God works even through great trouble
Acts: The Final Chapter • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 26:06
0 ratings· 218 views
We live in a world that’s filled with trouble, right? You just have to watch the news for a moment to see that. There are so many bad stories, the media can’t keep up with them all - so things quickly disappear from our news, and perhaps we can manage to forget them - but the truth is they’re all still there: the coup in Myanmar, war in Syria, drug violence in Colombia, oppression and famine in North Korea. We live in a world that’s filled with trouble, where it seems like we’re right on the cusp of things spiralling out of control and the whole world just going down in flames.
How do you cope with a world like this? How do you carry on?
You can just shrug your shoulders and let it fill you with cynicism: “life sucks; deal with it”-style. It is what it is.
You can try and ignore it, and live the escapist life: just throw yourself into making sourdough, or into the latest videogame; or just trying to make it through the day. Leave the big stuff to the big people and just get on with your little stuff.
Or you can hope for change: if we could just get a few bad apples out of the big seats, and put reasonable, ordinary, nice people in them instead... Change those at the top. Or maybe change those at the bottom: If we could just get a bit more education, a bit more liberty, a bit more technology, a bit more democracy… but it’s so easy to feel powerless in the face of the scale of all this.
How do you cope with a world filled with trouble?
Well, we’re continuing our journey through the story of the earliest churches as recorded in the bible - and one thing’s for sure, that church was living in a world of trouble too. We’re coming to the end of a story-arc which began with a guy called Saul on a mission to totally destroy the church. Starting with the ugly death of one of it’s leading lights, Steven, we saw a vicious wave of persecution suddenly hit the church, shattering it, scattering everyone to the four winds - but even running away isn’t going to be enough because this guy Saul starts coming after people.
And then, out of the blue, Saul has his famous Damascus Road experience: Jesus stops him in his tracks, turns his world upside down. Jesus takes the church’s arch enemy, a notorious christian killer, and forgives him. What happens next in that world of trouble? Lots of things get turned upside down. Listen with me as El reads to us from Acts chapter 9:
and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
So what happens? First up: Persecutor becomes Preacher
Did you notice that as El read?
At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
at once he began to preach - he’s up and out of the starting blocks like a tiger. You might have thought it’d be wise to take some time to get your head around things given your world has just been turned upside down but no. It’s true that those newest to the faith are often the most vocal about it. But it’s worth remembering here that Saul isn’t just anyone. Elsewhere in the Bible we learn: he had spent years training as an elite Jewish preacher under the best of the best in Jerusalem. Standing up and speaking in a synagogue was exactly what he had trained for, exactly what he was used to doing, exactly what he would be perfectly placed to do. It’s not what you see every new convert to Christianity doing as we follow the story through Acts, though.
Now Damascus, the city he lands in is shocked - the one they thought was going to be the chief opponent of Christians turns out to be the chief proponent instead! They knew what he had done back in Jerusalem. They knew what he was planning to do there in Damascus. And instead here he is best buddies with these Christians, hanging out with them, arguing their case in the Synagogue for them: Jesus is the son of God, not just another rebel, not just another fake. Jesus is the Messiah - that is, the promised one, the chosen one, the one God’s plan said would come to fix everything. The Jews are all baffled - and no wonder!
But when Saul gets to Jerusalem, our story focuses on how the church there struggle to believe it. And that totally makes sense because it’s not just the guy you heard about who’s coming to get you, like it was for the church in Damascus, but it’s the guy who arrested your friends, who killed them. Can you really believe he’s changed that much? Is it just be a clever ruse to get onto the inside, Trojan horse style?
By the way, if you’re wondering how the church that was shattered and scattered in Jerusalem seems to be back when Saul gets there, there’s three years tucked away between verse 22 and 23. You can see that here because in v19 he’s only with the disciples in Damascus “several days”, but in v23 he gets in trouble after “many days”. He tells us what happened in another of his letters, Galatians: after those first days in Damascus he spent three years in Arabia before coming back to Damascus, meeting trouble and then heading up to Jerusalem.
And speaking of trouble, that’s our next stop. Persecutor becomes preacher. tables turned. Then the tables turn again: Preacher becomes Persecuted.
