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Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Making of a Church: Calling

Acts 9:1-20

Pastor Jack J Stahl has decided that the best way to take God to the people is via the medium of Tom Jones records. He is available to conduct funerals, exorcisms and weddings - you just can't choose your own music. Stahl says, “Since I was six years old, I have used the angelic voice of Tom Jones to get in touch with the Holy Spirit. To me, his voice is spiritual, soulful and supernatural. So when God called me into the ministry in 1990 it only made sense to incorporate Tom Jones into it. Simply stated, it works for me. With the help of 'The God of Voice' Tom Jones, miracles happen and people are healed.” With the help of Tome Jones, Pastor Stahl can banish the devil or your foot fungus. An interviewer asked Stahl How he performs exorcisms using Tom Jones' music. Stahl says, “I usually lay my hands on the person's head or wherever they need a healing. I ask the person to agree with me in asking for the miracle from God. I briefly explain that I need to have the angelic voice of Tom Jones playing to enable me to get in touch with the Holy Spirit. I then start the Tom Jones song, scream at the Devil, often curse at him and cast him back to the bowels of Hell. I am baptised in the spirit and speak in tongues. You have to understand that the Devil is a bully and when you stand up to him he runs like the coward he is.” Why does Stlahl think that demons respond to the Welsh heartthrob? He says, “The Devil hates anything that is of God . . .just because something is different does not make it wrong. God calls different people into different ministries. I am simply answering my calling.” (http://www.bizarremag.com/real_people.php?id=1596#)

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. People want to know what God calls them to do. When we feel lost or aimless, we will often make our lives busy and frantic. In the hurried pace of trying to do more and more to make ourselves better, how often do we stop, sit still, and listen (and make sure that what we are hearing is God and not Tom Jones).

Today we look at story that deals with hearing and responding to the voice of Jesus. Before we read the Scripture, allow me to set the scene. Last week we read about the boldness of the Apostles who preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their preaching reaches many new converts. There aren’t enough Apostles to oversee this new religious community. They choose seven men who are known to be full of the Spirit to help. One of the men is named Stephen. He is full of God’s power, and performs miraculous signs among the people. His faith in Jesus enrages religious leaders. The leaders bring Stephen to court and accuse him of blasphemy. At trial Stephen reverses the accusations. He calls the Sanhedrin the blasphemers. The accusers become infuriated. They cover their ears and, and yelling at the top of their voices, they rush at Stephen, drag him out of the city and kill him.

Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr. Persecution breaks out against the church. One of the persecutors is a Pharisee named Saul. Saul travels from house to house, dragging men and women to prison in an attempt to destroy the group who called “The sect of the Nazarene”, or “the Way.”

Later, Saul will become known as Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles and the most influential thinker and preacher in all of Christianity. He started out as the ringleader in a campaign of violence. After hearing the voice of Jesus, he becomes a follower. I refer to this episode as the calling of Paul. Some say that this story represents Paul’s conversion to Christianity. The term ‘conversion’ may lead us to believe that Paul changed his religion: the Jew became a Christian. But, the NT is clear that Paul remained a Jew who fulfilled his calling as an Apostle to the Gentiles. This is not a conversion from one religion to another, but a call to a specific mission.

The term “call” can be confusing. I have heard people say to me, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard God’s call.” Having a call simply refers to knowing God’s specific purpose and plan for your life.

Saul listened to the voice of Jesus. He stands in contrast to the members of the High Court who close their ears to the preaching of the gospel. While traveling the 150 mile stretch to Damascus to the north the heavens open up and strike Saul with a blinding light. A heavenly voice speaks to him and no one else seems to hear it. Just moments before Saul was so sure of himself. Now, in this desolate area, God speaks, and God is Jesus.

One step in knowing God’s call or purpose in your life is to listen the voice of Jesus. The voice of Jesus calls us to stop living contrary to God’s will. The voice calls us to turn our lives around and seek the things of God. I realize that to some this may all sound strange. How exactly are we supposed to listen to this voice? After all, it sounds foolish for me to wait for cosmic voices. People who hear voices usually get “sent away for a while.” How many of us really expect God to speak to us from the clouds and give instant direction to our lives? I’ll admit, I’ve never audibly heard the voice of God, and I’ve never had an experience like Saul’s, but I am learning how to identify the thoughts and feelings that I experience when God is trying to get my attention.

For me, hearing God involves a process. I knew I was supposed to be a minister from the time I was 12 years old. Friends would say, “What do you want to be when you grow up.” Some would say sports star. Some would say president. I wanted to be a minister. If you knew me back then, I would not have struck you as a spiritual child. Like today, I was a loud-mouthed free spirit. Somehow, as a sixth-grader, I sensed God’s call into ministry.

