GOD IS CALLING!
USING THE PUZZLE PIECES OF OUR LIFE
by Pastor Martha-Jean Fitch Text: Acts 22, I Timothy 1:12-16
September 23, 2018
Text: Acts 22, I Timothy 1:12-16
I invite all the kids to come join me up front for a few minutes.
How many of you like to work a jigsaw puzzle? I really like to work puzzles, but I don’t have a lot of time to do them. It can sometimes take a lot of time can’t it? This is a puzzle I really liked when I was a child. I worked it again and again. It has big pieces – about 100 pieces – and it is unique in that it is a round puzzle. This is one that my kids really liked when they were little. There are only 100 pieces and it is a picture of the 101 Dalmatians.
What makes it fun and easy to work a puzzle? Having few pieces that you can work in a short amount of time! And having the picture to follow! But if you have the time, sometimes it is nice to have it just sitting on a table and every so often throughout the week you go and sit down and work on it. For example, this is a puzzle Greg and I bought on our honeymoon. We were staying at a cabin in Estes Park and we put it on a table and throughout the week, we worked on this puzzle. It had 644 pieces. And as we were working this puzzle, we kept looking again and again at the picture on the box, to make sure we would get the pieces right.
Well, Greg knows how much I like puzzles so occasionally if he sees one at a garage sale or something, he will purchase one for me. Like this one – and guess how many pieces it has. 1000!!! That is a lot. In fact, it seems overwhelming to me…like it would take a long time to work. So, I must confess, I have never made this puzzle. Look at these pieces. Boy you would really need the picture on the top of the puzzle box to know where each piece goes. I’m so glad the creator of the puzzle gave us the picture. Can you imagine what it would be like to work this puzzle without the picture?
Well you know – our life is kind of like this puzzle. It is made up of a lot of pieces. When you are young there aren’t a lot of pieces – but as you grow up, there are more and more pieces aren’t there? And who made all those pieces of your life? God did! He is like the puzzle maker, isn’t He? And you know what – He knows what the finished picture is going to look like! But we don’t always know what that picture is going to be. We can trust God to help us figure out how everything fits and falls into place. The Bible tells us that as we trust God, the puzzle designer – we can hope that in the end things will work together for good, even if it not as we expected to. What God created in you, He will bring to completion in the end – if we just trust Him.
What we need to remember is – we can trust God with all the pieces in my life. I have that written on a bookmark. There is one here for each of you…but also for each of the people in worship today. After I pray, I want each of you to take one….and then pass them out to the congregation as you return to your seat. Ok? Let’s pray. PRAYER (children return to their seats)
Today we are beginning a new sermon series called “God is Calling!” We are going to be looking specifically at the life of the Apostle Paul – who was called by Jesus to follow Him and to be His messenger. For the next 7 weeks, we will follow Paul’s life and listen to his teachings - this incredible man who took the gospel of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem throughout the Roman empire and turned the world upside down. Along the way we will discover that God is also calling us and wants to use us as His disciples to make a difference in this world. As a guide, we will be looking to Adam Hamilton’s book, “The Call” – the book we will be studying together in Wednesday Adult Bible Study, which begins Oct. 3. There is an insert in today’s bulletin about it. I am hoping that there will be a lot of you sign up for this 6-week study. We will see the places where Paul ministered in Turkey, Greece and Rome through videos that Adam Hamilton filmed on site…as well as have a great discussion about the various Bible texts and how they relate to our life of faith.
For today, we will look at Paul’s early life and see how God used the various puzzle pieces of his life - each one important for making Paul who he was and enabling his ministry to be so effective. Paul describes his life in detail in Acts 22. I invite you to get your Bible out and we will look through some of the puzzle pieces of Paul’s life as described there.
