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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

God's Heroes Have Courage

Introduction
As we think about Memorial Day, we remember and honor those who gave their lives to serve and defend our country.  They were brave and courageous men and women who did their duty even though it was tough and even scary.  Perhaps John Wayne described the meaning of courage best when he said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” 
The brave men and women we remember on Memorial Day displayed great courage.  We could all use more courage.  Couldn’t we?  That’s what I want to share today as we consider the character of God’s heroes.  God’s heroes have courage.
            Last week we learned about a man named David that God anointed to be the king of Israel.  David, like all of God’s heroes, had a good heart.  In fact, the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart.  And even though a man with a bad, disobedient heart named Saul was still king of Israel, David grew more famous.  King Saul became jealous and tried to kill David.  Since David was unwilling to fight against his king, he fled for his life taking a group of 600 faithful warriors with him.
            On a personal note, when my wife and I were choosing names for our third child, we wanted a Biblical name.  We liked the name Abigail, but I wanted to check to make sure the Abigail of the Bible was a good person.  (You don’t want to name your child after a bad person.)  I was delighted to find that the Abigail of the Bible was a very good, wise, and courageous woman.   Let’s look at her story together.  It is quite a long passage, but it’s worth the effort to read.

1 Samuel 25:1b- 39
Then David moved down to the wilderness of Maon. There was a wealthy man from Maon who owned property near the town of Carmel. He had 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats, and it was sheep-shearing time. This man’s name was Nabal, and his wife, Abigail, was a sensible and beautiful woman. But Nabal, a descendant of Caleb, was crude and mean in all his dealings.

When David heard that Nabal was shearing his sheep, he sent ten of his young men to Carmel with this message for Nabal: “Peace and prosperity to you, your family, and everything you own! I am told that it is sheep-shearing time. While your shepherds stayed among us near Carmel, we never harmed them, and nothing was ever stolen from them. Ask your own men, and they will tell you this is true. So would you be kind to us, since we have come at a time of celebration? Please share any provisions you might have on hand with us and with your friend David.” David’s young men gave this message to Nabal in David’s name, and they waited for a reply.

10 “Who is this fellow David?” Nabal sneered to the young men. “Who does this son of Jesse think he is? There are lots of servants these days who run away from their masters. 11 Should I take my bread and my water and my meat that I’ve slaughtered for my shearers and give it to a band of outlaws who come from who knows where?”

12 So David’s young men returned and told him what Nabal had said. 13 “Get your swords!” was David’s reply as he strapped on his own. Then 400 men started off with David, and 200 remained behind to guard their equipment.

14 Meanwhile, one of Nabal’s servants went to Abigail and told her, “David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master, but he screamed insults at them. 15 These men have been very good to us, and we never suffered any harm from them. Nothing was stolen from us the whole time they were with us. 16 In fact, day and night they were like a wall of protection to us and the sheep. 17 You need to know this and figure out what to do, for there is going to be trouble for our master and his whole family. He’s so ill-tempered that no one can even talk to him!”

18 Abigail wasted no time. She quickly gathered 200 loaves of bread, two wineskins full of wine, five sheep that had been slaughtered, nearly a bushel of roasted grain, 100 clusters of raisins, and 200 fig cakes. She packed them on donkeys 19 and said to her servants, “Go on ahead. I will follow you shortly.” But she didn’t tell her husband Nabal what she was doing.

20 As she was riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, she saw David and his men coming toward her. 21 David had just been saying, “A lot of good it did to help this fellow. We protected his flocks in the wilderness, and nothing he owned was lost or stolen. But he has repaid me evil for good. 22 May God strike me and kill me if even one man of his household is still alive tomorrow morning!”
23 When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed low before him. 24 She fell at his feet and said, “I accept all blame in this matter, my lord. Please listen to what I have to say. 25 I know Nabal is a wicked and ill-tempered man; please don’t pay any attention to him. He is a fool, just as his name suggests. But I never even saw the young men you sent.
26 “Now, my lord, as surely as the Lord lives and you yourself live, since the Lord has kept you from murdering and taking vengeance into your own hands, let all your enemies and those who try to harm you be as cursed as Nabal is. 27 And here is a present that I, your servant, have brought to you and your young men. 28 Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way. The Lord will surely reward you with a lasting dynasty, for you are fighting the Lord’s battles. And you have not done wrong throughout your entire life.

