When Saul set out from Jerusalem to Damascus, he had no idea his life would be turned upside down, shaken, and redirected.
Saul was a Pharisee who was zealous in his protection of Torah, the law of God that was being rejected by the Jews who followed Jesus. He had stood as witness to the stoning of one of those followers, Stephen. Afterwards he was a leader in the persecution of this sect, going from house to house and dragging men and women who were followers of Jesus to prison.
He had great success against the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and after receiving reports that there was an outbreak of this heresy in Damascus, he met with the high priest and received papers giving him the authority to take any followers of Jesus in Damascus and bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
News of his coming to Damascus arrived before he did. Perhaps there were followers of Jesus among the Pharisees who leaked word of this mission. This news was received with apprehension. The name of Saul was a feared name among the followers of Jesus and they had about a week to prepare themselves and think about what destruction he would bring to their community.
Saul set out with his companions (perhaps Temple guards) on the 217 kilometer trip to Damascus. This was a six day journey so there was plenty of time to think. Knowing what we do about Saul, who later took the Greek name of Paul, he used the time to rehearse the theological arguments he would use with these heretical Jews who were being misled.
Saul was not pursuing these followers of Jesus because he enjoyed having power over others. Saul was not driven by power. He was driven by principle. He was a Pharisee and determined to protect his faith from those who would destroy it. These followers of Jesus were clearly a threat to Judaism and needed to be exterminated. There was a purity and an idealism in Saul’s zeal.
Saul had a goal to achieve and he set off on his trip determined to be successful. For four or five days all was well. But then as he neared Damascus, in the heat of the noonday sun, he was knocked off his feet.
suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Frederic Buechner describes Saul’s encounter this way:
It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again, “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the axe to fall. Only it wasn’t an axe that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them, join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterwards, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world.
There are a number of miracle births in the Bible. Sarah, in her old age, when she was past her childbearing years and when Abraham was “as good as dead”, gave birth to Isaac. Hannah suffered for years as her husband’s second wife gave birth again and again and again while she remained barren, without a child of her own. On a visit to the tabernacle in Shiloh she cried out in prayer and the prophet Eli told her that within the year she would give birth and so Samuel was born. Elizabeth, in her old age, gave birth to John – later known as John the Baptist. And most miraculous of all, Mary gave birth to Jesus, God in the flesh.
But other than the birth of Jesus, which must stand out for eternity as the most miraculous of births, the second most miraculous of births are the rebirth of Saul and all other followers of Jesus.
I have thought for a long time that the greatest miracles in the history of the church are not people being raised from the dead, the lame walking, the blind seeing, lepers being cleansed. The greatest miracles are when someone steps down from the throne where they rule their life and surrender to Jesus and begin living for him. They have the tangible treasures of the world in front of them and dreams and ambitions to acquire as much of them as they can. And then they surrender to God who they cannot see, cannot taste, cannot touch, cannot smell, cannot hear. It is amazing! It is a miracle!
And when that person faces immediate persecution for being a follower of Jesus, when trials and tribulations come, and he or she continues to follow Jesus, I am in awe.
When I am baptizing someone in the ocean I wonder if that person will hold on to Jesus when life gets in the way. I ask myself, “Will this last?” and my hope and prayer is that it will last. But too many times people drift away from faith in Jesus.
When Jesus taught the parable of the soils where the sower casts seed on shallow soil, rocky ground, among thorns, and on good soil, he did not teach in the abstract. Jesus had the experience of people coming to him, excited about being his follower, but then for one reason or another they turned away. I think there was sadness for Jesus in telling this parable. The rich young ruler turned away from following Jesus because he could not let go of his wealth and Jesus grieved for him. On another occasion many of his followers left because of the difficulty of his teaching.
But when the teaching of Jesus landed on good soil, it brought great joy.
When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus he was once again casting seed. What soil would it land on? Saul’s response was not a given. Saul had freedom to choose or reject Jesus.
Pharisees had seen Jesus heal a man with a withered arm. An arm grew right in front of their eyes. New tendons, new nerves, new muscles developed as they stood there and watched. And what was their response to this incredible, life-giving miracle? When Peter saw the nets of his fishing boat filled with fish, he fell to his knees in surrender to Jesus. The Pharisees watched a life-giving miracle and plotted how to kill him.
So how would Saul respond to his noonday vision of the resurrected Jesus? Jesus knew that Saul had a great heart to go along with his great mind. Jesus knew that Saul was zealous for the truth. Would Saul dig in his heels and resist this new revelation and hold on to what he understood to be true? Or would he embrace this new, glorious truth?
Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” I imagine there was silence as Saul’s mind raced. He suspected he knew who asked him this question and was afraid of what this meant for him. He thought he knew the answer to the response he gave to this question but he asked it anyway. “Who are you, Lord?” When Jesus said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he sunk further into the dust of the road.
This was the end and Saul knew he deserved what was coming. But what came he did not deserve. He expected death and was given life. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
When Saul embraced Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life, there was great joy in heaven at this miraculous rebirth.
Jesus taught that there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. (Luke 15:7) There was joy in heaven when you surrendered to Jesus. There is joy in heaven when you reaffirm your commitment to follow Jesus. There is joy in heaven when you hold on to Jesus in the midst of trials and tribulations. These are miracles that are celebrated in heaven and should be celebrated on earth.
I just celebrated my seventieth birthday. On my 64th birthday I listened to Paul McCartney’s When I’m Sixty-four.
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door,
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four.
This last week I listened to Paul Simon’s song, Old Friends, with the lyric:
Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy
Paul Simon was twenty-six when he wrote this song and I was seventeen when I first listened to it. Now I am seventy and Paul Simon is a year from being eighty. It is strange to be seventy.
This coming March 14 will be another special celebration birthday for me. It will be fifty years since I surrendered to Jesus and was reborn. That will be a day to be celebrated. Is that the exact day of my rebirth? I don’t know. I had experiences with God before then, but I picked that date because that was when I made a commitment to follow Jesus.
Annie and I had a tradition with our daughters. Each year on their birthday we would tell the story of their birth. We would talk about what we were feeling, what happened that day, how we got to the hospital, how the birth process went, what we did after the birth, what it was like to bring them home. Our daughters never got tired of hearing their story told.
Paul never got tired of telling the story of his rebirth. His story is recorded three times in the book of Acts. The first is today’s text when Luke tells the story of how Saul became a follower of Jesus. The second telling of his story is in Acts 22 when Paul was on trial before the Jews in Jerusalem. And the third telling is in Acts 26 when Paul was in prison and spoke to King Agrippa.
There certainly were many other times when Paul told his story. As he traveled from city to city and introduced himself, he told his story. His story told people who he was. If he met someone who asked him, “Tell me a bit about yourself,” Paul told his story. His story was his identity.
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he wrote of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 15:3–10)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul viewed his birth as abnormal. It was a miracle that after he persecuted the church, he would be offered a place in the church. He continued:
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.
I never get tired of telling people my story. I can go for a long time without telling my story, but ever time I tell it, it is a delightful story, an amazing story. I love hearing it myself.
What is your story? When did you last tell someone your story?
There are four characters in Paul’s story. There is Jesus the seed sower, Saul the truth seeker, Ananias the risk taker, and the Holy Spirit the joy bringer. Let me focus on Saul, Ananias, and the Holy Spirit.
Saul was a truth seeker. Hear his testimony as he defended himself after being attacked by Jews in the Temple in Jerusalem, 19 years after his encounter with Jesus. (Acts 22:3-10)
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
8 “ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
10 “ ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’
When he was confronted with the truth that Jesus had risen and was who he had claimed to be, Saul did not hold on to what he had understood in the past. Saul did not continue to persecute followers of Jesus. Saul submitted and redirected himself toward the truth he had discovered. What shall I do, Lord? Saul was a truth seeker and when he discovered he had been zealous for what was not true, he turned 180? and became zealous in following Jesus.
Paul wrote to the Galatians, (Galatians 1:13-14)
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
When Saul went from house to house, dragging off men and women who were followers of Jesus to prison, he did so because he was absolutely convinced in the truth of what he believed. His name struck terror in the hearts of the followers of Jesus. When Saul came back to Jerusalem from Damascus, he tried to join the disciples, but Luke writes in Acts 9:26,
they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.
Among those who are antagonistic toward the gospel of Jesus are truth seekers. And, in fact, it is more likely to find a truth seeker among those opposed to the gospel than among those who are quietly indifferent or uninterested.
My oldest sister became a Christian in her freshman year of college in 1964. She came home at Christmas telling us all about what she had discovered. She had all the enthusiasm of a new believer and expected we would all turn and follow what she had discovered to be true.
Instead we rejected and ridiculed her. I was the worst. There were nights she went to bed crying because of the things I said.
She had five siblings and two parents and thought I was the least likely in her family to turn and make a commitment to follow Jesus. But I was the first.
Underneath my ridicule I was thinking and what she said influenced me more than I allowed her to know. Truth seekers can often seem to be antagonistic to Jesus because they are still seeking and not yet convinced that Jesus is the truth.
