Bouncebackers wound up yesterday in a message that was a bit of a departure from the previous four.
We landed in the New Testament rather than the Old and we delved into a familiar figure rather than obscure.
Bottom line? Your worst moment is no match for his great mercy.
So today as we wind up Bouncebackers I am excited to let you know about the SECOND most influential person in the history of Xnty – the #1 is who? Yes! That would be Jesus! Always the right answer in church! It’s not so bad being Avis when the Herz is Jesus, so in this case #2 is not a bad runner up! Anyway, this SECOND most influential person in the history of the church who we are going to talk about was a man guilty of, at best, murder in the second degree, accessory after the fact, conspiracy, racketeering, not helping the little old lady across the street, and just being an all around jackwagon. Notice: he wasn’t guilty of attempted murder, as if is intent was somehow less malicious because of his ineptitude, but guilty of successful murder. And this guy may be behind Jesus but he is head of Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Joel Osteen, any random celebrity preacher in our area, and even your grandmother.
Who is this murderous mystery figure? Some of you know already, others don’t, either way is OK. But it’s Paul. St. Paul, which is not just a cathedral in Manhattan or a city in Minnesota, but a real live guy. When my wife Julie was growing up, they’d have someone stand in church and announce to the congregation, “a reading from Paul to the Ephesians” and because there was not teaching & no context as a little girl she thought, “well isn’t that Paul fellow nice to be writing us all these letters?” Well, we are about context & teaching here and Paul was a real guy with real issues and real quirks and real baggage. Because here’s what happened in the early months – and I mean months – of the church’s life, just after Jesus died and rose again. It emerged from within Judaism – the faith into which Paul had been born and of which he was both employee and champion. And so the early Xns – the original Jesus freaks – were regarded as zealots, oddballs, and worse: as traitors. So in Acts, a combination history book and travel narrative – we read about the church’s first martyr, meaning the first one killed simply because he was Christian: Stephen. Acts 7 is a long tale of his sham trial, his articulate defense, his phony conviction, and his gruesome death by stoning. Probably shouldn’t use it for bedtime bible reading with your five year old!
But look at 7:57-58:
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
So Saul (Paul’s name how it was pronounced in Hebrew) is there providing assistance. Can I hold your coat while you kill the guy? (British accent) Well in the next verse, Stephen dies, pummeled to death for believing in ONE JEW over all others and look at 8:1:
And Saul approved of their killing him.
Murder, incorporated, indeed. How would you ever bounce back from that kind of viciousness? How would you ever get a conscience after you’d dropped it by the side of the road? Maybe you haven’t done something quite as heinous as THAT, but you’ve got some sketchy stuff in your rear view mirror. Lord, I know because you tell me that some of you, in the military, as part of combat or just as a result of tension, with that adrenaline pumping and survival instinct at its highest point, you made decisions & carried out orders, and you’ve got the regret. Whether you over-reacted in the heat of the moment or not. You’ve got the trauma, you have survivor’s guilt, you hold on to those memories. Or for more of you, it doesn’t have anything to do with death … unless you’re talking about the death of a family. You split one, maybe two, and short of a physical killing it occurs to you that it’s about the worst thing you can do. So how do you recover from those times when you’ve become so calloused & hardened that there is no distinction between right & wrong?
Well, not immediately, if we’re taking our cues from Saul. Look over two chapters at Acts 9:1:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.
“Breathing” there suggests that the destruction of the church was his very reason for being. Church demolition was literally the air he breathed. And what follows in Acts 9 is the story that many of you know, the story of what is called The Road To Damascus. Because on that road, Jesus invades Paul’s life, lets him know who he is REALLY persecuting (READ 9:5), blinds him & leaves the response up to him. Well with that sort of invitation Saul converts to Jesus. In the most improbable and unlikely turn of events the persecutor becomes the preacher, the destroyer turns into the declarer, the murderer is now a missionary.
But as thrilling and as unexpected as all that is, it’s Paul’s self-description that I find most interesting. He is #2 behind (who?), remember? And that’s because of his letters – written in real time to real people addressing real issues. And his letters contain these incredibly transparent moments of autobiography, which in turn offers clues about how he bounces back – as well as letting us know what role remembering his past actually serves. Look at I Timothy 1:13a:
13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man,
I love that pile on of words in describing himself. The net result is a devastating self-assessment. And then look at 1:13b:
I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.
