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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
An elderly pastor, while announcing his retirement, exclaimed, “I wear two hearing aids and trifocal glasses; I have a partial plate and sometimes walk with a cane. It seems to me,” he concluded, “that the Lord is telling me it’s time to retire.” After the service a white-haired lady came up and told him, “Reverend, you misinterpreted what the Lord has been saying to you. He’s not telling you it’s time to retire; he’s telling you that if you keep going, he’ll keep you patched up.”
It is reminiscent of the legendary NBC’s Tonight Show host Johnny Carson reading an item from the lost-and-found column of a Midwestern newspaper: “Lost dog—brown fur, some missing due to mange, blind in one eye, deaf, lame leg due to recent traffic accident, slightly arthritic. Goes by the name of ‘Lucky.’”
For Paul, these would not have been humorous comparisons. As he had feared in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, his journey to Jerusalem had become one of the darkest hours. His life-long ambition to preach the gospel to the Jews in the Holy City had ended in utter chaos. Forty of Jerusalem’s religious leaders were so incensed by Paul’s criticism of the High Priest that they took an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed the apostle. And now for the second time in as many days the chief captain of the Roman guard had to send troops in to rescue Paul from being torn apart by the mob. Paul’s future was uncertain. He had doubts and felt depressed. He needed encouragement to keep on going.
Of course, we all know friends and neighbors who need words of encouragement for the challenges of life. Perhaps you yourself are counted in that number. And yet, words of encouragement are not so difficult to come by. As the English poet George Herbert, once said. “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” To give a word of encouragement to someone who is feeling down is not only kind and gracious, but it is also Christ like. In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus stood by the side of the apostle Paul in his prison cell and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”
This morning, I would like to share with you three convictions drawn from Jesus’ appearance before Paul that night in the prison cell in Jerusalem. First of all, the story teaches us that Lord comes to those who are in difficult circumstance and gives them strength through encouragement. Second, the Lord’s encouragement often begins with praise for service done in the past, and third, the Lord offers encouragement by his promise of service for the future. Remember, God believes in you, even when you cannot believe in yourself.
God comes to us his servants, not simply in times of trial and danger, but the Lord also comes to us at those junctures in life when we need direction and focus. Often, God comes in the still small moments of life following times of great chaos. This was actually the fourth time that the Lord appeared personally to Paul. The first appearance was at Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus , just before he was struck blind. It was when he heard Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The second time was in the temple in Jerusalem, three years later after his conversion, when the Lord directed Paul to go to the Gentiles. Paul had just spoken about this revelation in his speech to the crowds after he had been falsely accused of escorting a Gentile into the Temple. The third time was when Paul was in Corinth, and he was fearful that the angry mobs from other cities would follow him. The Lord appeared to him in a vision telling him to go on speaking, promising his steadfast presence and protection, and assuring him that many people in the city of Corinth would protect him. And now in prison, the Lord came and spoke these words of encouragement to Paul, saying, “Keep up your courage!”
So don’t be surprised if you hear Jesus whispering into your hearts in times of trouble. God appears in the lives of his followers at different occasions even now. God may appear in your life to challenge you and to stop you from destructive patterns and habits. You may awkwardly disagree, but remember, he has come to offer you his encouragement. He knows your need. Or God may appear at a stressful time reminding you to keep at it. You’re not sure your beliefs and convictions are working. So he is saying, don’t worry. Be patient. It takes time to change. Or God may appear to you at the crossroad of life giving you a new focus. He is there to direct you along a new path. Or perhaps, God is appearing to you simply to assure you that he is always near.
Of course, you may be in a prison of difficult circumstances—a physical illness, a financial crisis, the heartache of a loved one who has no place for you in their life—where you feel that no one knows what you’re going through. Whatever your circumstances, and even if no other human being knows your need, Jesus knows and cares for you. Remember, God believes in you, even when you cannot believe in yourself.
