By Pastor Glenn Pease
On a dark November day in 1884 the people of Chicago passing over the bridge near Clark street were surprised. Below them at the dock was a ship piled high with Christmas trees of all sizes. The news raced through the city, and soon there were reporters there sensing a story, and they were right. A 13 year old boy named Herman Schuenenman, who was an orphan from Wisconsin, conceived of the idea of a Christmas tree ship that could bring Christmas trees from Northern Michigan to Chicago.
His idea worked so well that it became a Christmas tradition to buy a tree from his ship. Children who bought a tree with their parents grew up to become parents, and they brought their children to buy a tree. In 1898 the ship sank in a Lake Michigan storm, and Herman's brother went down with it, but he didn't quit. He got another ship and kept the tradition going. In 1912 Herman and his crew of 18, and all of the trees, went down in another terrible storm, and they were never found.
Barbara, his wife, known as the Christmas tree lady, the following year in 1913 shipped in the usual 20 thousand trees and kept the tradition going. She kept it going until 1932 even though in the last years all her trees were brought in by train. She died in 1933, and with her the tradition ended. All that is left is the cemetery headstone engraved with their names and a Christmas tree. The point of this true story is that even deeply formed traditions can and do change, and nothing stays the same, for the very essence of life in a fallen world is change.
We can all remember experiences of Christmas that can never be the same. I had a cousin and uncle near my age, and we ran around together as young boys. Christmas at grandma's house was a tradition all my boyhood life. It was a special time, but once I grew up it was never the same, for all of life had changed. It is the same for everyone, for nobody can stop time and keep everything the same. Even if you lived in the White House you cannot do it. Listen to Elinor Roosevelt describe her Christmas experience.
"I remember especially the Christmas that Mr. Churchill
was with us after we were involved in World War II. After
that year, the Christmases weren't so cheerful. My mother-
in-law died in the autumn before that first war Christmas.
The boys all went off to different war theaters. Their absence
meant that we did what we could to cheer their families if they
were with us, or we tried to get in touch with them by telephone
if they were far away. We did more in those years for foreign
people cut off from their homelands by war, but it was no
longer the old-time Christmas and ever was to be again."
The world changes, the family changes, you change, and all of life joins in a conspiracy to make sure that nothing stays just as it is. There is good reason for the wedding vows being a covenant for better or for worse, for both are inevitable in a world of change. But thank God there is a solid rock in the midst of this quicksand of constant flux. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the Rock and the Anchor that gives stability in this world of perpetual change. Nancy Turner wrote,
Under the old and arching skies
Clear carols call, by street and hill;
The stars that saw the great Star rise
Are shining still, are shining still.
In all the long years, come what will,
There's nothing new and nothing strange
In one old night of song and light-
The heart of Christmas cannot change!
If we are going to cope with life in a changing world, we need a heart that is captivated by the heart of Christmas that cannot change. We need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ, and surrender to His Lordship. This is always the key to a happy new year. The way to God does not change, and the ways to please God do not change. What we need to see is that even the Christ-filled Christian has to still live in, cope with, and adjust to, a constantly changing world.
Paul becomes an ideal subject for the study of a Christian in a world of change. He went through the most radical change of any of the Apostles in his conversion. He had the most radical change of career, and faced the most radical changes in theological commitment. I do not think you will find another person in all of the Bible who had to adjust to more change than the Apostle Paul. He was changed from a persecutor of Christians to a promoter of Christians. He was a brutal, prejudiced, and legalistic tyrant who became a gentle, open minded, grace oriented servant of the very people he persecuted. He changed from a Jewish focus to a Gentile focus.
