It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know
One of my favorite stories growing up was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. It serves as the gateway to Narnia, a magical world filled with beautiful scenery, talking animals, kings and queens, sword fights, courage, more adventures than Neverland, and Aslan, the great lion who first breathed life into this world and has watched over it ever since. Some of this magic was captured in the three Chronicles of Narnia films put out by Walden Media a few years ago, but it’s tough to adequately put to screen scenes that have been so richly painted by the imagination.
In any event, while many folks end their exposure to Lewis with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for me it was like a gateway drug. I went from there and started reading everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. The impact Lewis has had on my own faith journey is, frankly, hard to measure, and I’m far from alone in that. Lewis stands as a giant, perhaps the giant, when it comes to the orthodox expression of the Christian faith in the 20th century. He was also in many ways a prophet for our age now. He described cultural trends and things the enemy uses to try and throw us off the track of following Jesus well that are much more pressing problems today than they were then. But for all of his impact on Christianity, Lewis did not start out his life as a Christian. In fact, he spent his early years as a committed atheist who thought the whole idea of God and a Savior was crazy. It was beneath him. It was a crutch for the weak-minded. In his autobiography focused on his conversion he described himself this way: “I had approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear. He was, in my mental picture of this miracle, to appear neither as Saviour nor as Judge, but merely as a magician; and when He had done what was required of Him I supposed He would simply—well, go away.”
But God had other plans for him. Lewis began rich friendships with committed Christians like J.R.R. Tolkien (who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). He was deeply influenced by Christian authors like G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald. In his field as a teacher of classic literature he kept coming across authors who were Christians or who were otherwise deeply influenced by the Christian worldview. And over time, Lewis began to see the Christian story as not merely true, but as the most true description of reality that was available. Initially he wasn’t happy about this—he would later describe himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”—but he was overwhelmed by it and came to find that this incredible joy—the joy that surpasses all understanding—was his in a more personal way than he had ever imagined. He later wrote that “if you want to know how I felt, imagine your own feelings on waking one morning to find that income tax or unrequited love had somehow vanished from the world.” You see, what Lewis had was an encounter with Jesus, the real Jesus, and not some mere cultural manifestation of Him. He came away from this totally transformed. All the ashes of his unbelief were blown away and a deep, rich, and satisfying faith was left in their wake.
Conversion stories like this can be really powerful and this morning as we finish up our series, Beauty from Ashes, we are going to look at one of the most incredible ever told. Now, I don’t know about you, but this has been a powerful last few weeks for me. Sometimes I’ll preach a sermon and folks will share with me that they really felt God speaking to them through what was said. One of the things about being a preacher, though, is that I don’t just hear the sermon once, I hear it half a dozen times. If God really has something He wants to say, I hear it over and over and over again. I hope that you’ve had the opportunity to hear an encouraging word from Him over the past few weeks.
It may be that you have found yourself off track with God’s plans for your life and needed to hear through the story of Abraham and Sarah that His plans are always better than our own. Perhaps you have experienced a broken relationship and through the story of Jacob and Esau needed the reassurance that God can bring beauty there if you will lead with humility. Maybe, like Moses’ sister Miriam, your challenge is a critical spirit resulting from a wound or jealousy or something else and you needed the reminder of the damage this can do along with the encouragement that if you will turn your words over to God He can use them to bring incredible life and beauty to the people around you. Or it could be doubt that has been doing a number on your heart. Through the powerful story of Zechariah’s doubts and the faith that followed them, you were buoyed by the assurance that God’s word can be fully trusted in order to follow Zechariah’s path from doubt to faith. But maybe it’s just a pressing feeling of failure that has been the real burden in your life for some time now and it’s a good thing you were here last week to celebrate the Royals’ remarkable comeback win over the A’s in 2014…I mean, to be reminded from the story of Peter that God can redeem us from even our worst failures. Whatever it is that you’ve needed to experience, though, whatever ashes from life you’ve needed to have swept up, my hope is that you’ve found what you’ve needed to do that in this series.
This morning as we wrap up the series, I want to take you to one more pile of ashes that folks can find in their lives. But these ashes are going to be a little different for many of you than what we’ve seen so far on this journey. The primary difference will be the fact that for many of you, you’ve already cleaned up these ashes. This will still be personal, though, because you know someone else who hasn’t. For you I want this morning to serve as both a hope and an encouragement. This is a pile of ashes from which beautiful things can be made. In fact, the bigger the pile, the more beautiful the art God makes from them will be. What I want to talk about with you this morning are the ashes of unbelief.
