Sunday, April 18, 2010
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (April 18, 2010)
“The Damascus Road” (Acts 9:1-22)
Road trips are fun. You meet a lot of interesting people and see a lot of interesting sights along the way. One unique encounter of mine occurred on the way to Ft. Wayne, Indiana before my first year at seminary. My dad and I were traveling together from California in my blue 1985 Toyota pick-up. It had a white canopy with all my earthly possessions stashed inside. In a remote section of Oklahoma, the little truck started to sputter and jerk, acting as if it was going to stall on the turnpike at any moment. We managed to get to the nearest exit and drove to a run-down little service station. It looked like a scene right out of the movies. A portly, unkempt man in denim overalls, white t-shirt, and baseball cap was sitting in a rocking chair. A mangy hound dog rested at his feet. There was no shotgun laying across the man’s lap, but I’m sure one was within reach.
I asked the fellow if he could help us out. He glared at me suspiciously and said (with a slow, Oklahoma drawl), “We don’t work on no foreign cars around here.” That’s it, I thought. We’re dead. Any minute, he’s going to pull out that shotgun and run us off his property for pulling up in a Japanese car.
Thankfully, in a split second his demeanor changed. He grinned and told us to drive 12 miles more to Old Red’s and he’d fix us up. Well, Old Red did fix us up with a new fuel filter and we were glad to be on the road again, finishing up our road trip and meeting more interesting characters along the way.
On the Road to Make Havoc
St. Paul was on a road trip in our reading from Acts 9 today. However, this was before he became known as St. Paul. At this point, he was still known by his Hebrew name “Saul.” He was a sinner as we all are, but he was not yet a saint. He was not yet a believer in the Lord Jesus. He was traveling from Judea to the Syrian city called Damascus. Jerusalem to Damascus is just a tiny bit shorter than the distance from Portland to Seattle.
What was the purpose of the trip? Saul was on the road to “make havoc.” (v.21) He had done that in Jerusalem, according the Jews at the end of today’s text. They feared he would do the same in their home town of Damascus. How was he making havoc? He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” as St. Luke puts it in verse 1 of our text. Acts 8:3 tells us that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” The end of chapter 7 shows Saul overseeing the stoning of Stephen.
This makes Saul out to be a pretty bad guy. But actually, Saul was a very religious person. He was a well-trained, well-respected member of the party of the Pharisees. He was a scholar of the Bible. He was the best of the best. He thought he was doing God a favor by arresting and ordering the execution of these false-teaching Christians.
Religious people can be some of the nastiest people. We really know how to get on our high horse and act like a bunch of goodie two-shoes. We can be so judgmental, often over very petty things. Although we have been shown such great grace and mercy, we sure know how to act graceless and merciless. We may not be breathing threats and murder verbally. But in our hearts, we can sure feel that way towards others, even our fellow believers. And that makes havoc in our families, in our communities, and our congregation. Remember what Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mat 5:21-22) So, repent.
Stopped Dead in His Tracks
On the road to Damascus, Saul was stopped “dead” in his tracks. Blinded by the light of holiness and perfection that flashed from heaven, Saul was knocked down like a dead man. “Although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing.” (v.8) His blindness was a sign of his spiritual blindness. In fact, apart from the life of Christ, Saul may as well have been like a corpse with its eyes open but seeing nothing. He did not yet know this Lord who met him on the road. The Risen and Ascended Jesus confronts him, not yet with words of grace, but with words of judgment: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” With these words, Jesus makes it clear that whenever the Church – Christ’s Body – is persecuted, Jesus himself is being persecuted. The Lord of the Church is present with his Church, especially when she suffers for the sake of her confession of faith.
Apart from the life of Christ which the Holy Spirit gives to us, we are all spiritually blind and dead. Jesus was pretty harsh when he pronounced his “woes” to those religious people, the scribes and Pharisees, in Matthew 23. Our presenter at our pastor’s conference this last week, Dr. Reed Lessing from the St. Louis seminary, said that when God says, “Woe” to someone, it’s essentially saying “You are dead!” “Woe to you, blind fools!” Jesus says. (Mt. 23:17) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Mat 23:27-28) And when you and I examine our own hearts, we must admit that there is still a part of us that fits that description.
The Road that Jesus Walked
Before Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus, Jesus had taken a road trip of his own. Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the path that led to Calvary and the Cross.
Jesus suffered the threats and murder of the crucifixion for Saul’s sin, for your sin, for my sin, for the sin of the whole world. There at the cross, the only truly innocent man who ever lived suffered the punishment that all the guilty deserve: God’s judgment over sin and the pain and agonies of hell and separation from God the Father.
For three days Christ’s body lay in the darkness of the tomb. But on Easter morning, the women who had gone to complete the burial process saw the stone rolled away. They went inside and saw that the body of Jesus was gone. Just then, their confusion and the darkness of death and the grave was bathed in the light of two men in dazzling apparel who appeared and said to the visitors at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Jesus walked the road to death and finished his journey. But three days later, he made a u-turn away from death and rose to life again, just as he promised. Now all who trust in his perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection have their sins forgiven and the promise of their own third day … new life today and resurrection to eternal life on the Last Day.
Before Ananias came to visit, Saul was without sight and didn’t eat or drink for three days. It was as if he, too, was dead. Certainly, he was spiritually dead, as already was stated. But Ananias came to him with Good News. Jesus had made a u-turn from death to life for Saul. Now, Jesus was going to create a death-to-life u-turn in Saul’s heart. Ananias came to Saul so that he would regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And that’s exactly what happened. His physical sight was restored. The Holy Spirit gave him spiritual sight so that he could now believe in Jesus as his Savior and the promised Messiah, a u-turn from unbelief to belief. Saul rose and was baptized. Indeed, Saul was raised again by water and the Word in the same way that each and every one of us is brought into God’s family by Holy Baptism. Our sins are washed away. The Holy Spirit gives and strengthens faith. We are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. We participate in Christ’s third-day victory. He created a u-turn for us in our hearts so that every day we can make u-turns, daily repenting of our sin and daily returning to the promises God made to us in baptism, promises of forgiveness and new life.
On the Road Again
Forgiven, repentant, Saul was sent on his mission. He was not supposed to stay long in Damascus. He was on the road again. Saul was sent to give spiritual sight to those who would receive the message with which Jesus sent him. In his account of his conversion in Acts 26, speaking to Herod Agrippa, St. Paul relates that Jesus told him, “But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Act 26:16-18)
Road trips are fun, but it’s always good to get back home again. Our personal Damascus Road leads right here. Here we receive forgiveness of sins and have a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus. Jesus meets us here in this place where he is proclaimed as the Son of God and Savior. Our Damascus Road leads right to this altar where Jesus meets us and gives us his body and blood. Then, his Church is sent back out from this place to hit the road again to carry the Good News wherever we go. Like St. Paul, there may be suffering for the sake of Christ’s name around the bend. There will be those who will reject you. But remember, it’s not you are they are rejecting. It is Christ. Pray for them. Love them, as difficult as that can be sometimes. And know that, when you proclaim the Crucified and Risen Christ, your labor in the Lord is never in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).