Paul was a settled scholar who was changed into a world traveler. All this change was not without struggle, and so we can learn a lot about facing the future with all its changes from a man like Paul. What does the New Year hold in store? We do not know, but we know for sure there will be change, and so learning to understand change and how to deal with it will always be an asset. The first thing we want to learn from Paul's life is:
I. THE REALITY OF CHANGE.
Paul's life does not prove that change is good, or that change is bad. It just proves that change is a part of reality, and that it is inevitable. It can be good or bad, or both. His conversion was good, and the best thing that ever happened to him. Nobody can be saved without change, for one cannot go from a lost sinner to being a new man in Christ without change. Change is of the very essence of God's plan of salvation. Every major theological word dealing with salvation revolves around change. D. L. Moody saw this, and on the fly leaf of his Bible he had these notes:
"Justification, a change of state, a new standing before God.
Repentance, a change of mind, a new mind about God.
Regeneration, a change of nature, a new heart from God.
Conversion, a change of life, a new life for God.
Adoption, a change of family, a new relationship toward God.
Sanctification, a change of service, separation unto God.
Glorification, a change of condition, at home with God."
There is no point in being anti-change, for change is a vital part of God's plan. No change would mean no hope for a fallen world and lost men. It is the reality of change that gives us Paul instead of Saul- a builder instead of a destroyer of the kingdom of God. The first thing we have to do is face up to the reality of change as a blessing. Yes, it can be a burden, but it is not automatically so. Change also means hope. The negatives of life can become positives because of the reality of change. Lost people can be saved. Messed up lives can be restored to order. Good can be brought out of evil. Thank God we always have the hope of change.
Balzac considered himself an expert in handwriting. One day someone brought him a notebook of a small boy and asked him to evaluate the lads potential. After careful examination of the child's scroll he said to the woman, "My frank opinion is the child is slovenly and probably stupid, and I fear will never amount to anything." The woman began to laugh and said, "This is your very own book from when you were a little boy in school." Thank God that little boys change, and what they do changes. Paul said, "When I was a child I talked like a child; I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put childish ways behind me." Don't knock change, for that is the key to growth, maturity, and progress, not only for Paul, but for all of us.
Bernard Shaw once said, "My tailor is the only sane man I know. He re-measures me every time I go get a suit." In other words, he assumes the possibility of change. Others often judge by what was, and forget that a person can change and be different. The Christian has an obligation to expect others to change. The optimistic view of change should characterize Christian thinking. We ought not to put people into a box and say this is who they are and what they do, and how they think, and that is all there is.
People who did that with Paul missed a great chance to be among the first to know and love the world's greatest Apostle. Jesus believed in Paul, and knew that with adequate light Paul would go the way God willed. He was truly blind and ignorant in his zeal for the law and opposition to Christ. But Jesus knew He had the capacity to change, and that is why he was chosen. Everybody needs somebody who believes they can change. So many people take their own lives because they keep saying to themselves, "Nothing will ever change. I am like I am forever, and things are like they are forever." Their blindness to the hope of change is what plunges them into the pit of despair.
The Gospel is the good news that anybody can change, and anything can be made different in its ultimate impact by the grace of God. The miserable people of the world need to hear that life can change. The sick people of the world need to hear that life can change. The sad and rejected people of the world need to hear that life can change.
The reality of change is the hope of the world. We look for the coming of our Lord again because that is the ultimate demonstration of the reality of change. He will change everything, and all evil will pass away, and there will be a new heaven and new earth wherein dwells righteousness. Change is the name of the game that God is playing, and that is why every new year is filled with potential happiness for there is no end to the possibilities it holds because of the reality of change.
Paul is trying to get the Jews to see that God has changed everything by the sending of the Messiah into the world. His plan is to use Israel to reach the whole world of the Gentiles. But they were not open to this change. Their tradition of being God's chosen people blinded them to the reason for their being chosen. They were chosen to be a tool to reach the whole world, but they were locked into the idea of being chosen as an end in itself. They were chosen just to be special they thought, and they were not open to change. That is why we must be ever evaluating our traditions, and asking if they are valid.
