September 23, 2022
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What's Your Story? Manuscript

SERMON TITLE: What’s Your Story?
TEXT: Acts 21:37-23:11 ESV (Read via video AND live by me)
SPEAKER: Josh Hanson
DATE: 9-25-22

Sermon Discussion Guide
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WELCOME

As always it’s a joy to be with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And there’s one thing I want you to know — God loves you and that I love you too.

SERIES INTRODUCTION

We’re continuing in the book of Acts today and we’ve got quite a bit of Scripture to read today so we’re going to jump right in. If you have your Bible — please turn with me to Acts chapter 21. We’ll begin in verse 37 and read all the way through chapter 23 verse 11. We’re beginning in Acts chapter 21. Beginning in verse 37.

“As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: 22:1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” 2 And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished. 6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. 12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ 17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. 30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them. 23:1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” 6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. 11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”” (Acts 21:37-23:11 ESV)

SERMON INTRODUCTION

In our verses — we’re hearing Paul give his testimony — his story of salvation. And he tells his story from two angles. The first is historical — and the second is theological. And we’re going to allow Paul’s telling of his story to help all of us — Christian or not — explore our story.

Now — if you’re not a Christian — my hope is that you’ll see some ways that God’s been at work in your life that maybe you haven’t noticed before. And — if you are a Christian — my hope is that you’ll leave here with a boost of confidence in your story of salvation.

So let’s explore our stories today and see how they fit into God’s Story. And — one last thing before we jump back into our verses — we want to hear your story. In fact — on both our website and our church app — there’s a “tell us your story” button that I want to encourage you all to go to sometime later today and share your story with us. And — before we’re done — I’m going to let you know about an opportunity coming up this week for you to connect with others to hear their story of God’s work in their life.

YOUR STORY: HISTORICALLY

But — let’s start by remembering our stories historically. When Paul begins to address the crowd, he says, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:3-5 ESV)

This first angle of our story is pretty self-explanatory. It’s our history prior to faith in Jesus Christ. For some — for example, if you don’t consider yourself to be a Christian — this is your story today. But take note of the kinds of details Paul includes as he tells his story. He talks about where he was born. The kind of education he received growing up. He mentions the religious passion he had as a Jew — including his disdain and hatred towards Christians. He doesn’t shy away from his past or try to cover up parts of his story that were embarrassing or downright evil. He’s honest about his story because he’s discovered the freedom that’s found in Christ — but let’s not jump ahead to theology just yet.

And — throughout Scripture — Paul’s brutally honest about who he was prior to his faith in Christ. He says things like, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14 ESV)

He says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)

As one pastor has said, “This is a desperate sinner. This is a mass murderer, a violent persecuting God-hating, Christ-rejecting sinner of the worst possible imagination. So great was the need for grace” (John MacArthur “The Infallible, Effectual, Electing Grace of God.” https://www.monergism.com/infallible-effectual-electing-grace-god.) in Paul’s life. I wonder — Christian or not — if this is how you view yourself prior to having faith in Christ? That of being a desperate sinner — someone with great need for the grace of God in your life.

Here’s a snapshot of my story before coming to faith in Christ. I was born and raised in Ocala, Florida. Some like to call it “Slow-cala.” My parents moved to Florida from Tennessee for a job opportunity — thus I was born in the Sunshine state. I lived in the same house for nearly my entire childhood — from before elementary school all the way through my first two years of college.

We went to church regularly — of the Methodist tradition — again — for my entire childhood. Which — being raised in the church — had both blessings and some setbacks for me. The blessings were that I was raised in the faith, was taught the Bible from an early age, learned the importance of being part of a church and so on. The set back was me having the assumption that “Of course I am a Christian — I’ve always gone to church.” Where I leaned too heavily on Christian activities instead of a personal relationship with Christ. I hadn’t yet grasped that I was someone with great need for the grace of God to intervene in my life.

Yet that’s exactly what happened during a youth camp I attended. This was way back in ancient times — the 1990s — back when there was a 19 and not a 20 as the first two digits of the calendar year. Bon fires were all the rage on the last night of youth camps at this point in church history. And — after the leader gave a gospel presentation to us — something I’d heard my whole life — I remember being hit in the moment — I’d always known the gospel but hadn’t yet believed it. And when the youth leader asked for a response — for those who’d believed that night to come forward — I was too proud to move. Everyone there already thought of me as a Christian so there was no way I was going to let them know otherwise. And after some kids went forward — the leader said he was going to call on a student to pray for the kids who’d come forward. And I knew as soon as he spoke that he was going to call on me. And — thankfully — he didn’t. I’m totally kidding — he did call on me! How crazy is that?

