Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light: a Sermon on Acts 9.1-18

I was 14 years old, living in upstate NY, trying to navigate a world of many questions and few answers. The fact is, teen boys don’t always have the right answers. But to their credit, they are at least looking. And I was trying to connect the world of eighth grade with the world I was reading about in the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I was not always right. But I do remember when I first heard on the radio the song “Blinded By the Light.” It was catchy and I was certain it was about Saul on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Springsteen wrote this song and I recognize now that he probably didn’t have Acts 9 in mind when he wrote that lyric but I still think about Saul whenever I hear it. The song begins “Madmen, Drummers, Bummers…” and Acts 9 comes with a madman (Saul) and bummers (persecution and murderous threats). Perhaps Ananias was a drummer (playing with the Straight Street Band).

Acts 9 starts out with Saul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He is on his way to Damascus to find those who belong to “the Way” in order to bring them back as prisoners.

This is the same Saul who was there at the stoning of Stephen. We do not know if he was an instigator or a collaborator but we do know he was in agreement with what happened that day. Because afterward he becomes violent and begins breathing “murderous threats.” That happens in v.1. It is important to highlight that just 18 verses later he “was baptized.” What happened? Acts 9 says he met someone on the road. And we are told that it was Jesus.

Acts is full of surprises. Nearly every chapter seems to present a surprise of some sort. But who saw this coming? Just when we were ready to hear more about Philip running around in the desert welcoming unlikely and unexpected people into the kingdom, here comes Saul with his murderous threats. We are not prepared for the one who is hunting disciples to be turned so quickly or so convincingly.

In the bigger picture we can see this episode as the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gospel of Jesus. Can a cross or even death stop the gospel? Can the fact that listeners do not share a language with the speaker stop the gospel? Can prison or beatings stop the gospel? Can corruption in the church? Can unworthy people? Can continental boundaries? Can the gospel be stopped by one willing to use violence and murderous threats? There is something about this gospel that propels it through most any barrier – there is something about meeting Jesus.

Acts is full of episodes where people meet Jesus. It is worth pointing out that only once, right here in chapter 9, is someone converted by being blinded by the light. It is helpful to know that Jesus does not meet everyone on the same street. Jesus does not work on every one of us in the same way. You are not less spiritual because you were not blinded while traveling the road to Damascus. We want to be clear that God may perform the same work in each of us but God is under no obligation to do it in the same way twice.

Do not measure your kingdom value by your conversion experience. Do not be manipulated into thinking that those who can share with pinpoint accuracy when and where conversion occurred are more spiritual than you. Do not believe that a television preacher who saw a 60 foot Jesus is better at following Jesus than you are. Rejoice that God is calling you. Rejoice that you have met Jesus. Rejoice that God is so interested in you that He has made plans for you.

Sometimes we read a text like this and want to use it as a bully stick. Read it to someone who is speaking against Jesus and say “maybe this will teach you for messing with Jesus… punk.” But Ananias does not show up and say to Saul “don’t mess with Jesus, next time could be worse.”

Other times we might read a text like this and wish our experience was similar. Such an experience might give us validation. A stronger incentive to do something for God. We would know without a doubt that God does have a plan for us. If all conversions were like this, it would be easier to tell who has been converted.

While it is fact that Acts loves to talk about conversion, it does not share many conversion stories that look alike… and there is certainly nothing else like this.

Here is what we know. The way of God will never include opposing Jesus. The ways of God will never include murderous threats. The ways of God may include strange and miraculous ways, like blinding the sighted or opening eye of the blind. The ways of God may include locating the least likely candidate, even the greatest opponent, and turn them toward Jesus.

Let us picture conversion for what it is. It is heading in one direction and then running into Jesus. It is like a crash in the intersection. It is a change of direction. Conversion suggests we are no longer heading the same way we once were. There are new plans. Things that once seemed so urgent are no longer urgent, and new things suddenly become priority.

It is possible you are hiding your true direction and desires from others. But you are not hiding from God. And God has a specific direction for you. The plan is no different than it was for a man who once breathed murderous threats and then one day was blinded by a light – God’s plan for you is to follow Jesus.

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Craig Barnes on Getting the Demon Out

Craig Barnes is a highlight of the Festival of Homiletics. This year, he preached a sermon and presented a lecture. His sermon text was Mark 9.14-29 and his title “Getting the Demon Out.” Here are some things that came up during his sermon.

-texts about demons tend to make us nervous The only thing that may make us more nervous are people who enjoy reading about demons.

-whatever your thoughts about demons, let us agree there is something evil out there and it cripples people.

-nine of the disciples become engaged in an argument about getting a demon out of a young boy. They are likely feeling powerless and embarrassed. That often leads people to arguments.

-we want to do something in situations like this. When we cannot, there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

-Jesus appears to be tolerant of doubt. Barnes contrast this with fear, he tends to make a strong statement about fear.

-Barnes asks the question, why stay with the church? He answers “because that’s where I go to find Jesus.” He knows Jesus can be found in other places as well but he also knows the church is Jesus’ plan for the world.

-while the demon possessed boy is convulsing, rolling around on the ground, foaming at the mouth, Jesus appears to be conducting a medical examination “how long has this been happening to him?” Barnes notes that Jesus is never in a hurry and asks, can we move so slowly? Jesus knows healing may take time.

-we too must settle in for the long haul. Join with a faith that has been honed over time by belief and doubt. We want a faith that has been hammered out by centuries of saints, something that lasts.

-Barnes is reminded that in another gospel Jesus will ask “are you going to leave me too?” And the disciples will answer “where would we go?” This is not a statement of strong belief. And then, following the resurrection some continued to doubt. Again, not a statement of strong belief. Still, they worship. That is all we can do, we can go to Jesus.

