Sunday May 5 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time reflecting on an ordinary person who was asked by God to do something truly extraordinary… We talked about the ways that fear can blind us and reduce our ability to trust God to work in our lives and the lives of those around us. Our scripture was Acts 9:1-19.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
The party was going on and on – speeches were made, the band was playing, and all the passengers on the cruise were having a great time. Because of the celebration, the ship’s captain had ordered an extra special buffet, and each of the passengers was taking advantage of it. Sitting at the head table was a man of about 70 who was looking a bit embarrassed, but trying to accept the praise that was being poured on him.
Earlier that day, a young woman had fallen overboard, and within seconds this same man was at her side in the dark, cold water. The woman was rescued, and this fellow was an instant hero.
When the time finally came for him to speak, the room fell silent to hear the words of the brave hero. He approached the microphone and offered what might be the briefest “acceptance speech” of all time: “All I want to know is…” and he paused to clear his throat, “…who pushed me?”
I think that in a lot of ways, the disciple Ananias would probably deliver the same sort of speech if he were given half a chance. As we continue to look at the development of the Christian community in the months and years that followed that first Easter – the people who lived into the reality that Mark described – we are presented with a couple of very different personalities this morning. Ananias, who is our subject for this morning, is one of those people who is crucially necessary for the “big picture”, but not really well known. Saul, on the other hand, is better known by his Greek name, Paul, and responsible for half of the New Testament.
My hunch is that if we were to ask Ananias and Saul the question of the day, namely, “are you sure about this, God?”, that they might offer two answers. Is God sure? Well, friends, the Lord is right behind you, pushing you out the door. And that same Holy Presence is out in the distance, preparing the way for you, dwelling with you in the future.
Because you have probably heard more about Saul, I’m going to center our discussion this morning around the guy whose name you’re not sure how to pronounce. Ananias is a normal Christian. He’s no apostle, he’s not one of the twelve, and he didn’t write a book of the Bible. There are three men named Ananias mentioned in the book of Acts: our friend here in Damascus, an earlier follower who, along with his wife Sapphira, lied to the community in Jerusalem following the sale of some property, and the High Priest who’s mentioned at the end of Acts. Perhaps as much as anyone in the scriptures, Ananias is just a regular guy leading a regular life trying to be faithful. And God uses Ananias in a huge way.
When we meet him, he’s praying, and he receives a vision. God calls his name, and, according to the author of Acts, Ananias responds by saying, “Here I am, Lord.” What’s interesting about that is the fact that in all of Scripture, there are only three other people who happen to be wandering along, minding their own business, and they hear God’s voice calling their name. Any ideas on who that might be? Who might hear their name? “Abraham, Abraham.” “Here I am, Lord.” “Moses, Moses.” “Here I am, Lord.” “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, Lord.” Yet unlike these three men who became prominent in the narratives of the faith, Ananias is just an ordinary follower who comes on the scene, does his job, and then disappears.
So God calls Ananias without mincing words any words. In his vision, Ananias is instructed to go over to Straight Street and meet someone. Not just anyone, but Saul. Not just any Saul, but Saul from Tarsus. God spells it out pretty clearly. And Ananias says, “Lord, not to be disrespectful or anything, but haven’t you seen the news? This Saul of Tarsus is, well, problematic. All my sources are telling me that he tries to kill people like me. Think for a moment, God: I’m sure you must have heard from the church down in Jerusalem about this guy.”
And what is God’s response when Ananias shares his fear? “Go!” God tells Ananias that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument”, and that whereas up to now, Saul has been one to inflict suffering upon the church, from now on, he will suffer on behalf of the church.
And Ananias stops arguing with the Lord and simply does what he is told. He is so sure that God is in this that he believes that God will protect him even against the chief persecutor of Christians. He obeys God and marches down to the house on Straight Street and goes in to pray with Saul.
And look at how he does it! Don’t you wish, at least a little bit, that Ananias would have an attitude? I mean, if Saul was going around persecuting and perhaps even murdering Christians, it’s logical to assume that Ananias would know at least some of the people involved. And when you read this story, don’t you find yourself wishing at least a little bit that Ananias would show up in the room on Straight Street and say, “Oh, well, look who’s found religion now! What do you think, Mr. ‘I’m here to beat up the Christians’? You’re not so tough away from your goons, are you?” After all, Saul was a bad guy. Why is Ananias so nice to him?
Because he not only did what God told him to do, but he believed what God told him. And when God said that Saul was God’s chosen vessel, that was good enough for Ananias. He walked over to him and greeted him tenderly. “Brother Saul…” he said. And then he prayed for Saul, and the scales fell away from his eyes.
