Empowered to Share
May 7, 2017
I think its probably safe to say that our culture loves a good before and after story.
You know the ones…they play themselves out on TV everyday.
HGTV has made millions by making every show about taking a rundown house and transforming it into something beautiful. The more ugly it is…the more before the before…the better the after.
The same could be said for weight loss, self-help stories, and makeovers…they are all based on this concept of before and after.
This is all well and fine. I love Chip and Joanna Gaines just as much as the next person…
But sometimes these extreme before and after stories can be problematic.
They can make those of us without brand new open concept kitchen cabinets hand sanded by Drew What’s his name…feel a little inadequate.
Those of us who haven’t lost 50 pounds in two weeks…haven’t been given a free new wardrobe…haven’t sat with Oprah in a forest…feel like we’re missing out on something.
We know that those of us are most of us. That what we see on TV is not the norm…even though it can begin to seem like everyone should be able to buy home for $100 and have remarkably good looking people renovate it.
It’s entertainment and fun…and harmless…as long as it doesn’t skew our view of reality. Ironic, isn’t it, that most of these shows are called “Reality TV?”
The before and after narrative runs deep in popular Christian culture as well.
I attended a high school youth conference at the University of Indiana when I was in 10th grade…its occurring to me that this is not the most timely illustration…
But even though it was almost 5 years ago…okay 25…I still remember the speakers all seemed to follow the same script:
I was bad. Really bad. And I did bad things. Then I found Jesus.
Then I didn’t do bad things anymore. Go and do likewise.
I don’t mean to take any of these stories lightly. For a 16 year old who was a pretty good kid it was good for me to hear stories of God’s grace reaching out to change lives.
But these stories have a way of quieting the quieter stories.
They can make our ordinary conversions feel a little bleak. Or perhaps you’re on the ‘before’ side of conversion…and you’re just not sure yet if you want to be in relationship with Jesus. (And its important to mention that there is room for you here in the place…to help you get to know who Jesus is…)
This is where radical before and after stories can be tricky.
As a pastor, when tasked with asking people to share their story…the most common response I am met with is: “Oh, I don’t have a very good story.” or “My testimony is not that exciting…”
I don’t believe it. And God doesn’t either.
Today’s passage is one of the most exciting and unexpected before and after stories in the Bible…but here’s the thing: there’s more to it than the flash! It takes longer than 60 minutes, or 43 with commercial breaks…there is an in between, a space between the before and after, that is rich with story and meaning for you and for me…
Listen now, as I read from Acts chapter 9…
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 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] 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.” 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] 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.
This passage begins right where we left off last week…literally.
The last verse of last week’s passage was, “But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
And the first verse of this week’s passage is: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest…
Dragging off men and women…putting them in prison…threats of murder…
This guy is on the before side of before….
Paul was determined to make life miserable…to the point of even ending the life…of anyone who followed Christ.
So the fact that God would choose Paul to carry his message to the ends of the earth is not something to be glossed over…
If Gallup had done some polling and asked, “Who is the LEAST likely person God would choose to be his messenger to the world?” 99 out of 100 people would have said, “Saul…” and the other 1 person would have said “Paul” but meant the same person.
God chooses this most unlikely person…the guy who has been locking up Christians…the guy who approved of Stephen’s murder! That’s who he chooses.
It is amazing. It is outlandish. And of course…it is of God.
This is a remarkable before and after story…especially since we can follow it through to the end…we know that because Saul’s “After” will be all about following and preaching Jesus…he will be the one in prison…he will be the one murdered for his faith.
Paul takes all the energy, all the will, all the determination that had been directed at persecuting Christians, and directs it into preaching the gospel relentlessly.
This is an amazing before and after story.
But there’s this space in the middle…somewhere between before and after…that deserves another look.
Saul has been blinded on the road to Damascus…and arrives there and does not eat or drink for three days.
And then…another person enters the story. A man named Ananias.
Now, we don’t know his conversion story…his before and after. We don’t know how he became a follower of Jesus. All we know is that he was sitting at home when the Lord called his name…and he answered.
Ananias is the lesser known character. The ordinary.
The often forgotten.
He is the Watson to Paul’s Sherlock Holmes. The Hermoine to his Harry Potter.
The Chewbacca to his Han Solo.
There is no great BEFORE AND AFTER moment in Ananias’ story…
But there is a present…an in-between moment…and its no less remarkable.
Ananias is faithful to his call from God in the moment…and in doing so, ushers in Paul’s great ‘after’…
If you look closely at the passage, you see that God enters into conversation with both men the same way: he begins by saying their name. “Saul” “Ananias”
Now Saul and Jesus were not really on a first name basis…so he needed to start with introductions…
“Who are you Lord?”
But Ananias…his response is different:
“Here I am, Lord.”
He knew God. And it seems as though they’ve spoken before. And so he answers…making himself available before he even knows the request. He’s ready. He’s open. He’s willing to be interrupted.
Here I am Lord.
Not, There I was…or There I will be. Not before or after…Now. Here I am Lord.
One of the congregants at our last church loved to say that God asks us to be ‘flexible and available.’ I love that…and I think it’s great advice for all of you… Often times I am terrible at both of them…but not Ananias. He is flexible and available. (Here I am Lord)
Now of course, as soon as he hears what he’s supposed to do…he may have regretted answering.
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] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
God might as well asked Ananias to go to the moon.
Word had already reached the community of Christians in Damascus about Saul…they knew what he had done in Jerusalem and they maybe even knew he was on his way to pay them a visit…
This is the man they had been living in fear of…the man they were hoping to hide from…and now God is telling Ananias to go directly TO HIM.
He says, “Are you sure?” Yes, I’m sure.
And so he goes. And does exactly as the Lord tells him to do…
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.
We don’t know Ananias’ before…we don’t know his after… But we know that he was present.
He laid his hands on Saul. He called him brother.
And healed him and baptized him.
“Here I am Lord.”
He is working in ways we never thought imaginable…and uses us as his hands and feet to carry out this work…before and after…and the in between.
God used Ananias to transform Saul’s wretched before to a glorious after.
He needs people who are willing to be present, willing to be interrupted, willing to be flexible and available.
He is calling all of us by name…
For some of you, he has called you by name to make incredible journeys…to travel the world. To spread the gospel…to love in the name of Jesus to the least likely of places and spaces.
For others, he has called you by name to be present in this space…to lay hands, to pray for, to call others by name.
There is never a day that does not present an opportunity to say “Hear I am Lord.”
Where is God leading you?
What will be our response when God says to us, “Get up and go.”
God is in the before…in the after…and in the in between. Our task is to show up and say “Here I am.”
Forgive us for missed opportunities. Lead us into new opportunities. New ways to say “Here I am Lord.” Today…and everyday.