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"An Eager Conversationalist!"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 30, 2024
By Rev. Keith Haberstock, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Acts 17:16-31

Our text for today's message is from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17:16-31.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, "What does this babbler wish to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean." Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being' as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead."

To say the least, we know that our brother Paul was an eager conversationalist, and was led to be such about our resurrected Lord and Savior Jesus. We know from God's Word that as a young Pharisee he had been taught by the best, by Gamaliel, none more respected In Paul's day! Through Gamaliel, Paul had become a very eager conversationalist about the law. Actually, fanatically so might be a better way to put it. His passion on steroids is what placed him on a collision course of personally meeting his Messiah, the resurrected Jesus. After being an accessory to Stephen's murder, he goes on a terror, rounding up Christians, back then called "The Way," persecuting them for belief in that blasphemer, Jesus of Nazareth. He would've stood fully behind the Sanhedrin's move to arrest this make-belief messiah and rightly turn him over to Pilate and condemn and crucify.

But something changed for Paul when he heard the voice of his resurrected Lord, and conversed with him. Actually, that's not quite the truth. Everything changed for Paul. He who had been blinded both spiritually and physically was given-and also given back-his sight. He who had been circumcised as a follower of Moses would shortly become a baptized child of the Triune God. He who went to Damascus in a rage would soon enough be calmly proving from Scripture that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He who was seemingly taught by the best would now be instructed by the Best, by Yahweh, who met Moses at the burning bush, who led Moses to Pharaoh and gave his stuttering mouth words to speak and a brother to walk with, who was with Moses and His people the Israelites, feeding them for 40 years in the wilderness. Yahweh was now with Paul in the very same ways, feeding him the very manna of God. What an upgrade!

Paul was now eternally changed, blessed, and set apart by Jesus, his Messiah and Lord. And get this: Jesus called him to go to the dogs. What, that sounds like a major downgrade. But when one is chosen by Jesus, what's down to the world—and often us—is actually right side up to Him, and therefore also now and forever right side up to us. That Jesus called our brother to be His major broker into the Gentile market is incredible news for us. Why? Because we were Gentiles. And what's a Gentile? Anyone who wasn't a part of God's chosen people, the Israelites. And there's more! With most of the other apostles heading out to share with God's chosen people about Jesus, their promised, crucified, and risen Messiah, Paul was specifically chosen and sent out to us, the dogs. Alleluia!

The Gentiles have always been on God's radar. He loves, He is love, and He loves all peoples. He made Adam and Eve on day six as the crown of His creation when He made us all the human race, the only race there is. However, our first parents and their descendants were not His chosen people, the Israelites. In our human rebellion against God, we began a race in sin to get away from Him, and we chose a new handle. In Adam and Eve we chose to be called separate from God. Once again, not Israelites, because they don't show up on the scene until God makes a nation from the promised seed of Abraham and Sarah in about 2000 B.C. Through which His Son, the promised Messiah, will be born to live perfectly, and then die for all peoples, both Israelites and Gentiles alike.

So, fast forward to our text, about 50 A.D. while on Paul's second missionary journey, about 15 years after his conversion at Damascus. To say the least, Paul's been all over much of the known world on—you guessed it—a spiritual conversation tour, speaking about Jesus, the crucified and risen Son of God. And now he's approaching Athens. His life has turned so right side up by faith in Jesus that, as he travels, he's willing to be persecuted for the One he used to persecute. As he shares, not about but of Jesus, he gets kicked out of places, despised, jailed, beaten up, left for dead, and much, much more. But all of this is of no comparison to his Savior Jesus who faced all of these things in silence, and then hung on a criminal's cross to pay in full for all of Paul's sins and the sins of every Israelite and every Gentile, your sins and mine, fully expunged by God.

Paul was willing to face such—not in payment for, but in response to—all that Jesus had done to forgive him and bring him to Himself. As a young man, Paul would have believed he was a sinner, and that he must work relentlessly to keep God's Commandments. But now he's been convicted of the truth that he couldn't in the slightest accomplish this, and that Jesus had already kept all of God's Laws faultlessly, and then forfeited His own blood, the perfect Lamb of God, to pay Paul's unpayable debt. To say the least, he was absolutely transformed, who on his travels when entering a new city would first go to the synagogue to speak with fellow Israelites to whom Jesus had first been sent, so that in their repentance they would join Paul in going to the Gentiles to share Yahweh's love for all. However, sadly so, that hardly ever happened. (Lord, make us all like the Bereans.) And when it didn't, and he was booted, he went to the Gentiles with whichever missionary mates were with him. He was directed to individuals whom the Holy Spirit had already prepared to hear the truth about Jesus. Two here, three there, and with them the Lord built some burgeoning congregations of brothers and sisters. These disciples, these new followers of Jesus were used of God to make other followers by telling and teaching them of the Savior, their Savior, everyone's Savior from sin. This was Paul's calling, and it's truly ours also as Jesus present-day disciples.

