Genesis 17:1-8, 15-21, Acts 9:1-22
June 9, 2013
One of my favorite stories ever is “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. Maybe it’s one of yours, too! It’s been a very popular story ever since Dickens wrote it, way back in 1843. Thats 170 years ago! Pretty amazing, huh? Since then, “A Christmas Carol” has been described as “one of the most influential works ever written.” It’s been redone by many people in many different forms, including the Muppets, and of course one of my favorites, the Flintstones!!
What everybody loves about “A Christmas Carol,” besides the masterful writing, is that it is an amazing story of transformation! We love the way Ebenezer Scrooge is changed by the spirits, from “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” into a kindhearted, loving man! We love that! Oh, and by the way, the best Scrooge ever was of course, Alastair Sim, in the 1951 film version!
Well, I was thinking this week that the only one who could ever rival that Scrooge is the one were looking at today – “Ebenezer Saul” of Tarsus. Because his too is a story of an amazing transformation! And I would not be surprised if Dickens had this story from Acts in mind as he wrote his story!
The conversion of Saul is one of the most amazing stories in the Bible! Here, God took his greatest enemy, and not only made him an ally, but also made him his greatest champion! Saul, now called Paul, would soon travel the known world preaching the Gospel and founding churches. And he would come to be the author of most of the book in the New Testament. I think thats pretty amazing!!
Think for a moment about the Old Testament. Sometimes we think thats a bit violent, don’t we? You know what I mean. There were wars and battles, and sometimes whole armies of people were being wiped out. People were slain with the sword, and in one case with “the jawbone of an ass.” There was an awful lot of “smiting” going on. And sometimes that stuff is hard to read. But, as one little girl once described it, things changed in the New Testament. “Because, in the New Testament,” she said, “God became a Christian!”
Well, in this case there was some violence going on in the New Testament. Here, the church was being persecuted, and this one man was wreaking havoc on the believers in a big way! And we think that, if ever there was a good case for God “smiting” someone, it would be this guy! But no! God had other plans!
Here was Saul the persecutor on his way to Damascus. And I love this, “still breathing threats and murder.” when suddenly he was struck down. He was “knocked off his donkey,” as its been described. I suppose in a way that was God smiting him! Then he heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he answers with a question of his own. “Who are you, Lord?” I’ve always been intrigued that he added “Lord” at the end of that question. Apparently, he knew this was the light and the voice of God. But then again, if he knew it was God, why did he ask “who are you?” There’s a bit of a contradiction there, isn’t there? It’s hard to know how to read this.
Well, I also wonder if he knew that he was hearing the voice of Jesus. As I last week, we can’t assume that Saul arrived on the scene at this point. It would be safer to assume that he had been involved in this whole business with Jesus and the Council and all the events of the previous months. It’s just that we haven’t heard his name until now. So I wonder if he had heard Jesus speak before, and now he recognized his voice. That makes me think of the time Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they know me.”
Well, the voice answers, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.” And notice that Saul obeys! That wasn’t always the case with other people God called. Moses protested. Jeremiah said he was too young. Jonah simply ran away. But Saul, this great enemy of the church, didn’t protest at all! He obeyed!
Of course we have to remember that Saul was a Pharisee. He was on the religious council. So he wasn’t an enemy of God. I’m sure he would have considered himself a godly man! He was just an enemy of Jesus. He thought this new movement was wrong. And I think it’d be safe to say that he believed that what he was doing, he was doing for God! (Which brings up the difficult subject of people who do bad things thinking they are doing them in the name of God?)
So I think it was interesting that God identified himself here as Jesus. He could have said, “I’m God, and you’re persecuting my son.” But he didn’t. And as a result, Saul believed to the end of his days that he had spoken with Jesus himself. And because of that, he also came to consider himself to be an Apostle. That’s a title he often had to defend to those who didn’t think he had the criteria to be an Apostle! Because remember that the basic requirement was that Apostles were those chosen by Jesus! If you remember, when Judas was gone, the others tried to replace him. And they chose the man named Matthias. But he was never mentioned again. That’s because God intended this man, Saul of Tarsus, to be the 12th Apostle. So that’s the other amazing part of this story. God was not only changing Saul from being his greatest enemy to being his greatest champion, but he was also choosing him as the 12th Apostle!
