(Note: this sermon is the first in a two-part sermon series looking at Acts 9 and the conversion of Saul to Paul. The sermons are in the first-person. This sermon is written from the perspective of Ananias; the next sermon will be from Paul's point of view).
Acts 9: 10-19a
July 8, 2012
Straight Street, is what they called it. For you today, it’d be along the lines of Regent Street in London or New York’s Fifth Avenue. It’s where everything – and I mean everything – happened in the ancient town of Damascus. It’d been that way forever – scholars believe Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. And Straight Street has always run right through the center of it.
Usually I find myself walking down this street a couple of times a day, making my way around town or purchasing goods. But what found me strolling down Straight Street that afternoon was anything but routine; nothing I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Visions will make you do some pretty crazy things, people.
See, I had heard he might be in town. And when he’s around, let me tell you, you watch your step carefully. Everyone knew who Saul was – born and raised a Jew, inheriting Roman citizenship from his father. An outstanding rabbinical student, the cream of the crop; but Saul was no bookworm. He was a man of great passion – whatever he believed in, he believed in completely. And the thing is, he expected you to feel the exact same way he did. But then he started hanging out with the rough crowd and became more of a fanatic than a true student of the law.
That’s why he hated people like me – this Nazarene sect which embraced Jesus as the messiah. For Saul, there was no greater offense to the Jewish faith. It drove him nuts! In fact, that’s why he came to Damascus in the first place. He’d go from synagogue to synagogue, asking for the names of people like me so he could use his “persuasive tactics” to bring them back to the fold. It wasn’t pretty.
Needless to say, we got ourselves ready. We weren’t going to deny our faith, of course, but we sure were going to make it difficult for him. We made preparations and expected the worst; because that’s what you did when Saul came to town. You hunkered down and kind of waited it out, like a bad storm.
So imagine my surprise, when God came to me in a vision one night. Came to me in my sleep and said: Get up! Get up, Ananias, and go to the street called Straight; and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. Say what… ?! I love the way God put it: “A man of Tarsus named Saul,” like I wouldn’t know who he was without his address. He could’ve said “Look for your worst nightmare” and I would’ve known exactly who he was talking about.
The bigger question, though: why in the world would God want me looking for Saul?? I didn’t have to wait too long for my answer: At this moment, God said, Saul is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight. Seen it. In a vision. Nice, God, nice! It’s not just that you’re asking me to go see this man that I and everyone else are trying to avoid like the plague. But now you’re telling me that Saul’s already seen me come to him in a vision you gave him. Like it’s set in stone; like I don’t have a choice. Thanks, God; thanks a lot.
I resisted the urge to press this issue and instead tried a more diplomatic approach. So in my most humble and unassuming demeanor I said: Lord, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a thing or two about this man. And just in case you haven’t, just in case it’s slipped off your holy radar, Saul has done some pretty rotten things to your servants in Jerusalem. And word on the street is that he’s come here to do the same to us. That’s why we’ve battened down the hatches and gone underground. Are you sure you want me to go looking for him?
I was really hoping God would do a double-take and change course. I should’ve known better! In fact, it got worse: Go, God insisted, for Saul is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and the people of Israel.
Okay, now I was furious! Why would God do such a thing – make Saul an “instrument” of his?? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! In what world is someone like Saul an instrument of anything for God? The only thing Saul had done for years was make life miserable for everyone who claimed Jesus as Lord and Savior. And now, Saul was going to suddenly start speaking on God’s behalf???
I hope you can sympathize with me here. I mean, things were hard enough for us already, without Saul breathing down our necks. We were nothing more than a fledging, loosely connected group of waywards just trying to share our love for Jesus in an increasingly hostile environment. We needed every break we could get! And now this Saul was going to be one of us? Surely you understand how this made absolutely no sense.
And that’s not the half of it. Deep down inside, I was terrified that God would ask anything of me. Because honestly, I’m no one special. I’m like most of you, just trying to make it in life and do the right thing. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur or expect more than my fair share. I’ve got my family, my friends, my job and my church. I’m just an ordinary guy who wants to do my thing and chalk it up at the end of the day, you know? So, if it’s indeed God’s will that Saul come and be with us, as ludicrous as that sounds, surely there are others out there more equipped to go see him. Surely there is someone else who’d do a better job than me.
I was hoping that God would un-call me for this responsibility. But the more I pleaded, the more God insisted. And so there I was the next day – walking down Straight Street like I always did. Except this time I wasn’t going to the marketplace or meeting friends. I came to the house where God had told me to go; I knocked on the door and they let me in.