There are those who are simply angry and do not want to dialog about what is true and any discussion will be fruitless. But I am attracted to those who are antagonistic to the gospel of Jesus but are willing to talk about it. I am also attracted to those who love and respect followers of Jesus but who struggle with what it means to have a personal experience with Jesus. Salvation is a mystery and some people get caught up in that mystery and don’t know which way to turn.
I often tell people that religion is meant to be a pursuit of truth, not a competition for truth. My goal is not to have Christianity win when I die. My goal is to be with God when I die. I am not here to defend Christian faith. I am here to live my Christian faith as best as I can so my life becomes a witness to the truth.
So if someone comes along and disagrees with me that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, then I want to talk with them and explore together how it is we can come to God. I want to encourage truth seekers. That is what led me to Jesus who is the truth.
Who do you know who is antagonistic to the good news of Jesus? Don’t be discouraged. Pray that they will see through you, through others and through the revelation of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is Lord. Be patient in discussing the pursuit of truth. Don’t be defensive about what you have discovered to be the truth. Encourage truth seekers.
Paul urged the Colossians (4:5-6)
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Peter wrote in I Peter 3:15-16
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
If they are truth seekers, they will turn and begin to use their energy and creativity and intelligence in service to Jesus, the truth they discovered.
Saul was a truth seeker. Ananias was a risk taker.
Ananias was one of the leaders of the followers of Jesus in Damascus. How do I know this? Look at the gifts Ananias had and how confidently he used them. This is the mark of a leader. It had been three to six years since the resurrection of Jesus. How long the community had been in Damascus we don’t know but it had been there long enough that it had grown to the point that Saul heard about it and wanted to put an end to it.
Ananias had heard about Saul, what Saul had been doing in Jerusalem, and that Saul was coming now to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus.
You can imagine that when the believers in Damascus heard about Saul’s impending visit, they began to fast and pray. Some probably prayed that Saul would somehow be detoured and turn around and go back to Jerusalem. Maybe somebody prayed he would be attacked by robbers or wild animals. Did anyone pray he would meet Jesus on the road and have a change of heart?
What did Ananias think when God told him to go to Saul on the street called Straight?
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Was he excited that the Lord spoke to him and eager to jump up and do what he had been asked?
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
Are you sure Lord? Are we talking about the same Saul? Isn’t there someone else I can go visit?
Who wants to walk into a lion’s den? When you know someone has come to arrest you and take you to prison where you might be killed, would you go to that person? It’s an irrational and foolish risk. Saul had arrived in Damascus. It was time to run and hide, not time to go and seek.
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Ananias went to the house of Judas where Saul was staying and did what the Lord had asked him to do. How did Ananias feel as he walked to Judas’ house to meet with Saul? Was his heart pounding as he approached the door to knock? Did he walk past the door a couple times before he had the courage to stop and knock?
It may be that he was anxious, but when he came to Saul, he did not hesitate.
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Ananias was a risk taker. This does not mean he did not have some anxiety as he obeyed, but he was confident the Lord had spoken to him and so he went with boldness to Saul. When we are confident God has directed us to do what we are doing, the risk is not really that great.
Saul was a truth seeker, Ananias a risk taker and the Holy Spirit is a joy bringer.
Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
I want to read Walter Wangerin’s account of this in his book, Paul: A Novel. This account is written from the perspective of Judas who owned the house where Saul was led when he came blind into Damascus.
Ananias entered my house and passed me by and went to him and placed his hands on Saul’s shoulders.
“Brother Saul,” he said, “the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
I watched the two men touching each other, and I saw the crust on Saul’s eyes crumble and flutter down his white cheeks like fish scales, and then he was blinking, and then he was seeing.
My eyes wide open, I watched Saul bow his head, shining, shining with a strange white fire! Ananias began to unwind the bandage I had given him.
Ananias was saying: “You, Saul, are a chosen instrument of the Lord’s, to carry his name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. And the Lord will show you how much you must suffer for the sake of his name.”
Sight and light and a giggling joy in Saul! And he was beaming on Ananias. …
The two men walked back into my house, Saul on his own feet leading the way.
They went into the atrium where my little fountain trickled into a shallow pool. I did not follow. I didn’t move, still standing by the open door. But I heard water splashing, and I heard the voice of Ananias say: “I baptize you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – and then that high voice of Saul, hooting: “Jesus Christ is my Lord!” – and then laughter.
With all his heart, soul and mind, Saul had served and protected the Torah, the law God gave to Moses. This was his pure and sincere devotion to God. When he discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead and was who he claimed to be, it shook him to the core of his being.
His mind raced with the new information that Jesus was Lord and he stumbled into Damascus considering the implications of this. Saul did not speak. His mind went back, over and over again, to who he had seen in the noonday sun. If Jesus had been resurrected, then what were the implications? What about all that he had understood? His mind raced and he had no time to eat or drink.