READ. Note: he was shown mercy. Passive voice, which is horrible for grammar and perfect for theology. So: when Paul was throwing his own life away while destroying the lives of others, God STOPPED him in his tracks. God halted his headlong rush into self-destruction. And what was he SHOWN (passive)? Mercy. Meaning, he didn’t get what he did deserve. Then on in 1:15:
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
It’s trustworthy – I am the worst. And then he repeats his self-assessment as the worst in 1:16:
But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
And the repetition is the thing! His own experience as THE WORST (and yes, murder is worse than lying!) gives him this insight into the general, unpleasant truth about all people. Because part of his “trustworthy saying” is that Jesus came to save sinners. Think of all that means Jesus DIDN’T come to do?! He didn’t come to educate morons. He didn’t come to make good people great. He didn’t come to beautify the ugly. He came to save sinners. And notice that 1:16 again repeats that contrast between the weight of sin and the depth of mercy: READ
So here it is: Your worst moment is no match for his great mercy.
Yes! Jesus has to remind us of the greatness of our sin so we will remember the GREATERNESS of our Savior! When we are hiding, evading, justifying our stuff with pleas of “I’m good, I’m not as bad as most” Jesus as to expose that for the lie it is. We come face to face with an inconvenient truth: I’m not a moron who needs educating; I am a sinner who needs saving! I’m not an ugly who needs beautifying; I’m a sinner who needs saving. The sooner you admit that very unpopular truth – it’s unpopularity lets you know just how true it is – the quicker you can dive headlong into his immeasurable mercy.
It’s really like the guy who had his portrait taken by a professional photographer. But he didn’t like the result. And he went to the photographer demanding a re-do. Look at this! This photo doesn’t do me justice! And the photographer looked at him and answered, Mister, with a face like yours, you don’t need justice. You need mercy. That’s all of us. We don’t need or want justice – then we’d get what we deserve. We need & want mercy & lots of it. Your worst moment is no match for his great mercy.
Or it’s like the beautiful part of the AA readings where they say, “Our stories disclose in a general way WHAT WE WERE LIKE, WHAT HAPPENED, and WHAT WE ARE LIKE NOW.” I love that. What we were like. What happened. What we are like now. Your worst moment is no match for his great mercy.
This is on my mind a lot today because I don’t want you to be haunted by your past. I want you to look at it – even the sketchiest, most shameful parts – and use it as a grateful reminder of how far he has brought you. That’s what Paul did! He talked about his past – a lot, apparently, as it is here in I Timothy, it’s in Galatians, it’s in Acts, in Romans, it’s all over – but he was never paralyzed by it. It instead catalyzed him to tell his own story of redemptive, recovery and another chance. Because he knew that God is not the God of a second chance; he is the God of another chance. Big difference! That’s the only way that a murderer becomes a missionary & an opponent becomes proponent.
I really hope you allow this to alter any lingering deception & change it to desperation. Deception says, “I’m good, I’ve got it, I just need a little improvement.” Desperation says, “I am so messed up I need the cross & so loved I got it.” Yeah. Your worst moment is no match for his great mercy.
And if you are in the throes of it right now … you’re in the middle of your WORST and after what you’ve done you seriously doubt that God could take you back or even would you want you back, I want you to know you are not here by accident. Jesus is the #1 expert at stopping people from throwing their lives away. He is so annoying and so persistent that he had you come to church today. So you will stop your own headlong rush into self-destruction – whether it has to do with getting revenge, surrendering to addiction, wrecking your family AND HERS (or his), or just forgetting faith. Oh man, he loves you way too much to get you get away with that stuff. You’re here today because this church has offered itself up to Jesus, saying, “Use us, Lord, to be the hand on the shoulder that says, ‘STOP. You’re too good and too loved for this.’”
Because really, think of the worst thing you’ve done. Go ahead. Shouldn’t take lone. Now: share it with a neighbor. (Kidding!) Get this: Jesus is not blushing at your memory. He’s not shocked. He’s not surprised. He’s seen it all before. It is no match for his mercy. None. He want to love you anyway. Your worst moment is no match for his great mercy.
We have a guy who has truly lived this, right here in this church. Take a look: Eric Matras video: