution. Of trusting Him for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
          We need to faithfully tell the truth about Jesus even when it is difficult, and always look for ways to encourage others on the Way.

II. Compassionate Service: Look for ways to encourage others (26-30).
·        A Cold Reception by the church - 26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
It is not too hard to understand the hesitancy of the believers in Jerusalem to receive Paul. They knew of Saul, B.C., before he trusted Christ. They knew he stood with those who killed Stephen and that he had gone house to house looking for the Christ followers. Have you ever heard of someone coming to faith, and just had trouble believing it?  I remember hearing stories about the conversion of one of the most notorious mass murderers in U.S. history, and I have to say I was skeptical. This guy had been in prison for decades but his name was all over the New York papers during his killing spree and the trial that followed his arrest. A Christian now? Until I had the opportunity to travel to the New York penitentiary where he will spend the rest of his life and meet him face to face I couldn’t believe, I wouldn’t. And then when I met him, and we talked, and I could hear him testify of God’s grace in his life, I knew it was true. God’s amazing grace!  Saul had a reputation in Jerusalem.  The believers there were skeptical. Was this a rouse? Was it a trick to infiltrate and expose? When Saul returned to Jerusalem he did not get a warm reception from the church. Hopefully it is true that when you come into this church you are warmly received. I don’t mean only that you are greeted by someone in the church, but also that you are welcomed into our family. We all have a past, and sometimes a present that doesn’t live up to our “family name.” God is gracious and forgiving, and we need to be too.  
·        A Convincing Reference by a brother -  27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.
Our friend Barnabas comes back into the story of Acts. The one called the “son of encouragement” by the apostles, who sold property and gave to meet the needs of the early believers in Jesus. He’ll show up again in the leadership of the newly established church in Antioch and would be Paul’s missionary partner on the first missionary journey. It took someone like Barnabas, willing to take a chance and identify himself with a suspect “convert” like Saul, to reach out.  He “…took him and brought him…” Deliberate and personal involvement, “peace making intervention.” Barnabas was a “peace maker,” and that is a heart that is pleasing to God. As far as it rests with you, be at peace with all men, show all who will hear the way to peace, by pointing them to the Prince of Peace.
·        A Conscious Re-deployment - 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.  29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him.  30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
The ministry among the Hellenists, the Greek speaking Jews, was not well received, in fact they became so angry with Saul’s new message and new life that they sought to kill him. He had probably come from one of these synagogues, and was personally known by them. Their hostility toward the message and preaching of Paul reminds us of how the Jewish leadership reacted to the miracles of Jesus. The evidence and implications for the truth of the gospel were undeniable, but rather that deal with the truth they sought to snuff out the light. “Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” In this case, for Paul’s safety and possibly for the sake of the ongoing ministry in Jerusalem, Saul is brought to the coastal city of Caesarea, and then sent to his home town of Tarsus. He is not being retired, he is being re-deployed.

III. Continuous Growth: Peace, Presence, Persistence (31). “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.  This is a summary statement, as we saw in 6:7. Luke, the historian and author, drops those in from time to time in the narrative of Acts to remind us that God’s program goes on.  Despite the challenges and trials God is at work and He is building His church. God’s work is not dependent upon the presence of any specific human, He is in control, He will work through whoever He will to accomplish His purpose. We’ll see the focus shift away from Paul and back to Peter for the next three chapters. The point is that Jesus is the head of the church, the Spirit is the power of the church, and the Father’s plan will be accomplished.
·        God’s Plan: “…So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria…”  
The geographical reference might sound familiar, it does tie in to Acts 1:8 and the unfolding story of God’s plan that Jesus set forth: “…You will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth…” It’s a gentle reminder that Jesus is in control, He is building His church, that yes, opposition will come and trials are unavoidable, but nothing is going to impede the plan of God. Jesus Christ is Lord.
·        God’s Peace:  “…the church …had peace and was being built up…
The reaction to Paul and his departure may have taken some of the heat off the other believers, or this may be referring to “the peace of God,” the peace from God, the peace that passes understanding and goes beyond the circumstance of the moment.   We’ll see periods of relative peace here and there in Acts, and in history, but the truth is, “in this world you will have tribulation…” But cheer up, He has overcome the world! The church is being “built up” in that believers are growing in their faith and are learning to work together in their mission. And it is being built up in numbers as God continues, by His kindness, to lead men and women to repentance and faith.
·        God’s Presence:  “…And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied…
A reverence of God, bowing before His majesty, recognizing His holiness and omnipotence. And the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Remember in the upper room, Jesus promised to send the Spirit, and called Him the “Comforter,” the parakletos. The emphasis is on the presence of God with and in the church, and the reality that He is working, building His church.  

What is God saying to me in this passage? We need to faithfully tell the truth about Jesus even when it is difficult, and always look for ways to encourage others on the Way.