29 “Even when you are chased by those who seek to kill you, your life is safe in the care of the Lord your God, secure in his treasure pouch! But the lives of your enemies will disappear like stones shot from a sling! 30 When the Lord has done all he promised and has made you leader of Israel, 31 don’t let this be a blemish on your record. Then your conscience won’t have to bear the staggering burden of needless bloodshed and vengeance. And when the Lord has done these great things for you, please remember me, your servant!”

32 David replied to Abigail, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you to meet me today! 33 Thank God for your good sense! Bless you for keeping me from murder and from carrying out vengeance with my own hands. 34 For I swear by the Lord, the God of Israel, who has kept me from hurting you, that if you had not hurried out to meet me, not one of Nabal’s men would still be alive tomorrow morning.” 35 Then David accepted her present and told her, “Return home in peace. I have heard what you said. We will not kill your husband.”

36 When Abigail arrived home, she found that Nabal was throwing a big party and was celebrating like a king. He was very drunk, so she didn’t tell him anything about her meeting with David until dawn the next day. 37 In the morning when Nabal was sober, his wife told him what had happened. As a result he had a stroke, and he lay paralyzed on his bed like a stone. 38 About ten days later, the Lord struck him, and he died.
39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Praise the Lord, who has avenged the insult I received from Nabal and has kept me from doing it myself. Nabal has received the punishment for his sin.” Then David sent messengers to Abigail to ask her to become his wife.
Why Was David Angry?
            David had some serious problems.  First of all, he was running for his life.  Even though David had done nothing wrong and had only been loyal and good to King Saul, the king was jealous and wanted to kill David.  So David was on the run.  He refused to fight Saul.  Even though David had several opportunities to kill Saul, He refused saying it was not right to kill Israel’s king.
            Another problem—perhaps just as big—was what to do with the 600 men who followed David.  These were not just any men.  These were fighting men.  They were ready to fight for David, but he would not let them fight.  How do you keep 600 fighting men out of trouble when they have nothing to do and are constantly on the run?  How do you keep them fed and provisioned?  David had an answer.  He decided to use them as an unofficial security force for Nabal.  This would give his men something productive to do and hopefully build good will with Nabal who might return the kindness to David’s men.
By worldly measures, Nabal was a great man. He was rich, powerful, and in charge of many people.  People look at outside appearance.  They see things like wealth and power and property and think that a person is good if they have all these.  However, God looks at the heart and we see that Nabal was a fool because he had a bad heart.  He was selfish, ill-tempered, rude and insulting, and a drunkard.
Nabal probably had a great year with his flocks.  There were always bandits out in the countryside willing to steal and plunder business men like Nabal.  Anyone today who has a lot of wealth and property understands if you’ve got a lot of stuff, you better have some good locks and maybe some security cameras to keep it all secure.  If you have a lot of stuff, there’s always plenty of people out there who will try to take it from you. 
It would have been the same for a man like Nabal, but David and his 600 warriors kept Nabal’s property and shepherds safe.  No bandit could steal from Nabal with David’s security force keeping everything safe.  As Nabal accounted for his extra profits that year, he should have realized his great fortune was due largely to David’s protection.  Less theft and losses in the fields meant greater profits at shearing time, but Nabal presumed all his prosperity was due to his own efforts.  He had no gratitude for David’s help in the matter at all.  Furthermore, he even insulted David—basically calling him a no count, run-away slave who deserved only scorn.
Now, David was a man after God’s own heart, but David was not perfect.  And we see in this instance, David let his anger get the best of him.  He was on the run from Saul, hungry, up to his ears trying to keep his loyal men fed and out of trouble.  All he’s done so far is try to do the right thing and now even the good he has done for Nabal has been ridiculed.  David has had it.  He’s going to kill Nabal and every man in his household.  Talk about an over-reaction!  Even a man with a good heart can lose it sometimes.  Our imperfect hearts get the best of us when we don’t let God’s Holy Spirit direct us.  David was not following God’s spirit and was about to commit a great atrocity. 

