May 8, 2022: 3rd Sunday after Easter

Let us pray: Dear Savior, tune our ears to Your voice of comfort and hope.  Tune our hearts toward Your undying kindness and love.  Tune our mouths to speak Your truth in love.  And tune our lives into that blessed equilibrium of knowing that we are Your beloved sheep and You are our beloved Shepherd.  Amen

GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, THE SHEPHERD OF YOUR SOULS!

TEXT:  John 10: 22-30

Fellow Redeemed Sinners: 

          My favorite American tourist story deals with being driven around Siena, Italy.  The car ahead of us was going slow, too slow for our native driver!  He made a passing comment about “American drivers” and pointed out dad driving, mom trying to read the map in the front seat, and the daughter in the back of the car looking about anxiously.  We all had a laugh.  It is true that you can usually pick Americans out of the crowd in a foreign country.  We are physically larger, wear sneakers a lot, and are usually not as fashionable in our dress as the locals.  Our facial features also differ.  On that last point, one of my colleagues who lived for many years in Europe once shared with me an interesting insight.  He said that Europeans can usually pick out the nationality of another person simply by looking at their face.  It seems different languages use different facial muscles, hence the uniqueness of our features.  Since he’s a language major, I’ll differ to his observation.   All of this points to what I call The Recognition Factor.   Since Christians are the most unique people on this planet, today I want to discuss THE RECOGNITION FACTOR with you!

I

          “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem.  It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.  The Jews gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’”

          It was December, Hanukkah time.   The time when the Jews celebrated the rededication of the temple under the Maccabees about 160 years before.  The idea behind this celebration paralleled the Psalm verse: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit.”  Unfortunately, from the rather clueless question posed to Christ, it is obvious that although the temple had been renewed, the hearts of the people had not.

          Another item of interest is the forum Jesus employs to teach them exactly Who He really is.  Solomon’s Colonnade was a “porch” outside the temple.  In Greek it is called the “stoa” from which we get the word “stoic.”  The contrast here is that Christ not only changes minds but does something even more important.  He also has concern for the heart and soul of lost humans.  Unlike today when humans define themselves in terms of body and mind, God reminds us that we also have a soul, the very heart of our humanness and that the health of that soul is vital for life.

          The fact of the matter is this: Although they ask Jesus if He is the Messiah, He has already told them, showed them, and proved it to them.  They just didn’t want to listen.  Already He has done countless miracles.  Already He has fulfilled countless prophesies about Himself.  Already He has exhibited amazing understanding of the Bible and dazzled the masses with it.  Already He has fed their souls.  And yet, human unbelief is strong.  Humans hate giving up their preconceived notions about Who God really is and why He came into this world.  Unfortunately humans don’t recognize their need for a Savior because they think they can save themselves by simply going through the motions of external piety.

II

          So, what does Christ do about this failure to grasp the obvious?  He instructs them, and us, in The Recognition Factor!  “Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe.  The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.’”

          Have you ever been to the grocery, looked for an item, and unable to find it asked for help—and then had it pointed out that you’re standing directly in front of it?!  Well, that’s Christ’s point.  He’s given people countless signs and words of truth about Himself and His plan for our salvation.  He really did miracles.  He really did heal people.  He really did raise people from the dead.  And in every instance He also proclaimed that God’s gift of eternal life is just that—a gift.  A gift earned by Christ for us and given to us freely through faith. 

          In Italy, our driver, Leo, found out that I was a minister.  After quizzing me a bit, he informed me that “He loves Jesus.”  I responded, “That’s wonderful!  But, it’s even better that Jesus loves you!”  That’s the point for God’s sheep.  They focus on, they recognize that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and He loves them.  He laid down His life for them—for us.  And we then respond to His voice of comfort and hope through faith.  We recognize Him because He has bought, paid for, and made us His own with His blood.

          Next time you find yourself  traveling in a foreign country, employ the recognition factor in sizing up the crowd around you.  You’ll find it enlightening.  But even more importantly, employ that recognition factor to yourself and to your relationship with Christ and ultimately you’ll find a real home in heaven.  Amen

THE PEACE OF GOD WHICH….

Pastor Thomas Fox 

May 1, 2022: 2nd Sunday after Easter

Let us pray: Dear Savior, love moved You to take a chance on all of us in inviting us to Your heavenly table.  As a result, we have graciously become co-heirs of Your victory and recipients of eternal life.  Prompt us today to take a chance on other hurting souls by inviting, encouraging, and leading them to You through our bold confession of Your Easter triumph!  Amen

GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, THE GIVER OF ETERNAL BLESSINGS

TEXT:  Acts 9: 1-19a

Fellow Redeemed Sinners: 

          St. Paul and I were talking in heaven recently about the first time we met.  My name is Ananias and I was Paul’s first pastor.  Our first encounter was not an easy one for either of us.  Paul, or as he was known then as Saul, was a horrible enemy of God’s Church.  He was raised in Tarsus, got a wonderful education by the leading teacher of the day: Dr. Gamaliel; and then went on to rabbi school in Jerusalem.  He was there when Christ was crucified.  This man, Saul, then became active in the early persecution of Christians in that city.  With 480 local synagogues in Jerusalem to choose from, Saul sought out believers everywhere he turned.  In the book of Acts, St. Luke first talks about Saul as the one who “consented” to St. Stephan’s death by stoning from the enemies of the cross.  Some of your modern scholars read this to mean that Saul was now over 30, about Christ’s age, and served as an up-and-coming rabbi on the Jewish ruling council.  I won’t comment on that, but I will tell you that Saul held the cloaks of those men as they beat Stephen to death with rocks. 

