November 19, 2017
Pastor Jeff Struecker
This is the second part of the sermon series we’re calling “OMG”. It’s when God’s people, really in reverent worship, use God’s name and say, “Oh my God! What you’re doing or what I’m seeing in front of me in the Bible is scandalous. This seems to be beneath you.” These are stories of scandalous grace, and we’re going to talk about a Palestinian terrorist today. But this isn’t ancient news; this is actually current events. If you go back and look at the news just yesterday, the Trump administration got into a war of words with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In fact, the Trump administration threatened to shut down this diplomatic mission that’s in Washington, DC. It’s run by the PLO, and for many years the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was considered a terrorist organization. What the PLO is saying today in the news is that if Trump doesn’t back down, they’re going to have no choice but to step back, strain relations, and this thing is going south right now as we speak.
Not long ago, just a few years ago, there was a guy who was raised in the PLO, a guy by the name of Tass Saada. Tass was recruited as a young boy by Yassar Arafat. Arafat trained him young, recruited him to be a sniper, and made Tass a very lethal terrorist in the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Tass is personally responsible for the deaths of a number of Israelis in his home country in the area of Palestine. He wrote a book about it called Once an Arafat Man, and he describes what life was like for him as a young boy growing up in Palestine, what life was like as a terrorist in the PLO. And then Tass describes in this book what happened to him when he came to the United States.
He was traveling in the United States, settled down right outside of Kansas City, Missouri. He met a lady by the name of Kathy, and Kathy made a huge impact on him. She started to invite Tass to church with her, and at church right outside of Kansas City, Tass found the Lord Jesus Christ. I think a better way to say this is that the Lord Jesus Christ found Tass and radically, totally changed him. Christ changed him so much, that he decided that he was going to dedicate the rest of his life to serving Jesus.
He just recently wrote a book called The Mind of a Terrorist, and in the book, he says, “You want to know how Isis works? You want to know how 8 of the 10 top terrorist organizations in the world work? I can tell you, because they’re all Muslim organizations highly funded by oil money. Let me tell you what it’s like, because I used to be one of those guys, and now I’m not like that anymore, because Jesus Christ radically changed me.”
Tass started a ministry to his own people back in his own land. It’s called Hope for Ishmael, and that now makes Tass an enemy of his former family and friends, because he is taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ back to these Palestinians living in Israel, trying to see Jesus do in them what Jesus did to him. Tass is one of those stories that if Jesus can do this for a guy like this terrorist from the PLO, he can do this for anybody.
We have another story like this. It’s found in the book of Acts. There is a terrorist in the book of Acts that Jesus radically, totally transforms, but before I describe this guy Saul for you, let me tell you what was happening at this point in the book of Acts. In Acts chapter 9, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ starts in Jerusalem, and it starts to spread out from there. As the Christians are being persecuted, as they’re being killed, it doesn’t stamp out Christianity. It just keeps growing and growing, and not only does it grow, but as Christians are being martyred like the first Christian by the name of Stephen is martyred, Christianity is now spreading all over the Middle East. The religious leaders in Jerusalem are doing everything in their power to stop the spread of Christianity, and there’s a Pharisee, a religious leader by the name of Saul, who absolutely hates Christians, who orchestrated the death of Stephen, and who is now willing to do whatever it takes to stamp out Christianity.
He is on the road heading to Damascus when Jesus meets him and does something incredible, something miraculous in Saul’s life. Then Jesus calls one of his servants who’s living in Damascus, a guy by the name of Ananias, and he says, “Hey Ananias, I’ve got a mission for you. There’s a guy by the name of Saul who is coming. I want you to go find him, go get him and take him in your house.” And Ananias says, “Jesus, are you crazy?” Like he’s telling Jesus something that he doesn’t know, he says, “Jesus, do you know who this guy is? Do you have any idea what he’s already doing to your followers in Jerusalem? Do you know why he’s coming to Damascus? Jesus, do you know what this guy is planning on doing?” And Jesus says, “Hey Ananias, knock it off. Go do what I’m telling you to do. Go find my servant Saul, because I’ve got something special in store for this guy.” What Jesus tells Ananias next is recorded for us in Acts chapter 9, in verses 15 and 16. Here’s what the Bible says. These are Jesus’s words to Ananias about this persecutor, this Palestinian terrorist by the name of Saul.
Acts 9:15-16 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
I. God chose a terrorist
Here’s the first thing that I want you to see. When you go back and pay attention to these two verses pretty carefully, here’s what you’re going to notice: God chose a terrorist. There’s really no way around this. What he did when he selected Paul, the apostle Paul, when he selected Saul on the road and changed his life and changed his name to become the apostle Paul, God was really transforming a terrorist in the process.
