Matthew 3:13-17, Acts 11: 1-18 “Can God Change People’s Minds about how they act?”
Grace and peace to all my readers here on Unexplained Mysteries. I make no apologies for being a creature of habit. I like my house, my study, and my books all to be arranged in a certain way. And there’s more. I’m especially a creature of habit when it comes to eating. When we go to a restaurant I tend to order the same thing every single time. When we were living in Dublin we had our favorite Chinese takeout. We loved that place so much that we’d eat there at least once a week.
But I pretty much got the same thing every time…Wor Sue Gai with fried rice and wonton soup. I ordered that dinner so many times that..eventually, I’d call in there to place my order and the owner who always answered the phone would say…”the usual?” Yep. The usual. That Wor Sue Gai was a major part of my life, like a faithful old friend…that is…until I got food poisoning from it. Now that was enough to stop your creature of habit in his tracks!
But sometimes are habits are good for us. They help us get through the day. We can cruise on auto-pilot. But the problem is….we’ve got bad habits, too. In fact, I bet if I were to take a poll from every reader here….now that we’re about halfway through the new year I’m sure a few of you had New Year’s resolutions to quit some bad habit. Do you remember those? What were they? I’m going to give up my midnight snacks. I’m going to cut down on my caffeine intake. Uh oh, I failed that one miserably. I’m going to quit smoking. The list just goes on and on, right? And so we resolve to change our bad habits. We mean to, we really do. But how is it going? Sometimes we succeed…but a lot of times, we fail. Now why is that? Is it because you’re a terrible person? Ha, I doubt that. But we can be pretty hard on ourselves. No, we fail because habits are extremely hard to change. They're hard to change because they're so ingrained….they're almost-automatic.
And so this Sunday we continue our blog series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and we’re very appropriately going to be looking at this child’s question: “Can God Change People’s Minds about how they act?” We’re going to be looking at two people who, even though they were very set in their ways, God was able to break through and disrupt their routines. Then we’ll talk about how God used one of these people…to change even more minds.
This might be an important message for you if God is trying to break you of some kind of habit. It might be important to you if you know someone who has a destructive habit…or maybe they just don’t know Christ…and they have a hardness of heart against Christianity or religious faith in general and so your heart aches for them. Or maybe this message will be important to you if you’re worried about governments and the leadership in this world. There’s so much political tension all across the globe.
John the Baptist was a creature of habit. He was a man with a job. And I think it’s safe to say that he loved his job. I mean who wouldn’t like wearing clothing made of camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey on your lunch breaks? But Seriously,he had the most important prophetic job in our entire Bible. His job title was just one word: “forerunner.” He was the one God sent ahead of Jesus. He was the one who prepared the way for the Messiah.
And believe me…this wasn’t one of those jobs where you do one day’s worth of training on the internet and then you hit the ground running totally clueless. John the Baptist understood his job description completely as the forerunner.
That’s why when people came out to the Jordan to be baptized by him, he would always say: “I only baptize you with water as a sign of repentance, but after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to carry, one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John knew who he was and what he was supposed to do....to prepare others for the coming of the Messiah.
So it must’ve been pretty confusing for him when Jesus, this promised Messiah whose coming he’d been proclaiming suddenly approached him one day at the Jordan River and asked John…to baptize Him.
Has something like this ever happened to you? Has your boss or someone you worked for ever asked you to do something you thought was just plain crazy? If you’re like me, you probably asked a bunch of questions. As politely as possible…you check and re-check…are you surethat’s what you want me to do? And…that’s exactly what John does here. “What? Me baptize you? You should be the one baptizing me!”
John would have been the model employee. He knew his mission and purpose. But this wasn’t it. This was something that was pretty far outside the box. And maybe some of you…as 2018 is now upon us….have that same kind of feeling. Maybe you feel like God’s nudging you to do something…and you’re like…huh? See, Jesus called him to step out of his comfort zone and embrace something unexpected.
It was Jesus who persuaded John to change his job description and go along with the spirit of the moment and be the instrument of God who would baptize the Messiah. It was Jesus who asked John to change. And Jesus just might be asking us to make some changes here in 2018.
But you know what? We have to give John some credit here too. It was only when he stepped out in faith that his heart was opened for transformation to take place. Can God change how we act? Yes, but we have to be willing to embrace change…and that isn’t always easy.
