22/97 20.7.97 Scripture: Acts 9:1-19
ONE Easter Sunday, I had a special guest in our service. Barry Goode, spoke in Wesley Theatre, and in one of our television programs from the Opera House. At age seven, the police caught him stealing bags of coal from the brick works and selling them to neighbours in Bug Terrace, St. Peters, Sydney. His life of crime spanned 25 years. He was one of Australia's most notorious criminals. He was convicted in over twenty High Court cases and in scores of others. Barry Goode was no good!
He had convictions for car stealing, armed hold-up, bashings, and safe-cracking. His big regret in his early 30's was that in a TAB hold-up he did not kill the woman who later identified him. In prison he was tough. He fought other prisoners over illicit alcohol and in pack rape. His life was dominated by lust, hatred, and greed. In 1972 on parole from Yatala Prison in Adelaide, he was given a job in a printing works run by a Christian organisation, the Prisoners' Aid Society. He had no time for religion. He hated God and objected to everything Christian.
Then one peaceful night in April, 1976, as I ambled towards the bright lights of a pub, I made a sharp right-hand turn. My frame cast a dark shadow between the yellow street lights, and I said, `God, I am going to give you a chance. Unless you show me yourself now, I am going to go and get drunk!' I walked into a church and sat down in a back pew. In the dark and empty church I started a prayer of my own: `God, am I making a fool of myself? Am I acting like a mug? Are you there? Am I just talking to fresh air? What's going on here?', I said to myself. `I have tried to do everything but I just can't find you, God.'
`You know I've tried, but you've never been around when I've wanted you. I'm sick of leading this life I've lived. I don't want to be a bull artist any more. I don't want to be a crim. I don't want to end up with a bullet in my head. I don't want to do the things that make me feel ashamed and guilty. God, if you're there, God, say something to me.' As I knelt in prayer, I noticed some wet tears fall on my hand. They were real tears, tears from a man who was so tough his mother said he would never cry. I was too tough to cry. But now I sobbed. `O, God! Give me an answer! I want to know if you are there. I want a brand new life. God, if you're there, I'll follow you all the rest of my days.'
And, kneeling there on the floor, I felt a peace suddenly come into my heart. I knew it was God's peace. I had never felt like that in my life before. It was a beautiful tranquillity that just washed over me, white and pure and brilliant, and right then and there I knew that God existed and that God heard my prayers and all the guilt and filth and hatred and bitterness and wrong in my life were washed away, and I `Bazza' Goode, felt clean for the first time, and I knew that God had forgiven me. I now know that Jesus is with me. I know He lives with me. No one can tell me that He doesn't exist. He is more real to me now than I am to myself, and to know Jesus is to know reality. Those are the closing words in the autobiography of Barry Goode (H & S), entitled Too Tough for Tears. Barry Goode trained for ministry. He is a brand new person, changed by the power of Jesus Christ and today works as a pastor among prisoners. If you think about conversion you do not have to go back to the story of Paul. Conversion occurs now.
There are always smart cynics who talk about conversion in terms of psychological pressures, or emotional responses, or the burden of guilt. But for the man who has come from drunkenness to faith, from crime to Christ, from darkness to light, from death to life, from hopelessness to joy and new being, there is no argument. He knows conversion. One remarkable conversion is seen in the life of Saul from Tarsus, who is best known to us as the Apostle Paul. There are five elements in his conversion that are common to all acts of conversion today.
1. A PRESSURE FROM GOD
Conversion never starts with us, but with God. We think we are looking, but when we seek for God, we discover He is searching for us. All we have to do is stop running, and we are in His presence. Theologians talk about prevenient grace. It means the Spirit of God goes searching for you. The grace of God comes before conversion. Jesus Christ is like a caring shepherd who, having a hundred sheep, leaves ninety-nine safely shut away while he goes looking for the one that is lost (Matt. 18). The pressure of God is there, even in those who are antagonistic to God, superior to Christians, prejudiced against Jesus and rejecting the Scriptures. This is common before conversion. It is the response of a person under pressure from God.
2. A HOSTILE REACTION
We resent this pressure from God and develop a hostility towards Jesus. If you are not converted, I can guarantee that in some way you are hostile to God. That is normal. A hostile reaction is a sign of the presence of God and there is no better place to see it than in the story of Paul. Paul had been present when Stephen was stoned to death. The way that good man died impressed Paul.
