A Letter From Prison - Acts 26:21-29
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The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Well, it might not be true - but it’s a great line for the guy selling umbrellas. You see - there is a habit out there in our culture that I want to show you this morning. You know it’s there, even if you don’t have the title for it. I bet if you think about it, you could probably come up with a dozen examples. It’s called “Chicken Little Syndrome.” Chicken Little Syndrome is where you create alarm in order to sell a product. If you create a crisis, people will pay attention and then once they are paying attention you can sell them the solution. It’s the very worst type of fear-mongering, the lowest of all sales tactics and it’s quickly becoming the dominate way we promote or sell ANYTHING in our culture. Chicken Little Syndrome has us all terrified, and the church is no different. They sky is falling, let me sell you my solution. This is something we do in news, in politics, in sales and even in the church. Crisis grabs attention, so there is great benefit for sellers to create a state of constant crisis. It’s everywhere! But here’s the important part - not only do we exaggerate statistics to create crisis to sell the latest and greatest books and curriculums and conferences - but it also creates passivity in the pews. What I mean is that, in the church, when you have bad news about the decline of the church stuffed into your face week after week, year after year - our souls become numb. Everything is bad, everything is declining, and there’s nothing I can do about it so I might as well just sit back and do nothing. A recent study from Barna found that 48% of Christians say, and this is a quote, “Most non-Christians have no interest in hearing about Jesus.” That’s almost half of all Christians. Half of Christians believe in their heart - nobody around me wants to hear about Jesus.
But here’s the thing - Chicken Little was wrong. There was a group recently from the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, and they got together and did some actual statistical work. They got some real research to back up their data, rather than just going on vibes or making stuff up. They took the data and they held it up against the Chicken Little claims - and what they found is amazing. Now I want to give credit where credit is due - they put together the results of the study in a book called “You Found Me” and the subtitle is “New Research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith.” Here’s a few examples. Did you know that of the group of young people who have no religious affiliation, they are NOT connected to a faith group. 2/3 of them believe in God and 20% of them pray daily. They’re not Christian - they don’t know Jesus, but they are OPEN to spiritual conversations. Now if I asked you, what percentage of Americans do you think go to church every Sunday - what would you think? Like, if you think about where you live, on your road - how many of those houses do you think go to church? 1 in 10? 1 in five? According to the research the real number is 51-55%. The majority of Americans still go to church regularly. Is that the messaging we get in our world? In movies, TV, music - they make it seem like nobody goes to church! Atheist and Agnostics are a very loud section of our population - but they actually represent only 7% of our country! People in the church seem to think that everyone hates them, and nobody out there wants to learn about Jesus - but the reality is that the vast majority of people in your life are open to faith. We just gave up before we even tried. And this has dramatic effects on churches. Forget all the little stuff - denominations, worship styles, decorations - church growth comes down to one thing. Churches that are full of people who invite their friends are growing, and churches that are full of people who don’t invite, don’t grow. Basically, what I want you to realize this morning is that it is not as bad for Christians as you might think - the sky is not actually falling. If we can learn how to share our faith with the people around us, our church will continue to thrive. And that’s where this guy Paul comes in handy.
Now for those of you who are just joining us for the first time, as a church we have been reading through the entire bible in a year. And here we are, getting right down to the end of things. For the last few weeks in our readings we’ve been following the story of this guy named Paul - who shows up in the second half of the book of Acts. Now Paul has been traveling around the ancient world telling everyone about Jesus - planting churches everywhere he goes. He comes into a town, tells everyone about Jesus, spends a year or two getting everything settled and then he moves on to the next town. Then, and I know this is going to shock you, after Paul leaves there would be drama in those churches. gasp. I know it’s hard to imagine disagreement in God’s church, but when Paul heard about it he wrote a bunch of letters. In the letters, Paul had three focuses, foci?, three things he talked about. Encouragement, Teaching and Conflict management. He taught them how to love, how to live, and how to fight. And I’ve said this at the Cardinal Square campus, but I want to make sure I say it here too - there are no creative titles in the Bible. When Paul wrote a letter to the church in the town called Ephesus, we call it Ephesians. When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Colossae - we call it Colossians. Philippi - Philippians. You see it, yes? Even the book of Acts is not creative. What’s in the book of Acts? Well… it’s the acts of the apostles, it's the stuff they did after Jesus ascended into heaven. That’s it.
