23/97 27.7.97 Scripture: Acts 9:18-31
DR Ernest Gordon was a prisoner of the Japanese in Changi. On my TV program he told me of his dreadful experiences. Once Dr Gordon looked at the thin body of a 19 year old British private who was dying. Dr Gordon held his hand as the young man spoke of his mother and father back in Britain. Almost with his last breath he asked Gordon to say the Shepherd's Psalm. Holding the youth's hands he said, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want...." Gordon added, "When I came to the words, `Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because Thou art with Me,' the young man stopped breathing. I drew a blanket over his head and thought I must collect his possessions and send them back to his parents. I gathered the few small notebooks and scraps of paper together and put them to one side so that after the war I might return them to his people in Britain. I found among them this small poem he had written.
"What shall I think when I'm called to die?
Shall I not find too soon my life has ended,
The years too quickly have hastened by
With so little done of all I had intended?
There were so many things I had meant to try,
So many conquests I had hoped to win,
And, lo, the end approached
Just as I was thinking of preparing to begin."
Many could say "And, lo, the end approaches just as I was thinking of preparing to begin." Many have great plans for the future. They are not actually working at it. They are only thinking of preparing, they might one day, perhaps, if the occasion arises, get around to start commencing! They are thinking about preparing to begin.
While they are preparing to begin, the opportunity goes by and they miss it completely. An old Chinese saying goes like this: "Spring is past, the summer is gone, the winter is here, and the song that I was meant to sing is still unsung. Why? Because I spent all my days stringing and unstringing my instrument."
How many spend their time getting ready and never really start? They spent their time thinking of preparing to begin, and never got started. When I was young we were told that if we started preparing for work, when we finished preparing we could have it. The work was there if we were ready for it. One of the great tragedies of our time is that there is now a great number of people who are unemployed, or who are or unemployable. No longer is a good job the sure reward for study and effort.
The Prime Minister John Howard spoke in Wesley Centre recently on the future of work in Australia. Today 750,000 people are still without a job, even after four years of economic recovery. Another 750,000 would prefer more hours of paid work but cannot find it. These days, work is less secure, and more demanding. Almost one in every four jobs is casual.
Those with full-time jobs are working longer hours. Every week, half of all full-time employees work overtime and a third of them do it without pay. We are also faced with a shrinking work life. Half of the men over 45 are retired. Two out of three men retire before reaching 65 years. The main reason for the rate of such retirements doubling in the last three years is job termination.
At the other end of the age scale, there has also been a collapse of the teenage full-time job market. In 1966, 6 out of 10 teenagers held full-time jobs but by 1994 this figure was 2 out of ten. But the proportion of married women in the work force has risen by about 60% in the past 25 years. (ACOSS Report on the Future of Work, May 1996).
Yet, in spite of the bleak economic climate, we have to prepare for work. This is true not only in the economic world, it is also true in a spiritual sense. God expects you to do something for Him and you have to prepare yourself for work in His service. "Have you prepared yourself to work for God? How are you preparing for His service?"
As we have followed the story of the young church in the Acts of the Apostles, we have reached a new crisis point in the life of the Apostle Paul. He had been converted, been baptised, had changed from being a persecutor of the church to a preacher of the faith. Now he must prepare himself for work. Many today who think about preparing for spiritual service never get going. We are shown five steps Paul took as he prepared for work. Acts 9:18-31.
1. PREPARE FOR GROWTH
That comes first. Acts 9:18-19 "Saul got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus." He grew in faith by spending time with the believers. Ananias was there to help, "Brother Saul," he said, because Saul was now one of them. Those "several days" grew into three years! Saul used all the time he had to study God's word.
When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul said: (Gal 1:17-18) "I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days." Paul prepared by learning about his faith, and he went into the desert as did Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus before him to meditate and pray.
Each of us must grow in our faith if we would work for God. Spend time alone with God. Take the Word of God, read, pray, and allow your faith to grow. Meet with other Christians. This was the pattern of the early Christians. When Peter gave the message, and three thousand were added to the group we read that (Acts 2:42) "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." That close fellowship is how Christians grow in faith.
2. PREPARE TO WITNESS
Saul witnessed in words and he witnessed in actions. He was preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. "At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God." Present tense: "Jesus is the Son of God." This was also the theme of Philip's witness in Acts 8:37. We know this, because the Ethiopian's response was "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God." This became the basis of belief upon which Christians came into the church: Jesus is the Son of God. Paul also witnessed in his actions. It was obvious that his life was greatly changed. When Paul witnessed in words, "all those who heard him were astonished and asked, `Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?'"
"Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ." Paul's life was his witness. If you are a new Christian, people are going to notice the difference in what you say and do. The grace that God gives us helps us to be different persons. Paul wrote later to the church at Corinth, (2 Cor 5:17) "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" Jesus said we must make a completely new start. (Jn 3:3) "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
3. PREPARE THROUGH RESISTANCE
Christians face opposition and resistance. Saul faced two kinds of resistance as a Christian. The first came from without and the second from within the church and that was harder to face than the first. The external resistance came from the Jews. "Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall."
The other kind of resistance to Saul came from within the church. They had their own agenda. Some believers resisted Saul. "When Saul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple." The disciples may have thought that Saul was trying to get inside their movement by a trick. However they soon saw his conversion was genuine and they learned to trust him.
Have you found resistance and attack as a Christian? I have been attacked for upholding the authority of the Bible by godless people and from religious bureaucrats. Some people feel threatened because another proclaims God's Word. That also happened to the prophets and to early Christians. Jesus faced it. Stephen did. We can be hurt by the resistance but it is part of our preparation for our work for God.
4.PREPARE BY ENCOURAGEMENT
Saul was helped by an outstanding Christian of the New Testament. "Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord."
When Saul was in trouble there were two older Christians to help him. When he was in Damascus he needed Ananias. When he was in Jerusalem he needed Barnabas. New Christians in every congregation need an Ananias, a Dorothy, a Tom, or whomever. They need a Barnabas, a Mick or Joe, or Muriel to give them encouragement.
5. PREPARE LONG TERM
Saul faced a threat of death in Damascus and in Jerusalem. "So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus."
Tarsus was his home town in Turkey. There he spent years in study. Later he wrote: "Fourteen years later I went back to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me." (Gal. 2:1) Fourteen years of preparation! He studied the Word of God, and prepared for the work God had for him to do. When you do your part, something happens in the church. What happens when older Christians encourage and the newer Christians respond and prepare for work? "The church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord."
That is one sign of a healthy, growing church. A healthy church has new members witnessing to their faith and their friends and older members building them up and encouraging them. Newer Christians still have most of their friends outside the Church. If we encourage the new disciples to witness to the Lord, the church will have peace, be strengthened in the Holy Spirit, grow in numbers and live in reverence.
It is important to get a job today and hard if you have not prepared for it. It is also important to work for God today, and hard preparation is part of it. God is calling you to work for Him. Be prepared to work in His service, but do it! Otherwise, you will end up saying: "And, lo, the end approaches just as I was thinking of preparing to begin." Do not waste your life! Do not spend all your days stringing and unstringing your instrument. Invest your life now in preparing for work for God. There is no greater task than to work for God. And no better way than to prepare for work in His service.
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