I have here a cash register receipt from Food 4 Less,® dated 6 September. It is for $1.58. I had gone into this grocery store, that I don't normally shop in, for a few items. I had picked up a bag of potatoes early and put it under the cart on the lower rack and gone through the rest of the store. If you are familiar with Food 4 Less you know you sack your own groceries. I always feel awkward at the check-out counter there because I can't ever decide whether to watch the clerk as she is ringing up my purchases and write out my check or whether to go immediately and start sacking up my goods. This time I only had a few items, anyway, so I unloaded my cart and watched her ring up each item and made out my check, paid for my purchases and then went around to sack up my groceries. When I reached down to get the sacks, I noticed the bag of potatoes that I had put on the lower rack. I had not paid for them. The thought did run through my mind that I could probably get away with not paying for them. After all, the lady that was behind me in line had a huge cart full of groceries and seemed to be in no mood to be held up any longer. The checker had not been warm and friendly, just efficient and ready to get on to the next customer. However, I knew I would not be happy with potatoes I had not paid for, so I interrupted the clerk and explained that I had failed to put this bag of potatoes up on the counter and pay for them and I wished to do so now. She gave me a rather strange look, but agreed to ring them up for me since she had not started the next lady's transaction yet. (I didn't dare look at her.) I didn't pull that big bag of potatoes out from under the cart. The checker knew the price and so didn't need to scan them. As I was feeling rather foolish for having caused this inconvenience and paying cash for my potatoes, a manager came by and started sacking my groceries for me! That kind of shocked me. I don't know if he was aware of what had just happened or if he had just sensed some uneasiness at this checkout counter or what, but he took the time to help me with the sacking of my few groceries.
I left the store a little embarrassed, but convincing myself that I had done the right thing. Jesus would approve of my having caused a minor commotion to pay for the potatoes. In fact, I reasoned as I put my two sacks in the trunk of my car, Jesus would be very pleased that I had been so honest. I was pleased with myself, but trying not to be too proud of my honesty. (But I was!) When I got home, I picked up the two sacks and noticed the bag of potatoes were not in my trunk. I panicked slightly, but thought maybe the man had put the bag in the bottom of one of the sacks. One of them was rather heavy. But when I unloaded the sacks there were no potatoes. I came to the realization that in the process of being pleased and proud of myself, for the second time in the span of ten minutes, I had forgotten to get the potatoes off of the bottom rack of the cart. I had left them at the store. It is a very humbling experience to be so pleased and proud of your Christian action one minute and then realize you AGAIN forgot the potatoes! My good Christian deed turned sour. Was that a lesson from God?
Moving right along, I want you to imagine you are a Jew living in Jerusalem in the time period of our lesson today. As a child you were taught Jewish history, and you loved to hear the stories of Israel's past glory -- Abram, Moses, Jacob, the kings, especially King David and his conquests, Solomon and the temple, the respectability of this wonderful nation so obviously blessed by God. They are glorious stories. But time changes things and the glory turns to embarrassment as you remember the story of the divided kingdoms and then the captivities! The glory left the kingdom of Israel. The nation and its God are no longer respected in the world. After going through Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Syrian and now Roman domination, little pride is left. The temple has been rebuilt and it is glorious once again, but Herod had his Roman-loving hands in on it, and now there are Roman guards constantly watching from the Antonia Fortress down into the courtyard at festival time.
You do try to feel some pride from the fact that God has promised, through the prophets, to send the Messiah, who will once again bring Israel's dignity back and restore her glory. But where is He? Some false Messiahs have come and gone - one just recently was Jesus of Galilee. You've heard that One had some beautiful, but strange lessons to tell. It is said he healed some sick, fed multitudes, and you have even heard that he raised a dead man in Bethany. Yet, He caused so much trouble. The Jewish leaders said He was a false prophet who came teaching against all that Moses taught. Definitely anti-establishment. It became clear He was not going to be Israel's long-awaited king and stand up against Rome and restore Israel to her former glory. In fact, this false prophet just recently died in shame on a Roman cross at Passover. You've heard that His followers are still teaching His strange, eccentric messages. They even claim He came to life again, but you haven't seen Him, and you don't want to have an encounter with some ghost. The Jewish leaders are still telling you to stay clear of His disciples, because even after His death they still seem to be able to persuade whole crowds to follow their bizarre, "anti-Moses" teachings.