What would God have to do in response to this passage? Have you viewed yourself as a non-essential part of the body of Christ? Have you questioned your ability to serve God and to serve others? As surely as God had a purpose and plan for Saul of Tarsus, God saved you on purpose, for a purpose. He has chosen you for His team and that means He has a role for you to fulfill, He has gifted you to carry out that role. He has sovereignly placed you in this church, and in a specific corner of his vineyard, to be His witness. Are you available? Are you willing? We might not be able to tell the old, old story as well as a child, but we can say that God has loved me, God has saved me, and I know God is with me, and if you trust Him, because of Jesus, He’ll do the same for you.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Disciples Making Disciples Acts 9:10-20

Acts 9:10-20
Introduction:  I was a little surprised this week when I saw a video online of George H.W. Bush getting a bucket of ice-water dumped over his head by Laura Bush, and then him “calling out” Bill Clinton!  The ice-bucket challenge has proven to be an effective plan for getting the word out about ALS and raising funds to battle a terrible disease, I think over $30 million to date. It was a clever use of social media to accomplish an impressive result. That has been an effective strategy!   Is God’s plan for the church an effective strategy?  From a human perspective, I would have to say it may have looked a little “iffy” at first. Remember Jesus started with a small group of followers, no marketing consultants, no church growth strategists. Just a rag-tag group of disciples who had abandoned him when he was arrested. And then he ascended into heaven and left them in the world to carry out his mission! People reaching people. Disciples making disciples.
The Big Idea:  God’s plan is for each of us to have a part in His program of making disciples. That means using our gifts to build each other up and reaching out to those who need to hear. He has one plan, working through one family, to proclaim one message…

I. One Plan: Disciples making Disciples (10-17a).  God has a plan for building the church and reaching the lost: us. That’s it. No plan “B”. No backup plan. Just “us”, you and me, and his people all around the world.

         Remember the Context to the passage we are looking at today. Saul was at the heart of the persecution directed against the church, even present and approving of the murder of Stephen. He was breathing out threats and murder against the church in Jerusalem, going door to door in search of the Christ followers. He was so zealous in his opposition to the church that he got permission to pursue the scattered believers to other cities and was on his way to Damascus, intent on bringing back in chains any “followers of the way” he could find. Nearing the city a light from heaven, and the voice of Jesus arrested him: “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” With that encounter Saul’s world was turned upside down. The Lord didn’t immediately send Paul out, but initially left him blind, he put him flat on his back so the only way he could look was up. That brings us to the text we’ll look at today, Acts 9:10-20.

Jesus had met Saul on the Damascus road, but notice here that he chooses to work through a certain disciple named Ananias to continue his work in Saul.
10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord."  11 And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying,  12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." 
God’s work through Ananias was unique, for one thing, we don’t normally receive such specific verbal direction from God! Yet, at another level, it is an example we can learn from. Like Ananias, we need to be available, honest, and obedient to the Lord.

       Be Available: “Lord, here I am!” First, we see “a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias” receiving a vision from the Lord. We know little about Ananias, he seems to fade from the story after this scene. In the midst of a time of persecution and danger, he is spiritually ready to hear from the Lord. Last week I mentioned (or meant to!) a physical condition called tinnitus that has begun to bother me a bit. It probably resulted from years of operating heavy equipment when I was younger, not always with adequate hearing protection. When it is relatively mild it is a nuisance,  for some it can become an issue that impedes our hearing. There is a constant “noise” in the background, and to hear those around us they need to rise above the constant “din” in a person’s ears.  Spiritually speaking, the background noise of the world, the flesh, and the devil can impede our readiness to hear the still, small voice of God.  We can have “spiritual tinnitus!” We are easily distracted by the noise and aren’t ready to hear from God. Ananias was “tuned in”, he was listening and he was available, and when God spoke he discerned the Master’s voice and responded. We need to be listening and available for God to direct us and use us.

       Be Honest: “Lord I have heard…” i.e. “I’m afraid!” Ananias surely didn’t think that the Lord didn’t know the truth about Saul, he was simply being honest in terms of what he was feeling and thinking. Not Saul, Saul of Tarsus! He was at the heart of the havoc being wrought against the church! You want me to go to him?  We read in 9:13,14…
13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.  14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name."
In other words, Lord, I’m afraid of this guy! If I go to him, based on what I know, it is not going to go well for me!  Word about Saul had gotten to Damascus, the believers had heard what he was doing in Jerusalem, and may have even heard he was heading north, on his way to their city. And they were afraid. This kind of honesty is not rebuked by the Lord. He wants to meet us where we are, and to assure us, to teach us about trust and to deepen our faith in Him. Like Ananias we need to be available when God directs us, and we need to be honest with Him. We also need to be obedient…

       Be Obedient: “So, Ananias departed…” Jesus assured Ananias that He had a plan that included Saul. And Ananias trusted Him and obeyed, and went to Saul. Luke records the Lord’s reply and Ananias’ response in 9:15-17…

15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."  17 So Ananias departed and entered the house.