During the Boer War when the British fought the Dutch, the sharp eyed Dutch were expert snipers. Many a British soldier was shot in the light of his own match when he lit a cigarette. This is why the saying started that it was bad luck for three people to light a cigarette from the same match. Two might quickly light, but for a third to do so would give the sniper time to focus in, and it could mean death to that third soldier. It was no superstition. It was the fact, and a life or death fact. But away from that context the idea is pure superstition with no basis whatever. Change the context, and you change the meaning of all that relates to that context.
There was a point in Israel's history when relating to Gentiles was forbidden. God needed a people who were cleansed and sanctified to be a people who could be a channel of His love and truth in the world. They were to avoid the ways of the Gentiles and not get involved with their evil life-style. That has never changed, but now that God has achieved His goal, and sent His Son into the world through the pure virgin of Israel-all is changed. Now God's plan is to reach those lost Gentiles. Those who could see the reality of change, and how God even changes His strategy at different points in history, responded to change and became Christians. But as we see here, most rejected change as bad and unacceptable. You could be missing God's best by rejecting change, but what we want to see is that it is not easy to accept change. Paul in this context had a battle which leads to our second point which is-
II. THE RESISTANCE TO CHANGE.
Paul was quite cooperative with Christ when he was confronted by His supernatural presence. He quickly said, "What shall I do Lord?" And he followed instructions. He went into Damascus and was then baptized after the urging of Ananias. But then in verse 17 Paul says that later in Jerusalem when he was praying God spoke to him, and urged him to quickly leave Jerusalem. Paul then responds to God with resistance. He tries to explain to God that fleeing the city is not really necessary, for his reputation there will stand him in good stead. He did not realize how his conversion would change everything. He wanted to keep the status quo and go back to Jerusalem, and keep his role there intact.
God said, "Nothing doing-your out of there. Go, for I am sending you to the Gentiles." Here we see the other side of change. This is the side we don't like because it means loss of the familiar and the comfortable. Paul did not mind being changed from an unbeliever to a believer, but he sure hated how it complicated his life, and forced him to give up his loved environment. God had a new job for Paul as a Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul came to love it, but it was a radical change in his plans, and he resisted the change. Change can often seem like the enemy, and we are conditioned to oppose it.
Change is not automatically good, and so there is a legitimate right to question it and resist it, but it is important that we examine our motives. Do we resist change for selfish reasons? Paul just did not want to run away from his people and his position of responsibility in Jerusalem. Paul Courtney wrote a poem about his resistance as a conservative Catholic to the changes in the church.
Peace is too
Singin' and shoutin'
From every pew.
Altar's turned around
Priest is too
Communion rail's goin'
Stand up straight
Went outta date.
Possessions are formin'
In every aisle
Psalms are in
Hardly ever hear
A word against sin.
Listen to the lector
Hear how he reads
Please stop rattlin'
Them rosary beads.
Padre's lookin' puzzled
Doesn't know his part
Use to know the whole deal
In Latin by heart.
I hope all changes
Are just about done
That they won't drop Bingo
Before I've won.
This clearly self-centered resistance to change is funny, but more prevalent than we are willing to admit. A little boy prayed, "Lord if you can't make me a better boy, don't worry about it. I'm having a real good time as it is." We all tend to resist change that affects us personally, and which we perceive to be a loss to ourselves. Paul was not unwilling to serve God, but he was just not convinced that God's way was the best. God had to push Paul to go against his feelings in order to be all he could be for the kingdom of God.
This same thing happened to Ida Scudder. Her doctor father and her mother were missionaries in India. She had no interest in India, but when her mother became severely ill she went to India to care for her. She longed to get back to America and the comfortable and familiar. One night as she lay daydreaming about her homeland, a knock came at the door. When she opened it, there was a stately Mohammedan who bowed to her and urged her to come to help his wife who was ill unto death. She explained that her father was the doctor and not her. But the man said that "no man has ever looked upon the face of my wife. She needs you." She explained she was no doctor and could not come. Three times this happened. Bramins who could not ask a male doctor to treat their wives begged her to come to help. She naturally resisted and refused, and all three of those women died.