The fanaticism that Paul had before his conversion became a blessed and stable passion guided by the Holy Spirit. And in coming to places like Athens—not that other Greek or Roman cities were much different with false gods in the form of idols all around—he didn't shy away but used such opportunities to engage people and share of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, so that the death, their death, could be converted to life, and so that all might come to find the true meaning of their lives.

Though Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy, he's not alone. And seeing the absolute spiritual mess all around him with people blindly giving glory and praise to everything but the one true God, he's provoked to say something. But could it be any different? I mean, with these pagans worshiping their idols. No, they had despised the truth just as the pagans in Rome, of whom Paul would write so clearly to our brothers and sisters there. The Athenians were no different, doing what sinners do and turning away from their Creator. They had and were worshiping created things rather than the Creator, who is near to us all.

But why didn't they know their Creator, and what did they need? They needed the same thing that every sinner needs, we who have turned away from the one true God. They need a disciple of Jesus to love them enough to tell them the truth about the One who made them and loves them enough—though we're running away from Him all day long—that He would come our way, that He would come to us and in His death buy us back, so that all may live and not die.

Hence God's call to Paul. Yet, Paul's life is actually no different than ours, yours and mine. He's been given faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and with that faith he's been called to witness to those who are dead in their trespasses in sins, even as they stand before Him. We, as Paul, are called to speak of what we have seen and heard via God's Word. That's what witnessing is, so that those who have not seen and heard may come to life by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word that He leads and equips us to speak.

Just as Paul was not alone, so we too are a plurality with the Lord Jesus living in our hearts and the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us. So, what do we do? We do as Paul did, we babble. Well, it may sound like that to others, but in love and respect for the "walking dead" all around us, we share, using what we have at hand—the situation, the setting, the problem—and from there we convey the One who loves us all and forever!

What does Paul have before him? Idols. Lots of them, which are Satan's puppets to keep human eyes from the Triune God who proved His love for all on the cross. These idols, these false gods, are specifically placed by the one who hates God and our souls. Also, that he might keep Gentiles to himself, and bring us and as many people as possible rather to himself, to be with him in his eternal demise. These false gods might be fashioned in pieces of wood or stone or money or a cell phone or whatever the case may be.

But what really is a false god?

Please listen to how the explanation to the Luther's Small Catechism describes having other gods: "When one regards or worships any creature or thing as God, when one believes in a god that is not the Triune God. When a person fears, loves, or trusts in any person or thing that they should fear, love, and trust in God alone. Or when a person or persons join in worship of one who is not the Triune God."

What's the big deal? Everyone to their own, right? To this, we boldly say, "Never!" The world parrots that lie, but not you and me, the redeemed of God. Why don't we just leave others to their own? Because "on our own" leads us away from the Savior, in the direction of our deserving eternal demise. But Jesus has paid in full for all, so that we might all have what none of us deserves. And when we are blessed by the gift of hearing of Jesus' cross work to forgive us, the Spirit works faith in His work on the cross into our hearts. We are released from Satan's lies, and with Paul, we truly don't want anyone to die in their sins. So we do something about it.

If in Athens, we speak to anyone who will listen in the marketplace. Wherever we may be, at our job, in civic circles, at our kids' sporting events, or our own. And because we live in a pagan society, just as Paul did, maybe a bit more techie with better travel options—which for many may be their God—we actually have an open audience all around us. What? Really?

That may sound odd, but that's exactly what The Lutheran Hour in tandem with Barna Research found out. Please check out their data at or, scrolling to find or typing in "spiritual conversations" in their search function. Contrary to what we all think, people around us want to have spiritual conversations. But there's a much greater reason for spiritually conversing with people. Wherever they're at, starting from where they are and going where the Holy Spirit will lead in His timing, His greatest desire, and our greatest reason for sharing and talking to people, is for all souls to be brought to saving faith in their Savior, because there only is one, and to receive eternity, not separation from God, but to be reunited with Him.

But please remember the truth: that reuniting of people to God is not on us or even on the one we're conversing with. That's on the Holy Spirit. That's His job. He blessed people like Paul and desires to bless you and me also and every Jesus follower to be a part of His ministry by witnessing in love and respect to others. Ours is not to change people. We can't. Ours is to be faithful in opening our mouths about Jesus.

Paul used what was around him—a vacant idol stand upon which to place a false god that might be propped up, a compliment about how religious his audience was, the use of their own poets and their prose, and the absolute truth about the One who created the universe and all peoples and all times, and then sent His Son to die and rise again to forgive us all.

Our text ends right there. Literally. That's where the Athenians cut Paul off, right after he brought up the resurrection. But don't feel bad, Paul, you got the message out. The rest is on the Holy Spirit.

