When was the last time I almost peed my pants? Good question. It was 6 or 7 years ago, before my wife and I were married, and I was living in a college apartment and Amy was living with my parents in their house. And my parents, particularly my mother, is one of these people that, if she needs to be up for work by 6:00AM, she’ll set her alarm in 5-minute increments starting at 4:00AM. It’s ridiculous; it’s sinful. If I believed in a literal devil, I would probably blame him.
But anyway, one morning, this was apparently going on for over an hour and Amy just couldn’t take it any more. Now, Amy and I are very alike in a lot of ways. She grew up in St. Louis — I also grew up in St. Louis. She likes the R&B group, Boyz II Men — I also like music. But we are also different in many ways. For example, I’m normal. Amy — not so much. So, instead of doing the normal thing and just going and talking to my mom and asking her to turn off her alarm, she gets in her car, drives to my apartment, and just walks in like she owns the place.
Now, this wouldn’t have been problematic had Amy given me any kind of warning that she was coming over. But she didn’t. So, when I woke up to the sound of the door knob turning and someone trying to get in, I thought someone was coming in to murder me. And I was like, “Well, this whole being alive thing has been fun.” And don’t let the beard and the large skeletal structure fool you — I’m nothing but a huge baby when I’m afraid. So, there was no real option of fighting back. But, in walks innocent little Amy, totally non-threatening. And when she comes in, the fear immediately subsided. I mean, it really more evolved into anger at that point, but once I knew I wasn’t in danger anymore, that fearful response was gone.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how quickly we can go through the cycles of orientation when things change. We can have a particular viewpoint, a particular orientation, and then something happens which DISorients us, and once we accommodate that new information, we find ourselves in a new REorientation. That’s exactly what happened to me in that moment; that’s exactly what happened to Saul, whom we talked about last week, and that’s what happens in our story this morning about Ananias. And that cycle is very much the cycle we continue to experience throughout the Christian life.
Last week, we talked about Saul’s conversion. Just a recap for anyone who may not have been here or doesn’t know the story — Saul was a Jew who was in charge of hunting down Christians and seeing to it that the Christian movement was squashed. However, as he’s going along the road to the city of Damascus, a sudden flash of lights shines around him and a voice from comes from heaven. When Saul asks who it is, the voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” After this, Paul is blinded and goes into Damascus where he sits, blinded, for three days.
Alright, now that we’re all caught up, we can move on to this morning’s passage. And the first thing we see is this: “Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’” Now, note the difference between Saul’s initial interaction with the Lord and Ananias’s, because they’re very different. Ananias isn’t overcome with light or knocked to the ground. Now, we might conjecture that the way in which God revealed himself to Saul was, indeed, different from how he revealed himself to Ananias. That could very well be the case. But what if we were to make the argument that they weren’t different; what would that do to the story? How would we have to understand the characters anew?
Well, one way might be for us to point out their relationships with Jesus. Saul clearly had no relationship with Jesus; he disdained and opposed everything Jesus stood for. And when Jesus came into his life, we saw the effect it had on him. It brought him to his knees in every sense of the word: physically, emotionally, spiritually. But then we have Ananias who, when addressed by the Lord, welcomes him like an old friend. Calm, collected, expectant, perhaps? Ananias is anything but caught off guard here. It’s as if he was waiting on the Lord to call on him.
And herein lies the great difference between the Saul's of the world and the Ananias’s of the world. If you live a life of anger and rage, like Saul, those things will chip away at your relationship with Jesus. And then when you encounter Jesus anew, it will be a completely disorienting experience because, even though Jesus never forgot about you, you clearly forgot about him. But if this relationship is something that’s important to you, then it’s something you will inevitably cultivate. It’s something you will inevitably take care of and remember. And when you encounter Jesus anew, it’ll be like he was with you all along.
Ananias clearly has cultivated this relationship and was ready to hear from the Lord. However, exactly what he hears from the Lord is not something he’s very excited about.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
Now, how many of you have ever received — free of charge, of course — a lecture on the proper way to do your job by someone who is not at all qualified to be telling you to do your job? It wasn’t until I got into parish ministry that I realized how many lay people are experts in the field of preaching. I mean, it’s not a participatory thing that I’m doing up here. I guarantee, if your dentist tells you that you have gingivitis, you wouldn’t respond and be like, “hmmm…I don’t really agree with your interpretation here.” Of course not — because the dentist is qualified and trained specifically for this job and knows what they’re talking about.