The Lord said “Go” and after expressing his fears to the Lord Ananias is reassured by the Lord and he went. He obeyed what God was asking him to do. In the light of Saul’s history there was some risk here. The Lord had a plan for Saul, but did Saul know that? The Lord said “I will show him…” How would he react? There was no way for Ananias to know for sure what the immediate unfolding of this story would bring. It was risky, but he had to go and do as the Lord instructed him.  And there is a risk, of sorts, every time we seek to tell someone about Jesus. Usually, in this country, it is not fear for our life or fear of imprisonment. That does happen every day in other parts of the world. But still, it may not be pleasant, it may not go well.  
      Will they laugh at us? 
      Will they get angry? 
      Will they reject us and not want to be around us? 
     Might we lose a friend? Or, maybe, will they recognize their need and put their trust in Jesus?  
       It is not about us, it is about Him.  And it is His plan for each of us to have a part in His program. That means discovering our gifts to use in the church, for the building up of the body of Christ. And it means to be alert for those divine appointments, when we can point someone to Jesus, and give a reason for the hope we have in Him.

II. One Family: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (17b-19).
       “And laying his hands on him…”  - Consider this act. It wasn’t laying hands on him in the act of praying, but as he met him and began to speak to him. What is going on here? Saul was still blind, and instead of hearing a voice across the room where he would be unable to read the body language or see the eyes of the one speaking to him, he felt the welcoming hands of Ananias, and after all he had done, he heard a greeting he could have hardly hoped for. In some families and cultures “hugs” are normal, it’s a way of greeting that expresses welcome. It was the norm in Brazil, and for me, took a little getting used to! The hands of Ananias expressed “welcome” before his greeting confirmed it. This phrase is used in the context of praying for healing, it is also used of Jesus greeting the little children that came to Him, he “laid his hands on them.” It indicated acceptance and blessing. That seems to be what is happening here.

       “…he said, "Brother Saul…”  Can you imagine the impact that phrase had on Saul? Words of acceptance and grace, welcoming him as a member of a new family, united under the same Father.  We are a family! You are my brother! That means when we disagree or are hurt we don’t give up, we don’t run away, instead we seek reconciliation and extend forgiveness.  Sometimes it happens in families that relationships are shattered and people stop talking or don’t have anything to do with another. That’s sad when it happens. Usually, with our biological families, we eventually forgive and move ahead. Sometimes, in the church family, we find it hard to forgive and restore so that healing can happen. It’s too easy to find another church to attend, or if the church is big enough we can move across the aisle and not interact at all with the one who offended us. Sometimes people are mad at each other for years and decades, and may not even remember what caused the rift! That’s the flesh, not the Spirit. We’ve been forgiven, so we should be able to extend grace and forgive. By our love for one another the world can see that we are His disciples (see John 13:35).

       “…the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me…” The one and only Lord, the same one who appeared to Saul also appeared to Ananias. The language here emphasizes the integrity of God’s plan: the same Lord who appeared to Saul, spoke to Ananias and had sent him. Paul will say in one of his letters, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all…” If we have the same Father we need to love one another and build each other up.

        “That you might receive your sight and be filled…” Physical healing was part of God’s plan for Saul, and spiritual preparation as well, as he would be filled with the Spirit.  Question: Did God need Ananias to heal Saul and to mediate the filling of the Spirit? I don’t think so, but He chose to work through him and He has chosen to work through us, the body of Christ, to minister to the needs of His people.  The “one-anothers” of the New Testament are a constant reminder that God has designed us for community, to be part of a family. Most of us had someone who shared the gospel with us and led us to Christ. Many had someone who discipled us and helped us get started in the Christian life.  People reaching people. Disciples making disciples. One plan, using one family, God’s family.  John said in 1 John 3:1, “Behold what manner of love the Father has shown unto us, that we should be called the children of God, and such we are!”

       “…18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;  19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.  He was strengthened, certainly physically as he took food, and I am sure spiritually as well, as he stayed with the disciples and they discussed the Scriptures and prayed together.  God was preparing Saul for a new work. He was baptized, publicly affirming his new faith in Messiah Jesus. The apostle Paul becomes prominent in the second half of Acts. We don’t hear any more about Ananias, because it doesn't fit Luke’s purpose to tell us. But Paul will have a key role in the foundation of the New Testament church.  God’s plan is for each of us to have a part in His program of making disciples. That means using our gifts to build each other up and reaching out to those who need to hear.  One Plan. One Family. One Message.

III. One Message: It’s all about Jesus (20). 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
          He started in the synagogues, a place where people had studied the scriptures and were prepared to hear the truth. Well, at least some of them were. That would be his procedure throughout Acts. Paul would enter a city, and if there was a synagogue, he would start there, preaching Jesus as Messiah. The radical conversion of Saul had to add power to his testimony. You just couldn’t explain away what had happened to him. The poster boy of the persecution had now become a preacher of the gospel!
          And notice the message that he preached. It wasn't health and prosperity. It wasn't “what’s in it for me”. He preached Jesus. More than that, he preached correct theology: Jesus is the Son of God.  The very claim that got Jesus in trouble with the Jewish leadership was now at the heart of Saul’s message. Most cults go awry at exactly this point: Who is Jesus?  If they claim he was merely a prophet or a good teacher, or even the highest of created beings, but they deny his deity, they are wrong, their message falls short. Saving faith means believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and trusting in His finished work as our only hope of salvation. One Plan. One Family. One Message.