So Paul has been traveling around, oh - and I should mention - he has a habit of ticking people off everywhere he goes. In many of the towns where he visits he clashes with the Jewish Leadership - because they are trying to stamp out this new baby Christian movement before it can get started. So some of these towns, Paul’s not leaving with a goodbye parade and a key to the city - he’s sneaking out the window in the middle of the night because they’re trying to kill him, again. So we get to chapter 20, chapter 21-ish of the book of Acts, and Paul is trying to get to Jerusalem and then he wants to go on to Rome. And they warn him - don’t go to Jerusalem, they’re going to try and hurt you. Over and over people beg him, don’t go there - don’t do it. Chapter 21, verse 12, [read it]. Don’t go to Jerusalem, they’re going to hurt you. But of course he doesn’t listen, and by the end of that chapter he has been arrested in Jerusalem and is already in chains. But then something amazing happens, and I think most Christians don’t know this story. Paul gets passed up the chain of command, and at every level he has a chance to share the story of what God has done in his life, what Jesus has done for him. At the end of the chapter, it’s the commander who arrests him, and the crowd that’s standing there - they all get to hear about Jesus. End of chapter 22, it’s the Jewish High Council - they get to hear about Jesus. Chapter 23 there’s an assassination attempt and a prison transfer - don’t tell ME the Bible is boring. Chapter 24 he’s in front of the governor, guy named Felix. Guess what? Felix is going to hear about Jesus too. They don’t know what to do with Paul, so they leave him in prison for two years, so long that they actually bring in a NEW roman governor. Governor Porcius Festus - who ALSO learns about Jesus from Paul. It all hinges on the fact that Paul is a Roman Citizen, so they can’t just kill him (like the Jewish leaders want). Paul appeals to Caesar, he says, “I want a proper trial, if I’m going to be accused of something.” Festus says, “alright, fine - I’ll send you to Caesar.” Meanwhile, the local king shows up. King Agrippa. Anybody want to guess on if Paul tells him about Jesus? I think you get a sense of it in Chapter 25. This is Festus explaining it to Agrippa. [read v.17-19]. These Roman governors are having a little meeting and they’re like, “I dunno, it’s something about this guy - I think his name is Jesus, they think he’s dead, Paul says he’s alive - I dunno.” Now our scripture lesson for this morning is Paul in front of Agrippa, but the story doesn’t end there. Paul DOES get transferred to Rome, and it’s an amazing story - they put him on a boat, the boat gets ship-wrecked on an Island, and he eventually gets to Rome, where he lives for a while under house arrest. This is the last verse of the entire book of Acts, chapter 28, [read v.31].
Now here’s the reason I just went through that whole history - there are two key things I want you to pick up on today. First - God was there with Paul every single step of the way, no matter what came. From being chased and persecuted, people throwing stones at him, getting arrested, assassination attempts, from prison to prison to prison, shipwrecked on an Island - all of it, God was with Paul. And this is not a message about some guy thousands of years ago - this is a message for you here today at Aldersgate Church in the year of our lord 2023. If you’re going through a season - maybe it’s not quite as dramatic as Paul’s story, but we all have bad seasons, yes? If you are walking in the valley in your life today, I want you to hear these words - there is not one second of your life that God is not God. There is not one second of your life that God is not good. You’re all familiar with that old church phrase - God is good (all the time), right? Okay, so some of you know it. If you’re not familiar, the way it goes is I say, “God is good” and then the congregation responds, “all the time” - very good. And sometimes, if we’re feeling fancy, we can switch it up and I’ll say, “All the time” and you say… (God is good). But here’s what I want to do today - I want to give you a question to hang on to in the valleys of life. Every single one of us will have good days and bad days, mountains and valleys, days of sunshine and days of rain (or snow). But when you are in the valley, when you are at your lowest in life I want you to ask this question - when is God good? When is God good - and you know the answer (All the time). When is God good? When we remind ourselves of when God is good - the worst days of our life lose their power. Paul wrote the letters of Ephesians and Colossians FROM prison. He wrote Philippians while chained to the wall. Do you know the topic of the book of Philippians? It’s all about JOY. Because if God is still good (all the time), then the hard days get a little bit softer. The valley is not as deep. The darkness loses it’s power. When is God good? (All the time).
That’s the first thing I want you to catch from Paul’s story - but the second thing is that story telling is the key to Paul’s ministry. At every single level, Paul told his story. Wherever he was, whoever was around - Paul told his story. We dive into our scripture in chapter 26, and Paul is in front of King Agrippa. Verse 19 [read v.19-23]. The first story we tell is God’s story. The first story we tell is what God did through Jesus. When you hear the word “gospel” or the phrase “good news” in the Bible - they don’t mean good news like, “Hey they’re putting in a Chick-Fil-A in midland.” That would be WONDERFUL news, but when they say good news, when they say gospel - they mean the story of Jesus. Jesus is the messiah, he came, he died for my sins, he rose from the dead. If we repent and turn to God, you can have eternal life and the gift of the Holy Spirit. You can actually tell God’s story in five words - Jesus Christ, God’s son, savior. Now, for those of you who have been reading along with us all year long, hopefully you can see some of the connections - all the ways that Jesus is the completion of the story we started in Genesis. The simple version is Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior - but the more we learn and read the more we start to see just how deep the levels go on how Jesus is the ultimate climax of the story we have been telling all year long. The first story we learn to tell is God’s story.