So Saul obeys. He goes to Damascus, and he waits. Meanwhile, God calls Ananias and tells him to go to Saul. And there’s where we find the protest! Ananias is the one who is reluctant to obey! From his response we know that the people were all well aware of who this Saul was, and what he was doing. Ananias said, essentially, “Are you kidding, Lord? Are you out of your eternal mind?” (That part was left out by the writer.) Ananias protest is certainly merited, isn’t it? “We’ve all heard about this man! he said. What do you mean he’s now on our side? That’s preposterous!”
So, do we ever protest? Do we ever question God’s motivation or his thinking? Do we ever think “Are you kidding, Lord?” Actually in a way, I think we avoid doing that. Somewhere along the line we’ve come to believe that it’s not a very good thing to argue with God. But as you’ve heard me say before, I think God would rather have an argument with us than to be ignored. And I would add to that he would rather have an argument with us, than to be avoided. And that’s probably what we do more than anything. We don’t actually question God directly, but we avoid any kind of response to him which makes us uncomfortable.
Well, Ananias goes and finds Saul. And I love that he addresses him as “Brother Saul.” Those may be the most powerful words in this story! They show a change of heart – a transformation in Ananias, despite his initial reluctance to believe God. That makes me think that sometimes trusting God is a process. At first, we might find ourselves disagreeing with him, even protesting. But in the end, if we’ve obeyed, isn’t that the point? Yes, we might regret our first reaction, as I’m sure did Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jonah. But when do we obey, that’s what matters!
So, transformation is a process. And I’m sure glad it is. If God judged me on my first reaction to his call, I wouldn’t fare very well. What about you? When I look back, I realize I’ve come a long way – and I have a long way to go. It is a process! That same Saul of Tarsus would later write, “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (II Corinthians 3:18)
Paul knew that transforming power of God! None better! And he often looked back at where he had come from. There are a number of places in his writings where he tells his readers that he was the “chief of sinners,” telling them how he had begun by persecuting the church. And he tells them how he still struggles with the transformation process. He told the Romans about the inner battle he still had with his old nature, saying, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul was very up-front about that struggle. Which is good. Because we all have that struggle, don’t we?
So, are we ever discouraged by that? Do we ever wonder why God bothers with us? Certainly! But remember, the process takes time! And sometimes it takes some tough lessons. But ultimately we are better than we were years or even moments ago, as we are being changed into the image and likeness of Christ. And notice, it’s not “We are changed.” That word “being” is very important here.
So its important that we stay on that road – no matter how discouraged we might become. Sometimes it’s hard. And sometimes we avoid the transformation! And we do that very well. One way we avoid it is by arguing with ourselves from the extreme. We say, “Hey, I’m not that bad a person. I’m certainly no Hitler! And I’m certainly no Scrooge!!” “I haven’t done terrible things! So I don’t need to change all that much. I certainly don’t need to be transformed.” Well, the fact is, that not doing extreme wrongs doesn’t excuse us from doing the minimal wrongs! Not being the “evil tyrant” does not mean we don’t need to be transformed into the image of Christ. We do! And we are!
So I want you to keep this story in mind today, and to know that we are being transformed – all of us! Think of Saul knocked to the ground by the power of God. We may not ever feel God’s power in that way. We might not ever know that kind of a dramatic transformation. But we are being transformed. So it’s a matter of seeing that in ourselves and knowing the process is happening. We are being transformed into the image of Christ. So think of that transformation and strive to see that Christ-like image within you.
Eternal God, we thank you that you have given us your son, so that we can have his example of the kind of people you want us to be. And we thank you that you have given us your Spirit so that we can have the power to be transformed into the image of Christ. Help us to have that goal ever before us. Help us to be your joyful people in all we do. For this we pray in Jesus name, Amen.