And so I prayed for the kids who’d been more honest than I — who had come forward. I prayed for them all while knowing I was supposed to be standing there with them — not praying for them.

And then we all went to bed and went home the next morning. At this point — I don’t know if it was the day I got home or a few days later — regardless — I couldn’t get rid of the thought — the feeling — whatever you want to call it — maybe the “call of God” is best — that I needed to be made right with God. So I locked myself in our bathroom — don’t know why I didn’t just go to my bedroom — seems way more logical looking back — and right there in the bathroom of our house at 2120 NE 58th St — God saved me.

We’ll return to my story later — but now — I want you to hear some stories of others among us. Now’s also a good time to get out your phone — open the notes app — and type out a few key words so that later today you can fill in your story. Think back about your life prior to your faith in Christ — what’s your story? I hope you’ll be willing to share your story with us because we want to know you better.

Now — none of us are really great at multitasking — but while you’re typing out a few key words on your phone — not your entire story — just some key words — as I was preparing this sermon — I reached out to some folks from Gateway and asked them to share their story and for their permission to share it with you. And I got so many responses that I can’t share them all in this sermon — but we will share more during the special opportunity that’s coming up this week. Here are two of the stories that were shared with me.

“I didn’t grow up in the church. The absence of a godly upbringing was evident in the language used in our house and the media we were exposed to as kids. I knew every variation of the f-bomb out there - but knew to never, ever, ever say any of those words anywhere! And right after enjoying something wholesome like America’s Funniest Home Videos, we’d watch something like Nightmare on Elm Street. Unfortunately the effects of sin and brokenness were far more severe than hearing swear words and watching sketchy movies - I lived in an abusive home. For years I wrestled with big questions like, “Why did this have to happen to us?” Being a kid, I didn’t know what I could do besides hope that someday things would be better.

When I was in high school, I started going to church with some friends who had invited me to a new church in town. I don’t have a date and time that I recall claiming Jesus as my Savior, but sometime between high school and college, as I continued to attend church, read the Bible, and grow in my understanding of the gospel, I became a Christian. Things didn’t get easier, though. My mom went through a bitter divorce from my dad, then ended up in another crummy marriage with my stepdad that also ended in a nasty divorce. Going through these challenging times with the hope of Christ did not make these things any less challenging, but I did start appreciating these trials as ways God was growing my faith.”

Someone else writes. “I grew up going to church with my mother and father. I remember from an early age I believed in Jesus as the one and only Savior and that I was a sinner saved only by his grace. I even did my public profession of faith at church. However, belief did not impact how I lived my life, especially in the area of relationships.

Growing up I experienced some very hurtful moments from different people. During trying times I would focus on one person that seemed to really be good for me. I would lock in to one "trusted" person that could help me through anything and I would do anything and everything they asked of me. I lived to please whoever that one person was at the time. First it was my mother. I liked what she liked and hated what she disliked. When my parents divorced, it was easy to just hate my dad. When my mom remarried, I let her second husband become a "trusted" person as well. When that ended, I let my seventh grade friend from an atheist home become my “trusted” person. I kept cycling though people. Every relationship was hurtful in some way and — when I realized it — I would desperately search for a new one. I cycled through parents, friends young and old, and boy friends, always clinging to a "trusted" person. I always looked to serve my person and let them define what I was to do and who I was to be. I even gave them credit for anything positive that happened in my life.

Just out of college, I was looking at potentially locking into a very unhealthy relationship for life. I was at the age where I felt I had to get married as my next step because that’s what I believed to be God’s plan and order.

That’s when God finally said, enough is enough. God aligned events for me to go on a mission trip. Away from my "trusted" relationships, God spoke boldly to me in a way I thought only happened in biblical times. While on a prayer walk, God revealed an image to one of my team leaders. My leader saw an image of me, a wedding dress, and a bulldozer. At the time, I was uncertain what this meant but I knew there was something to it. When I returned home, my heart beat a little differently, my eyes saw a little clearer, and my awareness of indescribable and undeniable grace made the future a lot brighter. I felt loved unconditionally and could give no one the credit but God. God had reopened wounds he wanted to heal, he used multiple people to speak into my life about things only he knew; and thus I came to know a new intimacy with my Savior. He had broken into my heart in a way that only he can. Upon returning, God wiped my slate clean. He made it clear I was to end a hurtful relationship of 8 years, he realigned my focus by taking material possessions away with a flood, and he relocated me to my father's house to heal a relationship that was still rebuilding. In time, I came to find a "bulldozer" was exactly what was needed to knock down my understanding of relationships in order to build a new Christian perspective that was more than acknowledging that Jesus was my Savior; it was a marriage to my Savior.”