Abigail’s Courage
            Then we meet Abigail (the woman who is my daughter's namesake).  Abigail had a courageous heart.  When she learned of Nabal’s foolish behavior and the impending disaster, she gets right to work.  First of all, she took personal responsibility for Nabal’s foolish behavior. 
We might wonder at this.  It was Nabal who acted so foolishly, not Abigail.  However, Abigail knew her husband was prone to foolish behavior.  If that had been your spouse, you would probably be extra careful to watch what they did and keep them from dragging you down with them.  Besides, Abigail was sort of like second in command for the household.  So she was largely responsible for whatever happened in the household, even if it wasn’t directly her fault.
            At any rate, the tact she took with David was both courageous and brilliant.  It took courage, because it put her at great risk.  What if David decided to punish her, taking her life?  The cowardly approach would have been to place blame on others.  But Abigail chose to courageously accept personal responsibility.  Her actions were brilliant because her confession moved David to have mercy.
            People tend to respect us more when we take responsibility—even when we have made a mistake.  It only makes people angrier when you try to blame somebody else.  Think about the recent United Airlines incident where they dragged a passenger off a flight.  Someone videoed the altercation and it went viral.  Then United Airlines came out with an apology that wasn’t really an apology; it was not received well by the public.  People had the perception that the airline was not really sorry and was avoiding responsibility for their actions; it only made the public even angrier. 
When we make excuses, it only angers others, but when we take responsibility, we learn from our mistakes and others tend to respect us and be more forgiving.  It worked for Abigail.  David had compassion and showed mercy.
            Abigail’s courageous actions also helped David avoid a great sin.  Her words showed David what he was doing was wrong.  He was overreacting in a moment of anger.  Abigail’s courageous actions stopped David in his tracks and made him think about what he was doing.  It saved him from making a terrible mistake that would have hurt many people and ruined David’s reputation and destroyed his conscience. 

Our Precarious Condition
            Although this story took place roughly 3,000 years ago, it has another important application for us today.  It is a warning that we should not be fools like Nabal.  Although some would argue we would never act like Nabal, we do it all the time when we take our blessings for granted.
            Those of us who live in America think we have it pretty good.  We are relatively safe and secure.  No foreign nation threatens to invade us.  We are very prosperous.  Even the poor among us are vastly better off than the majority of the world outside our nation.  We have very little to worry about.  And if we aren’t careful, we will take it for granted.  We will forget those who have paid a tremendous price to win and secure our freedom and prosperity.  As we eat, drink, and are merry, we may be tempted to think we are the ones who have made our fortunes.  We might forget that God has been working behind the scenes in human events to bring us to where we are today—even blessing us with the opportunities we have as a nation and as individuals to prosper and live freely.  And yet, how often are we like Nabal—the fool—who rudely disregarded what David had done for him.  We disregard what God has done for us.  He sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins.  However, we rudely ask, “Who is Jesus?  What has he really done for me?  Why should I concern myself with him?”
            Meanwhile, because of our sin, we are in danger of eternal punishment.  Jesus came to our world once as a peaceful, helpless baby.  However, Jesus is coming again and this time he will come as a conquering King.  Like David, who strapped on his sword and came ready for war, Jesus may be strapping on his sword right now, along with all the mighty armies of heaven.  Jesus will come to destroy all those arrogant people who have rebelled and continue to rebel against the God of Heaven.
            So what will you do?  Will you go on like the fool, Nabal, eating and drinking and thinking everything is just fine while destruction fast approaches?  Or will you be like Abigail, who had the courage to rush out to find the king, fall on her knees and beg for forgiveness and mercy?  Will you plead, for yourself, for your family, for your community, for you country, for the world?  Or will you pretend like nothing is wrong?
            Don’t be afraid to plead with Jesus for mercy.  Have courage!  Accept responsibility for your sin.  Don’t blame someone else.  It’s your sin.  Own it!  And ask Jesus for mercy.  He will listen and he will forgive.  Jesus will accept you back as his loyal subject if you ask for forgiveness and repent of your sin.  And you will live with him in glory forever.
            I invite you to have courage today.  Get your heart right with Jesus.  And have the courage to warn others when they are going astray too.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