Whose eyes did the scales fall from? Saul’s, right? But did you know that they could have been in Ananias’ eyes? Sure they could have. It’s possible that Ananias could have been blinded by his own fear. I here to say that there have been times where I’ve been blinded by fear. It may be that when God asked Ananias to go and meet with Saul, that Ananias could have been so scared that he couldn’t even see straight. Ananias could have allowed his fear to incapacitate him, couldn’t he? He could have been so frightened for his own safety – or perhaps that of his wife, his friends, his children – that he’d be simply unable to do what God wanted him to do.
But it might have been more than that, too. Ananias could have been blinded by the fact that Saul was an enemy. Saul sought to do harm to all that Ananias loved. And it could have been that even though God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, changed Saul from an enemy into a friend, that Ananias couldn’t see that change. I think that you’ll agree that it’s at least possible to think about the fact that Ananias could have chosen to treat Paul as a failure, a threat, or an outsider. But he didn’t. He simply called him “Brother Saul” and did as he had been asked to do.
Beloved, I see at least two things in this passage that teach my heart today. First, I see an affirmation of the truth that there is not really anywhere in the Bible where the problem of evil is spelled out for us and solved. Ananias heard God talking about Saul and asked God if it was really safe. And God didn’t tell Ananias all about how Saul had seen the light and heard voices and had met Jesus. God didn’t tell Ananias about the possibility of real healing in the inner psyche, about regeneration, about a transformative experience. No, instead, he essentially told Ananias, “Look, friend, you leave Saul to me. I’ll take care of him.”
The promise that comes through Scripture is not that we’ll understand the nature of evil or be able to solve it. The promise is not that we’ll avoid the pain associated with sin, or be free from suffering. The promise is simple, and if I had another bible verse to throw at you this morning it would be one of my favorites: Psalm 34:4. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me. He delivered me from all my fears.” The promise is that with God’s help, we can somehow get through the pain and the evil and the sin that surrounds us – in spite of our fears.
What are you afraid of? What is it that hangs like scales in front of your eyes, blinding you to the things that God is doing in the world? Are you afraid that you don’t really have any value or worth apart from your children, and so you are living your life through them, instead of seeing what God is calling you to do? Are you wishing you could leave your job and try something new, but not sure how you could ever explain yourself? Do you have ideas about what could make things better for someone else, but you’re hesitant to share them because you’re afraid that no one will listen anyway? Are you afraid to really care about someone else because you’ve been alone for too long?
There is no fear that is greater than God’s ability to meet your needs. The Psalmist says that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.” In other words, as you draw close to God through obedience and love, God will equip you to deal with whatever gets in your way. Look, it’s not wrong for you to ask, “God, are you sure about this?” But when you do, be prepared to accept the fact that God moves and acts in and through people like you all the time. Ananias could go and meet Saul not because Saul wasn’t scary, but because God was powerfully present to an ordinary Christian like Ananias.
The second truth that this passage teaches can be a hard one for us to accept. God’s power turns enemies into family. When God first approaches Ananias about Saul, Ananias calls him “that man”. “I’ve heard about HIM, Lord. I know all about HIM.” Yet when God equips Ananias to meet Saul, he is called “brother Saul.” The stranger, the alien, the enemy – in a heartbeat becomes the brother.
Beloved, you do not know on whom it is that God will pour out his favor. But how many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, that one. Don’t talk to me about that one, Pastor. I know that one.” One of the incredible strengths of a faith community like this one is that many of you have known each other for years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. You went to school together. You married each other, or your sister married her brother, or something like that. And you formed impressions of each other in 1966 or in 1988 or in 2001. And sometimes, you treat each other as if you were the same people now as you were in 1966 or 1988 or 2001. You hold a grudge against him because of something he said to your child ten years ago. You are bitter because of the ways that she treated you in days gone by. Oh, you won’t say anything about it. You’ll be polite, and hand each other the pew pads when we ask you to. But in your heart of hearts, you maybe find it a little hard to believe that God would work with someone like that.
OK, let’s just start with this: there is no one in this room, including the one who is standing up and talking to you now, who is worthy of the grace of the Lord that is poured out. When we remember that, we can know that if God can take someone like me and do something with me, and God can take someone like you, and do something with you, then surely God has the freedom to take that one that you think you know so well and work a miracle in that one as well. So be challenged, brothers and sisters, to keep thinking the best about each other. And be encouraged, brothers and sisters, to keep praying for the ones that God hasn’t touched yet. And be willing, brothers and sisters, to look for those changes and to bless God when you see them – and to join in with one another in fulfilling the ministries to which God has called you.
After these few verses in Acts 9, we never meet Ananias again. He went back to First Church of Damascus and probably told a few people about what had happened to him. And then he disappears from our view. But do you think that Saul ever forgot how beautiful Ananias looked the instant that those scales fell from his eyes? You know that he didn’t. Who will remember you? And why?
 Told in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcartby Charles Swindoll, p. 119