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Making the Most of the Time: A Time For Change
Acts 2:36 - 2:41
May 31, 2020
Reverend Jason Harris
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We’ve all seen the headlines and the heart-breaking videos, and it fills us with feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. We don’t understand why some people think they can corner an African-American man with their truck and then proceed to shoot him if he doesn’t stop for their questioning. We don’t understand how a police officer can fail to respond to a black man who says he can’t breathe as the officer kneels on the man’s neck for seven minutes, causing him to suffocate and die. And here in our own city, we don’t understand why a white woman in Central Park would call 911 and claim that an African-American man is threatening her life when all the man did was politely ask her to put her dog on a leash while in the ramble.
All of these recent incidents highlight the deep, intractable problem of human sin. We don’t like to talk about “SIN”—we prefer to believe that human beings are basically good and there is nothing wrong with human nature. But isn’t that a little naïve? Don’t we see the evidence all around us that there is something wrong with human beings—and—more often than we would care to admit—this flaw reveals itself in all kinds of racially-charged ways? Don’t we recognize that while human beings are astonishingly beautiful and creative creatures capable of great acts of nobility, sacrifice, and love, there is nevertheless a defect within human nature that needs to be corrected? And isn’t that the problem that Jesus came to solve?
In moments of honesty, we know that we are not the people that we would like to be, but we don’t seem to be able to free ourselves from the tentacles that have wrapped themselves around our hearts. So my question for you is: Do you think that human beings can change? Or are we forever locked into deeply ingrained patterns of thought and behavior? Can people change? Or let me get a little more personal: Do you think that you can change?
You might be cynical. There may have been times in the past when you tried to make some real changes in your life, but you’ve since given up and you feel stuck. Perhaps there have been times when you have reluctantly resigned yourself to the fact that maybe this is just the way it is—maybe this is just who I am. Have you ever wondered, is lasting change really possible, and, if so, how does it come? Let me tell you about a man who once described an experience of change.
The name John Owen is little known outside a very small circle of people, but he was perhaps one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of great minds of 17th century England. He was born in 1616, the year that William Shakespeare died, and was raised in a small village five miles outside of Oxford where his father served as a pastor. Owen was a child prodigy. At a time when people might go off to college at 15, Owen began studying at Queen’s College, Oxford when he was only 12 years old and graduated with a B.A. at 16 and an M.A. at 19. Later in life, he would return to Oxford as the Dean of Christ Church and then was named the vice-chancellor of the University. John Owen was simply brilliant.
Owen eventually would become one of the most famous preachers of his day, speaking to literally thousands on a weekly basis. Some have called him the greatest theologian who has ever written in the English language. Owen was no slouch. Multiple times he was given the honor of preaching before Parliament and, after one such occasion, he was named Oliver Cromwell’s personal chaplain. When you think of Owen, you should think of people who have spoken at presidential inaugurations—Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Cardinal Dolan. Owen was a powerful and connected person—the friend of kings, generals, and university presidents. If pastors could be rock stars, he was a rock star.
But how did he become this person? What I want you to recognize is that his identity was forged during a time of national crisis. As a young man, Owen was well on the path to a promising career in academia, but his plans were sidetracked by university politics. He left Oxford and ended up becoming a chaplain at the age of 21 in a private home. It wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances. But then five years later, the situation went from bad to worse and devolved into crisis. With the outbreak of the English Civil War, Owen was forced to move again—this time to London.
Now here’s the intriguing thing about Owen’s story. Owen had grown up in a Christian home, the son of a pastor, and he himself had spent the last five years of his life serving God in what people might call “full-time ministry,” but Owen wasn’t sure that he was even a Christian. Throughout this time, he struggled with feelings of depression and gloom that had settled upon him ever since he had left Oxford. For a stretch of three months, he found it hard to even talk. But something happened to him in 1642 at the age of 26.
One Sunday, he decided to join his cousin and go hear a famous Presbyterian preacher at St. Mary’s church, but when they arrived they learned that some unknown man from outside London was filling in that morning. You know what this was like? This was like people who used to turn around and walk out of Redeemer as soon as they found out Tim Keller wasn’t preaching that day. Owen’s cousin wanted to quickly make a run for nearby St. Michael’s church to hear someone else. But Owen decided to stay. He never learned the name of the country preacher who spoke that day, but he chose Matthew, chapter 8, verse 26 as his theme: “Why are you fearful, o ye of little faith?” God used that sermon to remove Owen’s doubt and fear. Something changed. For the first time, Owen sensed the Holy Spirit assuring his spirit that he really was a child of God. The penny finally dropped. After that, everything was different. As a result of that experience, the work of the Holy Spirit became a passionate pursuit in Owen’s life which culminated in one of the greatest books he ever wrote.