God's Heroes Have a Heart

Introduction
            We are starting a new message series at my church based on our upcoming VBS curriculum “Hero Central”.  For each of the next five weeks, I will share a message based on the daily VBS themes about how we can be God’s superheroes.  The message today is about having a hero’s heart.
            If we're going to talk about a hero’s heart, we should start by defining what we mean by “heart.”  Obviously, we’re not talking about the muscle that beats in your chest and pumps blood throughout your body.  When we say heart, what we mean is “the essence of who you are.” Your heart is the core of who you are, your passions, your interests, who you really are as a person and what you’re made of.  Your heart is what you're dedicated to; what you would fight for, live for, and even die for.
God’s heroes have a certain kind of heart and the Bible tells us what kind.  I want to share a story about David—a person described as a man after God’s own heart—and we will see what kind of heart we should have to be one of God’s heroes.  But first, let me set the stage for the story.
The story comes from the Old Testament Book of Samuel, named after the prophet Samuel.  The people of Israel wanted a king like all the other nations around them.  So they asked Samuel to anoint a man named Saul to be their king. 
Saul was an obvious pick for king.  Saul looked like a king.  He was very tall.  The Bible says he was “head and shoulders” taller than everyone else.  So Samuel anointed Saul and he became Israel’s first King.  However, Saul had some serious character flaws.  He looked like a king, but his heart was not right.  He disobeyed God several times.  He was selfish and deceptive.  God was sorry He ever made Saul king.  So God told the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king to take Saul’s place.  And that’s where our story picks up. 

1 Samuel 16:1-13
1Now the Lord said to Samuel, “You have mourned long enough for Saul. I have rejected him as king of Israel, so fill your flask with olive oil and go to Bethlehem. Find a man named Jesse who lives there, for I have selected one of his sons to be my king.”

But Samuel asked, “How can I do that? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

“Take a heifer with you,” the Lord replied, “and say that you have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you which of his sons to anoint for me.”

So Samuel did as the Lord instructed. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town came trembling to meet him. “What’s wrong?” they asked. “Do you come in peace?”

“Yes,” Samuel replied. “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Purify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” Then Samuel performed the purification rite for Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice, too.

When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!”

Notice here, that Samuel thinks Eliab would make a good king.  Eliab was the first born son of the family and he looked like a king.  Like Saul, Eliab was a taller than most men.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse told his son Abinadab to step forward and walk in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “This is not the one the Lord has chosen.” Next Jesse summoned Shimea, but Samuel said, “Neither is this the one the Lord has chosen.” 10 In the same way all seven of Jesse’s sons were presented to Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Then Samuel asked, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse replied. “But he’s out in the fields watching the sheep and goats.”

“Send for him at once,” Samuel said. “We will not sit down to eat until he arrives.”

12 So Jesse sent for him. He was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes.

And the Lord said, “This is the one; anoint him.”

13 So as David stood there among his brothers, Samuel took the flask of olive oil he had brought and anointed David with the oil. And the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on. Then Samuel returned to Ramah.

The Heart of a King
            The key verse in this passage is verse 7 - “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We can see what a difference heart make by comparing David to Saul.  Saul looked like a king.  He was head and shoulders taller than everyone else.  But he had a no heart.  In fact, the Bible story most people know is the story of David and Goliath.  Goliath’s most striking feature was he was a giant.  Goliath challenged the armies of Israel to choose one man who would face him in one-on-one combat.  The one man in Israel’s army who should have accepted the challenge was Saul.  He would have been the best choice.  Saul was a very tall man and a warrior.  He was the only one who could come close to matching Goliath physical stature.  But Saul didn’t have the heart to face Goliath.  The one who ended up fighting Goliath was the little boy David.  And David was so small, the Bible says he couldn’t even wear Saul’s armor.  Saul had an impressive physic, but David had heart.
            A study of David life reveals the heart of a hero.  He was brave, because he depended on God to fight his battles.  He was full of faith.  He believed God could overcome any obstacle and he was willing to wait on God to work things out in God's way according to God's timing.  David was compassionate, merciful, fair, and consistent.  When he made a mistake, David was quick to take responsibility, repent, and ask forgiveness.  David heart lead him to be faithful to the end of his days.  David had the heart of a hero.  The ultimate accolade the Bible attributes to David is this.  It says he was a man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).
            But that's why Samuel 16:12 is kind of confusing to me.  It seems out of place.  It says David was "dark and handsome".  Now, if this passage is about looking at a person’s heart and not their physical attributes, why would it mention anything about David's appearance?  Translators have struggled to translate that verse.  The key words that cause trouble is the Hebrew for "ruddy" and "countenance."  Ruddy can mean dark or hairy or red or other things.  The sense is that David was a rough, unrefined looking fellow.  It’s not that he was ugly, but maybe he didn't fit his society’s beauty standards.  My grandmother was a red head.  She used to say kids picked on her when she was in school.  They would chant, “I’d rather be dead than have a read head!”  Kids can be mean to other kids they see as different.  And most kids are either brunette or blonde; and the less common red headed kids often get picked on.  They don’t fit the norm.  Neither did David.
            But the scripture also says David had a good countenance—another word that’s hard to translate into English.  Have you ever known someone who was beautiful, even though they didn’t fit the typical beauty standards of society?  Maybe they were short or a little on the heavy side or had something else unusual about them?  They weren’t the kind of person you would see in a beauty pageant or the cover of a magazine, and yet something about them was especially attractive.  If you only looked at a 2-dimensional picture of them, you wouldn’t think there was anything special there.  However, when you meet them in person, there is just something exceptionally beautiful about them.  I've seen this often in very godly people.  Their godly hearts give them a beautiful countenance.
I think that is what verse 12 is trying to tell us about David.  He didn’t fit the typical standards of what a handsome man of the day was supposed to be (and obviously, his family didn’t think he was anything special; they didn't even invite him to the dinner).  And yet, David had a good heart, and it just exuded from him and made him handsome to anyone who was willing to look at his heart instead of just his physical appearance.   

