Summary: Preached at the 4th Triennial General Conference of ELCM 7/29/11 at Faith Lutheran Church, Hollidaysburg, PA I had a dual text, Acts 9:10-19 & Luke 23:32-43
In some high schools, each year, there are often polls conducted in which each person in the class is voted most likely to do something, and then that slogan would be put by your picture in the yearbook. Some of them are serious like “Most likely to become successful in business” because they were good in business courses or “Most likely to win a Heisman trophy” because they were awarded a football scholarship to a top Division I football program, while others are more light hearted like “most likely to get as far away from here as possible and never return” if you went to a small, rural high school like I did. My high school didn’t do those in our yearbook, but if they did, because I was more introverted at school in those days, you probably would not have seen “most likely to preach a sermon at a church convention worship service” next to my picture then, or even in my days as a pre seminary student several years ago at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Over the last few days as I have been pondering the lessons you just heard read in anticipation for stepping into this pulpit to proclaim the truth of God’s Word to you as a synod in convention, I have found that these are some readings that really suit us well, whether its for the pastors here, lay delegates from our member congregations, or guests and observers from other synods who are wondering “what is ELCM really all about?” because these are texts that have a LOT to say to us as we go about our work as a synod.
Let’s start with the preacher we meet in Luke’s gospel. It’s Good Friday. There are three men who are there, hanging on crosses, outside of the city on a hill locals call “Golgotha” meaning “Place of the Skull”. The physical eye simply sees an execution going on, three men who deserve to die because of crimes they have committed. Any cries of innocence by any of the men are going to fall on deaf ears at this point. But the thing is, one of the men is innocent. One of them is without sin, yet is accepting the punishment of the sin of the world. One of them is a King. He is God’s Son. Yet, no one is saying so. The religious leaders, the ones who claim to speak for God? They are the ones who set up this whole sham in the first place and if anything, they’re glad that soon, this Jesus will be out of their hair for good and people will eventually forget about Him. The crowds below instead of signing their praises, are mocking Him, demanding that He come down from the cross. It seems that no one will see Him for who He truly is, the sinless Son of God who is atoning for the sin of the world.
Except for one man. Unlike Jesus, he has spent his life breaking commandment after commandment. Instead of living a life in service to his fellow man, he has simply taken, without a second thought of the consequences. With him, there is no protest, he is guilty as charged. He hears the other criminal taunting Jesus, demanding that He save him. And it is at this point, God calls someone to proclaim His Word that day to the crowd assembled there. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (v.41) He then turns to Jesus and says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, to which Jesus responds “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v.42-43)
Where even the ones who were charged with proclaiming God’s Word drop the ball, God will not simply stand by and not have His saving Word proclaimed. He instead calls a criminal, the least likely person there that day, to point everyone to the work of Christ at the cross, and to have Jesus speak His Word of forgiveness by assuring the repentant thief that “today you will be with me in paradise” saying to Him “Today, your relationship with God has been restored because of what I am doing here at this cross. You may suffer death, but you will live forever with me because I am atoning for your sin and will rise again so that you may have new life! You are forgiven. You are mine!”
The other unlikely preacher is a man we know very well. You know him as St. Paul. But at the time of our text in Acts, he is known as Saul. Persecutor of Christians. A man headed from Jerusalem to Damascus with one mission in mind: find any who belong to “the Way” arrest them, and lead them bound in chains back to Jerusalem where they will likely be executed for proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. At the point where tonight’s lesson picks up, Ananias, a disciple of Jesus who is in Damascus, is told in a vision to “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul,” (v.11). While the Lord continues with his instructions, one would imagine considering Ananias’ response that this is where he quit listening. “Uhm, Lord, excuse me? Saul? You want me to go look for Saul? Don’t you know who he is? Don’t you know he stood by and approved as they stoned Stephen to death? And don’t you know what He’s done to your people in Jerusalem, and what he is going to do to them here?” Yet what does the Lord say in response to Ananias? “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (v.15-16) While Ananias couldn’t see it at the time, God had plans for this man named Saul. After Ananias approaches him and lays his hands on him, Saul’s eyesight is restored, he is baptized, and when he goes into the synagogue, he is now proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God, the savior of the world. And everyone was shocked at the message he was proclaiming, and would proclaim for the rest of his life.