Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1405
July 28, 2019 Acts 9.1-19a
Dr. Ed Pettus
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“All Things Possible”
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12and 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.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19and taking food, he was strengthened.
Saul the Bounty Hunter
When the Pharisee Saul was still named Saul, he was a terror for Christians. The phrase in the ESV is, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. Some translations use the term slaughter which gives the impression that if Saul could have, he would have killed every believer in Jesus. Imagine a government agency whose sole task was to round up Christians and bring them to court simply because they believe in Jesus. A Department of Homeland Security Against Jesus Christ. In some countries today that is a real possibility. Saul was the guy in charge of arresting Christians, and at this point primarily Christian Jews which was the majority of believers at the time. So Saul is not only persecuting believers, he is persecuting his own people as well. His job was to get them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. He had developed a reputation. Christians knew that if Saul was in town you’d better watch for him. I wonder if he had any hint of guilt in his heart and mind. This sounds a lot like parts of the Muslim world today, if you stray from Islam, they will hunt you down and put you to death if you do not renounce Jesus.
On this occasion, Saul had secured the necessary documents for capturing believers. I guess in modern terms he had a warrant. But I do not imagine he had to have probable cause or even had to show a warrant. He could do as he pleased. This particular trip was probably like others he had made, but this time things would turn out much different.
Jesus the Saul Hunter
He was almost to Damascus when a light from heaven shone around him. I would guess that they traveled in the day. It was never very safe at night. What kind of light would manifest itself so bright as to knock you down! First a light, then a voice…”Saul, Saul”. Remember other times Jesus called someone’s name twice? Martha, Martha…(Lk 10.41). Simon, Simon...(Lk 22.31). When Jesus lamented over Jerusalem he called out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem...(Lk 13.34). Remember when your mom was so angry with you that she used more names than usual? You would get called out by every name you had. “Edwin Hoyt Pettus! Get your tail in this house!” My mom never raised her voice like that, it was usually my dad. I think that is the kind of attention Saul understood when Jesus said his name twice, “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” First a light has knocked you down. Stunned. Then a voice out of nowhere calls his name twice. He had to be wondering what in the world was happening. It is fascinating the way Saul phrases his question, “Who are you, Lord?” He knew at the very least that only God could appear this way, by light and voice.
I love to play with the words on a passage, words like light and voice. I wonder if the later named Paul would think about that encounter, light then voice. It reflects a reversal of creation, voice then light when God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. I don’t think there is much to be made of that, but it is interesting to note. Certainly the light called attention to the voice.
Only God could appear to Saul in this manner, so he knew to address the God he knew, the Lord he knew, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting?” Oh God, how the spirit of Saul must have sunk to the pit. He had been persecuting those who professed Jesus and at the same time persecuting the Lord Himself. I cannot imagine how deep Saul’s pain (in spirit and emotion and even his physical body) must have been at the moment he realized that he had been persecuting the very One whom he professed as God, that is, he did not realize that Jesus was God, that everything Jesus had said about Himself was true. Everything the Christians were saying about Jesus was true. Saul had been persecuting the very One he thought he was defending.
I think Saul must have felt horrified that he had been persecuting not only those who followed the Lord, but Jesus says he had been persecuting Jesus himself. How could Saul possibly overcome the grief and pain and devastation? You want the greatest conversion story ever told! This is it. Imagine Paul going around to churches and giving His testimony along with other believers. First guy gets up and says, I was addicted to wine and strong drink, but the Lord delivered me. Second guy, I was abusive to my family and when Jesus saved me, I repented of my abuse and now I am doing everything I can to make amends to my family. Paul stands up, I was killing people like you who believe in Jesus but Jesus has changed all that. Paul does give his testimony two times in Acts, chapters 22 & 26. In chapter 22 Paul says, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women” (22.4).
Jesus tells Saul to get up and go to town and wait there for instructions. Saul got up but he could not see. Blinded by the light? Blinded by the hand of God? If the sign of light was not enough, if the voice of Jesus was not enough, now he has one more sign, blinded. For three days he could not see. Three days! Does that ring a bell? Three days in the belly of a whale? Three days in a tomb? Three days blinded. He also fasted for three days. Fasting is commonly accompanied with prayer. This would make sense for Saul, a devout Jew. I know that if Jesus appeared like this to me I’d be praying hard as well.
Ananias the Brave
Meanwhile, the narrative shifts to another character, a disciple named Ananias. Ananias has a vision and God tells him to go to Saul. This is a really cool vision because it is basically a conversation between the Lord and Ananias. Ananias is a believer, but this is difficult to believe, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” Saul is one bad dude. Saul was so deeply entrenched in arresting Christians that he must be too far gone to now be saved.