What is God saying to me in this passage? God’s plan is for each of us to have a part in His program of making disciples. That means using our gifts to build each other up and reaching out to those who need to hear.

What would God have me to do in response to this passage? This is first of all, as we noted last week, a story about Jesus. He is building his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!  We see at the start an example of a radical, unexpected transformation. Saul the persecutor, becomes a missionary and apostle for the Lord.  It was a personal encounter with Jesus and a supernatural transformation by the power of God .Secondly, we are reminded that God works through his people, both in helping to disciple new believers and in reaching those who need to know Him.  Do you realize that you are a part of that team? We had a visit Wednesday evening from one of our missionary couples, Dan and Sharon Guimond. They had served in Africa in the past, and God used them there. But for New Tribes to be successful in what it does, they need support personnel in the US, where they can train pilots and mechanics, and that is what they are currently providing in Arizona. We are not all called to be overseas missionaries or to speak before large crowds like Franklin Graham. But each of us has a part in God’s mission. If He has saved you, He has gifted you. He has entrusted us with a mission. Let’s get to work.                                AMEN.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"LOST and FOUND!" Acts 9:1-9

Acts 9:1-9
Introduction: There are some defining moments in history and in the lives of humans that change the direction of their “stories.”  Historians suggest that the “D-Day” invasion in World War 2 is an example of a day, a battle, that changed the direction and assured the eventual outcome of the war.  Of course the foundation of our faith is God himself and His revelation in history, until finally, the God who spoke at different times and in different ways in times past through the prophets, spoke in these last days in the Son (Heb 1:1,2).  The death and resurrection of Jesus is the foundation, and then Jesus begins to build His church in Acts. Saul’s conversion is a defining moment for the church in the book of Acts, as God lays hold of a key persecutor and transforms him into a proclaimer of the Gospel. The conversion of Saul (also called Paul, cf. Acts 13:9) is so important that it is related three times in detail in Acts alone (9,22,26), plus alluded to several times in the letters of Paul.  By the way, forgive me if I am not consistent in my use of the Hebrew (Saul) and Greek (Paul) names of the apostle. In reading Acts Luke is very consistent in the early part of the book to exclusively use the name “Saul.” It seems to me that this is part of his dramatic telling of the story of Acts and adds to the impact when later he let’s us know who this young and zealous rabbi is. He is there at Stephen’s death, he is persecuting the church, and then he has a life changing encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. As the reader follows this character in Acts the transformation is astounding, the persecutor becomes the persecuted, preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And then finally, on the first missionary journey we read in Acts 13:9, “Then Saul, who also is called Paul…I think Theophilus and the other first readers of Acts knew well of Paul and his ministry. As Luke wrote the Book of Acts Paul was in prison in Rome, ready to appear before Caesar. It’s as though Luke says, “By the way, this Saul, this zealous young rabbi transformed by God’s grace, is none other than the Apostle Paul!” Wham! What a powerful revelation of God’s sovereign grace! We need to remember that the same God who was working then and there, is present here and now. He is still sovereign. And He is building His church.
The Big Idea: Because of the depth of human depravity salvation can only be by the sovereign grace of God, so be bold in your witness!

