Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Text: Acts 9:3,4
As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?"

Second Chances

Mary Kay Beard was a shotgun-toting bank robber with flaming red hair. When Mary Kay was arrested she faced 180 years in prison if convicted of all the charges against her. But God had other plans for Mary Kay - plans that would ultimately affect millions of kids.

While Mary Kay awaited sentencing, she began attending the jail church services. Not because she was interested in God, but because it was the only way to get out of solitary confinement. As she sat in the chapel, Mary Kay was struck by the volunteers at these early morning services. "Why", she wondered, "would any sane person get up at 5 a.m. on the weekend just to visit prisoners?"

"Why do you bother?" she finally asked the elderly volunteer sitting beside her. The answer blew her away. "Jesus loved you enough to go all the way to Calvary," the woman replied. "So we love you enough to come in here and tell you about him".

Over the next few weeks, the Holy Spirit began to work on Mary Kay's heart. Alone in her cell one night, she opened her Bible. A verse from Ezekiel caught her eye: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you, I will take away your stubborn heart of stone and give you an obedient heart" (36:26). God did change Mary Kay's heart. She began to study God's Word and grew in her relationship with Christ. Amazingly, she received a sentence of just eight years.

When she left prison, Mary Kay was haunted by images of the women she'd left behind. She remembered how, at Christmas, these women saved the things volunteers brought them - soap, shampoo, toothpaste - and then gave these to their kids for Christmas. When those children came to visit she saw how much they cherished these small gifts from their mothers.

Mary Kay went back to the jail she'd once occupied and asked the women for the names and addresses of their children. She wrote them on paper angels, and hung them on a Christmas tree. She then prayed she would find enough volunteers to buy gifts for all of them. Amazingly, every child's name was gone in just a few days! On Christmas day 1982, 556 kids received Christmas gifts on behalf of their mums in jail. Since then, countless thousands of children around the world have benefited from the change that took place in Mary Kay’s life. God had given her a second chance.

We first meet Saul in the early chapters of Acts where Luke calls him "a young man" who watched over the garments of those who were stoning Stephen to death. We are told "Saul approved of his murder" (Acts 8:1). Very quickly Saul moves from being a willing bystander to an active persecutor of Christians. We are told, "Saul tried to destroy the church; going from house after house, he dragged out the believers, both men and women, and threw them into jail" (8:2-3). Saul was a busy, resourceful, dangerous enemy-number-one for the church.

By the time we meet him again here in our text, Saul has been appointed head of the Stop-the-Church Movement. He has official letters from the authorities giving approval for his program of persecution. Now he's on his way to Damascus to stomp out this Christian thing once and for all. There is no doubt in his mind whatsoever about the will of God and what he ought to do with his life. God wants him to investigate, arrest, judge and sentence "the followers of the Way of the Lord" (9:2).

Then, he hears his name called: "Saul, Saul." A bright light flashes around him. He falls to the ground. He doesn't know who it is who is calling him. In an instant, the once self-confident, intelligent, believing and resourceful man is rendered helpless. He opens his eyes, but he can't see. He has to be led around by the hand. One moment he is going here and there with his letters of introduction from the big wigs in the Temple and the next he is like a little child – frail, helpless, needy small. Then he is healed and instructed by the very ones he once thought he was above and whom he was determined to exterminate.

When Saul got up that morning never would he have thought that such a dramatic change would happen in his life – even his name changed. He changed from Number One Enemy of the Church to Number One leader of the Church. Paul hadn’t been looking for it, God had brought about a complete about face with Saul. He would never be the same again. So that God could use Saul as a missionary who would carry his Word throughout the world, Saul had to be changed from a violent and proud man to a little child. As Jesus said, "I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it."

An energetic and self-made, successful attorney found himself falling off his prestigious perch into the depths of alcoholism. He was told that if he didn't change his lifestyle not only his career, but also his health would be ruined.

