(Sermon preached at Cromer on 26th November 2017)
My name is Paul, once called Saul. God has given me a job to do: to proclaim the kingdom of God everywhere I can, telling everyone about Jesus the King.
If you knew me a few years ago, you would be incredibly surprised. I hated the name, Jesus, and did my best to stamp out the new religious movement that he had started. You see, I was a fanatical Jew. I believed that God had chosen the Jews and given them rules for living that everyone had to obey – and if anyone obeyed them to the full, I did. Or I thought I did. As for those who worshipped idols, the gods of Greece and Rome, as far as I was concerned they were beyond the pale, destined only for the fires of hell. But here I am now, talking about Jesus to anyone who will listen, whether Jew or not.
What had happened?
When I first heard about Jesus I was living in Jerusalem, studying the law under a famous rabbi. I heard about his miracles. I heard that he taught that God was a God of love. But I knew also that he broke the law of the sabbath day, by healing people on it; and he taught that God approved more of tax collector who admitted he was an evil doer than of a Pharisee like me who took pride in keeping his law. What’s more, I knew Jesus had been crucified – and that the law said anyone who was hung on a tree, or crucified, was under God’s curse. So when I heard people saying that he was alive again, and that he was the Messiah, the king of the world God promised to send, I saw red. That teaching had to be stopped, at all costs. When one of Jesus’ followers, Stephen, was stoned to death by the Jewish authorities, I fully approved.
I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to me.
I was going to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus and bring them to trial and execution. I was nearly there when suddenly a dazzling light shone around me and I heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Frightened, I fell to the ground, and managed to ask, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The answer shook me to the core: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now go into Damascus and you will be told what you are to do.’ It was as if my whole world had come to an end. Jesus, whom I knew had been crucified, was speaking to me from heaven! All my conclusions about him and his followers crumbled into dust – I’d got it all wrong, horribly wrong. I got up, but could not see – further proof, if any were needed, that this was all from God. I was led into Damascus, and was so glad I then had time to pray and think. I tell you, my whole world had changed. Lots of things came into my mind and heart all at the same time, and I needed to get my head around them.
First, I realised that I had been fighting against God, not for him. That was shock number one. The next shock was that God was not fighting against me, but enlisting me on his side. Not a word of blame. That staggered me. How could he not punish me for all the evil I had done to his people? If anyone deserved to be thrown into hell, that was me! Yet he really wanted me on his side. How could that be? A third shock was realising that this Jesus whom I hated really had God’s authority, and that all that he had done, his miracles, his teaching, yes, and his death and resurrection, were done as God’s representative. God was in him!
What helped me to makes sense of it all was the combination of my experience, what I knew of Jesus, and what I knew of the Scriptures. I knew that I would one day have to account for my words and deeds before God – there would be a judgement day. But I realised that all my training and efforts to keep the law hadn’t prevented me fighting against God. The fact that God obviously accepted me and was not counting my sins against me was all God’s doing, not mine. But how could God have reconciled me to himself? How could he have me on his side? Why would he want it?
Suddenly I made sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection Since Jesus was alive and had God’s authority, his death could not have been a punishment for his own sin. I remembered how people offering sacrifices put their hands on the animal, as if they were putting responsibility for their misdeeds on the animal to be slaughtered.
And I suddenly saw that this was what had happened with Jesus: that he was indeed sinless as his followers claimed, completely right with God; and that he had died for his people – including me: he had taken responsibility for all my faults and failures and wrong doing, and on the cross he had died for me, so that I could be reconciled to God and be accepted by him without any further condemnation! God was in King Jesus reconciling me to himself, not counting any of my trespasses against me!
Imagine this booklet was the record of my life – all my thoughts and words and deeds, some not so bad, some very bad. There’s no way, with this record, I could be acceptable to God. But here is Jesus, sent by God, with no such record. Isaiah said, ‘All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ I saw that if I was joined to Jesus by faith, he took responsibility for me and all I had done, and dealt with it on the cross. He gave his life for me. God made him who had no sin to be sin for me, so that in him I might become the righteousness of God. He rose to life victorious, and brought me with him; I too was joined to his resurrection life and am acceptable to God. I’m reconciled! God has nothing against me now! And it’s not just me he’s done this for – reconciliation is for everyone who will believe in him! Why has he done this? Because he loves us. Amazing love!
At once many of the Scriptures that I knew but didn’t understand began to make sense. Lots of Scriptures prophesy that God is planning a new creation, under the rule and blessing of the Messiah. I saw that God’s plan for the world was being fulfilled through Jesus the King, and that his resurrection was the beginning of the new creation. We don’t come to Jesus just to be forgiven so that we can then go our own way as before. Jesus died for us so that we who live will live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised. He’s the King! The King of love! We’ve been reconciled so that God can be our God and we can be his people, both here and in the new creation! And I sensed that I was already part of the new creation – everything had changed! I had a new life! And what happened to me could happen to anyone. That is why I now tell everyone I can about Christ the King.
Let me, Paul, ask you: are you reconciled to God? Truly reconciled? Living in the light both of his authority and of his saving love? Some people are like I was, always trying to do the right thing, but not believing in his saving love, not accepting he died for them, and is making them fit to live in God’s presence for all eternity. They think their salvation depends on them. That’s not reconciliation. Others are the other way around: they believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, believe they are forgiven and are on their way to live with God for ever – but don’t want to submit to Christ the king in their everyday lives. You hear them say, ‘I know I shouldn’t do this, or say this, but…’ That’s not reconciliation either. Be reconciled to God! Now is the day of God’s favour! Now is the day of salvation! Tomorrow might be too late!
I know most of you are already reconciled to God through Jesus. But do you know that he has committed this message of reconciliation to all of us, that we all are his ambassadors, promoting his agenda? I don’t expect all of you to go on missionary journeys like me; but we all have some part to play, as God’s Spirit leads us, in spreading this amazing good news. As ambassadors we represent him, and speak and act in his name, with his authority. So whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of Jesus who loved us and for our sakes died and rose again. His love is reaching out to the world around us, and he so wants to reach out through us. We cannot keep this message to ourselves, whatever the cost! Whatever the cost.
Lord Jesus Christ, you died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for you who died for them and was raised again. I am sorry for the times I have lived for myself. I am sorry for the times I have doubted your love, or taken it for granted. Thank you for loving me so much that you took all my sins and failures, that in union with you I may be just perfect as far as God is concerned. I choose now live for you, as your representative. May all I do, by word or deed, be done in your name, with great gratitude, for the glory of God and the extension of his kingdom. Amen.