It’s All About Your Heart
You can’t tell a hero by the way they look.  I love the way this is often portrayed in movies and comic books about superheroes.  Superheroes often have an alter ego.  Take Superman, for example.  He is handsome and muscular and “able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound” and yet in his everyday life he dresses as the unremarkable Clark Kent.  Clark dresses kind of nerdy and wears glasses.  Clark’s love interest—Louise Lane—hardly even notices him.  And it’s ironic, because Louise has the hots for Superman.  All the while, Clark (Superman in disguise) is right there beside her and she doesn’t even notice him.  You can’t tell a hero by the way they look.
We tend to focus on all the external things when we judge a person.  We look at things we think are good.  We say:  “They look good. They wear nice clothes.  They have a big house and drive a new car, so they must be good people.”  Or we think they fit in with everyone and are popular and everyone likes them, so they must be special.  We also look at things we think are bad.  We say, “That person is rough looking, drinks, has a bunch of tattoos, cusses a lot or doesn’t use proper English, wears the wrong clothes, drives a dirty car, etc…”  And so we think they are not a very good person.  We are focusing on all the wrong things when we look at these external factors.  It’s your heart that makes you a hero or not.
The core problem of humanity is the human heart.  In Jesus day, the religious teachers said if you ate the wrong food or didn’t wash your hands or touched someone who had leprosy or was unclean, it would make you unclean and sinful.  Jesus knew this was nonsense.  He said it is our hearts that make us sinful and unclean.  Jesus said in Matthew 15:19, “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.”  Jeremiah 17:9 – “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” 

We Must Focus on the Heart
So, we need to focus on the heart and worry less about all those outward things.  And remember what is your heart? It is the core of who you are; it is your character; it is your passion; it is what drives you and motivate you; it is what is most important about you; it is what you live for and what you would die for.  And most of us, if we are really honest, realize our hearts aren’t right.  Our relationship with Jesus isn’t really what’s most important in our hearts.  When we look at what consumes most of our time, money, energy, resources, and thoughts, it is not God and His Kingdom and His righteousness.  We focus on our own selfish pursuits or our families or our careers or our security or our politics…  Christ may be part of our life, but he is not first in our life.  And anything that takes first place in your heart besides Christ is a problem. 

Accepting Responsibility
We like to make excuses for ourselves.  We say “That’s just the way life is.  That’s how the world works.”  But that’s just an excuse.  Or maybe we try to blame our shortcomings and our bad hearts on things that happened in the past.  “You know, it was the way my parents raised me” or “It’s the abuse I suffered as a child” or “It’s because I was bullied in school” or “I have a chemical imbalance…”  You can insert your excuse here: ________________________________.
It’s time to take responsibility for your own heart.  Until you take responsibility for your heart, you will never change.  You have to accept responsibility. It was not your parents' fault.  It is not the social class you belong to. It's not where you grew up.  It is not the way you were mistreated as a child or anything else. If you are not living up to God’s potential, if you are not living as a hero for God, it is because you have a sinful heart.  It is the Human Condition. And we must recognize this, confess it, and cry out to God for salvation! That is the only way. For as long as we continue to make excuses for ourselves we will never get to the heart of the matter and find healing for our heart. You will never become the hero God wants you to be until you admit your heart is broken.