The second story we learn to tell is OUR story. First we learn God’s story, and then we learn our story. Because, you see, when your story and God’s story collide - that’s what we call testimony. A testimony is what God has done in your life. And it’s in there, in Acts chapter 26. Paul actually STARTS with his story. And there’s a reason - when you’re first getting to know someone, and you really want to share Jesus with them - starting with your story is one of the most effective ways to be relatable. A lot of times when Christians talk about Jesus it comes off preachy. You are a sinner. You need Jesus. And I, over here on my perfection pedestal, I can show you how you are wrong. That never works! Paul starts out with, “I’m a sinner! I messed up big. Jesus saved me, and it’s amazing to be saved - he can save you too.” By starting with humility, by admitting our own faults and shortcomings, we show people the need for Jesus without pointing fingers. And it’s embarrassing - for Paul to put his sin out there, to admit that he was wrong. If you remember Paul’s story - he was this bad guy, and then he met Jesus on the Road to Damascus, and then he had this major life change. Chapter 26, verse 9 - Paul is telling his story all over again, [read v.9-11]. He’s not sugar-coating the story of making himself look good. He’s actually HIGHLIGHTING his sin.
And then he continues, [read v.12-18]. See, here’s the thing - we all have an “old Paul”, even if we don’t have a dramatic conversion experience. I think a lot of people read the story of Paul and we go, “woah, what an amazing testimony!” We LOVE dramatic conversion stories. People who are addicted and living in the gutter and they’ve got a huge beard and they’re dirty and grizzled and then they find Jesus and they tuck in their shirt and they get a haircut and turn their whole life around - and now they’re upstanding citizens with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids. And there’s nothing wrong with that story. But here’s the problem - I think a lot of us look at our life, and maybe our story isn’t very dramatic. We didn’t have some massive sin or huge conversion - maybe you even grew up in the church! And the problem with the big stories like Paul’s is that if our story isn’t dramatic then we think maybe God wasn’t there. But the next thing I want you to grab onto this morning is that God HAS been working in your life (even if it’s not a blinding moment that knocks you over). Think about what we learned from Paul’s time in prison. God is with Paul every step of the way - and he’s with you too! Look, I’m a church kid - a Pastor’s kid. My “come to Jesus moment” is like the most boring story I can tell. I think I’ve told this story before - I was at a Christian rock festival called Ichthus. There was a preacher who challenged us to give our entire life to Jesus and I did. (Pause) And nothing on the outside changed in my life. I was already a church kid - but guess what? I have things in my life that I struggle with and Jesus is working on my heart. Maybe my sins aren’t as flashy - I never persecuted the church like Paul, I never murdered anybody or whatever - by my sins need just as much forgiveness and I found that forgiveness in Jesus. So my challenge for you, is to open your eyes and look at your life. Look back on your life and try to see how God has been working. If you think God is NOT working in your life, all that means is that you’re not paying attention. God IS working - so find your story, and then tell your story.
Paul stands in front of Agrippa, tells his story, tells God’s story and then verse 24, [read v.24-29]. Paul goes through all of it - prison time and telling his story over and over, because he wants to convince people about Jesus. He says, “I don’t want you to be in prison. I don’t want you to have these chains - but I do want you to have what I have - because what I have is Jesus.” Do you see how that’s SO much more convincing than “you are a bad person and I will tell you how to fix your life”? Whether it happens quickly or it takes a long time - Start with your story. Start with God’s story. It’s really very good news.
God is good, (all the time). Even in prison. Even on your worst day. Even in your comfortable days. Even on your mundane days. Even on your boring days. God is still good and God is still working. If you don’t see God working in your life, you’re just not paying attention. Paul’s formula that he’s giving us here - it’s so simple. It’s not a fancy argument or a powerful teaching. He’s not eloquent or even clever. It’s just… look at your life, and tell people what you see there. A couple weeks ago I flew down to Texas for a thing, and when I was in the airport I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker, you hear it all the time. It said, “If you see something, say something.” And if you think about it - that’s the definition of witness. To witness something, like if you are a witness to a car crash or a robbery or something - that means you saw it, you witnessed it. And then the second part is that you are a witness if you TELL someone what you saw. I witnessed the car crash, and then I witnessed about it at the trail. I saw the car crash and then I told people about it. If you see something, say something. Look at your life, find how God has been working behind the scenes all along - and then go tell someone.
So here’s my challenge for you today - I want to leave you with four questions. I want you to find the answers to these four questions. First, When is God good? (All the time) Second, What is God’s Story? (Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior) - these aren’t trick questions. I WANT you to be able to answer them. Third - What is YOUR story? What sins has God forgiven in your life and how is your life different because of it? And fourth and finally - Who are you going to tell next?
The sky is falling, the sky is falling! Well, maybe not. People like to talk about church decline as if it was inevitable, but that’s just not true. The people outside of church are VERY open to hearing about what Jesus is doing in our lives, especially if we know how to tell our story. Forget music styles or decorations, forget cool names or denominational labels - it all boils down to one thing. Churches that have people who tell God’s story and tell their story - grow. Churches that have people who don’t - don’t. And so I’ll leave you with these questions - When is God good? What is God’s story? What is YOUR story? And who are you going to tell next? Let’s pray.