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The Danger of First Impressions - Acts 28:1-10

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“The Danger of First Impressions”
Acts 28:1-10
©Copyright 2004 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche, March 14, 2004
You have probably all heard the adage, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”. There are books and articles filled with advice on how to make a good first impression. Here are some of the bits of wisdom I found,
· Dress appropriately. When in doubt, dress conservatively.
· Assume a posture that is neither too relaxed and sloppy, nor tense and forward. Do not chew gum.
· Use natural gestures. Don’t clench your fists.
· Don’t play with a pen, change in your pocket, or your glasses
· Don’t mumble, don’t speak in a monotone voice, don’t use slang or colloquialisms like “you know”.
· Be positive, avoid negative topics, and don’t vent hostility. Remember to smile.
· Listen well
· Maintain eye contact 90% of the time
· Answer questions but don’t over elaborate.
· Make the other person the center of the conversation
· Use the name of the person frequently
· Be careful with humor
· Give up the need to be “right”
· Choose your words carefully. You will be judged by your vocabulary and your grammar.
Admittedly, these are all good tips. The danger is that you will be so concerned about these things that you will make a bad first impression!
There are dangers in putting too much weight on a first impression. This morning, as we look at the last chapter of the book of Acts, we will see the Apostle Paul on the island of Malta. The people of the island drew some quick first impressions. Both times they were wrong. Paul’s experience can serve as a warning for all of us.
Malta was an island that was just 58 miles from Sicily. It wasn’t very big. It was 17 miles long and 9 miles wide. The 276 men on board the ship that Paul was on came to shore not knowing what island they had arrived at. In ancient times, when people from a shipwreck arrived on shore they could very likely face death or slavery. When these travelers heard that the island was Malta, they were overjoyed because Malta was an island that belonged to Rome. In fact, I read that many Roman soldiers went to Malta to retire.
Instead of hostility, the victims of the shipwreck encountered people who were gracious and kind. The people on board the ship were wet from their swim to shore. We also know that it was late in the year so they were probably also cold. The first order of business would be to warm them up.
The islanders went about gathering wood for a fire. The Apostle Paul quickly helped gather sticks. Notice the attitude of the Apostle Paul. He understood that we are saved so that we might serve. He was willing to do whatever needed to be done. He was quick to pitch in.
May I stop here and ask a question? In what ways are you serving the Lord? Are you one of the saints who are a follower of Christ in name only, or are you putting your faith into action? Do you find yourself saying, “That’s not my job?” The Apostle Paul loved the Lord and was willing to serve Him in any way possible.
Paul went to throw the sticks he gathered on the fire and a snake that had been lying dormant on a stick (or was itself mistaken as a stick) struck the Apostle, grabbing hold of his hand. Paul, shook the snake off into the fire.
Some criticize this story and say it was made up to enhance Paul’s image. They point out that there are no poisonous snakes on Malta today. This doesn’t mean there were no snakes of this sort at the time of Paul. As civilization developed across the island, the snakes might have been eliminated.
Others charge the snake was not really poisonous. There are two things to keep in mind. First, Luke was a physician and would have been well acquainted with poisonous snakes. Second, the people of Malta obviously considered the snake poisonous by their reaction to the bite. It would be silly to expect Paul to die if they knew the snake was just a common garden snake.
Immediately, these people draw a first impression of the Apostle Paul. Here we see our first caution in drawing first impressions. These people may have known Paul was a prisoner so when they saw the snake bite Paul, they concluded he was getting what he deserved. They concluded that Paul was a wicked man. In their first impressions they were guilty of diminishing Paul.
I wonder how many times we have seen something happen and quickly drawn negative conclusions about a person. I wonder how many children and adults have had to live with a label given them a long time ago. Perhaps it was an unfortunate incident at school where something embarrassing happened and everyone concluded that you were inept. Maybe you have had to live with the scars from those who said, “you are no good” or “you are stupid” or “you are ugly”.