Today, you make it a point to go to the temple at the 9th hour as you quite often do. Surely your prayers for a Deliverer will be heard if you pray as the incense offered by the priests go up. Just before you enter the temple, you see a commotion under Solomon's Portico. Curiosity overwhelms your desire to pray, and you go over to investigate and see why the crowd is so excited. You are told upon your approach that a lame man has been healed. You can't believe such a report, so you work your way through the crowd up to the front and see for yourself.
The man has been changed. Drastically changed. You recognize him as the lame man who is almost always at the Beautiful Gate. You know it is him. You have seen him often. His brother who usually helps to carry him to the temple lives down the street from you. IT IS HIM. He is walking and jumping and hanging all over two men whom he claims healed him. You have never seen this lame man smiling and happy before. Yet, it is him. His legs and feet that were so malformed now look stronger than yours. His countenance is certainly happier than yours. How can this be? How could these men have healed him? You are standing there in wonder with your mouth dropped open with so many questions racing through your mind, yet you are unable to voice any of them. The lame man sees you and runs over and in his excitement gives you a very strong bear hug along with his beautiful smile. Still you are unable to speak, but the lame man tells you to listen to what these two men who healed him have to say. You couldn't tear yourself away even if you wanted to. You can't help but stare and wonder at this marvel. How did they do that? You must know the source of these men's power.
The man called Peter begins to speak. "Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified His servant Jesus, . . ." Jesus. So these men are His disciples, you think. You've been warned by the Jewish authorities to stay away from this bunch, but how can you leave? You have only been told of such power, but you have never witnessed it before. Peter continues, ". . . glorified His servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of Life . . ."
It is true--you remember that Passover festival well. It was just a few months ago. Could it be that that man Jesus was our Messiah and we had him killed? We thought the Messiah was going to be a military and political giant to rid Israel of outside domination for all time and restore her glory. Maybe our rabbis have taught us wrong and we have been looking for the wrong thing. Peter goes on, ". . . you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses."
Yes, you have heard all the rumors about the crucified Man who was brought back to life. Many have claimed to have seen Him and talked to Him. Could it be true? Peter goes on, ". . . In His name, by faith in His name, has made this man strong whom you see and know; and the faith which is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all."
Well, you certainly can't deny that this man has been healed by a strong, miraculous power. Surely it must be from God. Peter goes on and explains how the prophets words should be interpreted. The promise of the Messiah was not about an earthly kingdom after all. A spiritual kingdom is a hard concept to grasp. Yet our beloved scriptures clearly teach, as Peter is pointing out, that the Messiah must suffer on this earth and be killed. We did it. Just as surely as Pharaoh hardened his heart against all that Moses stood for, we hardened our hearts to our only hope - the Messiah. The shame and agony of the situation is unbearable. How can our nation make amends for such a disastrous blunder? We must change and support these men. What else can you do? You feel as if God is directly speaking to you.
If you were here Sunday, you heard Bud Ross call this the "ol' one-two punch." First- the power of a changed life; second- bold proclamation of the Gospel message. He is right. This lame man's life was changed physically, but a spiritual change is just as irresistible a force. That change will draw attention to the power of Jesus. But in order for people to see a change in us, we must let Jesus change us! Many of us grew up in a religious home or at least in a home with high morals. So where is the change? Could this be why we have not been able to get the world's attention to focus on Christ? If we had been robbers or drunkards previously, the world would notice a change in us. But that is seldom the way it works. So how are we to be changed? What changes in us?