Now God was putting pressure on him, and he lashed out in hostility. (Acts 9) Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. There are many, like Paul, who have been hostile to the faith, critical of the church, and yet have been on their way to faith. If you are in that situation, also hostile to God, ask yourself, Is my hostility a sign of God's inner pressure on me?
3. AN ACTION OF GOD
Conversion is not something we do. It is a result of God's action. God wants to win us to Himself, so He brings us closer. With Barry Goode it was when, on his way to a pub, he decided to go into an empty church. God did something in his heart that night. With the Apostle Paul it was on his way to Damascus to harass the church. (Acts 9) As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, `Saul , Saul, why do you persecute me?' `Who are you, Lord?' Saul asked. `I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. `Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.' God comes to people in even stranger places than on the Damascus Road. C.S.Lewis was riding in a doubledecker bus going to a zoo when he was converted. Johnny Cash, the great country and western singer, said that it was when he was by himself in jail, lying in a bunk, that God made himself known. God can come to you in any ordinary experience that can lead to your conversion.
Major General Donald Wilson-Haffenden, the British Army's Far East Supreme Commander, told me how his life was ruined because of drink and unfaithfulness. But in a quiet church in India, after an enforced church parade he could not avoid, he remained after the rest of the soldiers had left. He told me later, I heard a voice. I saw a light. I was not disobedient to that heavenly vision. Ever since then he has served in the Army of Jesus. For Paul the desert situation was perfect. All of the elements were right. Psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, he was ready. But he would be humbled.
4. HUMBLING OF SPIRIT
Barry Goode, who was too tough for tears, cried and sobbed when his will broke before God. The Apostle Paul, the arrogant persecutor of the church, was also humbled. (Acts 9) The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. He went as the great persecutor, to grab men and women of the Way of Jesus, and bring them back in chains to Jerusalem. Now, humbled, unable to see, he could only continue if someone led him by the hand. It seemed like sudden conversion. But it was not. It started at the death of Stephen. God worked on his life, putting pressure on him. There was sudden yielding of his heart to the Lord, but the conversion took place over a period of time.
That is the way it is with most of us. A baby forming in the womb is there for months, growing all the time until the time of birth arrives.
The baby is conscious that there is movement and warmth, and times of light and darkness, but it is in bondage all the time. It fights in its embryonic sac, and it kicks, and after months of kicking and struggling and fighting, there comes pain and pressure, then release and birth and life! Conversion is like that. The pressure builds up over months and there is increasing awareness of the restraining walls. Suddenly, there is release. Jesus calls it a new birth. That is conversion. Rejection, hostility, pressure, then, - new birth!
5. A FAITH FRIEND
When a baby is born into the world there needs to be a mid wife present. In the new birth of a Christian someone is required to care for the new life. The new Christian must be fed, encouraged, surrounded with warmth and love. Mature Christians have a responsibility for the new. Barry Goode found a faith friend in Beverley, with whom he fell in love and married. The Apostle Paul found Ananias a Christian living in Damascus. (Acts 9) In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, `Ananias !' `Yes, Lord,' he answered. The Lord told him, `Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.' `Lord,' Ananias answered, `I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.' But the Lord said to Ananias, `Go ! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.'
It was a remarkable meeting. Ananias knew that this man was coming to persecute the small flock of Christians. He entered the house and went to the man who had done so much harm. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, `Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here....has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.'
When you are converted your old friends are not going to believe it. They will think that you have a religious bug. They might laugh at you and put your faith to the test. But you will also make new friends, faith friends who will help you to grow. Barry Goode believed, repented of sin, was baptised, started to study the Scriptures, and witnessed his faith to others. Those same five things are seen in the experience of Saul. When Ananias came to him he was able to see again. (Acts 9) Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.
This is the way he grew: he believed, he repented, he was baptised, he studied the Scriptures, and then he witnessed to his faith. Conversion demands that you grow in your faith. From darkness to light, from sin to forgiveness, from misery to joy, from slavery to freedom, from crime to forgiveness, from self to others, from evil to goodness, from death to life. Do you want to be converted like that? Have you felt the pressure of God? Been hostile towards Him? If so, stop! God is working on you now!
Gordon Moyes 1997
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