Closing Invitation
            The Good News is Jesus came to give us a brand new heart.  If we will confess our sin, repent, and ask for help, Jesus will save us and give us a brand new heart--a hero's heart.  He said, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” (Ezekiel 36:26) 
Is that what you want?  Do you want to be one of God’s heroes?  A hero that has a heart just like God’s?  Then why don’t you ask Jesus to give you one today.  I offer the following prayer to help you talk to Jesus about getting a new heart.  Let it be your words to Him today. 

Dear Jesus, forgive me for the ways my heart has not been right. 
Regardless of what I’ve done on the outside, the core of who I am has been off.
I have not loved You with my whole heart.  I have not loved my neighbor as myself.
I have not always put you first in my heart.  Please forgive me. 
Help me to turn from my wicked ways.  I want to have good heart, a hero’s heart.
Jesus, please give me a new heart and put a righteous spirit within me.
Help me to live for you whole heartedly from this day forward.
Thank you, Jesus.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jesus Appears to Stephen and Saul

Introduction
            There is a show on the History Channel called Ancient Aliens.  Have you heard of it?  During the show experts supposedly "investigate" ancient instances where aliens from outer space might have visited the earth.  For instance, one episode investigated the possibility that aliens visited the Earth and helped the ancient Egyptians build the great pyramids.  The main point was it would have been impossible for the Egyptians to build such massive, technologically advanced structures without the help of a more advance species.  Thus, aliens must have visited.  Perhaps I'm oversimplifying their thesis, but you get the gist of it.
            Maybe you like the show.  It's just not my thing.  I like history, but that's just not real history to me.  However, there must be quite a lot of people in America that like the show, because it's been a success and they keep making new episodes.  Well, we have such a thing we call "fake news" so I guess it's only natural that we would have such a thing as "fake history."
            The success of shows like Ancient Aliens is possible because a large portion of our population believes it is quite plausible that aliens exist somewhere in our universe.  A Newsweek article reported that 52% of Americans believe alien life exists.  The reasoning usually goes that our universe is so infinite with so many solar systems, that there must be a planet somewhere that has the conditions necessary to support life and, therefore, alien life must exist somewhere.  And if it does, there is a good probability it is intelligent, maybe far more intelligent than us, maybe intelligent enough that it can travel the universe.  And this reasoning is not limited to fringe groups and conspiracy theorists.   Even intelligent, highly educated NASA scientists argue in favor of the existence of alien life on other planets.
            And yet these same rational, intelligent, scientific people often will be the same ones who cannot accept the supernatural occurrences reported in the Bible.  They may believe in aliens or even that aliens crashed in the Nevada dessert at a place called "Area 51" as perfectly reasonable, but reject the idea that Christ rose from the dead as totally ludicrous.  They accept aliens as rational science, but reject a risen Christ as superstitious nonsense.
            I'm not saying that aliens do not exist.  Maybe they do.  My point is this.  There is absolutely no definitive evidence that aliens exist.  In fact, one could argue there is far less credible evidence for aliens than many of the supernatural miracles we find in the Bible.  So, it is not that aliens are more rational and reasonable than the Son of God rising from the dead.  Both ideas are really based on faith supported by a certain amount of mental reasoning.  However, in the end, it's what you choose to believe that makes the difference.  And it would seem that in our modern culture, it will soon be more fashionable and acceptable to believe in aliens than to believe Jesus Christ rose from the grave.  What do you choose to believe?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
            Those who are Christians, who are truly saved, believe that Jesus lived and died and rose from the grave.  True Christians believe Jesus is alive and has appeared to his followers and may still appear to us today (in one way or another).  I have discussed several stories about Christ appearing to his followers in bodily form during the first forty days after his resurrection.  But then Christ ascended to heaven and is no longer on the earth in bodily form the way he was in those first forty days.  Since then, the risen Christ is present with us in spiritual form, through the Holy Spirit.  And so today, I want to share two stories from the Book of Acts in the Bible.


