11 March 2012, Lent 3B (off lectionary: Heart and Seek 3)
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 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, 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.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 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.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
In many churches the preacher leads a prayer right before the sermon—sometimes it’s called the “prayer for illumination”—praying for the Spirit to shed light on the word of God in our time and place. Several years ago I was in church when I heard the following prayer right before the sermon: “Lord, let something happen here this morning—something that isn’t in the bulletin.”
I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Paul was praying that day as he traveled the road to Damascus!
Paul was working the plan—to get rid of this newfangled heresy called The Way by getting rid these people following Jesus and proclaiming that he was alive and the son of God. He knew what to do, and he was doing it…until something happened that wasn’t in the bulletin. Blinding flash of light, thrown to the ground, booming voice—the whole nine yards. The only thing missing was a burning bush, but he wouldn’t have been able to see it anyway.
Paul was literally knocked down, forcing a new perspective--things look different down in the dust than from on high, and they look different when your eyes are sealed than when you think you know what you're seeing. Even when he stood upright again, he couldn’t see with his eyes—he was forced to learn to see with his heart, to think about that voice rather than brush it off as an anomaly or something only crazy people would hear. And so he spent three days adjusting to this new reality—three days fasting and praying, seeking God with his whole heart. In order to do this work, preparing for God’s new perspective, he had to go without some things, had to remove any number of obstacles to his vision. Then when Ananias came, Paul was ready—ready to hear the good news, to see the world differently, to proclaim a new message. The last obstacles disappeared, and Paul could see more clearly than ever how God was present and working in the world.
I wonder what obstacles are in the way of our vision? What’s stopping us from looking with new perspective? What dark lenses need to fall away so we can see clearly?
Sometimes the obstacles may be literal objects—things we hold to so tightly, we can’t see around them to look for what God is doing. The ancient Israelites had more than their share of trouble with idols, and I think we do too. Most of us have something that we would be loathe to give up, even if it meant we were freer to seek God.
Sometimes the obstacles may be relationships—not all relationships are healthy or help us to seek and follow Jesus. Some of us are in relationships that suck our energy dry, or that are hurtful, or that make us into anxious or angry people rather than helping us build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Ananias was afraid that was the kind of relationship he was about to get into with Paul, but he trusted his relationship with Jesus enough to go and be surprised.
Sometimes the obstacles are embedded in the ways we think about God—if we believe God has to be one way or another, it makes it hard to see when God is doing a new thing in our midst. Perhaps that’s why Paul had to be blinded, and why Ananias had to be reassured—because it’s hard to imagine God acting in ways we don’t think God should act, or God loving people we don’t think God should love, or God calling people we don’t think God should call.
Sometimes the obstacle is in how we see ourselves—Paul knew he was in the in-crowd, he was a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, he had followed the law and was just the kind of person everyone aspires to be. How often do our perceptions of ourselves—as the talented one, the popular one, the smart one, the one who made it, the black sheep, the loser, the slacker, the non-conformist, the self-made—or even our job titles…how often do they obscure our vision of what God might be doing in our lives, or asking us to do with our lives? I don’t know about you, but sometimes what I think I am is the biggest obstacle to doing God’s new thing.
Sometimes the obstacles are embedded in our language—when we choose to say something without thinking of its implications, or when we are violent with our word choices, we can end up stuck as well as creating obstacles for others.
Sometimes the obstacles may be the way we do things—If all we do is blindly follow the bulletin without thinking about how the pieces fit together or how they help us encounter God, or if we blindly go along with the culture or political discourse because it’s just easier that way, or blindly accept the status quo because, well, it’s just the way things are…then it’s time to pray more fervently that something not in the bulletin will happen this morning! Paul knew how things were to be done and what he had to do…the way things have always been done, or the structures in which we live, can easily become obstacles to seeing and following God’s way.
Sometimes the obstacles may be our expectations—if we expect that people will fail, they often will. If we expect people to rise to the occasion, they often will. If we expect too much or too little of ourselves, or of church, or of children or teens or parents or elders or anyone else at all, we’ll often find ourselves frustrated and blocked at every turn. If we expect that worship will be boring as usual, it will be. If we expect God to show up during worship or Sunday School or youth group or choir practice or staff meeting or on the morning commute, or during lunch at school or in the office, God will. Paul certainly knew what he expected to find in Damascus…thankfully, that expectation was shattered before he got there. The expectations we put up can be just as effective as walls, or they can open doors.
I’m sure there are dozens more examples of obstacles, and while some will be common human experience, others will be so individual that we all have to spend time searching them out on our own.
There will always be obstacles in our lives, of course. We’ll never be completely free of them—we’ll always see through a dark glass, until the kingdom of God is fully realized. Even in the song, the obstacles didn’t disappear, it’s just that “I can see all obstacles in my way.” Once we learn to recognize them, then we can also learn to look past and move around them at least some of the time. In fact, there was a Mythbusters episode about this very idea. An obstacle course was constructed, and then people who’d never seen it went in to try to navigate it—in the dark. Not surprisingly, the change from light to dark and their inability to see the obstacles in front of them made it very slow going. But after they’d seen the course in the light for just a few moments, they were able to navigate it in the dark again much more quickly. Isn’t that kind of like what the Christian journey is about—learning to follow Jesus even through and around the obstacles of life, learning to adjust our lenses or our perspective so we can discern what God is doing in our midst even when it’s hard to see?
So may something unexpected happen here this morning, bringing us new vision—something unexpectedly beautiful, unexpectedly hopeful, and unexpectedly perspective-changing…and may we see it clearly.