It was kind of dark in there, but I still could make out faces – brothers and sisters in Christ who were part of this band of followers in Damascus with me. How incredibly surreal that we would find ourselves here now under these circumstances! I continued into the room and then came upon him, the great Saul – cowering in a corner with his arms around his knees. I noticed something was wrong with his eyes – he heard my footsteps and looked wildly around the room, never actually looking at me. Like the blind man he had so recently become.
And it was at that moment that I experienced a transformation of sorts – nothing all that dramatic, mind you, just a different way of looking at all of this. I mean, here was Saul, our most revered enemy, perhaps the one thing that was keeping the gospel from taking hold and spreading far. Here he was – blinded, shaking like a child, a pitiful, pitiful sight. And it would’ve been so easy to put him out of his misery and, in doing so, put us out of ours, you know? And don’t think for a second that I wasn’t tempted to do that.
But that’s when it dawned on me – slow, like a warm blanket – that God’s hand must have been in this; in what I was doing, in what Saul was doing. That God really did have something special in store for this man. Why else would God appear to both of us in a vision and then bring him here to a roomful of Jesus-followers? I mean, can you imagine what this must have been like for Saul – blinded, vulnerable, totally incapacitated, in the presence of “the enemy” and having no way of knowing what we would do with him? I’m telling you – it’s the coolest and most unsettling thing, when you realize that God is up to something!
And so I went to Saul, I laid my hands on him, and said, Saul, I know who you are. I know who you are. But I also know who our God is, and the amazing things God can do. The Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, appeared to me as well; and he has sent me so you may regain your sight and be filled with God’s spirit. It’s not me who will do this; it is Jesus. I have no idea where those words came from, to be honest with you. Somewhere outside of me.
I laid my hands on Saul and suddenly his wandering eyes focused squarely on mine – he could see again. And then he smiled – a smile of a relieved and renewed man, absent of the hate and malice he had grown so famous for. That smile continued to spread across his face as I baptized him and welcomed him as a follower of Jesus; as I welcomed him into our fold.
And the rest, as you people like to say, is history. And let me tell you – it is impossible to overstate the ripple effects of what that man did with the rest of his life. It’s mind-boggling! Three huge missionary journeys. Galatia. Ephesus. Rome. Athens. Corinth. The rest of Saul’s life – or Paul, as we would later call him – the rest of Paul’s life was spent telling everyone about Jesus. Except this time, he wasn’t telling people to avoid Jesus, or what would happen to them if they believed in Jesus. Paul spent every minute of the rest of his life telling people to follow Jesus, to serve Jesus, to give up their lives for Jesus! He was doing everything in his power, every ounce of energy and influence he had, to build up churches and spread the gospel near and far. And I’m dead serious when I say this: had it not been for Paul’s efforts, it’s highly unlikely that Christianity (as you now call it) would’ve become a worldwide religion. It’s almost certain that this “Jesus fad” would’ve remained within the bounds of Palestine and died out with original followers like me. The fact that you’re sitting in this very sanctuary this morning is a testimony to the work and ministry of a man named Paul.
But you know, as amazing as all that is, that’s not what I think about every time I pass by that house on Straight Street. What I’ve never forgotten is the wonderful way that God can use anybody to do whatever God has in store – even if that person appears to be the least qualified, or the least equipped, or the least worthy. I mean, who would’ve ever thought it would’ve been Paul telling the world about Jesus? Or me giving him his sight back?
The last thing God needs from you and me is to waste God’s time trying to tell God who God can and cannot use, you know? Like trying to put God in some kind of box! But we do it all the time, don’t we? We did it back then, and we still do it today. We Christians do a stellar job of drawing lines and determining who is “in” and who is “out.” It’s almost like it’s built into our DNA, even though it goes against everything Jesus said and did. I guess it’s inevitable when the church mistakenly believes that it’s their cross to bear, their burden to deal with. Wouldn’t everything be easier if we finally admitted, once and for all, that it is not our burden, it is God’s. It is not our church, it is God’s church. And God can do whatever God wishes’ God can use whomever God pleases; and we don’t have to give our permission for any of it. Contrary to the way we often act and think and live and exist, it is not about us. It is about God.
And for reasons I’ll never understand, God chose to use me that day; as ordinary a person as you’ll find. And here’s the scary part, folks: if God can use the likes of me, then God can use any one of you to do extraordinary things. I mean, I’m a blip on the Biblical radar; I’m an afterthought. And that’s perfectly okay – because God uses each of us for purposes great and small, but purposes whose ripple effects reach far and wide in the kingdom of God. It doesn’t take much, really – just a desire to follow God’s will, wherever it may lead.
And you know, I often wonder – if each one of us committed to doing that, what wonderful things might God do in our midst? Think about that, will you? Because that, my friends, is a vision that you never lose sight of – don’t you think? In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.