Isaiah 42:5-13, Acts 9:1-9
July 31, 2011
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about “fighting God.” I said how I believe God would rather have an argument with us than be ignored, that he’d rather hear our complaints and have us pour our hearts out to him, than to be treated “delicately” – as though, if we doubted or protested in any way, he might cease to exist, or push us away. I said then how we can “fight God,” because “he can take it.” And I really believe that!
Well, this story for today is the quintessential example of that! Here we have Saul, a Pharisee, an ardent, passionate persecutor of the church. This is the story of his struggle against God. And this is the story of how that struggle ended! And it’s an amazing story – one of the most famous stories in the New Testament!
As we look at this story today, I would remind you that Saul, as a Pharisee, wasn’t necessarily an evil man. Yes, the Pharisees were prone to pride and jealousy. Yes, they had an “inflated view” of themselves, and they were “overly proud” of their status in that society. They “basked” in the respect the people gave them. And yes, Jesus accused them of keeping the letter of the law, but forsaking the spirit of the law. Yes, he accused them of doing what they did in order to be “praised by others.” Even so, I’ve been giving these guys the benefit of the doubt in recent years.
The Pharisees had a tough job. They understood themselves to be the “keepers of the faith.” They had to keep a watch out for false teachers. They had to protect the people’s beliefs. And there were false teachers in those days. We know from history that they had to deal with a number of them. And the Pharisees who were against Jesus came to see him as another false teacher. They saw him as a threat to the time-honored beliefs of their faith and traditions. They felt they needed to silence him, because he was teaching the wrong things. And not only that, he was causing them a great deal of worry about their shaky “peace” with their Roman occupiers.
Now all of that was over. Jesus was gone. But apparently his ministry was anything but over! In fact, it was the opposite. It was growing! Now his followers were creating even more of a “stink” than he did – if that were possible. And we can only imagine what it was like for these men. They saw the new church as a false belief. They felt it their duty to deal with it. And they were “ramping up” the opposition. And no one was more zealous and passionate about that than Saul of Tarsus.
When we pick up his story, he was on the road to Damascus. He was going after the believers there, and he had with him all the proper documents and arrest warrants. Remember, the religious council was also the civil council! (No separation between Church and State there!) Saul wasn’t “the police,” but in this case, he held a similar kind of civil authority. He was on the road to Damascus to arrest the believers. But along the way, something happened! And here we have this wonderful story of this tremendous change in his life. Ever since this event, we’ve used the description of being “knocked off of our donkey” as a metaphor that speaks of God “getting our attention” in a dramatic way, or of some time of great change in our lives. This event may even have been the origin of the phrase “seeing the light” that I’m using today. That’s a phrase that implies someone “finally understanding something.”
Saul “saw the light” that day. But it wasn’t just a matter of “finally understanding.” It wasn’t so much of an “aha!” kind of experience. Saul was struck by a great, intense light that caused great fear, and it caused him to lose his vision. God blinded him with the light, so that eventually he could see the light!
Has that kind of thing ever happened to you? Has God ever “knocked you off your donkey?” Has he ever gotten your attention like that in some dramatic way? Or has he caused you to “see the light” in a way that changed your life? I believe that God sometimes does that in our lives! And notice I say “sometimes.” Because, whenever we think we understand how God “always works,” then I don’t think we understand God very well! He sometimes changes people in dramatic ways, but not always. We can’t “pin him down” to one way of thinking. He is so far beyond our understanding that we can’t begin to understand him.
And that’s the lesson Saul learned that day. Up until that moment, he thought he had God all “figured out.” At least he had it figured out that this Jesus couldn’t have been from God. When he was laying there on the Damascus road, he cried out, “Who are you?” That’s an amazing question, if you think about it. Did he really not recognize that it was God he saw in this powerful vision? (Or was that just something to say? – like an expletive!) It makes sense that he didn’t recognize Jesus there on the road, since he certainly didn’t recognize who Jesus was when he was here “in the flesh!”