Ananias has to be one of the bravest people of the Bible. Imagine approaching the very person who came to arrest you. I have a friend from college, a football teammate named Darrell. Darrell played on the other side of the ball, defensive tackle. He was six foot, four inches tall, three hundred pounds. Just his stature was enough to frighten someone. But there was more – he had a reputation as a drinker and brawler. He once tossed an empty beer keg through some plate glass doors, heavy glass, strong doors. He had knife wounds from fights. After the December break from school there was a rumor that Darrell had received Christ into his life during the break. At the next basketball home game Darrell was sitting in one section, virtually alone, and someone said we should go speak to him. “I’m not going,” someone said. “Well, I’m not either,” said another. Another teammate and I summoned the courage and asked Darrell how his Christmas had been. He had indeed accepted Jesus into his life and we could tell right away that he was a changed man. Long story short, Darrell is now a Bishop in the denomination he serves.
It was intimidating to approach Darrell at that game, but I cannot imagine how much courage and obedience it took for Ananias to approach Saul. But that is what the Lord told him to do. Saul had been chosen by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles, to kings, and to the people of Israel. In one moment the most feared man for the Christian world becomes the greatest advocate for the gospel. It is one of the most incredible conversions we know. Later, of course, Saul’s name would be changed to Paul and the apostle Paul is used to reveal to us more of Jesus Christ in his letters to the churches. It is not another miraculous type story on the name change, just a casual reference, Saul, also known as Paul...Acts 13.9. Should there not have been some grand story of the Lord coming again to Saul and proclaiming something like, “Saul, Saul, now your name shall be known as Paul and you will be my voice to the Gentiles and to all people.” Nope, the conversion story is enough. Get on with it, Paul!
Paul the Chosen Instrument
It was not long after this encounter in Acts 9 that Saul was proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Son of God. For a time the Christians were not trusting of Saul and the Jews wanted to kill him! Conversion changes everyone’s perspective. Saul’s view of Jesus is transformed. The Christians are astounded and the Jews are angry. Conversion turns everything upside down and inside out! Paul would go on to be one of the most, if not the most influential characters of the Christian faith. He wrote, by the inspiration of the Spirit most of the letters that come in the New Testament. He taught much of what we know that ties together the powerful messages of the role of the Messiah between the two Testaments. He gave us a deeper understanding of matters like grace, love, salvation, discipline, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and a multitude of other teachings. He suffered greatly in the faith and died a martyr’s death.
If nothing else, Paul’s life of faith demonstrates how powerful it is for one who has sinned so boldly to completely reverse, transformed into one of bold obedience to the Lord. One of the intriguing aspects of Paul’s conversion is in his question to Jesus. We have to go to Paul’s testimony in Acts 22.10, “And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’” What shall I do? It is a question seeking obedience. The conversion is complete, inverted from persecuting the obedient to becoming the obedient. This is one of the marks of loyalty to the Lord, for Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14.23). The question of what Paul shall do is the first sign in his life that he wants to keep Jesus’ word. And for Saul the Jew, his greatest desire was to keep the law. And for Paul the apostle of Jesus, his greatest desire is to keep the law and commandments and the words of Christ Himself.
All Things Possible
I reunited with a seminary classmate at a Presbytery meeting shortly after our church had entered the EPC. Alan has been in the EPC for over twenty years, and in 1993 he had something of a conversion experience. That was four years after we finished seminary. It was not a conversion to the faith, but something of a conversion in the faith. One might call it a healing – as Alan identifies it: “a touch of grace”. I like the phrase a touch of grace. A touch of grace identifies the times God touches us with favor we do not deserve. It can happen anytime in our lives bringing us to the faith or transforming us again in the faith.
God has touched every one of us with his grace, bringing us out of darkness and into light. He has touched us when we least deserved it, as sinners. He touched Saul on the road to Damascus. He touched Darrell and Alan and me and you. With each touch, lives are changed. I believe that God is at work touching our lives with a new hope and blessing, another touch of grace. I believe that grace is at work in our church today. In fact, the only way our and the church will grow is by God’s touch of grace. That might mean a change in me and change in you, a change in us. God may not shine a light brighter than the sun or knock us to the ground as He did with Saul, but God will do something new, something different, something that astounds us. When grace truly touches our lives, we cannot help but look forward to all things new and all things possible. That touch of grace makes all things possible.
With the conversion of Saul to Paul, the believers who encountered him had to have been astounded by this conversion. I think it would have imprinted upon their hearts and minds the knowledge that all things are possible with God. If a murderous, determined, enemy of believers could come to be a believer himself, nothing is impossible. You might recall the story of Jesus
23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19.23-26).
Or from Isaiah 59.1, Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
Nothing is impossible, nothing too hard, a hand long enough to save. Trust this with all your heart. Trust this Lord with all your heart. Don’t let this world of division and political strife and crime and sin drag you away from the trust and faith in the God who makes all things possible. Nothing is too hard for God and there is no one God cannot save. Trust this with all your heart. Don’t let the delusions of the world that confuses life for right to choose or make and female with gender identity. Spend more time in the Bible than in the media. Spend more time in prayer than in the television. Spend more time in worship than wasting it away with things not profitable in faith. Spend more time building trust and faith than paying attention to those things that would rob us of trust. Spend more time talking to God rather than about God.
God has and will continue to transform our lives. God will continue to show us people we might think could never come to believe in Jesus, yet, like Saul, all things are possible. We are called to place our complete trust in the Lord and to see others, even those who seek to persecute us, as potentially a faithful believer and transformed witness for Jesus Christ.