Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (April 22, 2007)
Acts 9:1-22

Give me a word. Give me a sign. Show me where to look. Tell me what will I find.
Lay me on the ground. Fly me in the sky. Show me where to look. Tell me what will I find.
Oh, heaven let your light shine down.
Love is in the water. Love is in the air. Show me where to go. Tell me will love be there.
Teach me how to speak. Teach me how to share. Teach me where to go. Tell me will love be there.
Oh, heaven let your light shine down.
I’m going to let it shine. I’m going to let it shine.
Heaven’s little light gonna shine on me...Its gonna shine, shine on me.
Its gonna shine, come on in shine.

Those are the lyrics to a song that Cho Seung-Hui’s roommate at Virginia Tech said that Cho often listened to. Cho and his parents attended Korean Christian churches near their home, where one would assume a lot would have been said about “heaven,” and “love” and “light.” But apparently, there was a lot of darkness in Cho Seung-Hui’s heart and mind. The evidence lies in the videos he taped and sent to the network news...not to mention the carnage left behind in the classrooms at his school.

We can only guess at the source of all that darkness. Everyone is trying to figure out what would drive someone like him to do what he did....just as everyone still wonders why two church-going kids in Colorado acted in a similar fashion several years ago. Of course, we know that Satan is behind all darkness in the world. But how did that darkness manage to manifest itself in such awful ways in the lives of these young men?

Darkness doesn’t only reside in the hearts of the disturbed. It resides in those who are upstanding, law-abiding citizens, as well. Look at Saul in today’s reading from the Book of Acts. Chapter 9 begins by telling us that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Saul’s mission was to arrest and kill as many people as possible who claimed to belong to the Way...which was what Christianity was initially called. He had gone to get letters from the high priest in Jerusalem so that he could present them to the synagogues in Damascus, informing them that he had authority to arrest anyone claiming to believe in Jesus. Whether Saul killed anyone with his own hands, we don’t know. However, we know that he certainly oversaw these murders. Back in chapter 7, St. Stephen is being stoned to death and verse 58 says, “the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Who was this Saul? He was a member of the party of the Pharisees, concerned with a strict keeping of the Law of God. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Saul was born a Roman citizen, therefore his Jewish father or perhaps his grandfather must have had the means to purchase citizenship, and that wasn’t cheap. Therefore, his family may have been wealthy. Saul was raised in Tarsus, a thriving intellectual and commercial center of southern Asia Minor...modern-day Turkey. He was educated in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, the most-famous rabbi of the day. He had a sharp mind and was able to debate with the best minds of the day.

We even know what he looked like. A 2nd century writer describes him this way: “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.” Kind of reminds me of the newspaper ad for the lost dog with one eye, three-legs, half a tail, mangy fur, and who answers to the name “Lucky.”

Despite his looks, Saul was a cosmopolitan kind of guy. He was a man of the city, a man about town. People would have considered him to be a pretty sharp cookie and a real sophisticated dude. Above all else, people would have seen him and said, “There goes a very religious and righteous man.”

Darkness: Who Are You, Lord?

Shady Behavior and a Darkened Heart: But there was darkness present in his heart. He was engaged in some pretty “shady” behavior. He had contempt for those who believed differently than he did. So much so, that he thought he was doing God a favor by having them put away or put to death.

But Saul really didn’t know God at all. On the road to Damascus, heaven’s light shined down upon him. Here was God actually revealing himself to Saul, and Saul had no idea who he was. And what was Saul’s response? “Who are you, Lord?” he asked. And so the Risen Lord Jesus explains, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Saul thought he knew God. Here he was, one of the most educated, religious men of his day, and he did not know God. He had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. And when you don’t know the Son, you don’t know the Father. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

There are plenty of religious, church-going people who think they know God, but really don’t. They come to church. They act real pious. They dress well. They say all the right words. They go through all the right motions...stand up, sit down, bow your head, fold your hands. But they still don’t know God. They come out of obligation. They come thinking they can earn God’s favor by filling a pew or putting a few bucks in the plate. It’s possible to think that you know God, but you really don’t. And like in the case of Saul, he may be standing right before you and you don’t even recognize him. He’s not here in a blinding flash of light, but he’s here in the words you hear. He’s here in the bread and wine that you will eat and drink. He’s here because the Bible says that where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, there he is among them. Jesus is here right now as his baptized people gather together to receive his gifts of grace and forgiveness. Don’t miss him.

Dark Existence for Eternity: If you do, there will only be a dark existence for you for eternity. Jesus once referred to people like Saul, the people of Israel who thought they knew God. He said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

Light: Behold, me, Lord!

Contrast Saul’s response with Ananias’ response. Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” When Jesus appeared to Ananias in a vision, Ananias responded, “Here I am, Lord” or more literally, “Behold, me, Lord.” “I know who you are. You are Jesus, my Savior. Behold, me, Lord. Look at me. And although you are indeed able to look at me and see all my sins and shortcomings, yet you still see me as cleansed and forgiven because of your shed blood at the cross. Behold, me, Lord. Here I am, at your disposal. And I will go to this man Saul, even though I know all about him. I know that he has done so much evil to your saints. Nevertheless, I will go because of your word of promise to me.”

Living in the Light for Eternity: After seeing that flash of light, Saul was blinded. He was kept in the dark for three days. But Christ, too, was kept in the dark for three days. After dying for the sins of the world, his body was sealed in a dark tomb. On the third day, Jesus rose to life, appeared alive to his disciples, and later to Saul on the road to Damascus. And now, living in the light of the resurrection, all who trust in Christ will live in his Light for all eternity.

Enlightened Response: Ananias answered God’s call and brought Word and Sacrament to Saul. Through the preached Word of Christ, Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit. Scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. But he regained more than just his sight. Now he knew God truly. The Christ who exited the tomb on the third day is now the one in whom Saul trusts on his own personal third day, when he came out of the darkness of his unbelief and into the light of Christ. He got up, was baptized, took food, and was strengthened.

You, too, have had your own personal “third day.” When you were baptized, God the Holy Spirit came to you. God’s Word of forgiveness was spoken to you. Then, you knew God truly. You came out of the darkness and were brought into the light and life of Christ. You were born again. And now, every day, you can remind yourself that you are God’s baptized child. You can come to this altar every week and take food and be strengthened. You can say, “Behold, me, Lord. I know that I am a sinner, but I also know that you are my Savior. Here I am. Help me to serve you and do your will.”

Taking the Light to Others: Finally, notice what happened to Saul. He spent some time with the disciples in Damascus, the very ones whom he was chasing after in the first place. Now, Saul becomes the disciple, the learner, and then goes out and begins taking the Light of Christ to others. He begins proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God.

What a radical change that God created in Saul, later to be called the Apostle Paul. But that’s the kind of radical change that the resurrection power of Jesus creates. That’s the kind of radical change that the resurrection power of Jesus creates in us. He can take away the fear of death and doom. He can take away guilt and shame. He can comfort us when tremendous tragedy strikes. He can make us bold to tell others that Jesus is the only Savior of the world...and that it is only through Christ that heaven’s light and love shine down.


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