See, it was because he listened, because he trusted God to lead him in a new way…that he took a leap of faith and then the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and heard the voice of God. And so it is with us. Jesus always and everywhere calls us to step out of our comfort zones, to be open to hearing a challenge or move in a new direction, and to respond to each new situation that calls our attention. Maybe it’s to break a habit. Maybe it’s to start a new ministry. Maybe it’s to join the church. Maybe it’s a career move. Maybe it’s a decision to have a child. Maybe it’s to witness to somebody who doesn’t know Christ.
But whatever it is, my sisters and brothers, looking at the example of John the Baptist…I just want to tell you one thing…trust in God in 2018. Be willing to step out in faith. That’s the key to God changing our own hearts and minds. Step out in faith.
Almost 20 years ago now, God called me into the ministry. I ran from that call for years…I considered it something from my past….and I buried it. But then one day in 2009 while taking a nap, God gave me a dream. I woke up…and I decided…for once in my life…to trust God and to take Him at His Word. I went to Bible College, then to seminary. There were times I was overcome with doubt. There were times I thought maybe I’d lost my mind. There were times I was so terrified that I just wanted to bury my head in the sand. But I took that leap of faith…I trusted God…and I just kept following the path He vaguely set before me. And now, by His grace…I’m here.
Jesus asks us to be open because this was His way. He was open. He was open to changing His plans. He was open to changing His mind. He was open so He could respond to the needs of the people He met. For example, think about His encounter with the first disciples. There they were, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, casting their fishing nets into the sea. Jesus came walking by, spots them out there on their boats, and He calls out to them with the most incredible greeting in all of human history…”Come away and follow me! I will make you fishers of people!”
He was headed somewhere, but then when He saw them, He changed His plans. He took the time to notice them, to speak to them, to invite them into relationship. And he invited them to follow Him and to be a part of His work. And so they did it. Their lives were already set…they had good jobs and families. They were set in their routines and they had their good and bad habits. But then Jesus comes and says put all of that behind you…and they actually did it. They got off the boat and they followed Him. They took that leap of faith. And you know what’s so incredible about that?
He saw in that simple fisherman the instrument who would open the door and welcome a new people into the Kingdom of God. Let’s turn to our second lesson for the day, Acts 11.
I talked about getting food poisoning from eating that Wor Sue Gai. I got so sick that…after that…I could never bring myself to go back there. If you’ve ever had it, you know food poisoning is some pretty nasty business. That’s why…when I go eat at some places that I’m not too sure about…I pray Gordon Ramsey’s famous before meal prayer. “Oh God, please bless this food…and don’t let it make me sick.”
Peter was probably thinking something along those lines when he had that dream. Down comes this blanket with creepy, crawling snakes, vultures and all kinds of other weird animals on it. God says “here’s your lunch, Peter. Dig in. Bon appetite.” But Peter doesn’t just reject it like Wor Sue Gai with a side of salmonella….his “no” came from deep within. All his life, Peter had been an observant Jew and he’d always prided himself on remaining ritually clean. See, this was the toughest habit to break. This “no” was a result of years of religious conditioning.
Let me explain. These dietary laws weren’t just a matter of obedience to the Law. It was a matter of religious identity, a symbol of who these Jews were as people of God. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why the Jewish people survived and maintained their national identity…even through the exile. When in Rome…do as the Romans do? Nope….through centuries of persecution at the hands of the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans….they never changed who they were. They never gave up their unique identity.
And that’s exactly what God was telling Peter to do. He was being asked to change everything he’d been taught as important in his faith. Go to the house of the enemy…to the very people that are persecuting you….and baptize their whole household. Can you imagine that? Go to the very household of the kind of people that nailed His Lord and teacher to a tree….and welcome them into the Kingdom of God. Talk about being asked to change something in your life! Talk about being asked to do something you don’t want to do! Talk about taking a leap of faith…a leap that might literally get you killed if you’re wrong. But he does! By God, he does it!
The Holy Spirit fell on Peter and Cornelius and everyone in that house…and let me tell you something. Because Peter allowed God to change his mind and he was willing to risk his life and take that leap of faith…God used him to change the course of human history. The importance of what took place in that house cannot be understated. Up to that point the Christians were just a tiny little sect. Church historians and scholars have rightly argued that if Peter hadn’t gone to the house of Cornelius….Christianity….probably wouldn’t have survived. Either Romans or Zealous Jews would have stamped it out.
