But when God…(Sunday, June 2, 2013)

BUT WHEN GOD…Galatians 1:1-24 June 2, 2013
(The audio did not record properly this Sunday, so here is the written version of the message that was given. God bless you!)
Over the 2000 years that the Christian church has existed, we have developed a tradition of worshipping in sanctuaries filled with special furnishings – pews, pulpits, altars – and stained glass windows, and many other ornamentations. To many people – myself included – a traditional sanctuary like this one offers much in the way of symbolism and meaning, and a very real sense that God is present in this place.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Instead, the very first Christian churches were house churches, where there were no pulpits or pews or altars, or stained glass, and everything was done face-to-face in the intimate setting of someone’s home.
The apostle Paul was very used to that in the churches he started. And when Paul couldn’t speak in person, he would write a letter. Without webcams, telephones, or texting, in the ancient world, letter writing was the next best thing to being there.
We begin a series of Sundays this morning reading through this letter of Paul to the churches in Galatia, the letter we call Galatians. Many Bible scholars read this letter as Paul’s defense of his authority as an apostle. There were some in Galatia who questioned Paul’s authority, who opposed his teaching, who were critical of his message. And Paul is clearly upset in his letter that some in the church of Galatia are listening to these false teachers. Paul says they are not preaching the gospel. They should not be listened to.
And then Paul goes on to defend his own preaching; and he does it by telling of his own experience of God’s grace in his life.
In his former life, Paul tells us, he used to persecute the church and tried to destroy it. But now he’s preaching the Christian faith and planting churches. In his former life, Paul had been advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of his own age. But now he’s being thrown out of synagogues for preaching Christ.
In his former life, he had been extremely zealous for the religious traditions that had been handed down generation after generation. But now he’s teaching everyone that faith in Christ means they don’t need to keep the religious traditions. This was a dramatic change – from advancing in Judaism to advancing the cause of Christ, from living by the law to living by the Spirit.
So, what caused Paul’s life to change so dramatically? And what might we learn about how God can change our lives?
The key is verse 15 of our text – three simple words – “But when God.” There’s so much we don’t know about Paul’s life. For example, what did he do in Arabia for three years? Was he on a prayer retreat? Was he trying to figure out his life? We’re not told.
Paul paints his experience in broad strokes to make his point about the power of the gospel: “But when God.” Paul was going full steam ahead, advancing in Judaism, trying to keep the law in every detail, advancing in his goal to wipe out those who were claiming Jesus as the Messiah – when suddenly, God stepped in, and everything changed.
We may be busy pursuing the things that are important to us, just like Paul. Just as Paul had been concerned to advance in Judaism, maybe we’re also focused on advancing in some way – getting ahead at school or in business, excelling in our work or developing a skill, or excelling in a sport. Maybe we’re or pursuing our financial goals – paying off a mortgage or saving for retirement – or pursuing a hobby, or pursuing leisure activities. We might be going full speed ahead on the things that we care deeply about.
But then, God steps in. God shows us that he has plans for our life. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done.” It means we pray that we might do God’s will in our lives. Perhaps we don’t give it too much thought. But then God steps in and he speaks to us, in some way he breaks through to our heart or mind and we sense God is calling us to something. God says, “I’ve heard your prayer. Here’s what I want you to do.” And we’re not sure whether to say “yes” or “no.”
We may not receive a dramatic vision like Paul did. We may not go off on a 3-year prayer retreat to Arabia.
But what we do have in common with the apostle is that God is speaking to us – in some way, through his word, through our conscience, tugging at our hearts – in whatever way God gets through to us, God is saying, “I’ve got a job for you; I’ve got plans for you.”
When God spoke to Paul, he came to a new understanding of Jesus and a new understanding of his faith.
He saw people in a new way – not divided between races, nor divided between old and young, or men and women, but as one humanity in Jesus Christ. He saw success in a new way, success not measured in dollars and cents, but in the character qualities of love, patience, kindness, and goodness; a kind of success where the kind of clothing we wear or the kind of cars we drive doesn’t count as much as the kind of people we are.
Paul describes God’s work in his life this way: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born …” (v. 15). In other words, God was at work throughout Paul’s life – not only on the Damascus Road when Christ appeared to Paul in a vision, not only when Paul was in Arabia on a prayer retreat, or whatever it was that he was doing there. God had been at work from his mother’s womb throughout his entire life.
In the same way, God is at work throughout our lives, too. You and I are a long-term project. God doesn’t just fly in at moments of crisis or during times of intense need or intense prayer. God is at work in our lives from our beginning in our mother’s womb and all the way through, even when we’re sometimes unaware of it, even when we’re sometimes at odds with God’s purposes as Paul once was.
I hear that as good news, and I hope you hear that as good news as well. There are times when we can wonder: ‘maybe God has given up on me. Maybe I’ve messed up one to many times. Maybe I’ve ignored God so long, that he’s gotten tired of trying.’
It would help us to remember that Paul was far from perfect. Listen to what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, a letter he wrote AFTER his letter to the Galatians…Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:17-18)
There was so much more going on in Paul’s life than he tells in this first chapter of Galatians. There were still rough edges in his life, but God wasn’t finished with him yet. For us, too, each of us has our own rough edges, and God isn’t finished with any of us.
Whether we’ve lived for nine years or nineteen, or ninety, God’s work in our lives continues. There are numerous examples in the Bible of poeple not considered “worthy” of God’s grace – a woman at the well, a man born blind, a centurion of the Roman Army. But God did not give up on them, and God will not give up on you.
I encourage you to reflect on your own life today: Where is God’s work in you still unfinished? How is God still at work in you to develop the character qualities of love, patience, kindness, goodness?
And then give thanks, because God is with you. You are not alone. You are of great value and great worth in the eyes of your heavenly Father, and he has not abandoned you or given up on you. The same God who set you apart from birth, and who claimed you and called in your baptism will continue his good work in you.


About pastorjohnwaseca

ELCA Lutheran Pastor
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