Maybe you are living with the conclusions people have drawn about you after a failure you had in your life (a divorce, a bout with drugs or alcohol, legal problems, financial mismanagement, emotional problems, or bad decisions). People concluded you were “no good”, “unbalanced”, immoral or “a poor businessman”. These people made quick and unfair judgments and you are still paying the price.
On the flip side, we must be aware of the fact that we have probably been guilty of labeling people ourselves. We have chained someone to their past actions and our interpretations of these actions. We must repent.
There is another danger from drawing first impressions. You may not only diminish a person, you may also unduly exalt them. When Paul did not die from the snakebite, these fickle people went from concluding Paul was a felon who was being punished, to believing he must be a god!
Paul had seen this kind of extremism before. In Acts 14 we read the story of Paul and Barnabus in Lystra. They served as God’s agents of healing for a man lame from birth. When the people saw the miracle they began to worship Paul and Barnabus as Zeus and Hermes. When the apostles understood what was happening they put a stop to such idolatry and pointed the people to Jesus. Within a short matter of time the Judaizers convinced the crowd that Paul was an evil man and they stoned him and left him for dead.
We shake our head at the fickleness and foolishness of these stories. We shouldn’t feel so smug. We live in a society that is quick to elevate someone to the status of power and influence. We tend to exalt athletes, musicians, actors and actresses, authors, politicians and even people in ministry. Some people go so far as to cut their hair and dress like these contemporary idols. Some have gone so far as to have plastic surgery. We plaster pictures of these people on our walls and imagine being like them. We swoon at concerts and tend to believe everything they say about anything! This is what the Bible calls idolatry.
The Bible tells about the coming of the Antichrist. This person is going to rise to a position of prominence in all the world. They will be able to do this because we are people who are too willing to fall for a slick word and a good public relations job. The Bible warns us that false teachers will worm their way into our lives and into our churches because we are seduced by appearances.
In Luke 18 we read the story of a man coming up to Jesus and saying, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Do you know what Jesus’ response was? He said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Jesus was not saying he was not good. He was not denying his own deity here. What Jesus was doing was rebuking the man for calling Him good when he didn’t even know him. When we use the terms, good, great, excellent, outstanding, incredible and awesome about other people without knowing them, we trivialize the goodness, greatness, Excellency, holiness, and awesomeness of God.
The then is this: how do we keep from drawing false conclusions (good or bad) about another person? Life is confusing. We get mixed messages. Depending on who is airing the commercial during a political season, a person may appear to be the most wonderful person in the world and the leader we have been desperately needing in one commercial. In the very next commercial, that same person may appear to be the son of Satan! How do we sort through such conflicting messages?
In Paul’s case, it took time. On the island of Malta there was a Roman governor by the name of Publius who took the shipwreck visitors into his estate for three days while other arrangements could be made. During this time Paul ministered healing to the ailing father of the governor. People took notice.
The men stayed on Malta for three months while they waited for better sailing weather. If we have learned anything about the Apostle Paul in our study of Acts, we have learned that Paul never missed an opportunity to share his faith. During this time on Malta I’m sure the people came to appreciate Paul as a servant of God, and a sinner who had been saved by God’s wonderful grace. Paul surely encouraged these people not to focus on him but on the one who deserves our worship and adoration. They came to know Paul because they got to know Paul.
As you and I try to be fair with each other (and hope that others are fair with us) we need to keep some simple principles in mind.
First, Not everyone is going to like us. If you spend your life trying to impress everyone around you, it is going to be a very frustrating life you live. Don’t get me wrong, I want people to like me. But I want them to like ME . . . the person I really am. When we try to become what others want us to be, life is frustrating, and we lose our identity.
Every one of us needs to grow. Let’s grant that fact about ourselves and about others. But let’s also accept the fact that some people are not going to accept that fact.
Second, facts and drawing conclusions from those facts are two different things.
· It may be valid to say, “I saw this person out at a restaurant and they had several drinks.” It is another to draw the conclusion that a person has a drinking problem.
