My wife told me about a week ago, that one of you watching from afar threatened – yes, threatened! – to come to my house with a pair of scissors, not to hurt me, but to cut my hair. I get it, it is long, and it is ugly, but in my defense the hair cutting places are closed and, frankly, I only trust Hailey at Men’s Hair House to cut my hair. So, I look forward to the day when I can sit in that chair and get that number 3 on the sides with scissors on top, bangs cut just right to hide my receding hairline. I do enjoy a good haircut, and I also enjoy the conversation that often takes place during that haircut. It’s rather amazing how people open up to their hair stylists. It’s as if the moment a person sits in that fake leather chair, they somehow feel safe and free to converse without any fear.
But, I got to tell you, whenever I’m forced to use a new hairstylist, the conversation starts off a little slow, because, so often after telling the stylist how I want my hair cut, the next question that they ask me is this, “So, what do you do for a living.” It’s a simple question, but often for some reason when people hear me say, “Well, I’m a pastor.” They get a little guarded, and sometimes I get the impression it’s because they know a pastor talks about Jesus and for some reason talking about Jesus, talking about religion, can make people uncomfortable.
Does talking about Jesus, does sharing your faith, make you uncomfortable? I fully admit that I am not always the best at it myself, and so I look at that lesson from Acts that we heard today, I look at Paul in Athens as he stood there in the meeting of the Areopagus, and I hear him shout out those words to that group gathered there, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” Why did Paul do that? Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut? He didn’t have to speak. Yet, he stood up. Yet, he spoke, and he told them. He told them the story of the one true God.
Now we might marvel at Paul’s boldness. We might wish we could be bold like Paul and speak so well in order to win friends and souls for Christ, but the truth is you are not Paul, I am not Paul. You are you and I am me. And that means our level of boldness and our ability to speak comfortably in front of others about our faith, it varies, but I’ll tell you what isn’t different about us. I’ll tell you what makes us the same as Paul: We know the same story, the story of our Savior Jesus. And that is why the first words that we hear today from Peter, in our sermon lesson, tell us to “in our hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” Then Peter goes on to say that you then, with Christ first in your heart, need to always be prepared, ready, to tell people why, why you hope in Jesus. He writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
And this is something we’re actually quite good at. If something is on our heart, if we are passionate about something, often we’re ready to talk about it. If you love, say, all things sport related, you’ll have no issue talking about sports. If you love your grandchildren, you’re going to brag about them and what they can do. I will tell anyone, even if they don’t give a hoot, about my boy Gideon and my little girl, Cora. Recently, I had someone talk my ear off about a show they had been watching, they couldn’t stop raving about it. Yes, we are good at talking about those things that we value, those things that we’ve set apart in our hearts.
Well then, Peter reminds us whom we are to set apart in our hearts, Jesus. And maybe his words here shame us a bit, but rather than be ashamed, let’s be motivated, especially now. Especially now, when your heart, is probably like mine, weighed down with this depressing and discouraging virus situation. Fearful of the future. Worried about what this all will mean going forward these next months, perhaps years.
Which brings us to those first people who read Peter’s words before us. They were believers, just like you and me, and they were being persecuted. Their faith along with their lives was under siege. They too needed to be motivated and encouraged to keep Christ first in their lives. Just before verse 15, we read what was currently occupying that first spot in their hearts, fear. Peter writes, “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.”
When Paul stood up in that meeting of the Areopagus and he began to speak, you think he was afraid? He knew how people had in the past reacted to the message of Jesus. Still, he spoke. He did it because he knew what he had to share, the story he had to tell, that it was the most important story that those people before him would ever hear. And this might be his only chance to tell them. This might be the one opportunity to share Jesus, who was first in the heart of Paul. So, he spoke. He had to speak. He had to tell that story he knew so well. And what is that story again? It is hope.
I love how Peter puts it, I’ll read it again. “Always be prepared…to give the reason for the hope that you have.” What are we asked to be prepared to talk about? Hope, Peter says. Hope in what? Hope not found in a group of people, a government, your own abilities, material wealth, health, no, and that’s good, because in these last months, we’ve seen how quickly those things can be taken away. Go back to those early Christians were afraid, afraid for their lives, and maybe they felt they had to fight and defend themselves from those who were persecuting them, maybe they believed they were doomed whether they fought back or not. Peter’s words to their trouble hearts, remember where your hope lies, it is with Jesus and he, well, he has overcome the world. That is why he is to be set apart in our hearts and in our minds every single day. And that is what makes Jesus’ story so great and worth telling. So, how can you and I be prepared to tell it?
It’s been going through my mind this entire week as I prepared this sermon, that hymn stanza “If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul.” Do you remember how that stanza ends? “You can tell the love of Jesus; you can say he died for all.” Could sharing our faith be that simple? Can you just tell the simple story of Jesus death and life? Peter sure thinks so as that is exactly what he goes on to do in verse 18, he writes, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” That right there is the story. We might argue it’s not a very compelling one! Christ died for sins, great. The righteous for the unrighteous, fantastic. There is more to this story, though, and I think you’ll agree it makes this story incredible; it’s you, it’s me. Christ did all of this, why? Peter tells us, “to bring you to God.” This story of hope, it includes us.
Christ died for sins, your sins and mine. All that guilt, all that shame, those mistakes, those terrible mistakes, those terrible words, those thoughts, the actions, that promised me a future in hell, he died for them, He didn’t have to, but he did, “once for all.” His righteous self took the place of my unrighteous everything. And, again, he did it, why? “To bring you to God.” To make you his own, so he could call you his child, and bestow on you the blessing of eternal riches, of an eternal life forever. Now, suddenly, this story, this hope, it takes on a whole new meaning because it is about you. The story of Jesus and what he did on this earth, his life, the miracles, the words, the cross, the resurrection, ascension – all of it! – Was and is for you. And that, that is a story worth telling.
And you know what? Your story doesn’t need any embellishment. It doesn’t need to be cleverly laid out. It simply needs you. Sharing what you trust and believe, speaking the very Words which created faith in your own heart and brought you kneeling to a cross, and there we all pray the Holy Spirit will do the work and create yet another story worth sharing, another soul saved.
On the first pages, of his book Prepared to Answer by Mark Paustian, Paustian writes about a time he was in a speech class and they were doing impromptu speeches. As he drew the slip of paper that told him what to speak on, he saw that it said “boxing.” At first he was nervous about what he would say, but then he remembered the advice his teacher gave: Think of a personal story relating to whatever topic you chose. So, that’s what he did. He told a personal story about his play boxing matches with his brother. It was a real story, and one that he cherished and knew well – it was about him.
In these next weeks and months, as you begin to encounter more people slowly getting back to their lives after sheltering for two plus months, you’ll certainly have much to talk about, much to catch up on. Perhaps, in the midst of those conversations – and maybe it will be while your getting a much needed haircut – you’ll have an opportunity to draw that impromptu speech slip that says, “Jesus” What story will you tell? Tell your story. Share your broken life of sin and how Christ walked through death and hell to save you. Share your moments of doubt and loss, but then your joy when you were, again, found. Rejoice in the home you look forward to, that one that will be eternal, and speak that real living hope found in Jesus that you have set apart in your heart. This is your story, and you know it well. Tell it. Amen.