TRA Wordtalks

"Sunday, 31st August, 1997 - Find Forgiveness."

28/97 24.8.97 Scripture: Acts 13:13-52 A RECENT edition of "TIME" magazine had a cover story written by Claudia Wallis which asked: "Can prayer, faith and spirituality really improve your physical health? A growing and surprising body of scientific evidence says they can." Twenty faith healers were recruited for a study by Dr Elisabeth Targ, clinical director of psychosocial oncology research at the California Pacific Medical Centre (SFO). Twenty dying AIDS patients were randomly selected; half were prayed for, half were not. None were told to which group they were in. Dr Targ describes the results as sufficiently encouraging to warrant a larger study with 100 AIDS patients.

"TIME" comments: "Twenty years ago, no self-respecting American doctor would have dared a double-blind, controlled study of something as intangible as prayer. Western medicine has spent the past 100 years trying to rid itself of remnants of mysticism. Psychiatry couldn't be more hostile to spirituality: Sigmund Freud dismissed religious mysticism as `infantile helplessness.' Today there is a shift among doctors in the US toward the view that there may be more to health than blood-cell counts and EKGs and more to healing than pills and scalpels.

This change in doctors' attitudes reflects a broader yearning among their patients for a more personal, more spiritual approach to health and healing. As the 20th century draws to an end, there is growing disenchantment with one of its greatest achievements: modern, high-tech medicine. Western medicine is at its best in a crisis: battling acute infection, repairing the wounds of war, replacing a broken-down kidney or heart.

But increasingly, what ails prosperous societies are chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure, backaches, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression and acute illnesses that become chronic, such as cancer and AIDS. In most of these, stress and life-style play a part." Anywhere from 60-90% of visits to doctors are in the mind-body, stress-related realm. Traditional modes of therapy, pharmaceutical and surgical don't work well against them. It is little wonder that a body/soul expo at the Darling Harbour Convention Centre recently, featuring booths ranging from faith-healers to tarot card readers, from Christian apologists to new-age crystal sellers attracted 60,000 paying visitors?

A 1995 study at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Centre found that one of the best predictors of survival among 232 heart-surgery patients was the degree to which the patients said they drew comfort and strength from religious faith. Those who did not had more than three times the death rate of those who did. Religious faith saves!

Thirty years of research on blood pressure show churchgoers have lower blood pressure than non-churchgoers. People attending church regularly have half the risk of dying from coronary-artery disease as those who do not go to church. A 1996 National Institute on Aging study of 4,000 elderly living at home found that those who attend religious services are less depressed and physically healthier than those who don't attend worship. In a study of 30 female patients recovering from hip fractures, those who regarded God as a source of strength and comfort were able to walk farther upon discharge than those who had little faith.

Numerous studies have found lower rates of depression and anxiety-related illness among the religiously committed. Non-churchgoers have been found to have a suicide rate four times higher than church regulars. There are many possible explanations for such findings. Since churchgoers are more apt than non-attenders to respect religious injunctions against drinking, drug abuse, and smoking, it's possible that their better health reflects these healthier habits. Some of the studies, however, took pains to correct for this possibility by making statistical adjustments for life-style differences. Read the full details in "TIME's" cover story for yourself.

"TIME" concludes "Could it be that religious faith has some direct influence on health? ...Faith in the medical treatment is wonderfully therapeutic, successful in treating 60-90% of the most common medical problems. But if you so believe, faith in an invincible and infallible force carries even more healing power. It is a supremely potent belief."

There are few forces more potent than the healing power of forgiveness. This is the heart of the Christian gospel and this was the message of the early church as we follow its adventures through the Book of Acts. Forgiveness of sin leads to reconciliation with God. Paul and his companions left the island of Cyprus, passed through Perga where John Mark left them to return to Jerusalem. They then came to Antioch, another Antioch, this time in Pisidia, not far from Ankara in modern Turkey. They went, as usual, to the synagogue, and sat down with the other worshippers. Their fame must have preceded them for Paul was invited to speak.

