Beware the Lure of Secondary Success

Topical Scripture: Acts 9:1-6

Delivered: April 19, 2020

On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Two days later, he rose from the grave and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then.

One expected result of the coronavirus pandemic is that more people than ever will be working from home after the pandemic is gone. This could mean a resurgence in small towns where people can work online with lower housing costs and costs of living while commuting occasionally into the city for meetings (probably in autonomous cars).

In cities, sidewalks may be widened and more streets made pedestrian-only to ensure greater distancing between people. Temperature checks and other health screenings may remain common at airports. Online shopping will probably continue to grow in popularity, as will streaming video and video games.

And some are predicting that stay-at-home regulations will spur a baby boom.

Much has changed since that first Easter Sunday. But much has not.

The pandemic reminds us that we are all still mortal and that many fear death. It reminds us that we are still fallen creatures living in a fallen world.

And all we have lost during these days of crisis reminds us of what we long for: lives of meaning, significance and purpose. But where do we look for them?

Refuse the seduction of secondary success

Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” These are words worth pondering.

You may know of the classic business bestseller, Good to Great. The author reminds us that “good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. This is the seduction of secondary success.

I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. There was a time when we felt we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?

Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.

We’re not the first.

Our text begins: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (v. 1). “Breathing” shows that “threats and murder” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why?

Because of “the disciples of the Lord,” to his mind a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.

So he “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus” (vv. 1–2a). Damascus was 150 miles north of Jerusalem. Paul would be walking the distance from Dallas to Waco. He sought “letters” giving him legal authority “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (v. 2b) where they would face trial and likely execution.

This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could see the high priest personally. Can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a Pharisee, the elite corps of Judaism; a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian.

But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success but didn’t know it.

He’s not the last.

Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.

“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now . . . I’m only asking him to help out with things.'”

And so, our society observes Easter and does religious things to get God’s blessing, to ask him to “help out with things.”

Why are you listening to this sermon? Why am I preaching it?

Experience the Easter encounter

Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history.

It was “midday,” Paul would say later (Acts 26:13). “As he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him” (v. 3). Later he would describe it as “a light form heaven, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, this was a miracle, not a natural phenomenon.

The text says the light “shone around him” (v. 3). The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.

Then Paul “heard a voice” (v. 4)—the Greek means that he heard with understanding. Verse 7 adds that “the men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” The text makes it clear that they heard it but could not understand its words.

But Paul could: “And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?'” (v. 5a). “Lord,” kurios, God and King. Then came the shock that would change his life forever: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

“I am Jesus”—he is alive. His church is his body “whom you are persecuting.” And this “Lord” had a purpose for him: “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (v. 6).

Here is the moment of decision, the crisis of life and soul.

Commentator William Barclay noted: “There is all of Christianity in what the Risen Christ said to Paul. . . . Up to this moment Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated. From this time forward he would be told what to do. The Christian is a man who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do” (his italics).

Remember what the Italian grandmother said: “‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours!'”

Paul would do what God wanted him to do. God would no longer be a means to his end, but his life a means to God’s. And you know the results.

Today, you and I face the same decision. What will you do with the risen Christ?

Will you choose religion as a means to your end? Worship on the Sunday after Easter to make you feel good or spiritual? Christianity to help you with your problems, to help your life succeed?

Or will you “enter the city” and do as you are told? Will you make the risen Lord the Lord of your every day? Will you meet him every morning in Bible study and prayer, to get your directions for the day? Will you serve him in witness and ministry? Will you worship him each Sunday and each day?

Will it be God for you, or you for God?

Make the risen Christ the Lord of your life

We know what we should do, that the risen Lord should be our Lord every day. But someone is saying this morning, I have plenty of time. I can do this later.

A Dallas friend of mine named Robert Riggs was a reporter in Iraq during the Gulf War. He was embedded with a Patriot missile battery.

One day, two fighter pilots on a bombing run to Baghdad mistakenly picked up the Patriots as Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and launched two missiles at them. But a technician inadvertently pushed a switch which caused the Patriot battery to project its radar signature seventy-five yards to the north, so that’s where the missiles landed. That’s why Robert survived.

The Bible says, “Now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). No one is promised another day.

Someone else says, It’s too late. I’ve done too much wrong—God can’t use my life.

Robert told me the story of James Kiehl, one of the soldiers baptized in the desert of Kuwait before the war began. James told Robert his life had been anything but spiritual; he had made many wrong choices. Before he left, his stepmother told him he was facing a crossroads, and he needed to make the right decision. There in the desert, a fellow soldier led him to Christ.

Robert told me the change in James’ life was immediate and joyous. His baptism in that hole dug in the desert and filled with bottled water was a true celebration. James was a member of the 507th Maintenance Company when his unit was ambushed and he was killed. He’s in heaven today. And God is using his life and story this morning.

If God could use Paul, the murderer of Christians, it’s not too late for you.

And someone else says, “I don’t need God’s help. I’m doing just fine.” You have all the Jesus you want. Christianity is a part of your life, like a Rotary Club. Are you saying that even though the Almighty Lord of the universe has a plan for your life, you don’t need to follow it? That you can do better with your life than your Creator, the God whose Son died to pay for your sins and rose on Easter to give you eternity in paradise?

Paul aspired to be the man who helped first-century Judaism remain pure. God aspired to make him the man who would change the world. Whose plan was better?

Whose plan will you follow today?