Psalm 24, Acts 9:1-22
July 2, 2017
Today we’re looking at story of great change. And for many – let’s admit it – change is the big “C” word. There are a lot of jokes around that word. I Googled “light bulb jokes” and I can’t tell you how many I found. One collection even had an alphabetical index! Don’t believe me? Go to “lightbulbjokes.com”
You know those jokes.
“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Only one, but the bulb has to want to change!”
“How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Nine. 1 to change the bulb and 8 to form a committee to talk about how great the old bulb was!”
And my personal favorite:
“How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb.”
“None, I’ll just sit here in the dark until my son comes and rescues me!”
Well, the other one that has to be told about us Presbyterians is this.
“How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?”
“None! We don’t like change!”
And let me tell you. We Presbyterians don’t have a “corner on that market!” That one is actually an “insert your own denomination here” joke! Because “change” is uncomfortable, no matter what denomination you’re in! And it’s not confined to people of faith. Change is hard for us as people. We humans like routine. We are comfortable with the “status quo.” For something to be different can be tough on us.
We used to joke that the seven last words of Christ were, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” But those are comfortable words for us, aren’t they? And there are the related words, “We’ve never done it that way!” Those are words of challenge to any change! Aren’t they?Well, today we look to this story about a great change. This is the story of Saul – Saul of Tarsus – who was the greatest enemy of the early Church. And he was in the middle of a vehement campaign to stamp out the followers of Jesus, until this day when he encountered Jesus himself on the road to Damascus.
The first time we hear Saul’s name was at the time of the stoning of Stephen. We aren’t going to look at his story this time around, but I’ll just remind you that Stephen was one of the first Elders in the early days of the Church. And he was the first Christian Martyr. And as he was being martyred, those who took up stones to kill him, “laid their cloaks at the feet of this man named Saul. And Saul was consenting to his death.”
I love what Haley’s Bible Commentary has to say about this! I’d like to read you a portion of this.
It says: “Here is one of the turning points of history. Saul, young as he was, appears already to have been a member of the Sanhedrin (26:10).” (The religious council.) “He may have been present at one or both of the Sanhedrin meetings in which they tried to stop the apostles from preaching Christ (4:1-22; 5:17-40), and he may have witnessed Peter’s bold, defiant refusal.” (We talked about that in recent weeks.)
“But in all his life he had never seen a death like that of Stephen. Though its immediate effect was to start Saul on his rampage of persecuting the disciples, it may well be that Stephen’s dying words lodged deep in Saul’s mind and heart, quietly working there to make him ready and receptive for the great vision on the road to Damascus (26:14).”
Then he says, “It may be, in part at least, that Steven’s martyrdom was the price paid for Saul’s soul. And what a soul! Next to Jesus, he was the greatest man of All the Ages. He was the One Man, who, more than any other, established Christianity in the main centers of the known world, and altered the course of history. That was Saul of Tarsus.”
This is an amazing story of change! It’s more amazing to me every time I think about it! And it’s compelling, isn’t it? I find myself wondering if this story was the inspiration for other stories of change over the years. Was it, for example, the inspiration for Charles Dickens as he created his beloved Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol!” Or was it, perhaps, the inspiration for the story of George Banks, in(?) “Mary Poppins.” That’s who that story was really about, you know. It was about the change in George Banks when he discovered the importance of being a father! (I’m so glad for the recent movie, “Saving Mr. Banks.” If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a “Mary Poppins” fan, I highly recommend it!
Those are compelling stories, aren’t they? Well, this is even more than a story of “change.” There is an amazing plan going on here! God took his greatest opponent, and made him his greatest champion! That’s some great strategy, isn’t it!!
Well, I think for us that Paul’s great story of change reminds us of our own stories of change. I took the title of this message today from a song we sing at the contemporary Service. (Do you know that song? It’s a nice one. I’ll teach it to you some day.) The words are:
“Change my heart, O God, Make it ever new
Change my heart, O God, let me be like you
You are the potter, I am the clay
Mold me and make me, this is what I say
Change my heart, O God…”
Our hearts are changed by our encounter with the risen Christ – just like Saul of Tarsus! Later, he would tell the Corinthians, “We are being changed into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to the next.” Who knew better than him, right? And where our change is not necessarily as dramatic and immediate, it is change, nonetheless.
And it continues. And I know that we could easily justify “staying the way we are.” I’m sure Saul did. I’m sure some part of him said that what he was doing to the believers was the right thing! He fought against the change that was coming into the world through the ministry of Jesus Christ.
And I wonder… What changes do we fight? And for what reasons? I think that’s a question we should ask ourselves. And it’s not an easy question! It takes being honest with ourselves. Are we contenting ourselves with the “status quo?”
Then there’s the more specific question. How might God be trying to change us? If we take to heart the words of Paul, if we are “being changed from one degree of glory to the next,” then it’s ongoing. So, how is that happening? And are we resisting it?
According to Haley, and I agree with this, Saul was likely at the meeting of the Sanhedrin when Gamaliel spoke. We looked at that story last week. And remember that Saul was likely a student of Gamaliel! And the last words we have of Gamaliel were, “If what these men are doing is of God, you will not be able to stop them. You might even find yourself fighting against God.”
Saul was doing just that! And on that day, on the road to Damascus, God won! So then, how might you be fighting against God? We all do that in some way. I think we have to admit that, too. Again, the blinding light is a rare thing. We may never see that. The ways God gets our attention are much more subtle. But I believe they happen to us. We need to be open to them. We need even to be looking for them!
So my challenge this week is for you to do just that. Be in a mindset where you look for God trying to get your attention. What “coincidence” might have happened that is not really a “coincidence?” What repeated conversation might you have had with two different, unrelated people? What thought crossed your mind that you’ve never thought before? What act of kindness might you have experienced? What word from a friend might have inspired you? What new vision might you have had of the hand of God in nature?
As I said, the blinding light will probably not happen. But the still, small voice of God probably will! The only question is, will we be listening.
Change our hearts, O God. Make them ever new.
Change our hearts, O God, let us be like you
You are the potter, we are the clay
Mold us and make us, this is what we say
Change our hearts, O God…