Jesus Appeared to Stephen and Saul             The resurrection appearances we will examine today were witness by two very different people--Stephen and Saul.  Let me give some brief background on each before we read their accounts from the Book of Acts.
            First there is Stephen.  Stephen was one of the first deacons of the early Church.  The Church was growing and the Disciples had a problem.  There were so many new people joining the Church who needed nurturing and assistance it was consuming too much of the Disciples' time they couldn't focus on teaching, preaching, and leading the Church.  So they decided to select a few godly men to serve as deacons who would focus on caring for the needs of people in the church--especially assisting with outreach to widows.  Stephen was one of the godly men they chose.  We will also see Stephen became the first martyr of the church recorded in the Bible (a martyr is someone who loses their life for the sake of the Christian faith).
            The second person we will see who witnessed the risen Christ was a man named Saul.  Now, this is not the King Saul of the Old Testament, but you probably have heard of Saul, but by a different name.  This Saul in the New Testament is usually known by the name Paul, the Apostle Paul.  Paul has been called the most influential Christian figure of the New Testament (besides Jesus) and the greatest evangelist of the church.  The Apostle Paul wrote nearly half of the New Testament and he traveled all over the known world converting people to Christ and planting churches.  God used Paul to spread Christianity so it grew from a small Jewish sect to a world-wide religion (and the largest world religion today).  Saul and Paul were the same man, but before Saul became Paul, he was a very different man.  Before Saul became a Christian, he tried to destroy Christianity.  The Saul of our story was Jewish religious fanatic bent on wiping out Christianity, which he saw as a perversion of true religion and a rival threat to the Jewish faith.
            But first, let's read Stephen's account of seeing the risen Christ.

Acts 7:54-58
54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”

57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him 58 and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Jesus Appeared to Stephen
            First of all, we see Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit.  People could tell there was something special about Stephen.  He was humble, giving, selfless, caring, and willing to serve others.  That's why he was chosen to be a deacon who would serve the widows and others in need in the early Church.  Stephen didn't need the spotlight to be on him.  He was a servant leader. 
            Wouldn't you like to be more like Stephen--to be full of the Holy Spirit?  Well, you can't be full of the Holy Spirit if you are already full of yourself!  If you want to be full of the Holy Spirit, you've got to empty yourself.  Get rid of your selfish attitudes, your selfish desires, your ego, your need to be the center of attention.  Then you will be empty and there will be space for the Holy Spirit to fill you.  You will be filled with the Spirit to the degree you are willing to empty yourself.
            According to Acts 6:5, Stephen was also full of faith.  And his faith helped him to see Jesus and to serve him, even when it was difficult, even when the stones were crashing down on him.  The reading makes no mention of him being afraid.  No. We have this sense that Stephen was at completely at peace and willing lay down his life.  And even as he was dying, his faith helped him to see Christ.
            Faith is so important to us.  It is essential.  Faith helps us to see the risen Christ--especially when we need it most, when everything is crashing down around us.  Faith helps you endure for Christ when serving and loving others us hard, when you are frustrated, when you don't seem to be getting anywhere.  Do you have faith?  Couldn't we all use a little more?  The time to strengthen our faith is now, especially before the trials and tribulations of life come.  Better to build that faith when everything is at ease, and then you will have a large store of faith to draw from when troubles come.
            There are ways to build your faith.  Ways that surely helped Stephen.  Prayer is essential to strengthen your faith.  Talking to Jesus everyday helps us  know him and trust him more.  Then when we need to cry out to him because of trials, we already have a relationship to draw upon.  Study and worship are also essential to strong faith.  This is not just going to church and going through the motions, but actually pouring out your heart to Christ and honoring him through your study and worship.  Fellowship is another key ingredient to strong faith.  It is more than just being around other Christians.  Real, vital fellowship is intimately sharing your life and struggles with other believers--trusting them, confiding in them, encouraging and being encouraged by them.  And finally serving others is a tremendous and indispensable way we build our faith.
            Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit and it helped him see the risen Christ in the glory of Heaven even as he was being murdered because of his beliefs.  And the man mentioned at the end of the story, who was complicit in Stephen's murder, was the second man we will read about who had a very different encounter with the risen Christ-.  His name was Saul. 

Acts 9:1-9
1 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.

            Saul was bent on destroying the Christian faith.  He was a very religious person, but his religion--which was supposed to lead him closer to God--actually blinded him to the truth and made him fight against the very God he claimed to serve.  Saul would do anything to destroy the Christians he supposed were threatening his religion. 