Lots of different words used in this passage for the way Saul presents his new message about Jesus: preaching, proving, speaking boldly, talking, debating. So he’s not just preaching in their Jewish religious gatherings. He’s trying to make a case, to win an argument, to convince people and bring them around to his view. Our christian-y term for that nowadays is apologetics. He’s a smart dude, well taught, a good speaker. So there’s reason to be hopeful. But how does it work out?
Well, there’s no amazing breakthroughs reported here - that’s not our author’s focus, instead we read in Damascus they “conspired to kill him” and in Jerusalem they “tried to kill him” too! I think there’s a pattern emerging here! This is not exactly an advert for apologetics is it? Not that I’m saying it’s a bad idea to be able to make reasonable arguments for what we believe - in fact, the bible encourages us to do exactly that - we just we need to be realistic in our expectations about how effective that might be, and how some people might respond.
It’ll turn out that Jesus has other plans for Saul - and the trouble that comes for him in Jerusalem will actually drive him forward into what’s next for him.
One last stop in our journey this morning: persecutor becomes preacher. preacher becomes persecuted. Finally, Persecution becomes peace.
And this is a bit of a surprise, really. Saul, persecutor turned preacher, manages to get himself in trouble quickly. Perhaps that’s because he was at the heart of the persecution before changing sides so they were particularly peeved with him. But either way, once he’s sent off, the church enjoys a time of peace, we read
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
The is the end of this particularly story arc we’ve been working through - persecution both started, and so it seems, finished by Saul. And what do we learn from the summary? The church isn’t destroyed by persecution - instead it’s multiplied through it. Through it, the church has exploded into the second phase of Jesus’ 3-phase plan: from Jersualem to Judea and Samaria; persecution scattered the believers from Jerusalem but it didn’t silence them; instead they multiplied; Through it, the seeds have been sown for the third phase: the ends of the earth. This isn’t the last we’ll see of Saul.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Preacher. Persecution. Peace. Three P’s. Cool, huh? But so what? We’re not them, we’re not then, and we’re not there - so what does this mean for us? I have two things for you.
First, we need to see God works even through great trouble.
Remember where we started, thinking about a world filled with trouble and how we can respond to that. Without God in the picture, our troubled world is just our problem - no one else to blame, no-one else to help. We can dream of fixing it - but let’s be real: a lot of people have tried to fix a lot of things for a long time and it’s obviously still mega broken - are things really any better than a generation back? Will they really be any better a generation forward? So we can just grow cynical about it, figuring it’s just the way it will be: Life sucks and then you die. Or we can try and hide from it in escapism: Life sucks so don’t bother, just check out. There aren’t that many ways to process, to respond to our troubled world without God in the picture.
No question, this bout of persecution was dreadful for the church. It scattered everyone but the apostles from Jerusalem. People went to prison. People died. It was great trouble. But with God in the picture we have a reason to hope even in the face of great trouble. Because we know it’s not just random, or just out of control, or just beyond repair. God worked through this great trouble - he works through our great troubles too.
We can have that confidence because through Jesus we can rightly call God our Father. And we know that our Father has all the power, is filled with all the goodness, and has all the love for us there is. It’s still trouble we go through. It still hurts. People still went to prison and people still died. But as Christians we have the right to trust that God knows what he’s doing in our troubles - even when we don’t.
It’s not easy to do that. I don’t want to be trite here. I know many of you have troubles - serious troubles in your life. Troubles that bring great pain, troubles where you don’t understand what God is doing, troubles where it’s hard to believe there could be any shred of good. I know many Christians around the world face the most desperate troubles in this life.
But the logic holds. If, through Jesus, God is your Father, your Father has all the power, is filled with all the goodness, and has all the love for you there is. Even in the darkness of the storm. You have the right to hope. Because, as we saw played out for us here, God works even through great trouble.
If you don’t know God as your Father through Jesus, but you wish there was a better story than “this world’s just a crazy mess”, I’m so glad you’re here. There is a better story: a world where someone is in control, someone powerful, good, and loving - this can be your story too. You can change tracks in a moment - look at this guy Saul: one day, no way Jesus, I’m going to kill you all. Next day, no way but Jesus, I’m going tell you all. You can change your mind about Jesus too. You can do it today. You can do it right now.