This particular pile of ashes accumulates in the life of a person who is committed in heart and mind to the proposition that Jesus is not Lord, that God is not God. Now, this commitment may play itself out quietly, resulting in the person not necessarily giving the Jesus followers in his life a hard time, but otherwise abjectly refusing to engage at all on the matter of faith, but it can also play itself out more forcefully. This is the person who seems to look for all the ways she can to tear down the faith of the people around her. She’s argumentative, mean-spirited, and spiteful in her efforts. This is the guy who has a pack full of what he’s found to be faith-defeating arrows in the form of seemingly impossibly hard questions or apparently devastating criticisms of the Scriptures and the Christian faith in general, and he slings them with glee every time smells the blood of faith in the water of life. This person could be a co-worker, he could be a friend, she could be a family member, it could even be a spouse. You’ve tried talking to her, you’ve spent countless hours praying for him, you’ve shed more than a few tears of frustration and hurt, and you’ve even struggled some in your own faith because of your experiences with him. What I want you to see this morning, though, is that this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In fact, just as we’ve been saying for the last six weeks, we serve the God who specializes in bringing beauty from ashes—even the ashes of unbelief. Nowhere is this clearer than in the story of a man named Saul who we know a whole lot better as Paul. His story can be found in Acts 26 and if you’ll find your way there with me we’ll take a look at this together.
Before he was Paul, Saul of Tarsus was a committed Jew. Actually, that’s probably not strong enough. He was a fanatically committed Jew. He was brilliant. He had studied with the best teachers and came out at the top of his class every single time. He knew the Scriptures better than anybody else. He wanted nothing so much in life as to see Gentiles become Jews and to see Jews keep the Law a whole lot better than most of them did. He would have understood this effort as the means by which God was going to ultimately be prompted to come and rescue His people from the terrible state they were in under Roman leadership. This was all his aim, but then this movement known as The Way rose up from out of the ashes of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth for His terrible heresies and blasphemes in claiming a relationship with the Father that no one really has. This new movement and its followers were claiming that in this Jesus—who had supposedly been raised from the dead—all the Scriptures were fulfilled. They still claimed to be Jews, but they flouted the Law as if it was of no consequence. Worse still, people were flocking to this movement in droves. Paul knew what needed to be done. The Way needed to be stamped out in its entirety and the message that this heretical blasphemer had been raised from the dead needed to be buried under all the sand in the desert.
As a result, Saul got permission from the leaders in Jerusalem to do just this. He went from house to house throughout the city, kicking down doors, dragging out any members of The Way he could find, and throwing them in prison. He no doubt had many tortured until they either gave up other members or else recanted their confessions. Paul himself described his efforts like this starting in Acts 26:9: “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
As far as enemies of the church goes, Saul sat in the ranks of some of the most ruthless persecutors of Christians ever in history. There have certainly been some who have killed more Christians, but Saul stands out for the diligence with which he set about his task. But then something happened that he was not expecting. I’ll let Paul tell this in his own words. Come back to the text with me in v. 12.
“In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision…”
So what happened? Saul was off to do some more persecuting of the church and along the way he had a powerful encounter with Jesus. Now, he was no atheist as Lewis was, but Saul was every bit (or more!) as opposed to the Christian faith as Lewis was. And just like Lewis, he was opposed to the faith until he actually had an encounter with Jesus. Once he met Jesus, the ashes of unbelief—and in Saul’s life there were many of these—were blown away completely. He was transformed from the biggest opponent of the church in his day to its single biggest supporter.
Friends, this is what an encounter with Jesus can do. While people can and have and do occasionally walk away from Jesus, most don’t. The fact is, most of the folks you know who are dealing with…or not dealing with…a persistent spirit of unbelief in their lives have never met the real Jesus. They’ve heard a bit about God. They’ve encountered the church and possibly had some less-than-stellar experiences with church people (whether or not those experiences were with followers of Jesus is another matter…church people and Christians are not necessarily the same thing). They probably haven’t read any of the Scriptures beyond a verse or two that was cherry-picked for them. They’ve likely run into some of the hard questions life forces us to ask about truth and reality and the Christian faith and haven’t found anyone able or willing to help them seek out answers to these. There’s a good chance they’ve heard about some of the moral demands of the Christian faith, chaffed at these, and as a result have found what they’ll say are “intellectual arguments against the faith” in order to justify what is secretly a conscience-soothing rejection of some commandments they very much don’t want to keep. There are no doubt some other things that have played into their hearty embrace of unbelief; but one thing they almost certainly have not done is to meet Jesus.
You see, just like Saul and C.S. Lewis and a billion others—some of whose stories you know (possibly because yours is one of them)—have discovered is that while unbelief can be an impossibly hard nut for us to crack open, Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer. What this means is that if you have someone in your life who is committed to a path of unbelief the best thing you can do for them is to arrange an encounter with Jesus. Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer.