I. Our Only Hope: Human Depravity means salvation can only be by grace (1-2). After the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, Luke, the writer of Acts, brings us back to a character he had introduced earlier, the young rabbi Saul of Tarsus who was present and approving of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and who was ravaging the church from house to house in chapter 8. One commentator suggested by the way, that the three conversion stories in this section of Acts, the Ethiopian (8), Saul (9), and the gentile Cornelius (10),  correspond to the three sons of Noah: Ham, Shem, and Japheth. The idea would be that God is interested in the entire human race, that in Christ a remnant would be saved from every race and nation. Whether or not we see a connection with Noah’s sons, God certainly is interested in the world-wide spread of the gospel.
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem
            “Breathing out threats and murder…” This is very graphic language showing the attitude and driving force of Saul’s life.  Remember the praise chorus, “You are the air I breathe…”?  For the believer the presence of the Spirit of God is our “air,” our life. It defines us. Saul “breathed” hatred and murder toward God and His people. It dominated his thinking and plan and purpose in living.  Have you heard it said “It doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you really believe it”? That’s a lie from the pit of hell! Saul was sincere, he was zealous, he “really believed”, he was very religious, but he was dead wrong and fighting against God!
                     In Saul’s case he went beyond an attitude of hatred and malice toward Christians, to putting that into action. The persecution after Stephen’s death was focused in Jerusalem and scattered the church (Acts 8:1,4). Now Saul asked permission to pursue those heretics to Damascus, 150 miles away, that he might bring them back bound. It seems he is an initiator of this expanded persecution. This wasn’t a three hour car drive down to Boston, it had to be a good week long trip. He was determined to cut off the Christ followers while there was still time. Notice, by the way, the believers are called followers of “the Way.” This is the most common descriptor of the church in Acts, not “believers” or “the Church” or “disciples,” but “the Way.” It implies movement, direction, a path, a walk. We don’t just “belong” to the church like we would a club, we are the church, actively living out the implications of our faith and our mission in the world. We are the body of Christ. Are we acting like it?
            Saul was a zealous unbeliever, but his life, B.C., “before Christ,” illustrates an important theological truth. Unsaved humans are not neutral, open-minded seekers of enlightenment and truth. Paul expressed the truth about human depravity so clearly in his letters perhaps because he could look back and see the truth of his own story. We read for example in Ephesian 2:1-5,
“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,  2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience,  3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.  4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,  5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…”
He says this way in his letter to the Romans 3:9-18,
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.  10 As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one;  11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.  12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one."  13 "Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit"; "The poison of asps is under their lips";  14 "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness."  15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;  16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;  17 And the way of peace they have not known."  18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
That was the truth about Paul, BC, and it is the truth about every human who has not yet come to faith in Jesus. They are deaf, blind, and dead spiritually, at enmity with God. But don’t let that discourage you. Because of the depth of human depravity salvation can only be by the sovereign grace of God, and Jesus is still building His church, so be bold in your witness! Our only hope is God’s grace, and He alone is God!
II. The Only God: He is real, and He graciously intervenes in history and reveals himself to humans (3-5a). This is where we have to notice what is unique about Saul’s experience, and what his experience has in common with every conversion story. A light from heaven, a vision of Christ, knocked to the ground and blinded, a voice like thunder, all that was pretty dramatic and somewhat unique! Even within Acts it is not repeated in the same way. But at it’s heart it is the same: a personal encounter with the living God, being confronted by our sin and our desperate spiritual need through His Word, that is something we can relate to!
       God in His sovereignty must take the initiative in salvation (3-4a).
       God meets us where we are (3a): “As he journeyed he came near Damascus…” Saul was going about his business, religious, zealous, sincere, and absolutely wrong about Jesus.  Not only had he not believed in Jesus, he was intent on pursuing and stomping out the Christ-followers.
       Encounters with Him can be sudden and overwhelming:  “…and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven.  4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice…”  This is pretty much the opposite of what we saw in the Ethiopian in chapter 8. The eunuch's defenses were clearly down, his heart had been prepared, and he was, at the point we meet him in the story, seeking the truth, and God found a way, he sent a preacher to explain the Scriptures.  We don’t know what he might have gone through to get to that point of being open and seeking, we see the ripe fruit being plucked from the vine by Philip.  God took a more dramatic approach with Saul!
       God in His mercy has revealed himself to humans (4b-5a). "…‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’  5 And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’" Notice a couple of things here:
     First of all, the manner in which Jesus speaks. “Saul, Saul…” The repetition of a name by Jesus occurs only a few times, but always at a moment of deep emotion, almost with a “sigh” with respect to the slowness of his people to hear and believe. At the house of Mary and Martha, when Martha was distracted serving, “Martha, Martha…” When the disciples disputed about who was greatest, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon…” and tells him he has prayed for him. Approaching the city of Jerusalem at the beginning of the passion week, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” I think we see the heart of Jesus, his compassion, his love for his people. Fallen humans are little slow to understand and believe, even believers don’t always immediately “get it” when God speaks. I’ve noticed for a few years, but it has been getting worse lately, that I have a constant “sound” in my ears. I think its called “tinitis”? The first time I noticed it I thought it was the sound of crickets and insects in the night, but then discovered the sound persisted even if my hands were over my ears! It’s getting louder, so that when I am listening to someone their voice has to rise above the background noise. I think spiritually we all have tinitis! Sometimes we are too distracted by the background noise to hear the still, small, voice of God.
   Secondly, notice that Jesus asks, “Why are you persecuting me?” That statement reflects an important theological point. The church can suffer hatred and persecution, but really that hatred is directed at God, humans rebelling against Him. It’s exactly what Psalm 2 describes as it opens: the nations and kings in rebellion against God and his Anointed Son (Ps 2:1-3).
   Some translations include here the phrase “It is difficult for you to kick against the goads…” If you are reading the NIV or ESV it’s not in your translation and maybe your thinking “why not?”  Remember that we have the story of Saul’s conversion three times in Acts, once from Luke (here in chapter 9) and twice as Paul tells the story of his conversion, to the Jewish mob in Jerusalem (Acts 22) and before Felix and Agrippa (in Acts 26).  All three accounts tell the same story, but none includes every detail.  That statement about “kicking against the goads” was probably not included here by Luke, as it is absent from most of the Greek manuscripts, but it was told by Paul in one of the other contexts. So it is historical, just not part of this context. It adds a detail that we learn later as Paul shares his testimony, and implies that Saul was being “goaded” by God, like a shepherd poking a reluctant sheep with a stick, or someone prodding an ox or donkey to move him along. Perhaps Saul had experienced moments of “conviction” such as at the death Stephen, or hearing the testimonies of the miracles Jesus did, or perhaps be seeing the transformation of other Christ followers. Luke doesn’t mention that detail, because he wants to emphasize the effectual call of God in Saul’s life at this point in the story. Paul later testifies to the process God used to prepare him to hear.
    Humans actively resist the gospel all the time, which is one reason I prefer not to use the term “irresistible grace…” It seems to me that can be misleading. “Effectual calling” is a much better term I think for what we see happening here. God will save those who are His. As Jesus said in John’s gospel, “…My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…” (John 10:26,27).  Amazingly, He’ll use the testimony of humans to do it as we share His Word. He has chosen “…through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe…” (I Cor 1:21).  Because of the depth of human depravity salvation can only be by the sovereign grace of God, so be bold in your witness, some will hear and believe!