          We started to hear stories about how zealous Saul was in his hatred for Christians.  Yes, we had eyes and ears attuned to all this hatred in Jerusalem and we received word of this arch-foe of Christ.  His synagogue roundups of believers and their subsequent torture became legendary.  Then we received word that this awful man was heading our way!  He had received letters from the high priest giving him authority to capture, imprison, and torture us!  Obviously as a leader of one of the Damascus churches, my name was on the list.  A lot of my flock went into hiding.  We all prayed.  Fear stalked our every move.

          Finally, we got news that this fearsome Saul had arrived!  But, it was strange.  He appeared to be blind.  Other men were leading him by the arm into his lodgings.  What was going on? 

          Then after three days of this fearful waiting, God appeared to me in a vision and called out my name: “Ananias!”  I answered as you would when confronted by the Lord Almighty.  I simply said: “Yes, Lord.”  And then He told me directly: “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.  In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”  Well, God was pretty direct in His words.  And they made me even more petrified since there could be no mistake that I was that man!  Like you, I laid out my objections which all stemmed from my frail flesh.  “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.  And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”  But, God answered those objections with words that still ring in my ears.  “Go!  This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

          Well, when God gives you a direct command, you obey.  Yes, I did think about those who had ignored such commands of God.  I thought of Jonah and how he was too fearful to preach repentance in Nineveh because it seemed so futile.  I thought about how Jonah tried to get away from it all on that ship and how the great fish swallowed him up, spit him out on dry land, and then how Jonah learned that it was better to trust in God and obey than to hold onto his own fears.  So, I went.  I went to Straight Street, that mile long 100ft wide street that bordered one of the city walls.  I went to Judas’ house, gulped, knocked on the door and found Saul.  Every step of the way I thought about Jesus walking to the cross in my place.  I thought about how fearlessly He allowed His enemies to nail him to it.  And I prayed for Him to be with me and help me. 

          Saul seemed to know I was coming.  He was calm and didn’t seem to want my skin to hang on his trophy wall.  So, I just got to the point.  I placed my hands on him and said: “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here (yes, God had given me that knowledge of Saul’s conversion, but part of me didn’t really believe it was genuine)—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  After this was said, scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again.  He embraced me.  He wanted to be baptized, and I did so.  He ate food and regained his strength.

          In the subsequent days, Saul, now known as Paul, preached Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins throughout the city.  He talked about how the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him and totally changed, converted his heart.  He was dynamic in his preaching and just wouldn’t shut up!  My congregation was amazed at it all and welcomed him into the fold.  For if this wasn’t “fruits of repentance” what was?!  A bit later, Paul’s former allies who hated us and were dazed by his change, plotted to have him killed in order to silence him.  Again, our blessed spies found out about the plot.  We knew they had guards posted at all the city gates in order to arrest him.  So, one night we went to a nondescript hole in the city wall far above the ground, put Paul in a woven basket and let him down by rope.  He escaped certain death!  And he went on for another 30+ years to change the world by preaching and converting people to trust in Christ, Who alone changes hard hearts through self-sacrificing love rather than through fear.  All other religions in your world try to motivate people through coercion and fear.  But Christ alone has made eternal peace with God on our behalf and in love invites us to embrace Him in  the love that He gave to us on the cross. 

          That love of Christ for Paul and for me turned my life around.  It enabled me to overcome my fleshly fear and take a chance (humanly speaking) on Paul.  And as a result, my life’s story could be entitled: BLESSINGS RESULT FROM TAKING A CHANCE FOR CHRIST! 

          St. Luke doesn’t refer to me anywhere else in the book of Acts.  And you don’t need to know anything more about my life other than eventually Christ took me to heaven and my eternal mansion in on the same street where St. Paul now resides.  We’re great friends.  We get together daily.  He tells me stories of how my taking a chance on him for Christ’s sake helped populate a pretty good sized chunk of the Holy City.  It all makes for a festive celebration each day, especially when Christ, Who is the reason for it all comes to visit.  So, dear Christians, don’t be afraid to take a chance at obeying Christ and sharing His salvation with another.  I’m proof, Paul’s proof, that it really does work and blessings really do result!  Amen

THE PEACE OF GOD WHICH….

Pastor Thomas H. Fox