This is how Tass Saada said it. He said, “The craziest, most psychopathic people on the planet consider themselves entirely rational and completely logical. In the mind of the terrorist, hurting innocent people to get your way is entirely rational and totally logical.” And that’s what was going on in Saul’s mind when he was trying to kill Christians. This is his story in Acts chapter 9. This is literally where we get the phrase “saw the light” from.
Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. 2 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. 3 As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
II. The terrorist became a traveling evangelist
Jesus referred to himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. For a few years, Christians referred to themselves as followers of Jesus as being followers of “the Way”, and Saul hates Christians so much, that it’s not okay just to stamp out Christianity in his hometown; he’s ready to go kill Christians somewhere else too. So, he goes to his boss and asks his boss to give him letters to go round up the Christians and go kill them in the next county over, in the next state. He wanted to bring them, both men and women, back to Jerusalem in chains, and while he’s on the road taking this persecution of Christianity to the neighboring country of Syria, Jesus meets him on the road.
I want you to consider this for just the second. This guy, this religious leader, this Pharisee, hates Christianity so much, he sees it as such a threat, it’s not okay just to stamp it out in his hometown, he’s going to stop Christianity from spreading around the world. And the way that he’s going to do that is, he’s going to take it to the neighboring country of Syria. He’s going to go to the capital city, Damascus. He’s going to find Christians and imprison them or kill them there.
While he’s on this road, Jesus meets him, and Jesus totally, miraculously changes this man. Now, I want you to think for a second of the people that Jesus passed over so that he could grab Saul’s attention. Jesus didn’t go to a priest. He didn’t go to the high priest and all of the authority that goes along with that. He didn’t get the prince of the land with all of the power of the Roman or the Jewish government behind them. Jesus didn’t go for some highly respected, very famous person. Jesus went for this worst of all possible people.
When you think about the crowd that Jesus passed over to go grab Saul, it’s mind-blowing. Then when you consider who this guy is, what this guy is really doing, it would be like the shooter from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas saying, “Can I come preach for you today? It would be like an Isis terrorist walk down the aisle and saying, “Can I have the microphone? -because I want to give a testimony of what Jesus has done for me today.” This would freak everyone out, maybe even me.
God does something just mind-blowing. Saul has been rounding up, persecuting, arranging for the death of Christians, and God not only doesn’t hold him responsible for that, God gives an incredible mercy by not punishing him. God does something even greater. This is the OMG moment in the Bible. This is the “Oh my God! I can’t believe what you’re doing in this man’s life, this scandalous grace where you give this guy (of all people) this super-important mission! Jesus, what are you thinking?!”
For by God’s grace, 16 I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.
God takes this vessel, this instrument, and he does something spectacular with it. The word instrument is a term that we would describe as a vessel. It’s a generic tool. It’s like the multi-purpose tool in your drawer. Yeah, you can work on the car with it, because it’s got a set of pliers on it, but it’s not the best tool for working on your car. Sure, you can fold out the little knife and you can do some cutting in the kitchen with it, but that’s not the ideal way to use this thing. It’s just a generic instrument.
I think about it like you dropped your ring in the kitchen sink or down in the bathroom sink, and you’re trying to get it out. You can’t get your fingers down in there to get it out, so you go to that drawer in your kitchen. You all know what I’m talking about, because you’ve got this drawer too. It’s this drawer that has 65 different pieces of junk in it. It’s got chewed up bubblegum. It’s got a deck of cards with the three of hearts missing. It’s got stuff in there that has absolutely no value, and you start rummaging around the drawer looking for something, anything, that you can use to dig down in the drain and pull this ring back out.
Then you find a broken eyeglass arm. I’m sure when people were making the eyeglasses, they didn’t make the arm of the glasses to dig down in my drain and pull out that ring, but you know what? I think this thing might just work, and you use it to dig down in your drain and pull out this ring, and it works perfectly.
It’s not the instrument that matters; it’s whose hands are using the instrument. Yes, a master mechanic can take a multi-tool and fix your car with it. A world-class chef can take that little tiny blade on a multi-tool and prepare a meal with it. It’s not ideal, but in the right hands, it’s incredibly powerful. That’s what God is doing with this instrument he calls Saul when he turns him around, changes him and makes him into perhaps the greatest voice for Jesus in the New Testament, when he turns him into the apostle Paul.
Here is what I want you to understand: You are most useful to God when you’re just available to him. It’s not what you bring to the hands of the master that matters; it’s just you saying, “Here I am. I’m just a broken eyeglass arm, but if you’ll use me Jesus, I’ll be whatever you need me to be in whatever area you want to use me in.” That’s what Saul does, and God does something spectacular through this guy. He takes a terrorist, and he turns him into a traveling evangelist.