III. The Only Way: God in His grace will use the Word to convict us of sin and to point us to Jesus (5b-9).
        God knows those who are His (5b-7). We know how this story is going to unfold, God had chosen Saul, He had a plan for his life. Not only would he be used as a key worker in bringing the gospel to Asia Minor and Europe, his radical conversion would be one more revelation of the presence and power of God. Paul would be hated by the Jewish authorities because they could not explain away his radical, 180 degree change in direction. This was like Lazarus coming from the tomb – they just couldn’t deal with what it reveals about Jesus!
“Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’  7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.” 
I can’t imagine Saul’s thoughts and feelings at this moment. All he had been doing, everything he thought and believed, was turned on its head. His own teacher, Gamaliel, had told the council to leave the Christ followers alone, if their movement was of men it would pass away, if it was of God, they could be found fighting against God. He had ignored his teacher’s advice and in his zeal and ignorance he was guilty of fighting against God! No wonder he was “trembling and astonished.” Like the Jews in Jerusalem confronted by Peter’s preaching, he asks “What must I do?
       God in His grace will bring us down, in order to lift us up (8-9). These next verses are interesting, Saul needed to understand his weakness, he needed to see that he could carry out his new mission only in fellowship with the church of Jesus Christ, of which he was now a part. Consider Saul five minutes before this encounter, traveling toward Damascus, zealous, confident, ready to take charge. Intent on destruction. Then look at him immediately after. Blind, being led by the hand, completely humbled.  Waiting for direction from the Lord. What a dramatic picture of human weakness and divine power!
8Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Though it doesn’t say so here, “neither eating or drinking” may imply that Saul was praying and fasting as he waited for the Lord to reveal to him more of what came next, what God expected of him.  The last thing he saw for those three days, the “after image” burned into his eyes, was the glory of the resurrected Jesus. Paul would later write, “Every knee will bow… every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10,11).  He is the Christ, the Son of God.
What is God saying to me in this passage? Because of the depth of human depravity salvation can only be by the sovereign grace of God, so be bold in your witness!

What would God have me to do in response to this passage? At the deepest level the passage we looked at today is not first of all a story about Paul, but rather a story about God, who has revealed himself through the Son. We are reminded of God’s power, of His glory, of His amazing grace. One response to this passage it thanksgiving and praise to God, to worship the God who is, as our vision statement says, “…to treasure God as supremely valuable…” 
       Reflect for a moment on God’s intervention in your life. Have you had a defining moment in your life, when you recognized your need and turned to Him in faith? Whether it was a process like the Ethiopian in chapter 8, or a life changing instant when the lights came on, it was a work of God’s sovereign grace. GOD did that. Then give him the glory, as Paul says in Romans 12:1, “Present your body as a living sacrifice, which is your reasonable service of worship.”

       One clear thing that God expects of those that He has saved, is that we engage the world around us, by proclaiming the riches of His grace to those who need to hear. We can’t save anyone, but God has chosen to work through our witness as we share his Word to save those who believe.   So look around, be bold, and let’s see what God will do!                     Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Life in the Desert: A Call to faithful Witness Acts 8:26-40

