Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sermon for the Conversion of St. Paul

Conversion of St. Paul (January 25, 2009)
“From Darkness to Light” (Acts 9:1-22)

Do you ever wish you could read minds? Wouldn’t it be interesting to sit on a bench in the mall and know what every person who walks by is thinking about?

On second thought, maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea. Darkness lies behind the eyes of those seemingly happy people shopping, pushing strollers, eating pretzels, drinking lattes. What kind of sadness, distress, confusion, or despair might you find? That person over there is grieving a miscarriage. That person over there is thinking about leaving their spouse. That person over there is thinking about suicide. And what kind of evil, angry, hateful, murderous, greedy, selfish, lustful thoughts might you run into, lurking inside other peoples’ brains? I suspect you wouldn’t be able to handle it. You would probably end up severely depressed. You would probably end up needing some professional help. You might have expected some of this. But you didn’t expect it to this degree, did you? Maybe you recognized some of your own thoughts as you eavesdropped on the thoughts of these unsuspecting shoppers.

Now imagine yourself sitting down in the marketplace in First Century Jerusalem. You see a man walk by, not the most attractive of fellows. He’s short. Bald. His legs are crooked. His eyebrows meet in the middle and his nose is large. At least that’s how a writer from the 2nd century described this man. (Acts of Paul and Thecla, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, p. 487) Still, there’s something about this guy. He walks with a sense of purpose. Underneath those brows are eyes that reveal a bright mind and sharp intellect. Everyone around him treats him with respect, acknowledging him as a very religious, upright man.

Now read his mind. Are you surprised at what you find? He is full of Pharisaic pride. As a member of the party of the Pharisees, he thinks that he has it all together. He thinks he is able to strictly keep the Law of God. But then, you look deeper, and find something even more disturbing. He has hateful, murderous intentions. His plan is to round up and kill as many people as possible who claim to belong to the Way, which was what Christianity was initially called. He is on his way to get letters from the high priest 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. And he thinks that he is doing the will of God in all of this!

Of course, you know who this man is. This is St. Paul before his conversion, or Saul as he was also called. This is Paul before the Lord of Epiphany manifested himself on the road to Damascus in a blinding light. This is Paul before the Light of the Gospel shone into his darkened heart and changed him into a believer in Jesus.

You see, darkness doesn’t reside only in the hearts and minds of those who commit outwardly heinous crimes. It resides in those who are upstanding, law-abiding citizens, as well. It resides in all of us before the Light of the Gospel shone into our hearts. It resided in Saul. And 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. His heart was full of darkness. On the road to Damascus, the Lord of Epiphany visited Saul. Jesus manifested himself in a light from heaven that flashed upon Saul. Here was God actually revealing himself to Saul, and Saul had no idea who this was. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked. Saul, the Pharisee ... who should have known his Scriptures backwards and forwards ... was in the dark about the identity of this God. And so the Risen Lord Jesus explains, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul got up but discovered that he was now blind. But the blindness of his eyes only served to illustrate the blindness of his heart, the darkness that only the Holy Spirit can dispel.

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 are in the dark. 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.

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)

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.”

Ananias answered God’s call and brought Word and Sacrament to Saul, who had been blind and without food or drink for three days. 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 ... the moment 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.”

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 our Epiphany Lord creates. That’s the kind of radical change that the light of Jesus creates in us. He takes away the fear of death and doom. He takes away guilt and shame. He comforts us when suffering comes our way. He makes us bold to bring the Light of Jesus to others who are still in the dark.


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