But instead, he goes back to Jerusalem and he changes the minds of the church leaders too. So the changing of that one mind brought about the changing of thousands. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
My point is this: don’t ever let anyone make you think that God can’t change someone’s mind about how they act. There is nothing in this world that can contain the Good News of the Kingdom of God. God can break through the toughest obstacles, crack the toughest hearts, and change the most stubborn minds. Open hearts, open minds, open doors….you better believe it!! God says “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.”
So if you know someone that isn’t a believer and you’re concerned about the path their on…what do you do for them? If you’ve got a relative or a friend who’s battling an addiction…what do you do for them? If you’re worried about world events and are afraid certain leaders might be marching us on a path to war…what do you do for them?
You pray for them. And then you go and you pray for them some more. I’m so serious. Every one of us in this sanctuary needs to be a prayer warrior. Every person of faith needs to be an intercessor. To a person who’s struggling, your witness can be powerful. Your presence can be comforting. Your willingness to confront and to show tough love can tear down barriers. But nothing works like prayer. Nothing.
When Peter was going to those church leaders in Jerusalem…I guarantee you that every step of the way…he was praying. God, open their hearts to the fact that you’re doing a new thing. God, break down their barriers and their walls. God, just convict them and change their minds. The text says they fell silent.
Whoever it is you’re praying for, whatever it is they need…pray for that same silence to come on them. I talk about silence a lot because that’s the door the Holy Spirit comes through. Pray for that hardness of heart in your loved one to be pierced with the silence of the Holy Spirit. Ask God to lead them to a place where every other voice and every other noise and distraction is drowned out…that all distractions are removed…so that the voice of the Spirit is the only voice that can be heard. Take a leap of faith to become a prayer warrior…to pray for that person or that world leader…without ceasing.
Like the Apostle Paul, “I urge you by the love of the Spirit to strive in prayer.” Let me give you an example of what that striving in prayer can bring about.There was once a man who was known for his wild and dissolute life. He was a partier, a drunk, a womanizer. His mother desperately tried to convert him to Christianity, but instead he ran away from her and joined a cult. He was about as far from God as you could get. But every single day his mother would go into the church and pray for him. She would literally sit there for hours…crying and praying over her wayward son. After years of this, one day a priest asked her who she was praying for. She said it was her son and the priest said to her “surely the child of so many tears will not be lost.”
Shortly after that, one day, this man was in a garden in Milan when he heard a child singing the words: “Take it up and read. Take it up and read.” At first he thought it was some weird game, but then he realized he’d never heard it before. He looked over and he saw a Bible sitting on a park bench and suddenly it hit him…that God might be telling him to read the Scriptures. The pages of that Bible were blowing in the warm summer breeze and he picked it up only to read the words: “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” The man fell to his knees and wept. He became a Christian in that instant…because God changed his heart and his mind…through the power of prayer.
That man was Saint Augustine of Hippo…the greatest theologian in the 2,000 year history of the Christian Church. Through the prayers of his faithful mother, Saint Monica…God changed his mind….and he became the greatest mind the church has ever produced. Never let anyone tell you that God can’t change someone’s mind. No, you pray for that person. You be a Saint Monica for that person. You pray for them when you wake up. You pray for them when you go to sleep. You pray for them every single day.
Matthew Henry put it like this 300 years ago: “As God must be sought unto for the restraining of the ill will of our enemies, so he must also be sought for the preserving and increasing of the good will of our friends; for God has the hearts of both one and the other in his hands.”
My friends, by prayer we can influence the wills of presidents and kings…senators and governors. Like Nineveh old, the power of prayer can bring about repentance and change the fate of nations. By prayer we can influence the wills of both our friends and our enemies. By prayer we can influence the lives of everyone that’s important to us. “Can God change a person’s mind about how they act?” The answer is yes. God can change our minds if we’re willing to trust Him and make a leap of faith. And God can change the minds of those we care about if we’re willing to become intercessors like Saint Monica. So let us resolve to fight all of our battles…on bended knee. Amen.
© 2018 ENG/Marcus Aurelius