Easter 3 – Acts 9:1-22
Imagine for a moment that you are living in the city Damascus around the year 36AD. You have recently heard of this Jesus of Nazareth who was dead but now is alive again. You believe the words that you here, and so you are baptized into this new group of believers. And all is well, until you get up one morning and look at your internet homepage, and you see the headline ‘Saul on his way to Damascus! Permission granted by high priest to take any and all Christians back to Jerusalem for trial!’
And your heart sinks. For you have heard of the coldness and hardheartedness of Saul. You know how he stood by as Stephen, a most faithful Christian, was stoned to death in cold blood. You know how he has been persecuting the church wherever he goes. And you can almost feel the noose tightening around your own neck.
What do you do?
Do you check the schedule and see if you can leave town for a few days? Perhaps, but who is to say Saul will not go to that town next?
Do you consider denying the faith that you confess in hopes of fooling him? You could try, but that would be going against the very confession of faith you have made.
Do you drop to your knees and plead with the Lord that Saul might have a change of heart? That is about your only hope, although most of us would probably consider it a long shot at best.
After all, this is Saul; a Pharisee, one who has been trained from a young age by the best teachers around in the Jewish faith; what are the odds he is about to have a change of heart? This is Saul who has overseen the outright murder of those who confess the name of Jesus; what are the odds he is going to have a complete 180 degree turn? This is Saul, who is coming to Damascus with the written permission of the high priest to bring back to Jerusalem those who confess Jesus as Lord; what are the odds he is going to willingly return empty handed?
Fast-forward now to 2016; you turn on the news and see the latest batch of Saul’s fast approaching. Who is standing at the gates but Islamic terrorists, seeking Christians, with their own letters of permission to seek out and destroy those who confess Jesus as Lord.
Who dominates the education system but those who push evolution and its related theories, all in the name of tearing down those who would advocate the Word of God.
Who persecutes the Church today but those who desire to force change of doctrine and the secular ways of the world on those who believe, teach and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Can you feel the noose slowly tightening around your own neck? Can you feel the walls slowly closing in around you? Can you see the chariots getting closer and closer, threatening the entire way of life that you know?
What do you do?
Like those in Damascus in 36AD, do you consider leaving town? Do you plan to deny the faith in hopes of fooling others? Or do you drop to your knees and pray that the Saul’s of today would have a sudden change of heart?
What would it take to change the heart of an Islamic terrorist? What would it take to convince those who desire to indoctrinate children of all ages in evolution to reconsider? What would it take for those who desire to chase after the ways of the world to instead chase after the things of God?
You can run and hide if you want. Many do. The history of the world is filled with accounts of those who packed their bags, and left to form a new town, a new state, a new country where they would be free to practice the faith as they so pleased. The reality today may be that there are no more undiscovered lands, but there are still some countries, some states, some schools, that are more favorable than others. And it’s not just a practice found in the roots of this country, it is even in the roots of this very church body.
You could never deny the faith, but what is to stop you from living it less outwardly than others. How many closet believers are there? Did we not just hear the Holy Week accounts, where out of nowhere Joseph of Arimathea appears in order that he might bury the body of Jesus? And who is he joined by, none other than Nicodemus, another secret follower. Surely you can also be a secret disciple of Jesus.
Those are indeed popular options today as we sit in our modern day Damascus and look out the window to see the approaching Saul’s, coming to destroy the Church. Neither is ideal, but then again, which would you prefer? Would you rather live in exile, masked in a secret identity; or would you rather be dead? Killed in the most gruesome way possible.
And yet how often we overlook what seems to be a minor detail in our text.
Saul is fast approaching Damascus, and yet where is Ananias? A man who is faithful; a man who no doubt is a leader in the church; a man whose death would be a terrible loss for the faithful gathered in this city.
He’s at home. He has not run away; he has not taken on a secret identity. No; he got up and is going about his day.
And because of that, we can be sure of one thing: Ananias prayed for Saul. Ananias prayed that the Lord would change the heart of Saul. Ananias prayed for a miracle; he prayed that something would happen on the journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, and the plans of persecution that Saul had would be brought to nothing.
Ananias knew not how, he knew not if, he knew not when; but Ananias prayed to the Lord of heaven and earth that the heart of Saul would be softened and that the Holy Spirit would work in his heart and bring him to repentance.
That is no easy task to be sure. Not because we do not want the hearts of those who persecute us to change, but because we do not actually believe they will.
Indeed which do you see more of in the world? The hearts of those like Saul being softened so that they might hear the Gospel; or the hearts of those like Pharaoh, whose heart was so hard, he blindly led his army into the Red Sea?
The reality is that there are a lot more Pharaoh’s then there are Saul’s. There are far more who will never repent, even on their death bed, but who will continue on their march toward hell.
Which leads our desires to be more and more that those who persecute the Church would be swallowed up by the earth; that the Lord would smite those who terrorize His people; even that the Lord would crush those who defile His Word.
But that is not the work of the Church. Yes, the Lord who made the heavens and the earth can certainly wipe out all those who defame His holy name; but at the same time, the Lord desires for all people to be saved. And so the Church prays. The Church prays today and every day for those who persecute us, not that they would be wiped off the earth, but that they would be saved.
The Church prays that those who desire to bring terror to the world all in the name of a false religion, would find their own hearts softened, so that they might hear the Gospel preached in their ears, and that they might repent and be saved.
And it is working; in the midst of the chaos and savagery that covers Europe, hundreds, even thousands are being baptized in the name of Jesus; turning away from the false religion of terror, and seeking out the true God of peace and love.
The Church prays that those who cling to the false teaching of evolution would have a softening of the heart, and that they might come to know the unchanging truth of God’s Word, beginning with the very first verse.
And it is working; as more and more look at the faulty science and the inaccurate data that is presented, and they realize that this world that we find ourselves in is not by chance, but is rather the work of a creator.
The Church prays that those who chase after the ways of the world when it comes to marriage and life and freedoms, would arise one morning with new hearts, that having heard the name of Jesus Christ, they would be saved.
And it is working; every day, nurses and doctors are walking out of the abortion industry, because they have been convinced by the true Word of God, that life is precious from the moment of conception.
But the Church not only prays that the hearts of those who persecute it would be softened, at the same time the Church prays that the hearts of those who believe would be made strong, that in the face of persecution, you would not run and hide, nor would you be tempted to deny the faith you have been baptized into; but that you would stand firm in the faith, that you would go forth with the Good News of Christ Jesus crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins for all people.
For that is in fact what the one whose heart has been softened today does. Saul now Paul finds great comfort in the forgiveness of sins and the promise of new life in Christ and does not go home to hide and deny, but rather goes forth to preach and proclaim.
Is that what Ananias expected when he prayed for his heart to be softened? No; but the same Lord who softens hearts can take those hearts and make them bold witnesses of Christ; that is what he does with Paul, that is what he does with you. You are the Lord’s witnesses to what He can do, in softening hearts, in forgiving sins, and in giving new life to all who believe