The beginning of two stories of folks who worship with us every week. I received nearly a dozen in response to my email asking people to share their stores. Imagine the stories we’ve yet to hear. And I understand how some of us may be concerned about what others will think of us — if they knew our story. For many — this fear causes us to hide our stories — in shame or in fear. But not Paul. He wanted his story to be known — his true story — warts and all — because it’s our true story that God interrupted when he saved us. It’s our true story that shows God off to be the Hero that he is. Don’t be ashamed of your story. If you believe in Jesus — your history doesn’t define or condemn you — for as Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1 ESV) No condemnation in the story of those who believe in Christ — for grace — not condemnation — has the final word.

YOUR STORY: THEOLOGICALLY

Which leads to our stories viewed theologically. In Paul’s story this is found beginning in verse six of chapter twenty-two. “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. 12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’” (Acts 22:6-16 ESV)

As we saw — when we were in Acts chapter nine — Paul has a theological understanding of his salvation. And — not only his salvation — but how God’s saving work happens in the lives of everyone who comes to faith in Christ. Here’s how Paul theologically describes salvation in our verses — and then we’ll look at other places where he defines God’s saving work in our lives.

In telling his salvation story — Paul mentions that he’s going about his business — he’s not seeking Jesus — in fact — he’s hating Jesus and his followers — when all of a sudden Jesus shows up in his life. Paul’s not desiring this encounter to happen. He’s not expecting it to happen. He’s literally blinded by Jesus showing up in his life. And this “Jesus interrupting his life” event was so startling for Paul that he basically responds with, “OK. What do I do now?” And Jesus tells Paul that he’s been appointed for a specific purpose — Paul’s been saved to be a witness to all people about Christ.

Here's how Paul describes his salvation in other parts of Scripture. “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles...” (Galatians 1:15-16a ESV)

He writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 ESV)

And, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12-17 ESV)

Paul never takes credit for his salvation. He knows what the condition of his heart was prior to Jesus interrupting his plans to destroy the church. He knows the hate he had towards Christians and their God. He’s completely aware that — if it was left up to him — he would’ve never chosen Jesus — it was Jesus’ choosing of him that was the cause of his salvation. Theologically — when he looks back at himself prior to Jesus saving him — he sees someone who was in great need of the grace of God to intervene in his life.

And — as we’ve seen throughout Acts — Paul lived for one purpose from this point forward. To fulfill the calling to which he had been called. To finish his race well. To honor God by being a faithful minister of the gospel.

Did he have ups and downs? Absolutely! Even Paul got it wrong from time to time — like his ministry split with Barnabas because of Mark. But God’s grace was at work in his life and it was evident both theologically and historically. In being saved — Paul’s life was forever changed. And — from the moment of his salvation — it was obvious to all that Paul was a changed man.

What about you — what’s your story after having been saved by Jesus?

In the bathroom that day as a teen — I remember distinctly Jesus not only saving me but calling me to ministry. And my great rebellion in life wasn’t drugs or partying or any of that stuff — my great rebellion was jazz music. Instead of obeying God — I chose to pursue my own dreams instead of his dream for me — which — to be clear — is just as rebellious as anything else I might’ve done. Thankfully — God used this time for my good — I met my wife during this time — and there’s a lot that I learned with my super practical Jazz Saxophone Performance Bachelor’s degree that — believe it or not — applies to what I do today.

After college — I joined the Army — still not fulfilling God’s call for my life. During this time I learned a lot about life and leadership and about really hard things — like leading men in war — and missing nearly the entire first year of my oldest son’s life while I was deployed.

When I returned to the US, Emily and I got serious about our faith again. Our faith had been put on the back burner in our early years of marriage. And — believe it or not — but God used an eight octave handbell choir in a Presbyterian Church in Watertown, NY to draw us back to him and to remind me of my call. After the Army, we moved back to Tampa and joined a Baptist church. Immediately God gave me opportunities to serve and learn more about ministry — reminding me of my call. Then at the age of 28 — as I was driving on I-4 — leaving downtown Tampa — much like the moment of locking myself in the bathroom of my parent’s home years earlier — I said, “OK, God. If ministry’s what you’ve called me to — you're gonna have to make some things happen because I don’t think a Jazz Saxophone degree and combat experience is on most pastor’s resumes.”

That was in October. In December I had my first interview with the church that would eventually hire me on staff where I’d begin to fulfill my call to ministry two months later. Which eventually led me to our denomination and the church I served in West Virginia. Which led to a seemingly random email from our denomination — one October day in 2015 — informing me of some church in Ohio who was looking for a potential successor to its founding pastor. And — here I am — Jazz Saxophone degree and all. You just never know what God will do when you obey his call.

Back to the two stories I shared earlier.

