Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, July 24, 2016
NEXT STORY (July 31):
Peter and Cornelius
Acts 10; 11:2-3; Galatians 2:11-13
Acts 9:1-19; 22:1-21; 26:9-18; Romans 6:1-11
CHILDREN'S STORY AND SERMON
THE CONVERSION OF SAUL
Saul of Tarsus was also called “Paul” from childhood. That’s because he was born into a very religious Jewish family of the Pharisee party, and also into one of the great Roman cities of the time. The Roman Empire ruled the world, and Paul was a Roman citizen – but he was also a devout Jew.
We can imagine Saul being a very serious and studious person from the time he was a small boy. He grew up in a family that talked about religion as the most important aspect of life, and so it was natural for him to take it seriously too. Of course, he played and had friends and dreamed of many things, but he also prayed and studied and did his homework and often talked of religious affairs. By the time he was thirteen, his family realized he was a very promising and talented young man, so they took him to Jerusalem to study in earnest under the greatest Rabbi of the time, Gamaliel.
Studying to be a Rabbi – a teacher of the Law – was a high profession for a Jew. It’s hard for us to understand, but it would be kind of like preparing today to be a lawyer, a Senator, a philosopher/historian, a university professor, and a minister – all rolled into one. It took many years of study and training.
Saul was bright and conscientious, and it was clear to those who knew him that he would be a leader, maybe even one of the major leaders in the Jewish community of his time.
But then a very disturbing thing began to happen. Well, the world was already a very disturbed place, and being a Jewish nation under Roman rule was both irksome and dangerous. But at the very time when people need to band together, help each other, and be close, sometimes we quarrel with each other and scatter. Anyway, there was a growing Movement among the common people, and they were claiming that a certain carpenter named Yeshua – not a learned Rabbi, just a common carpenter – was “The Anointed.” That meant he was the long-awaited Messiah, the Great One of all time, the rightful King of all Judaism – and in time, King of an entire new and righteous world.
Well, you have to learn to take these things with a grain of salt. Some people are always looking for excitement or something new, and there is always a new cure, a new theory, a new diet, or a new teaching about something somewhere. Most often the major enthusiasm blows over in a year or so and then the excitement dwindles away. So there is no reason to join the Guru-of-the-Month Club, and there is no reason to fight it all either.
Saul was busy with his own life and his studies. He was in his late twenties by now, and he was no longer just a student but taught others and held increasing positions of responsibility. He was well into a successful career, and his family and friends and sponsors were all very proud of him.
But Saul was getting upset by this growing new Movement. Maybe he was a little young and impatient, but lots of others, young and old, were also getting concerned. This new Movement was sweeping through the land and leading lots of innocent, less-educated people astray. It made Saul angry that innocent people were being hurt – that Judaism was being weakened at a time when it particularly needed all the strength it could find. Everything depended upon Torah, the Law – the Way of Life laid down by God through Moses. It was harder to keep hope with Roman domination, yet it was the only hope there was to stay faithful and become even more faithful to the traditions and laws of Judaism.
So to Saul, this new Movement was leading people astray with unfounded theories and foolish, unrealistic hopes. It hurt him to the core and seemed to mock and threaten all the authority and purpose of God, to which Saul had given his whole life. And where was it coming from? Nobody who knew anything was in the Movement. It was like it came out of nowhere – no school, no tradition, no authentic teaching.
At first Saul only talked about it with his friends. But the more he talked, the more he was convinced that this new Movement was a serious and dangerous threat. Again and again it crossed the lines of blasphemy, claiming an identity for this leader named Yeshua that was clearly anti-Jewish and even idolatrous.
And now the new Movement was claiming that this Yeshua had even risen from the dead. That meant the leaders of the Movement were liars. They were misleading the people on purpose. Why anybody would believe such tripe Saul could not imagine, but they were believing it – in greater and greater numbers.
Saul could stand by no longer. He began to actively argue against this Movement and all who represented it. He told all of his friends that the time to sit idly by was over – that this was a threat that could not remain unchallenged. Many others already felt the same way.
So young Saul, near the age of thirty and a brilliant and able Rabbi of great promise, became the most prominent defender of Judaism against the new Movement of a dead carpenter named Yeshua (Jesus).
Then one day Saul, having helped to drive most followers of this New Way out of Jerusalem or at least into silence and hiding, was going to Damascus, where he believed many of the followers of Yeshua had gone to live. Nobody had started calling them Christians yet. That was a nasty title invented later, used to poke derision at people who worshipped a mere man instead of God.
By this time, Saul had been responsible for the punishment, imprisonment, and even death of many followers of the carpenter from Nazareth. (Acts 26:9-11) Now he had letters from the chief priests giving him authority to do the same in Damascus.
And as he was nearing Damascus in the middle of the day, light brighter than the sun burst upon him. He fell to the ground, blinded by the light!