And you know who else is qualified and knows what they’re talking about? GOD. Like, what was Ananias expecting God to say here? “Oh my gosh, Ananias, I’m so glad you were here. I totally would have made a mistake.” NO! That’s ridiculous. God knows exactly what he’s doing. And this is like the orientation thing I talked about earlier. Ananias had a specific orientation in regards to Saul. He knew Saul as a murderer and as someone who persecuted Christians. This was an open-and-shut, clean-cut thing. But, then again, it’s not. Because God shows up and causes DISorientation. God is consistently rebelling against our preconceived notions; he’s constantly blurring our categories or making us get rid of them completely, and that’s what’s happening here.
Is Saul evil? Yes. Can God still claim him and use him to further the gospel? Yes. This is what God tells Ananias after his protest: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” Now, there are some who would criticize some of this language because, in a way, we could see this as God treating someone as merely a means to an end and not an end in themselves. It could be argued that God just wants to use Saul. And, in a way, that’s not untrue. But we have to understand that we exist to bear witness to our God, so God isn’t imposing a foreign task on Saul, but trying to bring him back to the original purpose of his existence.
But there’s something happening here that’s even more fundamental than any of that, and that’s God’s predisposition toward humanity. And that predisposition is that no one is without sacred worth; that no one is outside the realm of God’s hope; that everyone is deserving of dignity. Now, to be sure, it doesn’t mean that you won’t ever have to change or grow or whatever, but it does mean that God will be with you through that season of painful growth.
And, speaking of human worth and dignity, there’s something we have to talk about this morning. And I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record or if you’re tired of hearing about this stuff, but I wouldn’t be a responsible pastor if I didn’t talk about it. And that’s that, right here, right now, if we want to affirm that everyone is beloved in the eyes of God, and that everyone is of sacred worth and dignity, then we can’t just mean that about American, english-speaking Christians who look like us. In other words, we have to be willing to say that this is unacceptable.
This is Oscar and his daughter Valeria. They applied for asylum in the US nearly two years ago due to violence in their home country of El Salvador. And, in a last ditch effort to make it to American soil, they attempted to cross the Rio Grande. Oscar crossed with Valeria, left her safely on shore, and then went back to get his wife on the other side. But when he started to cross back to get his wife, Valeria jumped in after him. And even though he tried to save her, they were swept up in the current and drowned. A father and his 23 month old daughter are dead right now, and do you know why? Because we're willing to be flexible on this idea that everyone matters and deserves human dignity.
Now, I really wrestled with whether or not to show this picture. I don’t want to emotionally manipulate people or just make people feel guilty. That’s not what I’m after here. But, if we’re going to celebrate these stories of God’s ability to love and call even the most vigilant sinner, then we have to realize that his love belongs, first and foremost, to the poor; to those persecuted and oppressed. God loves Saul only because he loved those Saul persecuted first. And God loves Donald Trump only because he loved those Trump persecuted first.
We can’t have one without the other. Everyone is made in the image of God, but God’s image is found in Jesus: the poor, Jewish teacher who fought for liberation of the oppressed. Jesus is found in the poor, and those who fight for their liberation. If we want to be followers of Christ — and I mean true followers of Christ — then we have to align ourselves with them. And this is exactly what happens with Saul.
Our text continues: “17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”
Oftentimes in our lives, we wander around in a dogmatic slumber. We live with these scales over our eyes, just like Saul, and it takes an act of God to cause us to see again. And it’s very possible that God is calling you to be that instrument through which he restores sight to someone who’s been blinded, spiritually or emotionally or whatever. Maybe you’re feeling compelled to go talk to that coworker and invite them to church or check in on a family member who’s struggling with their faith and the current state of the world. If you feel that, I want to encourage you to DO IT, because that prompting is very likely the Holy Spirit nudging you in the right direction. Ananias followed the Spirit’s leading and it led to the beginning of the ministry of the greatest apostle the church has ever known. We’re called to do the same, because this world isn’t the only possible world. And if we’re ever going to change it — if God is ever going to build his kingdom here — then we have to be obedient and follow where he leads, just like Ananias. Let’s pray that God will lead and that he’ll help us follow.