Imagine that. Take away that period of national crisis and personal distress. Take away that one Sunday morning and that obscure country preacher and things could have turned out very different for Owen.
Now fast-forward 40 years. Towards the end of his life, Owen met a twenty-something who was not unlike a younger version of himself. Owen asked him: “How do you think you go to God?” The man replied, “Through the mediator—(Through Jesus).” That’s the correct answer. That’s good theology, right there. But Owen curiously responded by telling the young man: Easier said than done. “Young man, that is easily said but I do assure you that it is [quite] another thing to go to God through the mediator…than perhaps many…are aware of.” And then Owen goes on to say: “I myself preached Christ for some years, when I had but little if any experimental acquaintance with access to God through Christ; until the Lord was pleased to visit me with sore affliction…but God graciously relieved my spirit in a powerful application of Psalm 130, verse 4: “But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” From whence I received special instruction, peace and comfort, in drawing near to God.” Listen to that again: “I myself preached Christ for some years, when I had but little if any experimental acquaintance with access to God through Christ; until the Lord was pleased to visit me with sore affliction.”
Do you hear what he is saying? John Owen is saying that he not only knew about Jesus, he preached about Jesus for years—week after week—without ever experiencing the truths of the gospel for himself. He’s saying: It’s one thing to know the gospel up here—to know that the only way to access God is through Jesus up here—but it’s quite another to experience it in here—to have a sense on our hearts that it is really true. That’s the difference between knowing that Jesus died for humanity in general and knowing that the Jesus died for me in particular. That shift is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit—and that’s what unlocks change in our lives.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people. On the night before his death, Jesus warned his disciples that he must go away. Yet he promised them that even though he would have to leave them because of his impending death on the cross, he would not abandon them—or us! Rather, he would give us something even better than his physical presence in a human body. He would ask the Father to give us the Holy Spirit who will not only dwell WITH us, but IN us. Jesus fulfilled that promise on the day we know as Pentecost. With that, a new era has begun. True change comes when we receive the gift of the Spirit.
The Apostle Peter provides us with a compelling example of that. The portrait of Peter in the gospels is astonishingly different from the one we see in the Book of Acts. In the gospels, Peter comes off as rash and impulsive. When Jesus explains to his disciples that suffering and death await him in Jerusalem, Peter has the audacity to take Jesus aside and to dress him down. He basically says, “That’s no way for a Messiah to talk, Jesus. Don’t talk about suffering and death because it makes you sound like a loser. We’re not losers—We’re winners!”
Peter consistently puts himself forward. He thinks he’s better than everyone else. Prior to Jesus’ arrest, he tells the disciples that they will all fall away. But Peter insists he’s not like the rest of those dupes. Even if they ditch Jesus in his hour of need, Peter never will. Peter claims he’s willing even to lay down his life for Jesus if that’s what it comes to.
But Jesus tells him he’s wrong. He will deny ever knowing him not once, not twice, but three times before the night is out. Sure enough, despite all the bravado, Peter proceeds to forget everything he had previously said and denies any association with Jesus even when questioned by the most harmless of bystanders. He curses and swears that he doesn’t know the man—and then—the cock crows. He goes out into the night and weeps bitterly. After Jesus’ death, Peter locks himself up behind closed doors with the other disciples, crouching in fear and utterly dejected.
But then you turn over a page or two in the Bible and you come to our passage today from Acts, chapter 2. Now when a large crowd gathers, perhaps outside that very same house where the disciples had gone into lock-down, Peter is the one who stands up and addresses the crowd in order to explain the events of Pentecost in light of Jesus. He speaks so powerfully that 3,000 people believe in Jesus and are baptized that very day. 3,000 people. One day. I’ve never seen anything like that. Later Peter will be arrested by the same authorities that had handed Jesus over to death, but Peter is fearless. He’s not worried. He actually rejoices that he is considered worthy to suffer for Jesus’ sake and prays—not that God would spare him from further hardship. No, he prays for even more boldness! And when you get to Acts, chapter 10, you can read of how God delivers Peter from his racial and ethnic pride and teaches him that racism is not just a terrible blight on society, but it is in fact antithetical to the gospel—because Jesus has gathered people of every race and ethnicity into one single family.