· It is accurate to say that a certain person was quiet when you met them. It is another to conclude they are socially awkward. You don’t know why a person was quiet. Maybe they are shy. Maybe they were listening. Maybe you aren’t giving them a chance to say anything!
· It is one thing to say that when you talked to a person they were upset. It is another to label them a hothead. You don’t know what else was going on in that person’s life when you saw them.
· It is one thing to say a student has a problem with a class, it is quite another to call them stupid or to say they have a learning disorder. Different people are good at different things.
· It is one thing to observe that a person owns many nice things; it is something else to call them materialistic.
We must work hard to not draw conclusions until we have ALL the facts.
Third, we need to remember that others are inconsistent, just like we are. We all have bad days. Every one of us has made some good decisions, and some bad decisions in our lives. We hope that people will give us the benefit of the doubt. We should be willing to give that benefit of the doubt to others.
Sometimes we place unrealistic demands on the people in our lives. We expect our spouses to always know what we are thinking; our children to always agree with what we want for their lives; our employers to always pay us enough so we can live as we want to live; our leaders to address the priorities of all their constituents; our Pastors to always preach a great sermon or make a timely visit; our fellow believers to always step up and meet a need.
Is it any wonder that many of us feel inadequate? We can’t live up to our own expectations much less the expectations of everyone else. We must accept the fact that most people are trying to do their best. Some days they do a better job than others; just like us.
Fourth, everyone you meet has a reputation they are trying to escape. Maybe you have a reputation of being a hothead, or indifferent, arrogant, or judgmental. Maybe others think of you as immoral, unethical, mean or divisive. May some consider you boring, shy and not much fun.
It’s possible that at one time you might have even deserved that reputation. But time has past. You have changed but you can’t seem to get anyone to notice the change.
The Christian community is supposed to be made up of people who have experienced a new beginning in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we should understand the gift mercy and new beginnings. We should be the first people willing to let each other escape from the baggage of their past.
Is there someone in your life that you have pre-judged? Is there someone you have “written off” without really giving them a chance? Is there someone you are holding hostage to their past? Where is the love of Christ in you? Where is forgiveness? Where is compassion and understanding?
Finally, we must remember that a first impression and a relationship are two different things. A first impression is impulsive. It requires a snap judgment. A relationship takes time. In order to have a real relationship with someone you need to take the time to enter into their world. You must understand their personality, their needs, their gifts, their wounds, and their treasures. You can’t understand these things after a single encounter. It takes time; lot’s of time. Relationships are precious; everything else is superficial and temporary.
Jesus calls His followers to love each other. He has called us to enter into each other’s lives and to love, as He loved. In order to obey this command, we have to do better than simply rely on our first impressions.
This morning we have talked about doing a better job of relating to each other. I hope you have found something practical and helpful in where our text has led us today. But there is one more thing before we adjourn.
It’s possible that you are having trouble with your spiritual life because of the first impressions you had of Jesus.
· Maybe you have concluded that Jesus is uncaring because some Christians you know have been unkind and insensitive to you.
· Maybe you have concluded that God dislikes you because your circumstances have been hard.
· Maybe you believe Christianity is simply a bunch of do’s and don’t because every “Christian” you know seems more concerned about rules than people.
· Maybe you’ve watched the tele-evangelists and have concluded that Christianity is just a scam.
If this is where you are, please look again my friend. Please work to move past your first impression. Look beyond those who wear the label “Christian”. Look past your circumstances, and take another look at Jesus. Understand why He died as he did. Look past the cross to the empty tomb. Look past the tomb to the gates of Heaven where this Jesus stands as the judge of the universe but also like a Father who has His arms open to welcome His children after a long absence. Please, take another look, because if you look closely, and believe and follow fully, you will find that your first impressions were wrong. I believe you will discover that this Jesus, is the very one you have been looking for all your life.
©Copyright 2004 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche, March 14, 2004
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