First notice in verse 3, Paul says, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did.” Scholars believe that Paul was born somewhere between 5 BC and 10 AD – which means he was alive during the time of Jesus. In fact, he would have been a young adult, maybe in his 20’s or early 30’s, when Jesus was crucified. He was born in the town of Tarsus – in what we know today as eastern Turkey, somewhat near the border of Turkey and Syria, on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. These are pictures of the Tarsus Mountains – mountains that Paul saw as he was growing up there. Turkey really is a beautiful place. These mountains kind of remind me of Colorado. And this Celician Pass looks very much like Colorado to me. The Celician Pass was an important trade route and military route that connected the east and the south up through Asia Minor by land and then ultimately to Italy. Thus, in 64 BC when the Roman Empire took over this whole area, Tarsus became a strategic location for their trade and military. So, to keep the citizens of Tarsus loyal to the Empire, they decided that everyone who owned land in Tarsus was automatically a Roman citizen.1
That really is the first piece of the puzzle of Paul’s life – that he was born in Tarsus and was a Roman citizen. This was really important throughout his ministry. Paul would use this fact many times to help him, because Roman citizens could not be whipped or tortured, and they also had the right to a legal trial and could appeal to Caesar.2 Those privileges proved helpful to Paul many times throughout his ministry.
They spoke Greek in Tarsus – a gift which enabled Paul to write letters in Greek that could be read by people all throughout the Greco-Roman world – letters that became a good portion of our New Testament.
Tarsus was a city of great education and learning. It was a city that focused on the study of philosophy and the Greco-Roman world view that it surpassed even Athens and Alexandria. Because of this education Paul received in Tarsus, he could understand the philosophy of the Greeks and could teach them and reason with them as he shared the gospel of Jesus with them.
Even though Tarsus was a city of many Gentiles, Paul’s parents were Jews and raised Paul to be a man of faith. Incidentally, his Jewish name is Saul, but his Greek name is Paul. Paul’s parents were tentmakers and taught him that trade – but they wanted more for him, so they sent him to Jerusalem to study with a great rabbi named Gamaliel. There Paul became a Pharisee and became very zealous in his faith. This time of study in Jerusalem helped Paul to truly understand the foundation of his faith and be able to debate the Jews in his ministry.
Family, birthplace, education and the opportunities and gifts he was given – these were all puzzle pieces of Paul’s life that made him to be the person he was. And God used them to make a difference in his ministry. I wonder …. how has God used your background – the way you were raised – the family you were brought up in – the education you did or didn’t receive. How has God used those puzzle pieces of your life to make a difference in who you are today?
I know for myself, I was raised in a family where my maternal grandmother was living with us. I know many of you have heard me say how difficult she was to live with. Her bitter, sad life truly affected all of us in the family. My two brothers and I could have easily come out of that upbringing with a lot of bitterness and pain ourselves. But we were incredibly blessed to have loving parents and church family who taught us the way of Jesus. As a result, we gave the difficult puzzle pieces of our growing up years to God and all three of us became ministers! I do believe we all became more empathetic of others and definitely more trusting of God because of those growing up years with Grandmother.
How has God used your early years of life? Are you letting Him have those puzzle pieces – the good ones and the bad - so that He can redeem them and use them for His glory? Or are those ones that are still causing pain and tripping you up? Adam Hamilton says, “Your life experience. Your schooling. Your past. Your parents got divorced. Your father was an alcoholic. You had this painful experience. You went to this school. You got this degree. You realize God is saying: “I can use that, and I can use that and that. And part of our task is to figure out ‘How is God going to use this for His purposes and glory?”3 “In so many ways our lives are like puzzles, and God has a unique way of bringing those various pieces of the puzzle together to create something beautiful and useful in us.”4 It really is all about surrendering all the puzzle pieces up to God and trusting Him to work in and through them for His glory. As it says in Romans 8:28 – “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”
But you know – sometimes it just seems there are some puzzle pieces in our lives that seem so bad that it seems impossible that they could ever be redeemed or made into something beautiful. Some of the puzzle pieces in our lives can be heavy and painful hurts that we have inflicted on ourselves or others. Things that we hide from others – things that just seem unforgiveable. Can God really use those times for His glory? Yes, indeed. And Paul shows that very clearly in his life by the way God called him right when he was trying to destroy the early Christians who were called followers of the Way. Let’s read his story, continuing in our passage from Acts 22 -beginning at verse 4:
4 And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. 5 The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.
6 “As I was on the road, approaching Damascus about noon, a very bright light from heaven suddenly shone down around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.