Now, the question you should be asking yourself is: How did this happen? What happened to Peter in a matter of a few pages? Where did that blustering fool go? The man who stands before the crowd at Pentecost is a completely changed person. What turned his doubt into faith, his cowardice into courage, and his pride into humility? The answer is: the Holy Spirit.
Ok but how? How does that work? What exactly does the Holy Spirit do? J. I. Packer provides us a great image for thinking about the work of the Holy Spirit based on what Jesus says in the Gospel of John, chapter 16, verse 14. “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” That’s the Holy Spirit’s job—to make Jesus real to you. How does he do it?
Think of a floodlight. We’re currently in the process of figuring out how to illumine our building at night. For years and years, this was a dark and depressing corner at 64th and Park. You could walk by at night and not even know that there was a church here. If you stood out there in the dark, and I asked you to describe the architectural features of our building, you would probably struggle to put it into words because you couldn’t see the building clearly. You might say, “The building looks to be maybe 6 to 9 stories tall, there’s windows and stone, and what looks to be some kind of structure up top—but I can’t really tell.” But now we are working to put floodlights on the building to illumine the façade so that you will be able to clearly see the stonework, the intricate carvings, the stained-glass windows, and the bell tower—even at night. But the key to a good lighting scheme—as any designer will tell you—is that you have to hide the floodlights. You don’t want to draw attention to the wires and the light fixtures. You want to hide them within the architecture so that all your attention is directed to the beauty of the building.
That’s what the Holy Spirit does. He glorifies Jesus. He takes what he knows from Jesus and declares it to us. The Holy Spirit doesn’t draw attention to himself. He shines a floodlight on Jesus so that we see him for who he really is. The Holy Spirit doesn’t say: Look at me, listen to me, come to me, get to know me. No, he says: Look at Jesus, listen to Jesus, go to Jesus, get to know Jesus.
That’s what happened to Peter. That’s why he could speak so forcefully about Jesus. People who talk in vague terms and only make you more confused obviously cannot see clearly what it is that they are trying to say. If you can’t see it, you can’t say it. But if something is clear to you, then the words you need to express it come naturally to you. The better you understand something, the simpler you can explain it. That’s what happened to Peter. Prior to this moment, Peter was still a bit confused about who Jesus really is and what he came to do. He was groping around in the dark, and that’s why he made so many blundering mistakes and stupid comments. But now the Holy Spirit has shone a spotlight on Jesus. Now that Peter sees him clearly, he speaks of him powerfully.
So what happens when the Holy Spirit does the same work in us and we see Jesus for who he is? When we place our faith in Jesus, we receive many things—but at least these three: new life, new community, new power.
First, we receive new life. Remember, Jesus promised that it was to our advantage that he go away because it was only by going to the cross that he could send us the Holy Spirit who will not only be with us but in us. The moment you see Jesus for who he is and place your faith in him as your Lord and Savior, you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus dwells within you, and the Spirit is the bond by which Jesus unites you to himself. The Spirit assures you that you belong to Jesus now and forever and nothing can ever separate you from his love. That’s what finally happened to John Owen. To be a Christian means that you are “in Christ” and Christ is “in you.”
If you are united to Jesus, then everything that is true of him becomes true of you. Jesus takes your sin and death and gives you his innocence and life. In other words, if Jesus died on the cross in your place for your sins, and was raised to new life, then so have you. You have died to your old life, and you have risen to new life.
You are not the same person any longer. All of which shows us the Christian life is not a self-improvement project. It’s not about reforming your old self, it is about receiving a new self. Jesus didn’t come to make people nice, he came to make them new. This new self is given to you as sheer gift from outside of you. It’s not something you produce by doing more or trying harder. Your life is found in Jesus. On the one hand, this new self is really and truly you. You are not living someone else’s life. But the change is so radical that there is no other way to describe it than as a “new creation.”
When the Apostle Paul describes what happens to a person when they are united to Jesus by faith in 2 Corinthians 5, he doesn’t even write a complete sentence because he’s so excited. He writes: “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” New Creation! It’s hard to imagine a more sweeping way to describe the profound change that Jesus brings to a person’s life than a new creation. When you are united to Jesus through the Spirit you receive a new life. But that’s not all.
Second, we receive not only a new life, but a new community. Jesus never reconciles us to himself without reconciling us to one another. If we belong to Christ, then we belong to one another. Jesus breaks down all the barriers of race, ethnicity, class and gender that may have once divided us. In Jesus, we belong to one single family and that makes us brothers and sisters—no matter who we are, where we are from, or what once defined us.