1. GOD IS IN HISTORY

Paul started with the history of the people to whom he was speaking. God had travelled with the Jews on their long pilgrimage. Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: "Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers." He was speaking to believers in the God of Israel. They understood that. He was saying that in everything God is central. Have you noticed that Christians are optimistic about what is happening to this world? It is only the non-believers who are pessimistic. This attitude is not reflected by our newspaper cartoonists who draw little men walking around with mournful expressions carrying a banner saying, "The end is nigh." They think that they are portraying Christians who are miserable and looking to the climax of the world which will end in misery. But it is the unbelievers who are pessimistic in their attitudes towards the world and history.

Christians believe that God has the whole world in His hands. He is in control. No matter what happens it will be part of the will of God. In fact, Christians spell the word "history" with two s's: "His-story." God at work in us. Paul, the optimist, saw God's hand in everything. Could any of us tell the history of 2000 years of our race as concisely as Paul did? Notice how economically Paul gathered up the history of his ancestors. Starting with Abraham his listeners will fill in the names of Isaac and Jacob. They were the great ancestors to whom every Jew paid homage. "God made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country, 18-19 he endured their conduct for about forty years in the desert."

They were the times of Joseph then Moses. Every Jewish boy in Australia knows them and the long struggle that followed. "After this He gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel." Israel's judges helped the Jews to consolidate their new society in the land of promise. "Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king." Then Paul came to his central theme: "From this man's descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised." Paul led his hearers from Canaan to Egypt, to Mt Sinai, back into Canaan, from Saul to David, and then to Jesus. The first thing Paul said about Jesus was this, "God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus."

That is the way the Scripture presents Jesus. The emphasis is never upon Him as teacher, carpenter, miracle worker, superstar, wonder man, or great philosopher. He is the Saviour. This was not by chance, it was part of the great design of history planned by God. God was in control.

2. GOD IS IN JESUS CHRIST

Paul beautifully expresses the life of Jesus. He uses but a few words, but each word is like a hook on which he hangs a banner picturing something of the life of Jesus. First, there is the preparation for His coming, then His coming, the great rejection, the crucifixion, and then the Good News of His resurrection!

Then he says, "When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb." There was the fulfilment of twenty-nine prophecies from the Old Testament on every detail of his crucifixion!

But God.......! He was placed in a tomb: "But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people." "But God!" No greater event has been introduced more simply than Paul's words here. "They took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb, but God raised Him from the dead."

This is the central fact of Paul's sermon, and the central fact of Christianity. Argue, if you will, about any other aspect of Christianity, this is the fact upon which Christianity stands or falls, the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. The real significance of the resurrection of Jesus is that because Jesus lives, we too shall live.

"We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus." "For us!" Paul places himself in the historic continuity of his sermon. And why all this telling of the Good news of Jesus risen from the dead? Like a good preacher, Paul goes back to the beginning of his sermon, linking his beginning with his final point. What God promised He would do, He has now done for their descendants by raising Jesus to life.

4. GOD IS IN US

Paul draws his sermon to a close with a challenge and an invitation. "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you." That is the heart of the gospel. Jesus is the Good News, and He will set you free from your sins. "Through Jesus the forgiveness of sins." Nothing is more important, and it is for you!

Paul Tillich once said that forgiveness means reconciliation, in spite of estrangement. It means reunion in spite of hostility. It means acceptance for those who are unacceptable. It means reception of those who are rejected. Do you feel like that? Estranged from God? Hostile against the universe? Do you feel unacceptable, unworthy? Rejected by others and even by God? Here is the Good News: Jesus offers forgiveness instead of estrangement. He offers reconciliation, reunion, and acceptance. Jesus says, "Welcome home! Come back to the family."

This is for everyone: that is the Good News. There is no one who is too bad to come back home. There is no one so good that he need not come home through the Good News. Everyone who believes in Him is set free, free from all of the troublesome things that have occurred, free from all the guilt feelings, all of the broken commandments, all of the sins, you are forgiven, set free! Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Jesus Christ has died upon the Cross and because of Him, there is the message of the forgiveness of sins that is preached so that you may be freed from all of your sins. "Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses." The Gospel had been proclaimed: "Paul and Barnabas, talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord." People free because of God's forgiveness. Believe and find forgiveness! You can only grow in faith, when you take the step to find His forgiveness from your sins. Find forgiveness!

Gordon Moyes

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