Life in the Desert: A Call to faithful Witness
Acts 8:26-40
Introduction: I checked the News this morning, and the short cease fire between Israel and Hamas had ended.  The News from Gaza in these days is heart-breaking - it is marked by violence and death. Its heart wrenching to see the aftermath of rocket attacks and bombings, realizing that there are bystanders and women and children that are caught in the cross fire, “collateral damage,” almost every day.  In that same region, in the desert between Jerusalem and Egypt, there was a day nearly 2000 years ago when that dry place saw a miracle of life in the desert.
       There are some things that are different in this situation from what we normally experience today. We don’t normally have an angel of the Lord speak to us, or the Spirit of God audibly telling us what to do. Usually the Spirit doesn’t miraculously transport someone from one place to another as we see at the end of this account.  All of these things happened to Philip in this context. God still does speak to us, however, and He still does move us.  Having lived in NJ for the first 40 years of our lives, then moving to Brazil, and from there to mid-coast Maine, the path God has brought us on is not one I would have envisioned, yet God has clearly led us at each point to be where He wanted us. Do you believe that it is true for you as well, that is, that God has placed you where you are?  He has a plan for each of us! Are we listening?
The Big Idea: God will arrange “divine appointments” for each of us, and He will use us as He brings life through His Word.  
I. A Divine Appointment : God will bring us to those He has prepared (26-29).  The ministry of Philip is a beautiful illustration of God’s sovereign direction in carrying out His plan. We are reminded that God really is “Lord of the harvest.”
       Earlier in chapter 8, Philip had had a fruitful ministry in Samaria. To set the context, in the aftermath of the persecution that arose after Stephen’s death, Philip made his way to Samaria and preached Christ.  There was a tremendous response, but God maintained the unity of the church by delaying the pouring out of the Spirit on the Samaritans. The apostles came to Samaria and confirmed the ministry of Philip by laying hands on those who had been converted. This was no small thing. The apostles were Jews and like all Jews in that day they routinely avoided contact with the Samaritans. But they were obedient to God and they went, there would not be a Samaritan Church and a Jewish Church, but one Church of God under the authority of the apostles. This was a major step in the outworking of the plan Jesus had revealed in Acts 1:8, the witness bearing activity of the church would include “all of Judea and Samaria” and eventually go out to the ends of the earth.  The initial response was tremendous, the apostles returned to Jerusalem, and from our human perspective we could imagine Philip settling in for an extensive period of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting right there. But God had another plan for Philip at this time.

          God had other sheep that needed to hear the truth, and it would begin with a lone traveler on a desert road. The word of the angel to Philip is specific in terms of what he was to do, but short on details as to why: 
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place” (8:26).
Like Abraham in Genesis 12, Philip heard God’s call and he was obedient. Leave a fruitful ministry and head for the desert? It might not have made sense from a human perspective, but God said it, and that settled it. As far as we know Philip had no clue as to what he would encounter on the desert road.  God said “arise and go,” and Philip “arose and went.” There he found someone, possibly traveling with a caravan as was common in those days, or at least with a couple of other people to drive the chariot and watch out for danger…
And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship  28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah
         An official from Ethiopia returning home from worship in Jerusalem. We get several bits of information about this traveler. He was Ethiopian. Somewhere from the northeast of Africa this man had come to believe in the God of Israel. It may be that he was the son of proselytes, Ethiopian parents who had been converted by diaspora Jews who had reached his homeland. It may even be that his mother was a diaspora Jew and his father an Ethiopian, we are just not told.  In any case, he had obviously been on a pilgrim journey to Jerusalem to worship the one true God, and was now returning home. Later in Acts we will see that much attention is given to the conversion of Cornelius, an uncircumcised gentile “God-fearer”, in Acts 10 and 11. In view of that, it seems probable that this man had been more closely identified with Judaism than Cornelius was. He is also described as a eunuch and court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. In the ancient world, in many cultures, it was common for servants and officials, especially those who served the queen, to be eunuchs, and they were valued and respected men of authority in these societies.  In Israel his physical condition would have limited his full participation in the Temple Worship, but the Scriptures anticipated a day in which there would be no such barriers:
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree."  4 For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,  5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:3-5).
Could it be that God arranged this meeting to show that this Scripture was in the initial phases of being fulfilled? This trusted official of the Ethiopian queen was returning home in a chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. We are not told, but it is probable that He was traveling with others. More noteworthy is that he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This is remarkable in that 1) not everyone could read, so this was clearly an educated man, 2) he had a personal copy of at least the prophet Isaiah. Most of us have a copy of the entire Bible – some of us have multiple copies. Such was not the case in ancient times. Books were copied by hand and would have been quite expensive. It could have been a scroll of vellum or parchment, or even a codex, a kind of book, of papyrus sheets (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t reading from his I-phone or tablet!).
       He was reading from the Prophet Isaiah, from one of the most gripping messianic passages in the Bible, Isaiah 53!  In God’s timing, this man was reading from perhaps the most poignant text in the prophets, describing the “Suffering Servant.”  It is clear that he was searching for understanding, he wanted to know the God of the Bible and he wanted to understand better what God expected of him, and God found a way…
            Likewise, each us has been placed by God exactly where he wants us. Nothing is mere chance. There are people around us, walking through the desert, desperately in need of the water of life.  Most won’t admit how needy they are. Many are in denial when it comes to their spiritual need. Some will have had their hearts prepared, they are fertile soil, ready to receive the Word that gives life.  God will arrange “divine appointments” for each of us, and He will use us as He brings life through His Word.