Certainly, it would be easier if all of God’s messages were clear and concise. Sometimes the words of encouragement may seem a bit too self- serving for the speaker. I am reminded of a man named Maldhoom who lived alone in the Irish countryside with only a pet dog for company. One day the dog died, and Maldhoom went to the parish priest and asked, “Father, my dog is dead. Could ya’ be saying’ a mass for the poor creature?” The priest replied, “I’m afraid not; we cannot have services for an animal in the church.” The he added, “ But there is some Protestant church down the lane, and there’s no tellin’ what they believe. Maybe they’ll do something for the creature.” Maldhoom said, “I’ll go right away Father. Do ya ‘think $5,000 is enough to donate to them for the service?” The priest exclaimed, “Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus! Why didn’t ya tell me the dog was Catholic?”
Yes, beware of offering encouragement that is too self-serving. And beware of receiving it as well. It may not truly be of God. True encouragement must always be given so that the one who receives it can become a stronger, better servant to their neighbor. My friends, trust that God comes to his servants in times of need.
Second, the Lord often begins his encouragement with praise for service done in the past. The Lord told Paul that he faithfully witnessed in Jerusalem. He was no doubt referring to Paul’s courage when he stood before the mob that had tried to kill him in the Temple, but I think the Lord was also referring to Paul’s testimony before the Sanhedrin, although seemingly it had not gone so well either. In neither instance did Scripture record that the hearts of any bystanders were changed that day. You see, making converts to the faith isn’t our job. Our task is simply to bear witness to Jesus and to leave the results to him. All too often, however, we judge our work by the results that we can measure or see. We judge ourselves and others by the positive feedback we receive. Of course, if we consistently receive negative remarks or no visible results, we should consider whether our manner or methods are failing. But the main criteria for evaluating your work is always: Have I been faithful to God’s gifts and calling in my life?
Yes, sometimes we can be too earnest and a bit misguided about our deeds. I am reminded of the young preacher who was contacted by the local funeral director to hold a grave side committal service at a small local cemetery for someone with no family or friends. The preacher started out early but quickly got himself lost, making several wrong turns. He arrived a half-hour late, the hearse was nowhere in sight, and the workmen were eating lunch. Just the same, the pastor went to the open grave and found the vault lid already in place. Taking out his book, he read the service. As he was returning proudly to his car, he overheard one of the workmen say: “Finest burial I’ve ever seen- for a septic tank.”
No, your successes may not be so great as you imagine. But truthfully, your failures may not be as great either. The Lord offers you encouragement by inviting you to look back and examine your life, to see the good things you have done when you were faithful in your calling. God does not want you to dwell on the past. As a friend once said of her struggle with alcoholism, looking back on the regrets only gave her a neck ache. God wants you to see the successes of the past, and more importantly, he wants you to move forward. Remember, God believes in you, even when you cannot believe in yourself.
Finally, the Lord offers encouragement by his promise of service for the future. “So you must witness at Rome also.” The Lord didn’t bother to tell Paul of the impending plot to kill him or of the two years that he would sit in custody in Caesarea. He didn’t tell him of the shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea or of the fact that he would go to Rome as a prisoner. Thankfully, God doesn’t tell us what is in store in our lives as well. But God did tell Paul that he would bear witness at Rome. Yes, the Lord commended Paul for his past service and promised that he was not through with him yet. The same is true for. But beware, that means there is still work ahead.
A preacher’s young daughter noticed that her father always bowed his head and closed his eyes for a few seconds before he went to the pulpit to preach. When she asked him why he did that, he explained, “I’m asking God to help me preach a good sermon. His daughter thought about it for a minute and said, “Well daddy, Why doesn’t he do it?” Perhaps, it is the question we all ask when God doesn’t give us the encouragement we need at that moment and the success we are waiting for seems lacking.
But let me assure, Jesus is near. You may need to look to him more closely. He is waiting to reveal himself to you in his Holy Word, in the silence of prayer and in the gift of his Holy Table. If you’re discouraged about your present difficult circumstances, or feeling down about past mistakes you have made, or anxious about the future, the Lord wants you to take courage. Come to him, in the gifts that he offers. Remember, he believes in you, even when you cannot believe in yourself.
And then as the Lord encourages you, seek ways to be a channel of encouragement for others. , “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” For if you encourage others, you are acting like the Lord Jesus. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.