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.

Advertisements

Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.

Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”