The first — remember — grew up in an abusive home. His story continues…“Following Jesus changed the trajectory of my life. I knew that Jesus was the only way I was going to break the cycle of abuse in my family that had lasted for a couple of generations. I knew that if I was going to be a husband and dad one day — one that loved and cared for his wife and kids like God intended — I needed to commit to a church so that I could grow in my faith and understanding of God’s expectations of me in a community. That’s what kept me going to church through college, and what motivated me to find a church home when I moved to Findlay, which ended up being Gateway Church. Eventually, I answered God’s call to become an elder which has given me a burden for the church that I hadn’t known before. I want people to know Jesus and to grow in their faith. I want other people — who may be in a situation similar to mine — to know that Jesus loves them and can change their life.”

And the second person’s story continues with…“Since then, I have come to see that God…has been constant through all the past relationships and he will be constant through the future. God’s shown me how he uses painful trials to polish me and build my faith so I’m better prepared for the future. Paul says it best in 2 Corinthians 5:7 “For we walk by faith and not by sight.” Knowing this truth helps me to embrace whatever comes my way. For I know he’s in control and has a plan for EVERYTHING! Not only do I no longer long for a "trusted person"; I no longer feel the need to serve a "trusted person." I serve my Lord through loving others the way he loves me. To God be all the glory!”

What about you? You’ve thought about how your story began — but what’s the rest of your story? Later today, set aside some time to go back to the notes you started earlier and finish your story. You can make it as brief or as long as you want — but share your story with us — the story of God’s faithfulness in your life — a story that may be full of ups and downs — a story that may seem incomplete because you hear God asking you, “Are you ready to trust me — to really trust me with your life? Are you ready to follow me as I lead you in the calling I have for you?”

Now what about that opportunity I’ve mentioned a few times? This Wednesday at noon — on our church Facebook page — join us to hear one of our staff members share their story. This is a great opportunity for you to hear a story of God’s work in the life of someone in this congregation. Interact on Facebook with them as they share their story — ask them questions — encourage them — connect with others who are in the chat. So plan to join us on Facebook this Wednesday at noon to hear another story of God’s work in this congregation.

YOUR STORY; GOD’S STORY

Something I said earlier is worth repeating as we close our time today. We worship a God who’s at work in our lives and in the lives of countless others in the world. The God who called Noah to build an Ark — is the same God who called Abraham to leave his homeland — who’s the same God who called Moses — a man incapable of public speaking — to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery — who’s the same God who made Esther queen of a foreign nation at the exact time her people — the Jewish people — were under attack — is the same God who called Mary to be the mother of the Son of God — who called Peter, and Matthew, and James, and John and others to follow him — is the same God who — blinded a guy traveling on the road to Damascus — and said, “Paul, you’re mine. And I have a special calling for you — to be my spokesman — my herald — my mouthpiece — to the world. Go and proclaim the Good News that I am the God who saves.” And is the same God who’s still in the saving and calling business today. And if you’re wondering who this God is — well — he told Paul his name. For when Paul asked, “Who are you?” The reply was, “I am Jesus of Nazareth.”

Ultimately — your story and my story — our stories are all part of God’s story. For his story is what we call history. Thus our calling — yours and mine — individually — come together — corporately — as a church. And all of our stories — come together as one story — that’s part of God’s story. The greatest story ever written — a story that has no ending — for God’s story will continue for all eternity — a story that includes all who respond to his call. To borrow a line from CS Lewis — all who respond to Jesus’ call will discover that “All [our] life in this world and all [our] adventures had only been the cover and the title page [of God’s story].” And in eternity we’ll discover that “now at last [we have begun] Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read — which goes on forever — in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (CS Lewis The Last Battle). And what a story that will be. Let’s pray.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, thank you for being the Author of all of our stories. Help us all to see — Christian or not — your hand in our story. Where — even the darkest moments of our story were not void of your grace and mercy. Give us eyes to see you in our story.

Holy Spirit, set free anyone whose story brings shame, disgrace, or condemnation. Through Christ — may they experience the freedom he offers. Give them eyes to see Jesus as the Hero of their story and there’s no shame, no disgrace, and no condemnation in needing him to be our Hero — for we all need him to be our Hero.

And — Jesus — you are the Hero of all of our stories because you are the Hero of the Story of all stories. Thank you for saving those of us who’ve been saved and thank you in advance for saving those who you will save. Rescue the enslaved, give sight to those who are blind, open the ears who have been deaf to your voice that’s been calling out to them. Jesus — do the work only can do — rescue, save, heal, and redeem those you have called. In your name we pray. Amen.

BENEDICTION

May you go responding to God’s call — trusting him with your story. Amen.

God loves you. I love you. You are sent.