Repent and believe is how the bible talks about this switch, this step. Repent: that means turn around. Change direction, admit “I was going the wrong way. I’m sorry. I want to go the right way.” - Repent and Believe: believe that the story really could be this good. That Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, did everything right where we do things wrong, then died for everything wrong that we did. That he is our Messiah, saving us from death through his death, and bringing us instead into new life in God’s own family through his resurrection.
That’s what gets you the right to this hope in our troubles. It doesn’t make all the trouble go away - but it does change everything.
Area you ready to do that right now? I’m going to read out this really short prayer. As I read it, just say it to God inside your own head and he’ll hear you.
God, I was going the wrong way. I’m sorry. I want to go the right way.
Thank you that Jesus did everything right, yet took the punishment for all my wrong when he died on the cross
Thank you that Jesus rose into new life, and that I can share that new life in your family because of him
I want to follow you now - so as best as I know how, I give you my life.
Did you pray? We would love to connect with you and help you take your first steps in this new life if you did. If you’re here in the room, please talk to someone this morning - someone you came with, someone you know, or me if you like. If you’re on the livestream, there’s a box in the chat right now where you can click to raise your hand - it gives you the option to connect with someone at Hope City. If you’re watching a recording, send me an email. I’m email@example.com Let us help you take that first step.
… so God works even through great trouble - it can be a real comfort to have Him as Father in our troubled world.
Second thing: we see those who are forgiven much, love much
Jesus tells a story about two guys owing money, one a little, the other a lot. Neither can pay - but the moneylender lets them both off. Who’s going to love him more, Jesus asks? Those who are forgiven much, love much of course.
In Saul’s new way of life, his unrelenting attempts to share the hope of Jesus anywhere and everywhere no matter what comes his way, I think we see him “loving much” - and that makes sense because that flows out naturally from being one who’s been forgiven much - Saul needed a lot of forgiving.
Maybe you didn’t put people in prison or kill them for following Jesus - I hope you didn’t! But some of us know what it is to have done grave wrongs, to have been impossibly far from God, and then to have been forgiven. If you’ve been forgiven much, love much.
But that got me thinking: What if I don’t feel I’ve been forgiven that much? What if your faith story is less drama, more ordinary? Is this part of our often-small love for God? Maybe your life before Jesus came into it was just pretty ok, or you don’t even really have a “before” - maybe you were raised in the faith and haven’t strayed far. How does this work for you? Where do we find this fuel to love much when it’s not so easy to grasp we’ve been forgiven much?
Should we go get some big bad wrongs under our belt so we can get some big forgiveness? Of course not! Part of the problem is the way we price up our wrongs; we put small pricetags on things that are huge to God. We don’t appreciate just how big an issue things are. The truth is that every believer has been forgiven much - our challenge is in seeing that, grasping that.
But as I’ve been thinking about this, I had an idea that might help: being deliberate about seeing and celebrating God’s ongoing grace to us - not just that first saving grace.
See, the day you decide to follow Jesus isn’t the day you get totally sorted and never mess up again. My life following Jesus still has lots of mess and I still get lots of things wrong - sometimes badly wrong. Now I can pretend I don’t really get stuff wrong, and cover it up - but that won’t help me at all. Or I can go around hitting myself with a big stick: “bad Matt, bad Matt.” - but apart from making me feel down, that doesn’t actually do much good either. The bible teaches us to bring our mess to God instead:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
When I say sorry to God for somewhere I’ve messed up, this verse tells me it’s sorted, I’m purified again - and I feel a rush of relief. But can I go one step further? Can I somehow “count” this ongoing grace, see again that I’ve been forgiven more, and so love more in response? I’m going to be trying that this week - and I want to encourage you to have a go at it too. Try being deliberate about recognising God’s ongoing grace shown to you, and cultivating love for him in response.
Those who are forgiven much, love much - so love much this week.
Just a few seconds to reflect on what we’ve thought about this morning and then I’ll pray.