“And the voice replied, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, the one you are persecuting.’ 9 The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me. 10 “I asked, ‘What should I do, Lord?’ “And the Lord told me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and
there you will be told everything you are to do.’
Here we see two more puzzle pieces in the life of Paul. Paul persecuted the Christians. And he was ruthless! He didn’t just arrest and punish people in Jerusalem, he hunted them down – all the way to Damascus, some 227 miles away. He was determined to stop this movement for Jesus before it did any more damage. But it was on the road to Damascus that Paul met Jesus. Of all people that Jesus would call to follow Him and preach His gospel message – Jesus called someone who was totally opposed Him. It almost seems impossible and crazy to think that God would call him. But God had a plan. He could take all the puzzle pieces of Paul’s life, forgive and redeem the hurtful, painful ones – and create something wonderful in his life. He would make him into a great missionary to the Gentiles.
Paul was blinded by the great light he saw on the road to Damascus. We read in Acts 9, that his companions took him to the house of Judas on Straight Street in Damascus and there he waited in complete darkness for three days. I imagine he spent that time in complete confusion, trying to make sense of his life and what he believed. It was a turning point for him. Maybe a wake-up call in a way. Perhaps he was realizing that the way he was trying to put together the puzzle of his life was not working – and that he needed to change his direction – to give his life up to the Puzzle-maker and let Him direct his steps.
Finally, God sent him a very special gift – another piece of the puzzle in Paul’s life – a man named Ananias. Ananias was called by God to go see Paul. That was a scary thing to do I am sure for Ananias. To go see the notorious persecutor of the church! But Ananias bravely said “yes” to the call of God on his life – and literally helped Paul to see God’s amazing grace. Ananias laid hands on Paul – and suddenly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes – and he could see. And my guess is that he could see, not just with his eyes but also with a new vision of Jesus and his mission to share the gospel. He was then baptized by Ananias and began preaching that “Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”
Just think…what if Ananias had said “no” to the calling of God on his life. What a difference he made in Paul’s life – and hence – in the spread of the gospel. His role is such an important piece of Paul’s story. He shared Christ with Paul and baptized him. You know we never hear about Ananias in Scripture again – but what a difference he made. Think about this. It may be that God is calling you to be an Ananias in someone else’s life. You may never know how your puzzle piece will fit into another person’s life – but I believe God can use you to make all the difference for all eternity, in ways we may never know.
You know Paul was so amazed by Jesus calling him – right in the midst of the depth of his sin. Turn over to I Timothy 1. Let’s read verses 12-16. Paul says:
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him,13 even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. 14 Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was!
He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus.
15 This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. 16 But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners.
Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.
Paul had all sorts of sinful and broken pieces of his life - and yet God called Paul – and forgave him – and then used him as an example of God’s great mercy. Paul’s life truly began when he surrendered all the pieces of his life completely to God’s will. Through God’s amazing grace, Paul could truly sing: “I once was blind, but now I see. Was lost but now I’m found!”
And God can do the same through all the pieces of your life. God can use every piece of your life – the good, the bad, the joyful and painful - and He wants to! He has a plan for each of our lives – and wants to fill us with his love and hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11) All He asks is that we bring all the pieces of our life to Him and surrender them to Him – that He might redeem and transform them for His glory. And then He is calling you and me to go forth and tell others what a difference He has made in your life.
God is calling. What will be your answer?
1Adam Hamilton, sermon “Called to Follow Christ”. https://cor.org/leawood/sermon-series/the-call#d/sermon/1534/cor_l
2BibleStudy.org - “Apostle Paul's Roman citizenship”
3 Adam Hamilton, sermon “Called to Follow Christ”. https://cor.org/leawood/sermon-series/the-call#d/sermon/1534/cor_l
4Adam Hamilton, “The Call”, Abingdon Press, 2015, page 23.