By the time I graduated college, I changed my mind and decided to be a High School English teacher. I knew I was supposed to enter the ministry, but I wanted options. The thought of being a minister terrified me – especially the part about getting up in front of people and preaching week after week. After sharing my struggles, some loving friends sat down with me and helped me to listen and clarify what God was trying to tell me. When I couldn’t ignore God’s consistent voice any longer, I turned...and I listened. God spoke to me though the voice of others, and started me on a process that helped me decide my future.

Sometimes people ask how Chris and I knew we were supposed to come to Trumbull. It was not a single momentous experience where we heard God’s voice saying “Go Ye to Trumbull and preach My Word.” The call was a process. We prayed, and talked, and read, and prayed some more, and shared our struggles with others, and talked some more, and prayed some more, until we felt we had a firm grasp on what God wanted us to do. At the same time, the search at this church committee prayed, and interviewed, and prayed, and discerned the church’s future, and prayed some more, and involved the congregation. We heard God through the process.

Have you ever had to make a decision like that -- something that affects the outcome of your entire life? In our noisy world of competing voices, how does God speak?

1. God is heard in the Bible. When we take time to read and reflect on

Scripture, we can hear God’s voice and learn God’s will.

2. God’s voice can be heard in confessions and creeds of the church.

3. God’s voice can be heard in liturgy and music. We come to church to worship, and sense God’s presence through our acts of praise. Don’t be surprised if God nudges you by something you sing, or something you see in a stained glass window, or the words of a prayer.

4. God’s voice can be heard through trusted friends, and Spirit-filled members of the community of faith. Such voices give guidance and direction when we are confused about God’s will.

5. God can be heard through the Holy Spirit working directly in your heart and mind. But don’t go over board. Once I was in a church where people heard words of from God. Worshipers would stand and share these prophecies. One of “the regulars” once stood and said, with crunched eyes and folded hands, “there is someone here who has a deathly fear of alligators. God wants to heal you today.” We were in Danvers, MA. There were no alligators within a thousand miles. I would think God might say, “If you’re afraid of alligators, don’t go fishing in Florida swamps.” Direct words from God need to be tested against scripture and the church’s leadership.

Maybe God is trying to get your attention on the Damascus Road of your life. Have you ever come to a place where you can no longer resist the sound of that urgent, persistent voice that asks you to do something new for Jesus Christ? God’s voice still speaks today. God may not speak to you with blinding lights and booming noises. He may begin to speak slowly, and gently, and tenaciously. He calls us to seek, to trust, and to follow. If you have never heard that voice, or if you’ve just been ignoring it as you turn your head away to listen to other messages, I encourage you to silently listen to the voice of Christ which says, “Come, follow me, and believe. God is doing something new, and I want you to be a part.”

Listening is not enough however. We need to be obedient to the voice of God. It’s one thing to listen. It’s quite another to trust God and yourself enough to do follow through. In a vision God told Saul to go to Damascus and meet Ananias in order to see again. Can you imagine how frightened Saul must have been? He’s struck blind and he has to face the very people he set out to destroy. In another vision, God tells Ananias to heal Saul. Can you imagine how frightened Ananias might have been? God tells Ananias to heal the man who wants to kill him. Ananias, the persecuted one, becomes the healer. God humbles Saul, the persecutor, and calls him to return to the Pharisees and preach the message the Good News.

Sometimes the voice of Christ asks us to do difficult things. Jesus calls us to leave our comfort zones to follow. He calls us to stop behaviors that conflict with God’s desires for us. Jesus calls us to do the impossible, things like loving our enemies and loving God more than we love our comfort. I don’t know about you, but for me such demands frighten me. They put me in a place where I can’t trust my own accomplishments or experiences anymore. Obedience means yielding all of our actions to the demands of God’s kingdom.

We are called to obey God’s will at home, loving and serving our children and or our spouses in a way that brings honor to Christ.

We are called to obey God’s will at work and school, taking a stand for what we believe to be true, even when it makes us disliked or unpopular.

We are called to obey God’s will for our personal lives, living with honesty and integrity even when no one else is watching.

We are called to obey God’s will around friends, not caving into peer pressure, and not giving anyone else a reason to blame Christians for being hypocrites.

We are called to obey God’s will as a church, finding ways to invite everyone to be a part of what God is doing.

We are called to obey God’s will around strangers, knowing that our lives may be the only Bible they ever read.

How do we make the church strong in the midst of today’s culture? We seek God’s calling in our lives. We listen, and we obey. And we allow God to use us to transform the world around us.

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