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The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 9, 2013
The Epistle: Galatians 1:11-24
Sermon: "For a Change"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.
For a Change
The prophet Jeremiah asked this question 2700 years ago, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” To put his question another way, can a person change his or her basic character? Can the cruel become kind, the vulgar become refined, the cowardly become courageous?
It is an important question. Few of us are all we want to be. But, can we become? We hear from Scripture of God’s design for our lives; we are given the vision again of what God has created us to be. But when we compare the design with our present reality, we are confronted by a gulf between the present and the vision. We know that we need to change, but still we wonder, “Can we change?”
Our Scripture passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning, is a witness to God’s answer to this question. God’s answer? “Of course. You can change.” Consider the witness of the Apostle Paul in these few verses of our passage. Verse 13, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism, I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” Now look at verses 23 and 24, “…’The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.”
Paul, by his own admission, was a zealous advocate of his Pharisaic faith. Rather, we should say, he was so fanatically attached to a particular kind of orthodoxy that he could not tolerate conflicting views. It is important to make that distinction, because it is possible to have the same kind of misguided zeal for the cause of Christ.
The important thing to note here, however, is that Paul did change. He became the great missionary apostle for Christ. But it was not that he simply exchanged one orthodoxy for another. He was changed heart, mind and spirit. Take a look at I Corinthians 13 if you need the evidence of it. Start at verse 4 where Paul writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Though Paul himself would never have claimed to have achieved such perfection of love, he certainly did come to understand it, to write masterfully about it, and to exhibit it more and more in his life. What a difference; a real change in character, not just a change in belief or purpose.
Here is the point: change is a wondrous possibility for all of God’s children. Indeed, it is a key ingredient of the Imago Dei, the image of God, in which you and I have been created. Of all of God’s creatures we seem to be the only ones who possess this quality. We are made to change. True, many animals have creative, even problem solving abilities, but these are driven by an instinctive need to adapt. For this reason, the beaver dams, birds nest, and the ant hills of the 21st Century are no different from those of a hundred thousand years ago.
But as humans, we can create entirely new models. We can take the raw materials given to us by God and arrange them in a pattern that bears the stamp of an individual creative mind. Taking words, colors, clay, musical notes, bricks, or marble, a man or woman may shape something that has never been. We find such activity fulfilling. Why? Because we are living up to the image of God woven deep in our inmost being. We are made to change, and be change agents.
But how, how do we effectively make real change in ourselves? How can we realize our dreams and remedy our defects? Here are four essential ingredients, four simple and practical steps, for achieving desirable change in ourselves.
The first essential ingredient for change is: Desire. Do you really want it? Are you sufficiently desirous of change such that you are willing to pay the price that it requires? The problem, often times, is not just a lack of desire to change, though, it also often includes a lack of awareness. People are often not even aware of their need for change.
Take Robert Wadlow. At his death, Wadlow was the tallest known man in the world Unfortunately, he had no pain endings in his heel. Robert Wadlow somehow had a blister appear on that heel, and it got infected without his knowing about it. This was before the advent of antibiotic drugs. In a short time he was dead. It need not have happened. If only he had been aware of the blister.
Some people are not even aware of their deepest spiritual needs because they never give any thought to their souls. They never give any thought to where they stand with their Creator. There must, as a first essential ingredient, be a desire for change.
The second essential ingredient for change is: Design. Constructive change happens best when we plan for it. We need some idea of where we are headed. We need a measuring stick for personal progress. Let’s say that I want to grow in understanding the mind of God. Knowing the Bible can really help with that. So I can set a goal of reading the entire Bible. The measuring stick would be to plan to read it for a half hour every day. If I will do that, I know that one year from now, I will be 182 hours better informed about God’s mind than I am right now. If we will let ourselves be informed by God’s word, then God will more easily reveal to us his design, including his design for our lives and persons. So, the first two ingredients in personal change are desire and design.
Here is the third essential: a Dynamic. (OK… I confess… all of these start with the letter “D.”) So, we need power, power that is not our own. All of us have tried to change something about ourselves on our own, but we have found ourselves frustrated by the stubbornness within. In our own strength we fail. Often, as a result, we will give up trying.
Look at Paul. Paul, or Saul as he was known before he met Christ on the Damascus Road, seemingly had no desire or design for change. His change came because of God’s desire and design. He says in verses 11 and 12 that the experience of the Gospel was not from any other source. “I didn’t receive it of human origin, neither was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is clear that Paul received the dynamic power to change directly from God.
You and I might not experience such a dramatic rending of the veil, but that same dynamic power that invaded Paul’s life is available to us. It is the power of the indwelling Christ, the Holy Spirit. Such power is usually released in us more gradually, from spending time in quiet fellowship with God, in study, and in centered, contemplative prayer. Nevertheless, that dynamic is already in you and me, because the Holy Spirit is already resident in us by our faith in Christ. Change comes from desire and design, and from the dynamic that the Spirit provides.
But one more essential ingredient is needed for change: Daring. Change comes when we dare to take a first step. Getting started is always the hardest part. Old habits die hard; old ways, old thought patterns that have calcified in our present selves. But they do die if we will dare to take the first step beyond our self-imposed barriers.
Here is an old writing from an anonymous source that speaks to this. It is entitled “The Dilemma.” (No, I didn’t pick it because it was another “D.” It just said it well.)
It says this:
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk rejection.
To place your dreams before the crowd is to risk ridicule.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To go forward in the face of overwhelming odds is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love.
Chained by his certitudes, he is a slave.
Only a person who takes risks is free.
We can change. The formula is simple. The most important change that we can make in all our lives is one that we can begin right now; to commit more deeply to a relationship with Jesus Christ and his will for life. He is the source of the dynamic and the daring that make the desire and the design work. Call on him; he’s already in you. Let him guide and empower.