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?"

So many chances

There is a college which prepares young men and women to take up various responsibilities in the church.  Every day starts with a chapel service and one of the students leads by presenting a sermon he or she has prepared for their fellow students. 

One young man dreaded the day that he would be asked to speak to his peers in the chapel.  So he went to the principal of the college and said, “Sir, I am happy to visit the sick in hospital and in their homes and to sit with the dying.  I gladly spend time with the mentally tormented in the psychiatric hospital, or teach maths and spelling to the kids who need help.  I will go to the rougher parts of town and help the homeless and street kids but please don’t make me give a sermon in chapel.

The principal simply replied with a smile, “Tomorrow you are to preach the sermon at the chapel service.”  The next day as this young man stood up in front of his peers he was so nervous he hardly knew what to do.  He started his sermon by asking, “Friends, do you know what I am going to say?”  They all shook their heads in the negative.  He continued, “Neither do I.  Let’s stand for the benediction.  Peace be with you.”

Later, the principal trying to be sympathetic, said to the young man, “I’m going to give you a second chance. Tomorrow you are to conduct the service in the chapel, and this time I want you to preach a message.”

The next day the scene was the same.  The young man began as he had the day before, “Friends, do you know what I am going to say?”  When they all nodded their heads in the affirmative, he said, “Since you already know what I’m going to say, there is no point in my saying it.  Let’s stand for the benediction. Peace be with you.”

Later that day, you could sense the intensity in the principal’s voice as he said, “Young man, you are testing my patience but tomorrow I am going to give you a third chance. I know you can do it.”

The third day the scene was the same. The young man began as he had the two previous days, “Friends, do you know what I’m going to say?” Some nodded their heads in the affirmative.  Some shook their heads in the negative.  Then he concluded with this, “Let those who know what I’m going to say tell those who don’t.  Let’s stand for the benediction. Peace be with you.”

We like it when we are given second and third chances – like getting pulled over for speeding.  If only the police officer would give us a second chance and tear up the speeding ticket. 

Today’s readings tell us of two people in the Bible who were given second chances. 

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 of the church. 

By the time we meet him again here in our text, Saul is 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 is calling him.  In an instant, the once 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 and small.  He is healed and instructed by the very ones who were his enemies and who he was determined to exterminate. 

When Saul got up that morning he would have never thought that such a dramatic change would happen in his life – even his name changed.  He would never be the same again.  So that God could use Saul as a missionary to 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’,
‘you can only find your life by losing it’,  
‘become like a little child’, and
those stories about lost coins, lost sons and lost sheep. 
By hitting the bottom and going about as low as one can get, I've met God, or rather God found me, rescued me and gave me a second chance.”

The Gospel reading tells us of the encounter between the risen Jesus and the disciples of shore of Lake Tiberias.  The disciples had been fishing but had caught nothing.  A man standing on the shore told them to throw their nets out in a certain spot and suddenly the nets were full.

When the disciples reached the shore Jesus had a breakfast barbeque with fish ready to eat.  Jesus asks Peter not once but three times, “Do you love me?” This reminds Peter of the three times that he denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest.  He had left the scene a wreck – ashamed, guilt-ridden, and feeling unworthy. 

Now on the shore of Lake Tiberias he answers Jesus’ questions with words that indicate his total devotion to Jesus.  Peter has been restored as a disciple.  His guilt and shame have been erased.  He has been given a second chance.  This is a real life example of the story Jesus told about, the lad who hit rock bottom, lived with pigs, returned home, was restored and given a fresh start.

The good news of the Gospel is that even though we hit rock bottom in how things turn out in our lives and in our relationship with God, 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, daily God forgives us for Jesus’ sake, daily he restores us and gives us another chance.

We may even regard someone, even ourselves, as beyond all hope. God finds us and rescues us and gives us another chance.  I'm sure that the attorney on his way out of his alcoholic stupor slipped backward many times, 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 keep on coming back to him for his forgiveness and strength. 

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 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. 

When Saul was given a second chance he was commissioned to go and tell the people in the lands to the west of Jerusalem all about Jesus and the salvation he has brought.  When Peter was given a second chance by Lake Tiberias Jesus called him to the task of being a shepherd to God’s people. 

“Follow me”, he said to Peter and he says this to us who have been given second chances because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Those who are given second chances are empowered by the Spirit to continue Jesus’ work of helping, healing, warning, saving and renewing.

All this talk about second chances can be summed up in one word – grace.  God's grace – undeserved, unmerited, even unfair.  Thank God for his grace.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
14th April 2013

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