March 5, 2017 (Lent 1A)
Watch a video of this sermon here. *
Have you ever been jealous of people who can tell a dramatic conversion story? Some people have a clear “before and after” testimony of how Jesus Christ has made a difference in their lives. Many of us, though, especially if we grew up in the church, might think our stories of coming to faith aren’t very exciting.
If you like satire, there’s a website called the Babylon Bee that posts fake news stories every day. Each story is a piece of Christian satire, an intended joke, with headlines like “Congregation Sings 10,000 Reasons for the 10,000th Time” or “Church introduces New Maximum Security Nursery.” The Babylon Bee operates from the premise that Christians shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Recently, they published an “article” about ways to spice up your testimony. It starts like this…
“If you’re like the majority of American Christians, your testimony’s just plain boring. You were raised in a Christian home, accepted Christ at young age, were made alive with Christ by the saving power of God, blah blah blah.
What you need is a few extra details—”alternative facts,” if you will—to spice up your testimony.
Luckily, we at The Babylon Bee are ready to help! Feel free to use any of these wonderful tips the next time you’re asked to tell others how you “got saved,” and bask in the awe-struck wonder of your fellow Christians as they realize how much cooler your testimony is than theirs. …”
Some of the suggestions are things like “get a tattoo” or “include a miraculous event in your conversion story” or “continuously stress how bad you used to be.” Keep in mind, this is all intended to be fun. But, like most good humor, there is an element of truth in the joke, or it wouldn’t be funny.
The question is, do you need a dramatic testimony to be able to talk about God?
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. – Acts 9:1-19a
Saul was an enemy of the early church. He thought Jesus and his followers were heretics that needed to be put in prison. But after Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, everything changed, including his name. When Ananias put his hands on Paul’s eyes, a whole new world opened for Paul. Suddenly,
Paul saw grace.
He saw freedom.
He saw forgiveness.
He saw a whole world of people who needed the gospel.
Paul’s new faith in Christ sent his life in a brand new direction. Instead of being an enemy of Jesus, he became a follower of Jesus. He told crowds of people about the gospel. He wrote much of our New Testament. Paul knew what a difference it made in his life to be a Christian.
For those of us who grew up in church, asking us what difference being a Christian makes in our lives is a hard question to answer. It’s like asking us what it was like learning to walk or ride a bike. Our Christian faith is that natural to us, and it’s been part of our lives since we were kids.
Trying to talk about it is difficult because there’s no definitive before and after. Most of us can’t remember the first time we knew God loved us. We can’t recall the first time we heard about Jesus. It’s hard to articulate what we’ve always known.
Those of us who have grown up in church may feel somewhat inferior to people like Paul who have a dramatic testimony. We don’t have any tattoos or stories about miracles. We rarely share what our faith means to us, partly because we don’t know what we would say!
We have the “Paul Problem.”
We think that we have to have a story like Paul’s to have a “real” testimony. We think that, in order for us to tell someone about our faith, we need a riveting “I was lost, but now I’m found” narrative. Since we don’t have a powerful before and after story, we think we don’t have a faith story at all!
Let’s try an experiment for a moment. Let’s imagine what it would be like to live without faith. Imagine that you do not go to church. Ever.
Imagine that you do not know any hymns or Christian songs.
Imagine that you do not know any Scripture.
You don’t know even the simplest Bible stories.
Imagine that you have never prayed; you don’t even know what words you should use if you did pray.
Imagine that you don’t know anyone who would pray for you.
What if you didn’t have a church family?
What if you didn’t even know that God exists?
Imagine what that would be like. How do you feel? How would your life be different?
Now I ask you, What does being a Christian mean to you? What difference does it make in your life?
Earlier today, you heard a report from the Healthy Church Initiative Team. They’ve been asking this question, too. What difference does being a Christian make to each of us? Why is being a follower of Jesus important? How can we offer that to others?
Once we get clear about why being a Christian is important to us, it’s easier to share our faith with others. Think of our motivation for sharing our faith like filling up a pitcher.
[go to the table with the large pitcher of water, and an empty pitcher set in a large bowl]
Many Christians are highly motivated to share their faith because they believe you must be a Christian to go to heaven. They are focused on what happens after we die, where we will spend eternity. Going to heaven is a big reason to be a Christian, but it does not have to be the only one. As one new Christian said, “Okay, my soul is saved for when I die, but what do I do about my life now?”
Maybe you can think of some things that would motivate you to talk about your faith. Things like …
“I don’t ever feel alone. I know Christ is with me.” [Fill up pitcher a little.]
“I feel a purpose in my life.” [Fill it up a little more.]
“I get direction from the Bible.” [Fill up more.]