II. A discerning witness: Meeting them where they are (30-35).
        Philip is where God wanted him and that allows God to direct him more precisely to respond to this specific opportunity:    “And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’  30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’" The Spirit does not usually speak to us in an audible voice, but part of the message of Acts is that in this age the Holy Spirit leads the people of God. Paul, for example, will say in Romans 8:14, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” How does He lead? 1) Through Scripture first of all. What does the Bible say about it?  2) Secondly, He leads us through the godly counsel of others that He brings into our path. 3) And he will also work providentially through the circumstances of life. Our God is that big. If we trust Him, He will make our paths straight.
         Notice Philip hears him reading the text aloud (as would have been the norm) and begins by asking questions, “Do you understand…?” He knows God had led him to this encounter, so he is not going to leave the question unasked. “Do you understand what you are reading?”  Questions are a good way of getting a sense of where someone is spiritually. For many years I’ve used two questions I learned in the Evangelism Explosion Equipping ministry nearly 30 years ago that really helped me in trying to discern where someone is, spiritually.
       1) Have you come to a place in your spiritual life where you know for sure that you are going to heaven?  That question gets different responses, some depending on the theology of the person, their understanding of eternal security and the like. Some are surprised to learn that this kind of assurance is even possible, and that it is one of the reasons the Bible was written.  John said in I John 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life…” Notice, he wrote “so that they might know…” There is no need to worry, have doubt or linger in uncertainty about eternity. God wants us to have the assurance that we are saved. So one good diagnostic question to ask is straightforward, “Do you know for certain you are going to heaven?” Do you?
       2) The second question is even more pointed, “If you were to die today and stand before God, and He was to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my Heaven?’, what would you say?” This really gets to the heart of the matter. What is the basis of your hope of eternal life? If Jesus was correct in that “the way is narrow that leads to life, and few there are that find it,” what is the correct response, the answer that means life instead of eternal separation from God?
        The eunuch was clearly ready to hear the truth about Jesus. He admits he needs someone to show him the way, to guide him in his understanding, and he is ready to receive the truth. Starting at the scripture he was reading, Philip shows him the truth about Jesus.  This was a “divine appointment” to be sure, and Philip was ready with a “discerning witness.” God will arrange “divine appointments” for each of us, and He will use us as He brings life through His Word.

III. A Decisive Moment: A Response of Faith - The Biblical Pattern is to believe and be baptized (36-40).  “Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’"  The implication is that the eunuch has received the words of Philip with faith, and put his trust in Jesus as Lord. He asks, “Why can’t I be baptized?” Really what he was saying is “I want to be baptized right now!”
       Verse 37 is absent from most Greek manuscripts, appearing only in some Latin texts. It is probably something that was added later to clarify what was probably said in response to the question in v.36. Not having it doesn’t change what is implicit in the context. The text has Philip give the requirement for baptism: faith (in Christ). The answer the Eunuch gives shows a right understanding of who Jesus is, that is, the Christ, the Son of God: “Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’"  With or without v.37 the point is clear enough: baptism is a response of faith in Jesus. Now this is not the main point, but I think its clear enough. What kind of baptism was this?
     1) It was believer’s baptism (he believed and then was baptized).
     2) It was baptism by immersion. When they came to some water, clearly a stream or river, he asked about being baptized. They were going through a desert place, it was a long trip, surely they were traveling with water in some kind of skin or jar for drinking. If sprinkling or pouring was in view, there was no need to wait until they came to some “water”!  Also notice that Philip and the eunuch went down into the water. That is the plain sense of the Greek preposition used here. The normal usage of the word is “into,” i.e., they entered the water together which would not have been necessary if this was sprinkling or pouring.  And third of all, the word “baptizo,” “baptize,” means “to immerse or dip.” So we read, 
So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him” (8:38). 
Philip’s job was done, and God moved him onto another place, in this case miraculously. The eunuch went on his way rejoicing… “Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.”  There is reason for rejoicing when we know we are right with God, not based on our feelings but based on the truth of the Word of God.

What is God saying to me in this passage? God will arrange “divine appointments” for each of us, and He will use us as He brings life through His Word.

What would God have me to do in response to this passage?  First, let me talk to those who are seekers, who are here and curious and who might want to know more about Jesus, about who He is and what He has done. You are not here by chance. God has planned this exact moment in your life. You have heard the truth: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him, [on Jesus] the iniquity of us all.” You can receive forgiveness because of Him, if you will believe He is the Son of God and trust that He died for you, for your sins, and rose again.  It may be that someone here has believed and yet you have not been baptized. What hinders you from being baptized? Jesus tells us to do it, to do it after we believe, to do it soon after we believe as it symbolizes our new life through faith in Him, it even shows us that it should be done by going down into the water, by immersion. What hinders you from taking this step and publically professing your faith in Him?  There may be others who are believers and who are baptized, but who are hesitant to accept the truth that God wants you to be His witness.  You are not on the Gaza road. Thankfully these days! But you are in a desert place, surrounded by people who are desperately thirsty, whether they know it or not.  God will arrange the “appointments,” the opportunities. Our part is to be available, our calling is to be His witness.     Think about that.     AMEN.