Their religion made it forbidden to use a male doctor. Ida Scudder had no plans to be a doctor, or to be a part of India's history. She want only to get back to her comfortable life, but the death of those three women changed her whole life. She went back to America and became Dr. Ida Scudder, and she changed the lives of tens of thousands of people as the famous head of the Mary Tabor Schell Hospital in Vellare, India.
Resistance to change is natural, but we need to keep examining our resistance to see if we might be resisting the call of God to a change that fulfills His very purpose for our lives. God's plan may not look like our plan, but it is always the best for us, and resistance is foolish. A young girl won the Junior National Award for the best recipe, and she was being offered a check on national TV. But she said, "That is not my creation," and she refused the check. The MC was embarrassed and looked to the judges. One of them had to come over and explain, "We baked it in a different shape, but it is your recipe." So the girl took her prize. She resisted because of the change in shape, but when she understood the change she gave up her resistance. We don't have to like the shape of things, but we have to surrender when the change is in hands beyond our own.
Even Jesus resisted the radical change of giving his healthy life to death on the cross. It was not the shape of things that would appeal to anyone, but it was that cross shape destiny that would change the whole world and all eternity, and so Jesus surrendered to this radical change, because it was the Father's will. Resistance is normal, but God expects surrender when His will is clear. This leads to our third point-
III. THE RESOLUTION TO CHANGE.
That is what we see Jesus doing in Gethsemane. He resolved in His heart and mind to go along with the change to fulfill God's plan. So Paul also did not like the shape of things that God presented, but when he got the message that this was God's will that he go to the Gentiles, Paul resolved in his heart and mind that he would go and be the best Apostle to the Gentiles he could possibly be.
This whole chapter of Acts 22 is Paul's testimony of how he was changed. He was no longer a legalist locked into the law. He was now a man for all men. The Jews did not like the change. In fact, they said his change made him worthless to Judaism, and he ought to be dead. Every change seems to be bad news for somebody, but Paul's change was good news for the whole world, even if some hated it. Because Paul resolved in his heart to surrender to the changes God wanted in his life, Paul became a major instrument in God's hands to change this world for Christ.
What we learn from Paul is that one of the best ways to have a happy new year, and new life, is to resolve to change, and become a more flexible instrument for God. Get rid of the idea that so often dominates us, and says that we are what we are, and can make no changes that are significant. We tend to feel we are destined to be in certain ruts, and however boring our routine, that is where we are ordained to stay. Not so! We can be different, and change for the better. If we have wanted to read through the Bible for years, but never got it done, we can change this year and do it. Pass failures do not lock us in. We can change and do what we have never done before.
If there was something that you have always wished you could do, or be, for Christ, but just have never been motivated to do it, let the potential of change excite you about the days ahead. Everyone of us can make changes that will be pleasing to God and beneficial to us and others. In a fallen world we must face the facts. Sin, folly, mistakes, and failures of all kinds will be a part of the future. Until the final changes that Christ will make at His coming, we have to admit some things will never change. Death and taxes, and as the poet said,
Something will never change although
We tour out to the stars;
Arriving on the moon we'll find
Our luggage sent to Mars! June Brady
The fact is also that we cannot always do what we once did, and so change is not always progress, but sometimes regress. We may slip back in some area of life and not be as capable as we once were. Again the poet captures the point.
The fabulous Wizard of Oz
Retired from business becoz
What with up-to-date science,
To most of his clients
He wasn't the wiz that he woz.
The idea is to recognize that in spite of negatives, and in spite of decline in life, we can all resolve to change in some ways that make us more effective as tools in the kingdom of God. Just a change in attitude can make a world of difference. Paul no longer thought God loved only Jews, but he changed and recognized that God loved Gentiles as well. The thing we need to do for rapid growth is to change our attitudes before they are changed for us by time.
Back in the 60's the cry was to not trust anyone over 30. It is gone the way of the dodo bird now because those who cried it are now over 30. It is not to their credit that they change their attitude. They were forced to do so by time. True wisdom would have been to change their perspective and recognize the value of people over 30 before they were that themselves.