Okay, but how? That sounds great to say, but how do you arrange an encounter with Jesus? I mean, it’s not like He’s physically around for us to call up and invite over to dinner. That’s true, but that actually is to our advantage. As Jesus Himself said to the disciples on the night before His crucifixion: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for it I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” If Jesus were still physically present on the earth His ministry would be just as limited as it was before He departed. Think about it: while Jesus’ ministry was powerful, the limitations of His humanity meant that He could not be in more than one place at a time. He could only travel so far in a day. He could only see so many people at a time. He had to stop regularly to rest. He took time off. He was fully God, yes, but He was also fully human. But, since the Helper, the Holy Spirit, has come to the world, all of those limitations are gone. Jesus can be with you and with me at the same time. He can tend to the needs of someone in Sub-Saharan Africa and at the same time be right on time for an encounter with the unbelieving person in your life. Your task is simply to help with the arranging. Once you do that, Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer.
Now, if you’re keeping score…I still haven’t answered the question. Let’s fix that. Let me give you four specific things you can do to arrange an encounter with Jesus for someone you know who is living with the ashes of unbelief. The first thing is the simplest, but it’s also the most powerful: pray for them. And I can hear the thought already forming in your mind: “But I’m already praying for them. A lot!” I know you are. And you need to keep doing that. But I want you to add a specific prayer to the ones you’re already praying. You can let it come from your heart, but here are some words to get you started: “Lord, I know that I don’t have what it takes to convince ___________ to become one of Your followers. But You do. Would You arrange an encounter with _________, so that s/he can experience You personally rather than simply hearing about You from me or someone else?” If you want to get even bolder, you can ask for the encounter to be at a specific time and place. He may not say yes to that request because He has something better planned, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The point is, make this encounter with Jesus a specific point in your praying for the person. Praying for their salvation generally is a good thing, but that salvation is going to come—just like it did for Paul—after they have a personal encounter with Jesus. And when they do, Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer.
Now, as for the encounter itself, think about this with me for a minute. Where in the world is Jesus revealed to us with the greatest clarity and unchanging specificity? I’ll give you a hint: it’s a not place…unless you consider a book a place. The place where Jesus is revealed with the greatest amount of clarity in all the world is in the Scriptures. If someone is going to discover who Jesus is and what He was like, there’s no better place in all the world than the Bible and specifically the Gospels. As I said before, there is a very great likelihood that the unbelieving person you have in mind right now has never actually read the Gospels. They may have encountered a stray verse or three, but they’ve never just sat down and spent time reading Jesus’ biographies with an open mind and heart. The second thing you can do to help arrange this encounter with Jesus is to point them in this direction: challenge them to read the Bible. When they throw out a challenge about the Scriptures, ask: have you read them? When they express doubts about who Jesus is, ask: have you ever read His whole story for yourself? Challenge them to do so (and with an open mind) so they can better understand who and what it is they are critiquing. Offer to read the stories along with them and talk about them together. Be honest in your own thoughts and struggles with it and commit to finding answers together to any questions that come up which you can’t answer. Sure this takes an investment of time, but the alternative is to leave them in their unbelief and unless you don’t really believe that matters this will be wise investment of time. After all, if the choice is between this and binging watching the latest Netflix series the better choice seems pretty clear. By this you can introduce them to Jesus and Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer.
Number three: invite them to church. When the church gets it right—and you guys get it right here at Central pretty frequently—it is one of the best places to encounter Jesus other than the Scriptures that there is. Incidentally, do you know how most of the people in church today who have spent any time away from the church in their lives (whether as the result of an intentional decision or simply life happening) come back to the church or to the church for the first time? They’re invited. In a number of different surveys, when unchurched people are asked how they would respond to a sincere invitation from a friend to attend church with them, a sizable majority consistently say they’d go at least once. The fact is, the reason most of the folks who don’t come to church aren’t coming to church is because they haven’t been invited. We can make up all the excuses in the world for why we wouldn’t invite someone, but the bottom line is: they won’t come unless we do. But once we do, the chances are good that they’ll encounter Jesus. And Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer.
The last way to set up an encounter with Jesus for someone living with the ashes of unbelief is to let them experience Jesus through you. We sometimes forget about this one. For someone who isn’t yet willing to come to church and doesn’t yet trust you enough to take up your invitation to study the Scriptures together, the only way they are going to encounter Jesus is through their interactions with a follower of Jesus who is letting Him shine through them clearly. Show them what Jesus looks like. Demonstrate His love for them. Reveal the extent of His compassion. Put on display the respect He had for people regardless of who they were or what they had going on in their lives. Serve them with the same selflessness that Jesus wore everywhere He went. Approach them with His humility and graciousness. Stand out as totally different—and morally better—than all the people around you. Show them in deed and word why Jesus was so attractive to the people He encountered on earth. Then, when they ask you about it, point them firmly in His direction. Let them experience the real Jesus because He can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer.
The ashes of unbelief can be messy, but Jesus can transform even the most hostile opponent into a fruitful believer. More than that, the ashes of life can be messy, but we serve the God who makes beautiful things out of them. Whatever kind of ashes you are trying to clean up, put yourself in the hands of the God who brings beauty from ashes and experience the life that only He can give.