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

            The voice speaking to Saul is Christ. Christ asks Saul why he is persecuting him.  But Saul was not persecuting Christ; he was persecuting Christians.  Yet Christians make up the body of Christ.  So persecuting Christians is the same as persecuting Christ.  This is a clue for us if we want to see the risen Christ on earth.  Whenever Christians gather together as the Church, we are the Body of Christ in a very real sense.  One way we can see the risen Christ is through his people, the Church.  And if you turn your back I the Church, you are turning your back on Christ.

“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.

            Notice, Saul doesn’t know who is speaking to him, but he calls the voice lord.  Saul doesn’t know the Lord, but he knows enough to see if this powerful person can knock him on his butt, he is a lord.  But Saul doesn't have a relationship with this Lord yet.
            The lordship of Jesus Christ is a central theme in both of the stories.  When Stephen saw Jesus, he saw him in a Kingdom. Stephen describes Jesus & God in glory and honor.  They are in the glorious Kingdom of Heaven.  Stephen knew Jesus was Lord and he knew the Lord.  What a contrast to Saul.  Saul is religious, but God is not really his Lord, let alone Jesus. Religion is Saul's lord. Religion is his idol.  He is willing to do anything for his religion, even murder.  But his religion has blinded Saul to the very presence of God.  He doesn’t even recognize Jesus when he appears.  He doesn’t even know he’s been persecuting Jesus, the Lord of lords, this whole time!  What about you?  Have you let religion become your god?  Your lord?  Your idol?

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.

Jesus Appears to Saul
            This story tells us something very important about the risen Christ.  Jesus doesn’t just appear to good people.  He will appear to a murderous, evil man like Saul too.  It’s far safer to be spiritually hot or cold than to be lukewarm.  There is hope if you are going down a very bad road; you can always change when Jesus convicts you.  It's even better if you are fervently racing down the right road.  But the truly dangerous path is indifference, complacency, and apathy.  These are the attitudes that lull us to our doom without us even knowing.  It is when we say, “Yeah, I go to church, but I don’t get all serious about it.  I'm not one of those fanatics.”  Or, it is when we say, “Well, I don’t go to church, but I’m a good person.  I'm just as good as the next guy.  I just don't think I need to go to church.”  These kinds of attitudes seduce us into thinking everything is just fine when really it is not, because we are really just not that interested in a genuine, heartfelt relationship with God.
            Saul was a Jewish zealot bent on destroying Christianity, but at least he was not indifferent.  And Jesus appeared to Saul and changed everything.  We find in Saul a man who experienced the risen Christ in a dramatic way and it completely changed the course of his life.  The change was so dramatic, he even changed his name.  Saul became Paul and he became a Christian Apostle, arguably the greatest of all the Apostles--not because of his ego, but because of his willingness to serve the Lord with everything he had and was.

Do You Know the King?
            The Kingdom of God is all around.  It’s everywhere.  But do you know the King?  You know, it amazes me to think we still have countries in this world who have kings and queens.  And it's not backwards, third world countries.  England still has a monarch!  So you can travel to England ans say you have seen the "kingdom."  But it would be really neat be in England and to see the king.  That's a whole new level.  But suppose you were in England and you were invited to a dinner with the king.  Now we are really getting serious!  And yet, that still wouldn't be as impressive as if you got to talk to the king.  It's one thing to see the kingdom, or even the king, but it's a big deal to talk with the king!  Could it get any better?  Yes!  What if you had an ongoing relationship with the king?  What if you had his personal phone number and could call him anytime?  And what if you friendship was so deep that you could ask him for help if you ever needed it?  And what if from time to time the king called you and asked you to do something?  What and honor!  What a privilege!  What if the king was your best friend?  Now we are really talking!
            Well friends, that is what it means to be a true Christian.  The Kingdom of Christ is all around and Jesus is Lord.  But it's one thing to see the Kingdom (or even to see the Lord), but it's a whole new level of spectacular when you have a real relationship with Jesus, when the Lord is your best friend.  When you can call on him in your time of need and when he can call on you to ask you to do something for him.  That is a real honor and privilege.
            Have you seen the risen Lord?  Do you know Him?  Would you recognize Him if he spoke to you?  Do you talk to Him every day?  Do you have a real relationship with Him?  Could you call Him up if you had a real need?  Could He call on you?  Would you obey if He did?  Perhaps He's calling on you today.