“And a voice spoke to him in Hebrew: ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? It is hurting you even more than me or my people.’ And Saul said, ‘Lord, who are you?’ And the voice from Heaven said, ‘I AM Yeshua, the one you keep trying to kill.’”
On that day, the old Saul died and, at the age of thirty, a man we know as the Apostle Paul was born.
HAS ANYTHING DIED AROUND HERE
I presume you know, from the sermon title, exactly where we are going in this little meditation this morning. However, knowing and going are not always synonymous. And even if for some of you they are, it is nonetheless wonderful to know where we are going and to go there – if we love the destination.
However, humans are famous for not always knowing their true destinations. That is, we do not always let ourselves know where or what we are really headed for. To complicate it further, we sometimes persist in behavior that is clearly contradictory to the destinations we claim to hold most dear.
To complicate it further, it is logical to conclude that logic alone will not carry us to most of our most cherished destinations. That makes it harder, at times, to see the clear distinction between our own rationalizations and the inspiration that sometimes comes from some inner source of wisdom.
To complicate it even further, we are a proud and stubborn people – quick to anger and slow to change, sometimes insisting on persisting in behavior that has never worked well in the past, continuing in the blind faith that if we keep doing things as we have always done them, this time we will get different results.
Some of you think I am talking about current events – economic trends, ecological crises, perhaps the Middle East. Those of you who know me better know that I seldom get so lofty – or so kind as to put us onto subjects where we mostly get to point our fingers elsewhere. So I am talking about us – the way we pray (or do not pray); the way we spend our money and our time; the way we are developing our relationships; how we work; what we are living for day to day – each one of us, including what we are each doing as part of this particular faith family, this Christian church.
Has anything died around here lately? Do you have less hope, less faith, less inspiration or guidance from the Holy Spirit, less vision than you did a year ago?
Where there is death, there is decay. Sometimes, when I was a boy on our little ranch, we could tell something had died by the smell. Sometimes, when I am on vacation and walk into a church, I can tell by the feel or the smell that there is not much life there. Something has died and nothing has been done about it.
Those of us raised on farms have to be careful of our imagery. What seems natural to us – of nature – can seem crude or offensive to you city folks. So I am trying to be dainty. (Said the hippopotamus.)
Death and decay is a natural part of life – on all levels. Some ideas decay and die. Nations decay and die. Whole religions decay and die. In Paul’s day it would have been almost inconceivable that the day would come when Mithraism would no longer be a powerful world religion, or that there would be major cities with no temples to Zeus or Diana or Apollos. Of course, some would claim that we have only changed the names to Pentagon, Mall of America, and Madison Square Garden, but what do they know?
Has anything died around here lately? Plans maybe? Dreams perhaps? Notions or concepts of what you or your life could be like? Do such things leave any odor of decay when they die? Are such deaths a cause for burial? Is there some proper way to mourn or remember them? We used to be afraid of disease if something died and we did not bury it properly. Is there any danger of disease if a plan or a dream or an idea or a belief dies?
Sometimes, wandering through my days, I hear people mention being sick of something or tired of something – sometimes even “sick and tired” of something. Has something died and they did not bury it? Or maybe it has decayed but they do not know if it’s dead yet. Lots of times I get the impression that something is both dead and decayed but they have no intention of doing anything about it; they are just going to go on living as they are living, doing what they are doing – being sick and tired of it but nothing is going to change.
Clearly I do not have enough time to say very much about any of this, having spent most of my sermon time with the children. But I was just wondering: Has anything died around here lately?
You see, the real truth is that if nothing has died, nothing new can come to life. If you have not smelled any decay in your life, you are not a candidate for conversion. If you are not sick and tired of anything, the chances of your turning your life and your will over to the care of God or to the guidance of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ are almost nil.
Some of you want me to preach about resurrection and hope and faith and even the love of the New Life in Christ, but you do not want me to mention the bad smells or the decay or the death that dog our steps every day we are here in this world. Do you never get weary of the pressure and the tension? Do you ever wonder why such good intentions and earnest labor so often come to nothing or get undone? Do you ever feel like evil is not just a myth or a theory, but a true and intentional force that keeps coming around and around on some giant merry-go-round that never truly goes away?
If something has died around here lately, that means there is hope for us. If truly we are sick and tired of life as we have known it, that means Jesus can talk to us at last. If we are ready to let some of the way we have been living or some of the things we have been living for go into the fire and perish, that means the Spirit is finally freed to bring New Life out of the ashes for us.
Resurrection is not only about end-times. It comes on endless levels and dimensions and is offered all through our lives. But there is no resurrection if we cannot face death on all those same levels and in all those many dimensions. The sixth chapter of Romans comes straight out of Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road: “By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life.” (Romans 6:4, NEB)
Has anything died around here lately? O God, let it be me, and let it be my friends. Let it be that we will not merely know the Christian Way, but dare to live it.
Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.