-when perplexed by our inability to get the demon out, when we become defensive and argumentative, when we feel powerless and embarrassed about what we are not able to do – there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

Advent Surprise

(A Written Sermon, Luke 2.8-20)

One thing that stands out in this text is the element of surprise. The shepherds were in the fields shepherding. They were not waiting for angels to show. This is not like Linus’s pumpkin patch where he goes out on purpose to sit and wait for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. These shepherds were here to look after sheep. They were here working in fields they had worked before without supernatural visitors. They are expecting nothing different on this night. But then, surprise… a visitor from heaven. And then, astonishing news. And then a crowd of visitors from heaven. Yes, of the many things that are going on this night and in this text… surprise is certainly one of them.

And then (and we do not want to minimize this) they went looking for Jesus. They could have questioned whether they were getting enough rest. They could have questioned what was in that bottle they had been drinking. They could have questioned whether they should have eaten that second helping of whatever that was. But the shepherds went looking for a Saviour. They went looking for Christ the Lord. They went looking for Jesus.

The text is straightforward about this “when the angels had left them and had gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

Luke does not record that anyone else went looking. In fact, the gospels seem to go out of their way to suggest that people were just not that interested. It is recorded that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But we do not know if any of them went to find out for themselves. Surely the star was seen by others, yet we are only told the magi followed it. The scholars in the king’s palace were able to tell exactly where to find the child king, yet do not make an effort to find him. But Luke wants us to know the shepherds went looking for Jesus.

The text says “they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.” The text presents the shepherds as eager explorers, seeking, working their way through fields and wilderness to make sense of what they have heard. They are intent about finding Jesus. The shepherds become ideal characters to talk about during Advent. We are all trying to make sense of this news, the news that Jesus is born to save the world. Advent calls for each of us to be seeking Jesus.

Yet it is so easy to become distracted during Advent. After all, there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. It becomes easier to look for a good deal, to look for free shipping, it becomes easier to look for what to serve or what to wear. The shepherds, these characters in the Advent of Jesus, remind us that what is important is to find Jesus. In fact they hurry, they have an urgency to find out if this news could be true.

The shepherds seem so noble, almost dignified. We have romanticized their part of the story. They are such an important part of the story that we forget, shepherds are people on the fringe. It is possible no one would have noticed if they went missing. Still these are the folks God chose to tell first about this good news.

My friend Layne has brought to my attention a connection with women we find later in the gospel. Women, like shepherds,would not have been first century decision makers, powerless in society. Yet women were the first people God chose to tell about resurrection. It is interesting how intentional God is about telling shepherds in the fields and women at the tomb, he sends angels to make sure that these particular people receive this particular message.

These people may not have had much power, much influence on the surface, certainly not in earthly kingdoms. But in God’s kingdom they receive special invitations. No one would have been bragging about the idea that God spoke to shepherds first about Christmas or to women first about Easter. Yet that is what we discover in the gospel about the way that God works.

We started by noting the element of surprise in the story. There is the surprise that a child was born in a stable and laid in a manger and will be the Savior of the world. And the surprise that this news was delivered to shepherds who were watching flocks in fields at night. And the surprise that comes with the implications this news has for us. Yes, this text reminds us Christmas is full of surprises – because God is full of surprises.

A Reading List of Sermons

Scot McKnight posted a reading list of sermons earlier today. He claims to read them for spiritual formation and for suggestions to improve his own preaching. Here are the works he claims to read from most;

Rudolf Bultmann, This World and Beyond

Karl Barth, God in Action and Deliverance to the Captives

Fred Craddock, Collected Sermons

Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love

Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Walter Brueggemann, Collected Sermons

William Willimon, Collected Sermons

Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way

Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire

C. K. Barrett, Classic Sermons

Charles Spurgeon, Sermons

So, I am curious, do you read sermons? What do you gain from reading sermons? Who do you enjoy reading?

Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller shares much of what he has learned about preaching. One of my favorite parts is found in the footnotes. In case you do not read footnotes, you might want to read the following about Jonathan Edwards. Namely that he changed his preaching style when he moved to Stockbridge, MA in 1751.

Yes, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became gentler when he began preaching to the Mohican and Mohawk Indians on the edge of the frontier. According to Keller, his sermons became briefer and more compressed. He began to use more images and metaphors. Not only that, he started to choose images he hoped would resonate with the Indians. This is evident in his sermon “Warring with the Devil.” From the text in Luke 11 he depicts the strong man as Satan who is fully armed and a powerful warrior who has taken us captive. “Sin is therefore imaged as the state of being in thrall of an armed enemy.”

And then Edwards introduces grace and salvation. These of course come through Christ “A greater armed man, who can liberate us.” We are told that Edwards did not often discuss warfare, yet, “The Indian warrior culture provided his rhetorical opportunity.”

As much as I like these highlights from “Warring with the Devil,” I like what Keller tells about Edward’s first sermon to the Indians even more. In “The Things that Belong to True Religion” he does not begin with detailed exegesis, he does not add a treatise on doctrine or give multiple bible proofs. “He does something he had never done before – he begins with an extended story, the story of Cornelius… a racial outsider, a ‘heathen warrior,’ who finds faith in Christ.”

Edwards goes on to outline human history as the spreading of the gospel. From a family to a nation to Europeans like Cornelius. He talks about his own people, the English, who once worshipped idols but now follow Jesus. “Now, Edwards argues, the gospel is spreading from the Europeans to the Indians.” This is brilliant. Edwards identifies with the Indians. Even more, “This account puts the hearers themselves squarely in the middle of the great story of the world and of what God is doing in it.” Edwards shows his listeners that they are part of God’s plan.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.

The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.

When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.