Life-Changing Words

Luke 7: 11-17   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Galatians 1: 11-24        June 5, 2016

“But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles...

Prayer:  With your Spirit guiding all of us, O God, please reveal your Son to us once again, that we may choose to share Christ with others.  Amen.

Over the last several months, I served on two Search Committees, one for our Penn Central Conference that searched for two Conference Associate Ministers, and the other was for our Director of Music position.  Of course, all the résumés I read listed all the work history, references, successes and accomplishments for each candidate.  None of them listed anything negative, as you would expect.  No one wants to put failures on a résumé.  Would you?  You want to put your best foot forward, right?

So, imagine my surprise when I read about Dr. Johannes Haushofer, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University.  He posted a résumé of his failures, which got more attention than any of his previous work.  His résumé consisted of items such as “Degree programs I did not get into,” “Research funding I did not receive,” “Paper rejections from academic journals,” and so forth.  He explains saying that “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible.  This sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me” (Christian Century, May 25, 2016, p.9, and https://www.princeton.edu/~joha/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf, retrieved June 3, 2016).

What Dr. Haushofer illuminates is that in our failures lay the groundwork for our successes.  Remember the famous quote by Thomas Edison?  Someone asked him if he was disappointed that he had no results after trying over 10,000 times in finding the right filament for the light bulb, and he said, “Results?  Why I have gotten a lot of results.  I know 10,000 things that won’t work!  I haven’t failed.  I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward” (http://thomasedison.com/quotes.html, retrieved June 3, 2016).

See, Paul’s first part of his letter to the Galatians is his attempt to verify and justify that he is a bona fide apostle of Christ who has received the gospel message from God.  Surprisingly, he does this by noting his résumé of failure and extreme negativity.  His earlier life in Judaism consisted of violently persecuting the people who believed in Jesus.  He tried to destroy their lives and their new found faith.  He became so zealous for Judaism that he let his enthusiasm overwhelm his moral compass.  All negative and all failures in terms of walking in God’s ways, wouldn’t you say?

Then he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (detailed in Acts 9).  And, Christ’s words to him in those moments were life-changing words.  His old life of negativity, violence and persecution against the new Christians ended.  His new life of proclaiming Christ to the non-Jews started.  His old life laid the groundwork for the new life because Paul was now able to look backward and see that he, more than anyone, could show the amazing life-changing power of Christ in his new life.  So, if we think theologically about this, God didn’t waste Paul’s negativity and violence.  Instead, it became the backdrop for his new calling to tell everyone about Christ.

So, if you’re going through something difficult right now, take heart! God will not waste your struggles.  God will not let your grief or hurt or pain be locked in a vacuum.  Nor will God let your résumé of inconsistency, of holding onto pre-conceived ideas and convictions, of choosing your own whims instead of following Christ’s ways be lost and of no use.  God can take our brokenness, our waywardness, our sinfulness, and create something new.  The lovely and the unlovely of our lives become the backdrop as God’s life-changing, life-starting word sinks in deeply and takes us to new places where God wants us to go. That’s the key! Even though God can take our brokenness and sinfulness and make it new, does that mean we get complacent? No way! In our new life because of life changing words of grace, we live different, better, holier lives.

For Paul, he believed that God wanted him to go to parts of the world where non-Jews were ripe to receive the Good News about Christ.  Paul even believed that God selected him for this purpose before he was born.  God called him even though he was very undeserving; but by grace, God revealed Christ to him.

The Greek language is interesting because it actually says that God revealed Christ “in” Paul, which is a little different than revealing Christ

“to” him.  God’s presence and power reveals Christ’s holy presence were already existing in Paul’s life, though he may not have known it.  Both lay there in dormancy.  And upon meeting the resurrected Christ on the road, it was Christ’s word that caused that holy presence in Paul to burst into life!

I believe that the holy presence of Christ exists inside everyone of us.  It can burst into life at any moment because God’s presence is around us in every moment.  It may burst into life in you just by worshipping in church!  Because here, you are close to God.  Where two or three are gathered together, Christ is here, right?

But, it also may burst into life in you when you’re watching a sunset, and you feel God’s presence in the beauty of creation.  Or when you see a group of people sticking up for the nameless or the voiceless, and you feel the Spirit’s urging to join the effort.  The holy presence of Christmay burst into life in you as your compassion for someone else in their misery kicks in, and you stretch out of your comfort zone by offering assistance.  It may burst to life in you when find your niche in life, and a part of you tingles and resonates and vibrates in sync with that calling, that cause, that concept.  We are close to God in moments such as these, too, aren’t we?

And make no mistake, the life-changing word has nothing to do with whether or not you’re worthy to receive it.  I’m pretty sure God’s grace has nothing to do with whether or not you’ve earned it, or even asked for it.  When Jesus was in the town of Nain and he saw this funeral procession, he didn’t check to see if the family was worthy enough to receive the gift of life for the dead man.  No one even asked him if he would be so kind to raise the man to life, either.  Jesus, in an extraordinary, extravagant act of compassion for the dead man’s mother, who was already a widow, said to the corpse, “Young man, I say to you, rise.”  And the life-changing, life-starting word accomplished its purpose, not just in the dead man, but also in his mother, and also in the entire community, and all around, and maybe in God, too! Now God can use the man, his mother, the people for God’s purposes.

That’s just the way God is… with disregard for criteria orour correct protocol, God is able to speak the life-changing, life-starting word and undoes the debilitating, negative power of the past, even the power of death itself, and turns it into positive purposes of God in our lives.

About ten years ago, a mission team of students in Ghana, Africa, were getting ready for a Sunday morning worship service using a “Jesus video” they had.  This video was done in the native language of the village people, but the video equipment broke down and no one on the team spoke the language.  As the villagers gathered to worship, the students searched for a translator and found a young man who spoke English.  He agreed to translate, and as a member of the student mission team shared the message of God’s grace in Christ, a large crowd began to form.  What the team didn’t know was that their translator was a local drug dealer and a member of a well-known gang!  The villagers were coming to find out why this unsavory, notorious character was talking about God.  When the student speaker ended the message with an invitation, the translator added a challenge of his own.  “I want all of you to know that I have decided to ask Jesus Christ into my life,” he announced.  “I am going to come forward, and I recommend that you do the same.”  Seeing God’s power to change even a notorious gangster prompted many people to accept Christ that morning.  The unlikely evangelist served as translator for the rest of the team’s trip and became a member of a nearby church (wycliffe.org/media/SelectWords/home.asp, retrieved November 22, 2006, http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93000337, retrieved June 3, 2016). God works, using our negativity for God’s purposes.

God offers life-changing words, life-starting words to all of us.  We may wish to show God our résumé that highlights all our good stuff in our lives that we think makes us worthy before God.  But, I think God says, “Yes, I can use those good things about you, but I’d also like to use whatever it is that you have on your failure résumé, too.  For my word is life-changing and you will have new life, starting all over, in all parts of your life.

And everyone who knows us well will say, “What???  God is in your life and now is using even you?  We say, “yeah”! Wow!”  Such is the power of God’s life-changing word!  And may Godbe glorified through us.  Amen.