With the support of his wife and Alcoholics Anonymous his life was turned around. During his recovery, he rediscovered the church.
"You would be amazed at what I've learned about God lately," he said. "Like a blinding light I have rediscovered those sayings in the Bible like
‘being born again’, or
‘you can only find your life by losing it’, or
‘becoming like a little child if you want to enter the Kingdom of God’, or
all those stories about mustard seeds, lost coins and sheep, and little children, or
‘taking up your cross daily and follow me’. Through my pain, by hitting the bottom and going about as low as one can get, I've met God, or rather God found me. He rescued me and gave me a second chance."

God is not only a God of a second chance, but also the third, fourth and fifth chances. Like the prodigal son who left his father's home with his share of the inheritance. As he sat in the pig sty helpless in the face of the famine, dependent on the generosity of the pigs to share their food, with all his former pride, confidence and arrogance knocked out of him, he became as a little child. He could see how stupid he had been and returned to his father's place small, humble, dependent and repentant.

The father could have wiped him off and completely disowned him. But when he sees his son coming up the road and then gives a warm fatherly hug, he gives this childlike lad a second chance to be his son.

The good news of the Gospel is that even though we hit the bottom in our relationship with God because we are sinners, Jesus' death and resurrection gives us another chance to be his children and to live as his children who have been bought with the blood of Jesus. Daily we sin and daily God forgives us for Jesus' sake and gives us another chance.

We may even regard someone, even ourselves, as beyond all hope. God finds us and rescues and gives us another chance. I'm sure that the attorney on his way up slipped backward many times in his effort to beat his addiction, but God has an everlasting supply of second chances. Daily we slip up in doing God's will but Jesus' love goes on and on and he is ready to give us as many second chances as we need.

Think of Jonah who was swallowed up by a huge fish when he was trying to run away from God. Inside the belly of the fish on the bottom of the sea he got about as low as anyone can get. God gave him a second chance to go and speak God's Word to the people of Nineveh. He gave Jonah even another chance when Jonah was so disappointed in God for changing his mind about destroying Nineveh.

Or what about the woman who was about to be stoned for committing adultery? Facing the reality of her sinful life and her impending death, that was about as low as she could go. Jesus rescues her from the angry mob, forgives her and gives her a second chance to live a better life with the words; "I do not condemn you. Go, but do not sin again" (John 8:1-11).

In fact, that's the message of the whole of the Bible. Our God is a God of second chances. There is story after story that tells of God's generous offer of a second chance. Even the thief dying on the cross beside Jesus is given a second chance. When Jesus said, "Today you will be with me in paradise," he was giving this sinner a second chance, not in this life but in the life to come.

And this is where it gets even more amazing. God has given you a second chance because for some strange, surprising, wonderful reason, he wants you to serve him, to tell and show all the world that he is alive and determined to have the world as his own. Every second chance that Jesus gives us is a call to do some kind of work for him.

In the gospel reading we heard about the occasion when the resurrected Jesus caught up with the disciples on the beach. He had a barbeque breakfast ready for them when they came in from fishing. Peter was there. Remember how he had sunk to the depths of despair when he realised that he had denied knowing Jesus. Jesus gives him s second chance. He asks, "Simon, son of John, do you love."
"Yes, Lord", he answers.
"Then take care of my sheep", Jesus commands.
Jesus is telling Peter that if he really loved Jesus then he is to care for those whom Jesus loves. "Follow me", he says.

Both Paul and Peter are found by Jesus, given second chances and then called to do his work. Their past failures did not stop him from entrusting to them his most important work.
Mary Kay Beard the shotgun-toting bank robber was given a second chance as well as important work - bringing some joy into the lives of those children whose mothers were in prison.

Next time you are hard on yourself because you failed in some way, or you are down on someone because they have failed you and hurt you, remember how God has given you second chance after second chance. Be thankful that God is so loving and generous and always offers a new start through his Word and the Sacraments.

As you think about the second chance God has given you, reflect on the thought, "What work is the risen Christ calling me to do?" The last word that Jesus said to his disciples on the beach that day was, "Follow me". This is his first and last word to us as well.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
25th April, 2004

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