So what really came from Paul's sharing? To be sure, most openly mocked him, but some wanted to hear more and voila! the Holy Spirit brought a few souls to believe in Jesus! And from that, a small church began. And in time, before that small group a table would be set with bread and wine, which is truly the body and blood of Jesus, through which He came to them as He comes to us to forgive and strengthen His family. But for what? In order that His family might be daily blessed to see our salvation through Him alone and joyfully live for Him and to share Him with more and more people. Also, that fewer might receive the separation in hell that we chose in the beginning and will receive, unless reunited with the Triune God, which Jesus sacrificially gave to us all.

I'm going to go out on a limb here. However, the limb is strong—and those who know me best know that this is nothing new for me—to say that we in the Western church enjoy our cushy Christian lives. Have we ever had to face what Paul and many of the first brothers and sisters faced and were blessed to face? Very, very few have ever been sacrificed or beaten or being kicked out or made fun of, and for that we're often very glad. For such is not at all our first choice. But is our gladness misplaced? Isn't this God's first choice for us? Jesus said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

And yet, though we fear persecution, being reviled, and spoken against, which we think will come as soon as we open our mouths—will it? It might. But look at what happened to Paul with the Athenians at the Areopagus. Some said they wanted to hear more, and what came from that? A small Christian congregation. So please, let the Athenians you converse with, or the Fort McMurrayans or the Calgarians or the Dallasites or the Reed City-ers hear what the Spirit knows they need to hear. It's actually a misnomer that people don't want spiritual conversation. In fact, LHM and Barna Research go even further to say that people feel good about the last spiritual conversation they had. So people feel good. Bless them and be blessed while you're at it, to help them feel good.

But what is a spiritual conversation? Maybe I should have shared that way back at the beginning of the sermon. The majority could truly say, I'm not a pastor to preach a sermon out on the street. And to that, I say good. Sermons are an expounding of God's Word to Christians on Sunday (or any other day, for that matter) by their called servant. Rather, a spiritual conversation is any discussion about anything spiritual, any discussion. That's the definition.

It could be you speaking about this sermon with your spouse or kids later today, or two Buddhists at a bakery talking about those Christians, or about the food they just left at the temple. That's a spiritual conversation. The bar is set, oh, so very low on what a spiritual conversation is.

Maybe it's not Buddhists at the bakery or Athenians at the Areopagus, but maybe it's a Baltimorian boyfriend at a baseball game or a Kitchenerite classmate in a kitchen or a wacky Winnipeger in a Blue Bomber wig at a Walmart or at the zoo in front of the polar bears. Okay, the places we meet people will not always rhyme, because that would drastically curtail the number of persons out there that need to be reached. Wherever we are, there are people who are worshiping idols in their lives and not at all the Triune God, and the result will be death, eternally. And even if they don't seem to care about life and death, in their heart of hearts as humans, they do. May they be blessed to have a compliment from you or something that moves them along by the Spirit who will open a door in His timing to prayerfully share their Savior with them.

Want help with being an eager conversationalist? Want help understanding those who might be unreceptive to Jesus, or receptive, or even those who are seeking Him out already by the Spirit's guidance and how you might be able to converse with them? If so, Lutheran Laymen's League—Canada and Lutheran Hour Ministries have resources to assist each of us in becoming eager and joyous conversationalists that the Lord calls us to be with the gifts He's already blessed us with. Please read the Acts of the Apostles and glean from Paul's honed spiritual conversation skills, and check out or for the Spiritual Conversation Curve in order to mature in God's call to you and me to witness of Jesus, the One who reunited us to Himself. Athenians, here we come. Amen and Amen.

Reflections for June 30, 2024
Title: Speaking of Jesus (NOTE: Due to time constraints, this material was not broadcast and is only available online)

Michael Zeigler:
Pastor Keith, thanks again for being with us and for sharing God's word with us. I wanted to tell you that I really like the phrase that you use in the sermon about Paul, how he shares not so much about Jesus but of Jesus. So tell me more about what you see as the difference between those two ways of speaking.

Keith Haberstock:
For some people, they probably think it's semantics. If I tell you about something, I can give you all the facts. I can give you the details, and I'm not engaged at all. Are you going to get the facts? Yeah, you get the facts. But if it's of, in my opinion, I'm involved, I'm clicked in, you're getting how maybe that has affected me. And I think it's the same for Paul. He has gone with a murderous mission, with letters to back him up, to Damascus. And he's ready to put people in jail and their demise is death. And he is knocked off his horse by the resurrected Christ. Jesus stops him in his tracks and tells him, "You're not serving me. You're persecuting me. This is wrong." And he blinds him, and he totally gets his attention.