Then he had a vision that a man named Ananias would come to him to restore his sight. While he was thinking this over there was a knock on the door and there he was! Saul had been knocked off his feet and this was an aftershock, keeping him spinning.
As Ananias prayed for him, his eyes began to see and as he received the Holy Spirit he began to understand and make sense of all the questions he had been asking himself since that moment on the road outside Damascus.
The joy of seeing with eyes and heart and the beginning of understanding filled him with joy that bubbled up from within.
Maybe that day but certainly in the next day or two he began preaching in the synagogues that Jesus Christ was Lord. We will come to that next Sunday.
I remember the joy and delight that was my experience when I first began living my Christian life in 1971. I can remember sitting in Park Street Church, I can remember where I was sitting, on the right hand side of the balcony. I remember my astonishment at how much I enjoyed singing hymns that had bored me to tears when I was growing up. I remember the enthusiasm I had to read the Bible and learn from it. I bubbled over with joy.
The Holy Spirit brings us joy when he comes into our lives and as we seek a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit more joy awaits us.
What do I want you to take away from this sermon?
First, I want you to remind yourself of your story. It would be great if you could tell someone your story in the next week.
Your story may not be as dramatic as Paul’s story, but heaven rejoices in your following of Jesus. Your story is a beautiful story and well worth telling.
Second, who are the people who helped you become a follower of Jesus?
When I think of my story there is a Sunday School teacher who talked about Jesus in a way I had never heard before. He was not at the church for long but I remember him and not any of the other Sunday School teachers.
I visited East Berlin in 1970 when I was an exchange student in Germany. The group I was with linked us up with people who went to church. I went with two others in my group and we had lunch in the apartment of a young couple. Because of their faith in Jesus they were denied many benefits of the East German state. They did not receive free university education. They were not given larger apartments to live in. They had to wait longer to get on the list to buy a car. There were so many negative consequences for their decision to go to church that it made me wonder why they did go to church. Church at that time meant almost nothing to me and I wondered what made this nice, young couple sacrifice so much for what I valued so little.
When I was back in the US and in university, there was a girl who had a boyfriend at the end of the hall in the dorm where I lived. She would stop and talk with me when she came to see her boyfriend. She talked to me about giving my life to Jesus and encouraged me to pray each night asking God to reveal himself to me. I did that and discovered that God existed but still went through a period of two or three months of searching and exploring, unwilling to submit to the God I now knew existed.
There were my sister Mitzie and her husband Bruce who I went to visit in March of 1971. I spent the week of my spring vacation with them, asked a lot of dumb questions which they patiently answered, went to church with them, and on the plane coming back to Boston I prayed for the first time to God who I knew existed and I wanted to follow.
There was Julian Teitel who grew up in a Jewish family but discovered that Jesus was the Messiah. Julian had a fascination with the early Puritans and modeled himself after Charles Spurgeon, complete with Puritan coat and hat. He had a bushy beard and looked a bit like Spurgeon. Julian took me under his wing and he and I would meet to read through the Scriptures and sing hymns in the style of the Puritans.
These are some of the people who encouraged me to consider being a follower of Jesus and continued to encourage me after I began following Jesus. I hope in heaven I will meet the man who taught the Sunday School class. I would love to talk with the young German couple who hosted us for lunch. I have lost touch with the girl who talked to me when she came down the hallway to see her boyfriend.
My sister and brother-in-law visited me here in Rabat some years ago and I had tears in my eyes when I introduced them in church as the ones who led me to faith. I tracked down Julian on the internet and reached out to him, but I think he has had a difficult life and does not want to be in contact with me.
The Bible does not tell us about the ongoing relationship between Ananias and Saul, but I would guess that Saul often thought of Ananias who had brought him to new birth. I look forward to talking with Ananias in heaven. Can you imagine the reunion between Paul and Stephen in heaven?
Who are the people who encouraged you to be reborn? When is the last time you wrote to them or spoke to them and thanked them for their help to you? It would be great to do that this week.
Who are the people for whom you have been privileged to encourage in their faith? Are you still in contact with them? If not, there will be a joyous reunion for you when you meet in heaven.
For most of us 2020 has not been a good year. We hope for better in 2021. But years come and years go. We go through good times and bad times. That was certainly true for Paul, but his story has outlasted the good times and bad times.
Our story is important because our story tells us who we are and where we are going. Our story shines in darkness and shines in light. Our story is brighter than discouragement, fear, and gloom.
Remember your story. Tell your story. Be encouraged by your story as you remember who you are and where you are going.
Enter 2021 with hope and expectation because the Holy Spirit is at work in you and the best parts of your story may not yet be written.