III. God gave him a heart for outsiders
Then I hope you don’t miss the irony here. God gives this man, of all people on the planet, he gives this man a heart for outsiders. You’ve got to understand this about Saul, right? He hated Christians because they were polluting the pure Jewish faith and the pure Jewish line. They were welcoming everybody. They were allowing women, and they were allowing foreigners, and they were allowing people from other skins to come in and to profess faith in Christ. These Christians basically were throwing wide open the doors for anybody who wanted to come to faith in Jesus.
Paul hated them for it. Let’s just be honest; this guy’s a racist, and he is trying to stamp this out before it gets too far. Jesus not only changes him and cleans him up and gives him a mission, but the mission (don’t miss the irony here), the mission that Jesus gives him is to the very people that he hated the most. “First this man is going to be my servant to the Gentiles (and by the way, he’s going to speak to kings and oh yes, there will be some Jewish people who will hear about Jesus because of this guy too). He is going to be a very powerful tool, a very important voice for Christianity to the people he hated most.”
Paul even talks about this when he describes his ministry in Ephesians chapter 2, and by the way, he’s speaking to Gentiles, the people he hated, when he makes the statement.
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ.
Jesus changes Saul, turns him into Paul, and gives him a mission. His mission is to go to the very people he once hated and go take this message to the Gentiles, the Gentiles first and kings and emperor second. And oh, by the way, there are going to be some Jews who will listen while he’s on the road. Saul loved the Jews. He said, “I would give my life if my Jewish friends and neighbors would find in Jesus what I found in Jesus.” But he made it clear that his mission from God was to outsiders, to people who are far, far away from God.
I want you to do this with me for just a second. I want you in your mind right now, just imagine the most ungodly person you know. Maybe it’s a name the Holy Spirit bring up your mind. Maybe it’s actually a face. Perhaps there is somebody you work with and their life is just a tornado of destruction because of their senseless decisions and because they are so spiritually clueless. Maybe God is putting that face on your mind right now. Maybe it’s somebody you grew up with. Maybe it’s an alcoholic parent. Maybe it’s somebody in your family who took advantage of you. Maybe it’s an abusive boss. Maybe it’s a professor who’s just overbearing and mean and too difficult to deal with.
Whatever it is that that the Lord is putting on your heart right now, whatever face that the Holy Spirit is placing in your mind right now, I’m going to ask you to do something with me. I’m going to ask you to pray for that person. In fact, right now go ahead and bow your head. Would you start to think about the face that the Holy Spirit is putting in your mind, the most ungodly person you know? Nobody in your life is farther from God than this face. Would you pray right now silently that the Lord would start to get that person’s attention? Would you pray for their soul right now? Pray that God would start to orchestrate the circumstances of their life so that they are forced to look to him. Would you pray specifically that Jesus would step into the mess of their life and would snatch them away from their sin and change them and turn them around and make them into a new person? Would you pray for somebody in our church or somebody in your family to be the person who reaches out to that face, that name that’s on your mind? Would you pray for you to be that person, and would you ask this bold prayer of God: “God, let it be in 2018, let it be next year that this person who is farther away from you than anybody that I know, let it be next year that they come to faith in Jesus.”
Maybe when you were thinking about it, you were thinking about yourself, because you know something that nobody else knows about you. You know your deep, secret sins, and when you look at your own life, you know that there’s nobody further from God than you are. Maybe you need to pray right now that God would radically, totally transform you.
IV. Following Jesus isn’t always easy
When you really understand who this guy Saul is, you see that God chose a terrorist. Then God took this terrorist, and he made him an instrument. He made him into a traveling evangelist, and God sent him to outsiders, to the people who are far, far from him. Here’s the last thing. I think this is totally fascinating that in Acts chapter 9, verse 16, Jesus makes a prediction. It’s not a prediction; it’s a prophecy. It’s a promise. This is going to happen. Jesus says, “Hey Ananias, let me tell you something about this guy, Saul. He’s going to suffer (future tense), he’s going to suffer really, really badly by being my servant, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m choosing him as my servant.”
Paul, in a couple of places in the Bible, lists his resume of pain. In one of those places, to describe that his ministry is legit (you don’t go through this kind of stuff unless it’s real), in 2nd Corinthians chapter 11, he says it this way:
2 Corinthians 11:24-27
Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.
He says, “I did it all for the glory of God for the spread of the Gospel, so that people would hear about Jesus.” God says to Ananias, “Before this man even sets out on his mission, this servant is going to suffer, and he’s going to suffer badly, but he’s also going to take my Gospel perhaps in ways that no one else in the New Testament has taken the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth in Paul’s day.”