We sang, "I was sinking deep in sin...very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more." Is that a hard song for you to sing? To sing it with meaning? I've heard Christians say, "I hate to sing that song because I became a Christian at an early age, I grew up in a Christian home, I went straight from the innocence of childhood to becoming a Christian. I can hardly remember feeling like a lost sinner."
Sisters, for some of us this is the source of our problem and why we can't reach the lost. We've put ourselves above it all. We went straight from the innocence of childhood to some vague acknowledgment that when we do wrong things we are sinning and sin separates us from God, but God will accept us again if we obey His will. So we were immersed in baptism for the forgiveness of our sins and went right back to that "innocent state." It is true that Jesus will present us as blameless and sinless to His Father, but we MUST remember that it is not our goodness making us sinless nor our simply having followed the right form. It is God's GRACE that provides that. God's power to draw men to Him through us cannot work if we don't have a knowledge of our hopeless state, except through God's Grace. We seem to subconsciously think we have been raised to be good--we have always been good. We've made mistakes, but we've followed God's Word. God wouldn't, couldn't dare turn us away! We know we've done the right thing and we can be proud to call ourselves a Christian.
Ladies, pride goeth before a fall, just like me out on the grocery store parking lot and my pride at having paid for a bag of potatoes that I could have gotten out of the store with scot-free - just to be humbled when I got home and discovered I had left them in the cart. Our pride in our goodness can actually do harm to God's Kingdom and can keep us from entering that Kingdom that we think we deserve.
We must realize that without God's grace we are all just a room full of sinners separated from God by those sins. God will not be in the presence of sin. We must be aware of what a precious gift His Son was and is to this earth. Without Him no one would be able to be in God's presence. We could all be proud at having done the right thing when we could have easily gotten away with the wrong thing, or be proud of our visiting the sick, going on missionary trips, or doing good deeds till the cows come home, but that would not earn us a place at God's side. We must remember that without His death, burial and resurrection we are all as lost as Jezebel, Hitler and any unrepentant mass murderer. We must remember that His grace is a precious, undeserved gift, freely given and available to all who accept it. When we get a good grasp of that thought and never let it go, then others will be able to see a difference in our lives. Our message to others will not be, "Sinner, come be good like me," but "Sinner, come accept God's grace with me--a sinner."
Never forget that had Jesus not given Himself in our stead, we would all be looking for a place to hide from God just as Adam and Eve in the Garden after their fall. We must be touched and changed daily, constantly, by this gift of love called Jesus. That's the first punch - THE POWER OF A CHANGED LIFE. The people on this portico saw it thousands of years ago and people can see it in us today if we will just remember how close to Satan we really are without God's Grace. When others see a difference in our lives, they will come to us just as this crowd came to Peter and John and the former lame man, begging to know just what had caused this change. Then we must be ready to deliver the second punch--that our religious group is right and your's isn't? -No.- The second punch is THE BOLD PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL MESSAGE. The story of Jesus and grace. And how we can become reconciled to God only by an acknowledgment of our sinful state and accept His plan of salvation for all sinners, all mankind.
You were in that crowd in Jerusalem today. You saw the change in a man's life and asked why. You felt remorse for having wronged the Lord. You took harsh words, not offensively, but lovingly, as they were meant to be taken, because you understood the need to get right with God. And you wouldn't rest until you were right with God. YOU changed then. Now others will be asking you why? What has come over you? You will answer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that you have finally come to the realization of just how much God loves you and wants you as His child. It took the death of His Son to pay the debt for your sins, to bring about this reconciliation. Without Him, YOU are without God. Because His Son lives, you can be with God.
As I was finishing this last paragraph my doorbell rang. It was Doug Allison with a copy of a song we are to sing at a funeral in a little while. The words fit right in with what I was working on. Coincidence? No. It is just the basic message our life should be living and telling to others.
It all boils down to this:
He came to love, heal, and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon, . . .
Because He lives I can face tomorrow,
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR