Sunday, June 6, 2010

And They Praised God Because of Me

Galatians 1: 11-24, page 823

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not something that a person made up. I did not receive it from any one, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by grace, was pleased to reveal the Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult anyone, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother.
I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard this report:
“The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”
And they praised God because of me.
Today we recognized our graduates – young men and women who have finished something, completed four years of high school or college, a Masters or PhD; and I am reminded of how exciting it is to finish one thing and move on to something new.
People make movies about that kind of “starting over” – the girl whose face was a mess of oil and acne changes over the summer between high school and college and the ugly duckling becomes a swan.
It happened to a friend of mine somewhere between high school and seminary. In seminary he was this ladies man, but all I could think about was when he was in high school how skinny and nerdy he was – with this giant head like a pumpkin on top of his bony frame – he looked like he had to buy his clothes out of the kids section but his hats from the Big and Tall store.
We are all trying to escape something like that.
Something that keeps us from perfection, and we are anxious for the opportunity to start over as though this time will be different.
Hair cuts do that for some people – help you re-invent yourself - but not me, I’ve been getting the same hair cut for most of 29 years and I’m thankful to have found a barber over on 5 Forks who can cut my hair exactly the way I like it, exactly the way it’s always been cut.
There’s nothing worse for a man than to describe what he wants – we want you to already know what we want – so I go to Joe the Barber and just sit down in the chair.
It’s usually un-eventful, but as soon as I sat down last week Joe the barber says to me, “There’s something about those droids.”
This statement shocked me, but he had already put the paper around my neck and the black cloth that catches the hair, so I couldn’t get up and leave.
“There’s something about those droids they use to hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan – you know whenever I take target practice I shoot to the left, no matter how hard I concentrate I always shoot to the left. Droids on the other hand, the human margin of error is gone.”
There’s something a little bit weird about your barber talking to you this way, but in his own unique way my barber Joe illustrates a good point.
We all chase after perfection – and sometimes that’s a good thing – the great football coach, Vince Lombardi of the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers used to address his team saying, “We are going to relentlessly pursue perfection. Now, we’re never going to catch it, but in the relentless pursuit of perfection we will surely catch excellence.”
That works for football – Coach Lombardi took his team to win six division titles, five NFL championships, and two Super Bowls (I and II) – but it doesn’t work for everything.
Paul relentlessly pursued perfection in his life through religious purity in the hopes of catching salvation, but he felt as though he could never quite attain it.
He writes, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
He went to the right school, graduated with honors, got a great job – you can imagine his mother at the marketplace talking with her friends – “O Martha, it’s great to see you. What’s your son up to these days? He’s a moil – that’s wonderful. I wish him good luck, we can’t all be like my Paul out persecuting Christians, but a moil is a respectable position.”
Paul’s mother knew that her son had made it – he had done everything he needed to do – we may assume that everyone at the marketplace knew it too.
But Paul didn’t know it. Paul didn’t feel as though he had done it at all.
He asks a question in verse 10 of this first chapter of Galatians, “Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God.”
He had won the approval of people already, and in these first verses of his letter we assume that he is now doing something else altogether – re-inventing himself in a way as he writes, “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Something had happened to him.
He left one thing behind altogether and became something new.
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism… But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…”
We know what it was that happened to Paul. I pray that you know exactly what it was that happened to Paul – that in your relentless pursuit of perfection, you realized that you would never attain it.
In your relentless pursuit of being the perfect student, you realized that there would always be some question that defied your logic.
In your relentless pursuit of being the perfect parent, one day you found a battery in your daughter’s dirty diaper and you realized that you weren’t watching her as closely as you thought you were (not that I know what that’s like or anything).
In your relentless pursuit of being the purest, most holy person, one day you took a good long look at yourself in the mirror and all you could see was the dirt under your nails that would never go away no matter how hard you scrubbed, you looked deep into your own eyes only to see them dart back and forth in a selfish pursuit of more, you looked at your stomach and saw a gluttony that you could suck in and hide but not break yourself from, you turned around to look at yourself from the back and you just didn’t like what you saw.
You aren’t perfect – and no matter how hard you’ve been trying to catch perfection, you can’t catch it.
It hurts realizing that.
But how good it was that day on the road when Paul, in his damned pursuit of perfection met a man named Jesus, who whispered in his ear, “You don’t have to be good enough Paul, because I am good enough.”
You don’t have to be perfect, because I am perfect.
This is the message that Paul preached, and when he left his life in Judaism for another, it was because he couldn’t go back to the pursuit of perfection once he experienced the grace of God.
There were plenty who were surprised at this drastic change. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me, Paul writes.
May they, whoever they are and wherever you go, may they praise God because of you, and because of the grace of God that permeates who you are and how you live.

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