That’s what the Apostle Peter would learn in Acts 10. That’s what Pentecost shows us. People from throughout the Mediterranean world representing all different languages and cultures were gathered together that day in order to show how Jesus draws us all—despite our many differences—into one single family. And if we all belong to the same family, then we’ve got to learn to live like one. Your new identity is not merely an individual identity. It is a family identity.
Jesus offers us a new life, a new community, and finally a new power. If the Spirit of Jesus dwells within you, then you are no longer helplessly stuck in life-defeating patterns. The Spirit gives you new power to live differently. That’s what Pentecost is all about.
On the one hand, the day of Pentecost was a unique and unrepeatable event. You could no more repeat the day of Pentecost, then you could repeat the death and resurrection of Jesus. There’s a first time for everything, but the first time only happens once. God poured out his Spirit upon humanity at one decisive point in history. But, of course, we can personally appropriate and benefit from this unique event every day.
The late philosopher Dallas Willard told the story of growing up in a remote part of southern Missouri where for most of his childhood the only electricity that was available came in the form of lighting. But during his senior year of high school, in the early 1950s, powerlines were extended to his area for the very first time. For the first time, electric power was made available to his rural community. And yet, while that is the case, each individual house needed to be rearranged and learn to rely on that new source of power in order to take advantage of its benefits. That’s how you turn the lights on.
You could think of Pentecost as the day God introduced a new power system. The Spirit of Jesus is now present and available. But just as each individual house in a city needs to connect to the power source, so each individual person needs to rely on Jesus by faith in order to receive the Holy Spirit. When you do, that’s when the change comes. So how do we do it?
When Peter delivered his Pentecost sermon, he didn’t pull any punches. He tells the crowds that the very same Jesus that they crucified is the one that God has vindicated. They thought he was a mere man—and a pretender at that—but God has proven Jesus is both the Lord and Christ.
The people that were gathered that day were cut to the heart by what they heard. They ask: What must we do? If you’ve ever wondered how you become a Christian or what it means to be a Christian—or if you’ve been following this series over the last several months during this pandemic and you’ve been wondering what you should do in response, here’s your answer.
Peter’s reply is simple but profound. Peter says: Repent and be baptized. “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
We tend to think of “repent” as a feeling word. At first glance, we assume Peter is saying: “Feel bad.” Feel bad about who you are and what you have done. But “repent” is not primarily a feeling word, it’s a thinking word. It means to change your mind about Jesus and your attitude towards him. If you discover that you are traveling in the wrong direction on the highway and headed into oncoming traffic, the best thing that you can do is stop and turn around—and the sooner the better! Likewise, to repent means pull a 180 degree turn in your mind. Turn around and turn toward Jesus.
In fact, you could think of repentance and faith as two sides of the same coin. You can’t turn away from sin and self without turning toward Jesus in faith. When we turn toward Jesus in faith, we must receive baptism, if we haven’t already, which is the sign that we belong to Jesus and his people forever. When we do, Jesus promises to give us not only forgiveness, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, with the new life, the new community, and the new power that he brings. That’s the only way that any of us can be truly, permanently changed for the better.
Let me give you one last illustration. William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. He penned 154 sonnets, 4 poems, and 37 plays. Suppose I handed you a copy of Hamlet or King Lear asked you to pick up a pen and paper and to write me a play like that. I suspect most of you would say: “Sorry, can’t do it. Shakespeare could. I can’t.” But suppose that somehow I managed to capture the spirit—the genius—of Shakespeare and place that genius inside you—and then I asked you to write me a play like Hamlet. Well, then maybe you could at least make a start.
And in a similar way, if I simply showed you the life of Jesus and told you to go out there and be like him—live like Jesus. I suspect most of you would say: “Sorry, can’t do it. Jesus could. I can’t.” Ah, but what if Jesus somehow were able to put his very own Spirit within you—to inspire and empower you to live your life differently. Well, then maybe you could at least make a start.
So if you want the Spirit of Jesus, then as Jesus himself said: All you’ve got to do is ask.
Would you please pray with me as we conclude?
Father, we recognize that we need to change. So fill us with your Spirit. Help us to turn away from as much as we know of our sin—to give as much as we know of ourselves—to as much as we know of you. Help us to repent and believe so that we might receive the gift of your Spirit and experience the life transformation that only he can bring. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will be my people, and I will be your God.