Paul gets no credit for being saved and radically changed in many ways. It was all of grace and God's doing. But Paul can be honored for his resolve to cooperate with God, and to make the changes necessary to be more useful. If you are going to be a better Christian in the coming year, you must resolve to change in some ways. If you are going to be a better mate in the coming year, it calls for change. If you are going to be a better anything in the coming year, you must make a resolution to change.
Ananias was not at first very favorable to God's plan to go and visit Paul. He resisted a change in attitude toward Paul, for, after all, he was a persecutor of God's people, and he had already done a great deal of harm. We can all understand his resistance, but we can all also be grateful that he surrendered and changed, and went to Paul, for his acceptance of Paul opened the door to a whole new history of this man's life. You need to ask yourself, is there anyone I can change my attitude toward in the coming year that may open the door in changes in relationships that will be a blessing.
I read of a woman who lived in a Boston hotel who heard music coming from the adjoining room. She called the manager to complain. She threatened to sue the hotel if it was not stopped. When she was informed that the man playing in the room next to her was the world famous Paderewski she withdrew her complaint and invited her friends over to listen with her to this great musician, as he prepared for his evening concert. Her liability suddenly was changed to an asset, and her whole attitude was changed. We make so many bad decisions in ignorance. If we knew more we would have a change of mind that could turn burdens into blessings.
This is what conversion is all about. People who do not like God, and do not believe that He cares often hear the Gospel of His love, and they change their mind. They repent of their folly and blindness, and of their sin and indifference, and they receive Christ as Savior and Lord. We come into the kingdom by change, and it is by change that we grow in Christ and become more useful. Therefore, be it resolved that we will seek for ways to change our attitudes and actions in the coming year so as to be more useful in the coming year.
It is not a sign of weakness to change your mind. Everybody in the Bible changed their mind when they got more light. Paul changed his mind on most everything. He had a bad attitude toward God's plan for the Gentiles, but when he received more light he came to love the Gentiles as brothers in Christ. Change is not optional if you are going to be available to God. If you not flexible and open to change, you have already arrived at your goal. Paul said he had not arrived, but was ever pressing on toward the goal. This means he was ever open to change in order to be what Christ wanted him to be in any situation.
It was no haphazard choice that Christ made in choosing Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was chosen because he was a man that could be molded and shaped so as to fit the need. He was a man who was alive to the challenges of change. Paul had to be changed by force at first, but soon after it became a way of life for him. He chose to change whenever he could. He chose to be all things to all men that he might win them to Christ. He was content in any state, and could accept prosperity or poverty. He could accept any change just so long as he could be useful for the kingdom of God.
In other words, Paul was anchored in the rock that does not change. Christ was the center of his life, and this was the source of his unchanging security. But he could change, adapt, and adjust to all the changes of life because the goal of all change was to keep Christ in the unchanging center of life. He did not change for change sake as if change was an inherent virtue. It is not! It can be evil as well as good. Paul changed for only one reason, and that was to be more effective in doing the will of his unchanging Lord.
Astronomy changes not because the stars change, but because astronomers change in their understanding of the stars. So the Christian changes not because Christ changes, but because the Christian gets more and better light on who Christ is, and what He wants from our lives. We change in response to our changing light. Chuck Swindoll said, if you were going to Hawaii and the plane instead took you to the Alps, you could sit around in your bikini and mope, or you could go get some ski clothes and enjoy the change in environment. He was saying that life does not always turn out like we plan. It didn't for Paul either. He was heading for Spain and he ended up in prison. That was not even on his agenda, and he spent years there. He did not curse the change of plans, but he made the change count for the glory of God by writing his Epistles there.
In the coming year we can be sure of one thing, and that is change. But let's not fear it, but instead, cheer it, and rejoice in it and ask God's guidance in even provoking change so that the new year might be a year of Christian growth. Let us enter it with a spirit of optimism, and be ready and willing to face the challenge of change.