“I can depend on people from my church to stand by me through tough times.” [Fill up a little more.]
“I know I am a part of God’s work in the world.” [Fill up again.]
“I have hope.” …
“I have peace in my heart.” [Fill up to the top.]
All of these fill us up until we are overflowing. We are motivated to share with others because following Jesus Christ makes a difference in our own lives, right here and right now!
There are a whole lot of people living in various kinds of hell right here on earth. People like Saul, who had just lost his eyesight. He had been sitting in total darkness for three days. He was so distraught he couldn’t eat or drink. He was probably wondering if God was about to zap him for rejecting Jesus and his followers.
Meanwhile, Jesus was working on a guy named Ananias. Ananias was a reluctant evangelist if there ever was one. He had every right to be. Saul was the last person he would have ever tried to tell about Jesus. Saul had participated in the killing of the first Christian martyr. Christians were running scared because “Saul was breathing threats against them.” Saul was an unlikely candidate for evangelism.
So were the prostitutes that loitered on the corner near a church in Florida. Most people in the congregation were upper-middle class, African-Americans who had been in church all their lives. They were not happy that the neighborhood was changing. They were really not happy about the prostitution that was creeping into their parking lot. They grumbled over the cigarette butts by the sanctuary steps. They worried about the “bad P.R.” the church was getting.
It never would have occurred to anyone that the women hanging out on the corners were candidates for evangelism. Candidates for jail, yes, but not candidates for evangelism! Not in their beloved church!
But one Wednesday night, a faithful church member, a retired schoolteacher, left choir practice to find one of the prostitutes leaning against a lamppost. Singing. Right by the schoolteacher’s parked car. She felt pushed by the Spirit she said later there were no other words for it pushed by the Spirit to go talk to this woman.
“Hi. My name is Mary. I was just singing with my choir in there. You have a beautiful voice.”
“Yeah, I love singin’,” the young woman mumbled. “I’m Sheena.”
“Sheena, you ought to be singing for the Lord you want to come to sing with me in my choir?” Mary couldn’t believe she was hearing these words come out of her own mouth! But Sheena said yes. She showed up on the corner the next Wednesday before choir practice. Mary took her in. Sheena did have a beautiful voice.
With the encouragement of the church, and with tutoring from her dear new, retired schoolteacher friend Mary, Sheena got her GED. She went to college! She finished medical school.
Now, that former prostitute runs a medical clinic. Out of her church.
What motivated Mary to talk to Sheena? What possessed her to go into that prostitute’s personal hell and walk her out? Maybe it was what motivated Ananias to go talk to Saul. We don’t know anything about Ananias’ conversion story. Maybe he had led a pretty ordinary existence up to this point. Maybe, like us, he didn’t have a dramatic story to tell about his faith.
The Lord Jesus appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him to go visit Saul. This is a powerful moment of truth for Ananias. Why should he go talk to Saul? It could be dangerous. It could, at the very least, be embarrassing. Why on earth should Ananias care about what happens to this person who has been an enemy? Lets look at verse 15.
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;
Why does Ananias go talk to Paul about Jesus?
First, Jesus told him to go. Obedience to Christ is a major motivator.
Yet, though I hate to admit it, just because I know I should do something doesn’t mean I will. Look at the 15th verse again. Jesus gives Ananias another motivation. Something besides “because I said so.” Jesus says, “Saul is an instrument I have chosen.” Jesus had plans for Saul. Jesus needed Saul for ministry. And Jesus needed Ananias to reach Saul.
Ananias gets to be a part of what God is doing in the world. He is a key player in God’s plan to get the gospel out.
He gets to be the domino that tips another person into God’s love. He gets to be the hands of God that heal someone’s pain.
He gets to be the light that shines on Saul’s dim path.
He gets to do something for God that only he can do.
He gets to be a part of God’s redemption of the world.
Now, that’s motivation! Not guilt or fear . . .
Not, “because I should” . . .
Not some begrudging obedience . . .
Just a passionate desire to be a part of what God wants to do in the world. Ananias had the opportunity to make a difference by going where God sent him. Verse 17 tells us, “So Ananias went.”
The Paul Problem has an Ananias Answer. You don’t need tattoos or an extraordinary story. All you need is an ordinary willingness to see what God can do through you. Even a reluctant evangelist can make a huge impact for the Kingdom of God.
You may not have a Paul story.
Maybe yours is an Ananias story.
Whatever your story, it’s time to tell it. It’s time to live it.
* This sermon is based on a sermon by Rev. Dawn Darwin Weaks, as provided through the gracenet.info website. These sermons are licensed for use, in whole or in part, by purchasers of Unbinding Your Church.