Paul's life is in a crucible, and when he tells somebody about this later on in life, he's not saying, "Here's some facts. Here's what happened to me. I was on a horse. I was five kilometers from Damascus, and I got..." No, he's saying of what happened to him. His heart is totally involved. And so, as I use those words of speaking about something, I'm talking about using facts, my head, and of is totally my being because Jesus has taken my heart. And he's taken me out of hell and given me life. And so that's what I associate of using of rather than about.

Michael Zeigler:
I like that. And it sounds like it relates to another phrase you use. You said that Paul is working tirelessly for the gospel "in response to." So he's not trying to pay back Jesus for something he owes him, but rather it's in this grateful, involved response. And this is similar to what we might experience in healthy relationships where we're trying to please our friend or our spouse, not because we want to pay them back or we're keeping score, but simply out of the joy that we find in bringing our friend or our spouse joy. Is that what you mean by Paul's grateful response to Jesus?

Keith Haberstock:
Yeah. Paul had been working his way into supposedly God's "good books" with all of his law. And he thought he was in, and he thought he was doing that. And Jesus takes him. And he turns his life right side up according to God, and he's in. I can only imagine those three years after Damascus happens, and he's in Damascus. And before he goes back to Jerusalem, before he gets on his first missionary journey, of how he sees he has everything. His life is joy.

And we have everything as God's kids. It's not a matter of getting anything. That's the world we live in. Get, right? Though we're sinners and we mess up and there's always crunch involved, we have the joy of forgiveness to take us into saying I forgive you, saying please forgive me, and have the joy of serving in family, and in church, and in community because we have the joy of our forgiveness. Paul's filled up, and from that overflows the blessing of, not the privilege of going and sharing and not out to get anything is where I was going there.

Michael Zeigler:
It makes me think about what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians. He says, "Count it all joy, and then rejoice in the Lord always. I'll say it again, rejoice."

Keith Haberstock:
Like really? They're beating you with rods again, right? Come on. Yes. Because all that we have is already paid up for in full by Christ.

Michael Zeigler:
In Acts 17, we see Paul communicating, sharing, radiating that joy with the people there in the marketplace. And I liked your insight that Paul, when he's doing this, he starts with a compliment. He compliments the people, and then he follows with some connection to them, and their poetry, and their own philosophy. How might we do the same today as we have conversations with people?

Keith Haberstock:
There's always some place to start. Paul starts with a slab of concrete or whatever it might've been, stone, where there's nothing there and says, "Man, you guys are religious." And so we can find anything, really, to compliment someone and let the Lord use that to move it. Lord, help us.

Michael Zeigler:
And very often, when you start with a compliment, what you'll get is a story from them. You'll have a better understanding of where they've come from, how do they get to be so passionate about this, and that'll help you communicate the truth of the gospel to them even more effectively.

You've mentioned these resources in the sermon about the Spiritual Conversation Curve and the Eager Conversationalist curriculum. That's really what it's about is meeting someone where they're at. What have you found helpful in those resources, whether in your own personal witness or in teaching others and equipping your congregation to do this?

Keith Haberstock:
Yeah. Two things as I thought about that. Thank you very much to LHM and Barna. Great stuff from years ago, plus now again. But one thing that really hit me and the group that I took through it in our congregation was nobody is afraid of a spiritual conversation. And we wrongfully think that, "Okay, they're probably not going to like what I have to say, whatever I'm going to say." So I get afraid, and I make them God because of fearing them or something like that rather than no one's afraid of a spiritual conversation because the bar is so low, so go for it.

And the other thing was that in the spiritual conversation curve, you have a tool. I have a tool as I get to know somebody, and I can go, "Okay, here's where I think they are on this tool." And I can go, "Okay, well, here's maybe the next step." And I can think about what I might say as we're going for coffee next time and just pray about that because they're not at the end and they're not at the beginning possibly, but they're right here. And it just gives me some opportunity to have an "in" and... I have a footing. Yes, our footing is in the Lord always, but I have a footing that can go, "Okay, they're not right at the beginning, but I think they're right here. I'm going to go from there." So that was a helpful... The tool is really helpful.

Michael Zeigler:
I agree. I agree. It takes so much pressure off of thinking you have to have a memorized speech ready to go for every person, but instead you can just set the bar a little bit lower and just listen to the person where they're coming from and have a normal conversation with them.

Keith Haberstock:
Yeah. And to hear them and let the Holy Spirit... because it's not us doing the work. Let the Holy Spirit give us the words to talk them further towards Jesus.

Michael Zeigler:
And a listener in the United States could find that at What's the website in Canada?

Keith Haberstock:

Michael Zeigler:
Very good. Thanks again, Pastor Keith, for being with us, and we look forward to hearing from you again soon.

Keith Haberstock:
My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity. God's blessings to you all.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"In the Very Midst of Life" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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