I had the privilege just about two weeks ago of sitting down and spending about two hours with a guy at CSU in the student center named Ian. I want to ask you to pray for Ian, because here’s Ian’s story: When he was a kid, he grew up in church. He walked down the aisle of the church; he prayed some prayer. In fact, when Ian graduated from high school, he felt some kind of call to ministry. Ian was a student pastor at a church over in Alabama, and then, something challenged Ian’s faith that he was totally unprepared for. Ian started to see the way people were suffering around him, and he started to wrestle with the question, “How can God possibly be good and all of this suffering is happening around me?”
Ian turned around, and he walked away from his faith. Ian was a gamer. He had about 12 guys who were around, and they’re all a bunch of gamers. In fact, it was pretty obvious that Ian was the leader of the group, and in the course of this conversation with Ian, he made this statement to me. He said, “I don’t really believe that Jesus is God anymore. In fact, I kind of believe that God is everywhere. God is in everything.” These are Ian’s words, not mine. “I am God, and you are God, because God is in everyone, and God is everyone.”
Ian basically said, “I don’t think I can just buy the argument that Jesus alone is God. I had the privilege of explaining to Ian what the Bible teaches about Jesus, and he was totally resistant. It became pretty obvious to me that Ian is a leader. He’s leading this online community of gamers. There are a bunch of people who look up to Ian and listen to Ian’s viewpoint. When I walked away from this conversation, I couldn’t help but think, “You know what, God? If it wasn’t for your grace, I think I would probably end up exactly like Ian, but you grabbed a hold of me, and you held onto me, and you refused to let go of me. And now, God, I’m asking you to do this to Ian, because not only do you get Ian when you get that man’s heart; I believe you start to get the hearts of many of those gamers who look up to Ian online.” I’m praying that God radically, really this time, changes Ian’s soul.
You see, sometimes God does things that just you and I don’t understand. Sometimes he does it so that he and he alone gets the credit, so that God gets the glory, and I don’t. He does that when he takes this terrorist by the name of Saul and he changes him and he makes him into this totally new person where nobody on the planet could explain that away, and the guy who was once an enemy of Jesus is now his greatest mouthpiece, his greatest voice.
Sometimes God does that when he takes a faithful saint, and he allows this faithful saint to go through great suffering because the people around you are watching the way that you suffer, and they see this lady hang on to her faith and not give up hope in Jesus, and people start to take notice and say, “There must be something real about that lady’s faith.”
Sometimes he does both. In the case of Paul, maybe in the case of you, Jesus has done both. He’s taken somebody who didn’t deserve the grace of God and changed you, and then he allowed you to go through suffering so that people would notice that your faith is real. Maybe you’re going through it right now. If you’re struggling right now, if you’re really suffering right now, I want to challenge you to hang on. Don’t give up. If you’re struggling right now and people around you are turning their backs and they’re walking away from you, if it feels like you’re being stabbed in the back right now, don’t forget that he’ll never turn his back on you. He’ll never walk out on you. If you’re going through health problems, don’t forget he’s the healer. If people are criticizing you, don’t forget he’s your advocate. If you’re sick, he’s there for you. If you’re lonely, he’ll never leave you. If you’re struggling right now with temptation and you know that you’re about to give in, reach out to him, and he’ll grab you. If you’re facing death today, Jesus says, “I’m waiting for you on the other side of the Jordan River.” If you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he’s saying, “I’m going to be right there for you. Just hang on and don’t give up and don’t give in.”
The way that you hang on to your faith causes people around you to stand up and take notice, and they see that Jesus is real. Sometimes God rips the rug out from underneath people, so that now he’s got your attention. Now that you’re flat on your back, you can look up, and he’s got your attention. He’ll reach down and he’ll change you and pick you back up, and he’ll dust you off, and just stick with you no matter what you’re going through.
• I need the same scandalous grace that Paul received. Today I asked Jesus to forgive my sins for the first time.
– I’m going through suffering right now. Pray for me to hold on to my faith no matter how bad it gets.
+ I will pray for the most ungodly person I know to follow Jesus this year.
- Who is the furthest person from God that you know?
- Why do you consider that person furthest from God?
- What did God’s choice of Saul as his messenger demonstrate to the Jewish leadership?
- Who are the “outsiders” in our city? What can you do to help reach them for Jesus?
- Is anything holding you back from giving more time and attention to your relationship with Jesus? Pray that God would make that thing become less important to you than your walk with Jesus.
- To whom do you turn when you’re struggling with difficulty? Do you have a group that will walk through life with you?
- What are you struggling with that the rest of the group can pray for you about? Pray for each other.