Well, I think that’s an important moment to keep in mind. And as we think of him hearing the voice of the one he was persecuting, I think we need to ask ourselves, “Do we really know Jesus?” That’s an important question to ask from time to time. Are we moving right along in our lives of faith with everything “all figured out in our heads,” like Saul was? Or do we need to take another look at our understanding of Jesus, and see if there’s anything we’re missing?
That’s what I try to do here on Sunday morning. I try to bring these stories to life. I try to nudge you, to tweak your understanding, to get you to see more clearly who Jesus really was and is. Because sometimes we’re like Saul, and we think they have it all “figured out.” We go along thinking we’re doing God’s work, when we haven’t really “checked in” with God. That was Saul’s problem. Again, I don’t believe he was an evil guy. It’s very likely he believed he was doing God’s work! It took this kind of vision to get him to see the light!
The other thing we need to remember here is the big picture. We need to remember that these stories are probably related. Saul was very likely in the crowds when Jesus was speaking. He may well have been in that council in Jerusalem and involved in the trial that convicted Jesus and saw him crucified. He may have been on hand to witness the events of Pentecost. He may have been there to see Peter and John heal the man at the temple gate. He may have been there when they were arrested and charged not to speak in Jesus name again. He certainly was there at the stoning of Stephen! It says so right in the text.
So we need to see this as a whole. Saul was probably involved in all the Pharisees’ deliberations. And as a leader in their society, he thought what he was doing what was right, and what he believed he should do. (Harsh though he was about it!) And he may even have believed he was doing what God wanted him to do. I think it’s safe to say he did love the faith. He loved it so much that he would do anything to preserve it. But we the readers know that God had “other plans.” And they were amazing plans!
So, what can we know from this great story? Well, for one thing, we can know that Jesus is real. Saul learned that for sure that day! This wasn’t a vision that could be classified in any way to be “subtle.” This is no still, small voice of God. God’s hand was powerful in this story. Saul was blinded by this light! And it changed him – and the world – forever! In this story, we can know that Jesus is God, and that he is far beyond what we might think or understand. And, as I said before, we can fight God! Because God can take it! (Though he just might knock us off our donkeys!)
We can also know that God’s plans are above our plans, too! We may find we are “gung ho” for something, something we have a pretty good idea about – in “our way of thinking,” that is. But we have to open to the fact that. just maybe, God has a different plan for us. Otherwise, we could possibly find ourselves being so certain about our way of thinking that we miss it when God is doing a new thing in us.
Now, is it easy to see that? Is it easy to know God’s plans? Is it easy to change our plans?” Of course not! But God gives us the power. There’s always Ananias’ part of the story. He had great faith to do what God told him to do concerning this man, Saul. Because he was aware of who Saul was, and what he was doing. He voiced his protests to God! “Are you kidding, God?! Do you know what this man’s been doing to us?” But still he went. Still he accepted Saul. God doesn’t just change our plans. He also follows up with us. He gives us the means to follow his plans, if we’ll listen to what he tells us.
The last thing I’ll say about this story is that it shows us that God is amazing! In the end, this is an incredible story! Isn’t it? God definitely has, as I like to say, “a flair for the dramatic!” Here was Saul, the Church’s number one enemy. And what was God’s plan in dealing with this enemy? It was amazing! His plan was to turn that enemy into an ally! And not only an ally, but his greatest champion! That’s unbelievable!!
That’s the kind of God we worship. And as we read these stories, I hope you’re like me, and you want to be more a part of his kingdom, and to see his plan in your life. It’s not always easy. It might be hard at times. But he is the Almighty God, and his hand in our world and in our lives, is powerful. We can trust him to lead us in amazing ways!
Saul was changed that day. He became Paul. He would come to write most of the books in the New Testament. He was one who learned to know well the plans of God for his life. May the same be said of us.
Almighty and eternal God, your love for us is everlasting, and your grace is amazing! Help us to remember that. Help us to see the plans you have for us, plans that are good, plans that give us hope. Help us to wait on you, to hear your voice, and to follow your lead. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.