THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
3rd Sunday of Easter
Revelation 5: 11-14
John 21: 1-2, 15-19
Acts 9: 1-20
Sunday, May 5, 2019
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.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
In discerning our call and purpose and life, what would we say is the most important attribute that God is looking for?
Should we be:
Should we believe wholeheartedly in our call that God has prepared a special purpose for us and that there is nothing that can stand between us and our understanding of God’s will?
By all earthly measurements, Saul of Tarsus was the right person for the job that we know him for:
-Building God’s church
-Inspiring billions of believers with the faith made known in his letters
-Becoming the door through whom the entire Gentile church entered into faith in Jesus.
Saul was at the same time, both very close to who Jesus needed for His mission, and yet very far away, because Saul was actively working against this mission.
In the story we have just read, this is who we meet at the beginning: a man named Saul.
Faithful in his understanding of the Law.
Confident that he had been called by God to put an end to the “Jesus movement” – the growing movement of people calling on the name of one Jesus of Nazareth, who had been put to death one Friday and supposedly rose the following Sunday.
Resourceful, in that he had used his abilities and his networks to secure letters from the high priest of Damascus to be granted permission to bring these “Jesus followers” in chains to Jerusalem as he came across them.
Saul was obviously talented, obviously capable, obviously faithful, but he did not yet possess what it took for him to become Paul.
The last ingredient needed for him to become who The Lord needed was for him to have a dramatic conversion.
-To show him that everything he believed in was wrong
-To convince him of the evil he had been doing
-To make him turn from his old life and to accept the new life offered in Jesus Christ
A conversion that blinded him, and starved him, and separated him completely from his old life… a conversion that The Lord Himself described in this way:
“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9: 16)
This conversion taught Saul what the great prophets before him (and Job before them) knew to be true:
That there is nothing more upsetting, and confusing, and painful, and wonderful, and life-giving than God taking a specific interest in your life.
The lesson that Saul learned on the Road to Damascus is that God cannot be served with a sense of surety of knowing “what is right”. God doesn’t intercede in our lives to tell us that “we’re doing great and we need to just stay the course,” rather, God wishes to interrupt every life. Every one of us, to ask us to “repent and believe the Good News.”
These interruptions are frightful, to be perfectly honest.
They strike us blind.
Like Paul, they transform our eyes into new eyes, your minds into new minds, our hearts into new hearts; and while that is wonderful, it is also painful.
There is nothing gentle or pastoral or “safe” about a conversion to the Lord. These experiences, if we are sensible (and as Christians we are not, thanks be to God!) are not things to wish upon ourselves or those we care about!
There is an old joke I have heard told often amongst ministers and it goes something like this:
There was once was a minister sitting in his office on a quiet weekday when suddenly there was an urgent knock on the church door.
The minister got up from his desk and went to the door to find one of his most faithful, hardworking, and long-time parishioners standing there.
The man had obviously been wrestling with something very important and had come down in a state of panic—his clothes were sweaty and wrinkled, his hair was messy and dirty, he had great big bags under his eyes.
The minister invited the man into his office, poured him a cup of coffee and asked what was the matter?
“Well, it’s like this Reverend, the man began, I feel like God is calling me!”
The minister sighed, put on his most comforting pastoral look, looked at the man with love and said the only true thing he could say in that moment:
The God we try to know and follow.
The same God who blinded Saul on the road to Damascus.
The same God who interrupts our lives and asks us to do all sorts of difficult things for the sake of the Gospel; is, whether we like it or not, rarely one who calls “just to see how we are doing.”
In the Scriptures and in our lives, God’s call is like the great lion Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles:
Good, but not safe.
God’s call turns our strength into weakness and our weakness into strength.
God’s call turns our senses of right and wrong on their heads.
God’s call turns our ideas of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator around completely.
That is why Christ’s church is able to do unbelievable things – like pray for their enemies, even those who are actively persecuting them!
That is why the call is called “to repent” –literally to “turn around.”
And sometimes, if we are especially stubborn, and especially good at ignoring God’s call in our lives, God will strike us—either blind or dumb or into a total state of confusion, just to get our attention, to get us to finally give up the idols we have been hanging onto that have prevented us from listening.
When I was a young man and just beginning my lifelong process of “repenting and believing the Good News” I had one MASSIVE idol in my life, one that I thought was righteous and worthwhile, one that I thought proved that I was (at least to others) a strong and good person, one that while completely selfish, I made believe was somehow making the world a better place.
That idol was running.
I LOVED running. I IDOLIZED running.
I ran 6 or 7 days a week. I loved PUSHING myself harder and harder. To be capable of taking on more VOLUNTARY pain.
I ate in ways to serve my running, I slept in ways to serve my running, I missed commitments and acted selfishly in a hundred different ways to serve my running.
I raced a dozen or so times a year. I won races and set new bests and it was NEVER EVER ENOUGH, I always wanted to go FASTER and FARTHER and to PROVE something.
I remember exactly where I was when God first tapped me on the shoulder to try to show me that I was getting carried away, that He had different purposes in mind for me, that I didn’t need to PROVE anything in this way.
I was at my home church in Lethbridge, the same place where I would hear the call to ministry a few years later and the minister was making a pitch for God’s love:
He said God loves you where you are AND God has no intention of leaving you there.
God loves you in your sinful state. God loves you with all of your fears and your insecurities, all of your idols and your desires, God loves who you are as an imperfect and loveable person.
God has something so much more in store for you. God wants to free you from those fears and those insecurities. God wants to free you from those idols. God wants you to REALIZE that while you are imperfect, you are truly loveable, that you are truly worthy of His grace and His love and His companionship, and that there is nothing God wants more in the whole world than for YOU (that is YOU!) to be whole and happy and healthy and to know WHOSE you are and how much that God loves you.
In that moment in my life the implication was clear: God doesn’t care how fit I am, God doesn’t care what size I wear, God doesn’t care how fast I can run or what I can accomplish or who I compare myself with, God loves me and wants me to have faith that He wants me to experience the freedom of the Gospel.
And in that moment, I did what I did the next 100 or so times I heard that message: I said “maybe later.”
Maybe later God.
Maybe after this next season.
Maybe after this next race.
Maybe after I get to wherever it is that I NEED TO GET TO ON MY OWN.
Chances are, friends, that there is now or has been something in your own life that has caused you to answer “maybe later God.” Chances are that there is something in your own life that has caused you to say, “not now God,” let me just get where I NEED TO GET ON MY OWN and then I’m all yours!
John Calvin says that “the heart is an idol factory,” that all we must do is be alive and human and we will come up with something to idolize and to separate us from God. And so often, that is our own sense of being right or being in control.
Lord, let me just make a little more money on my own, and then I’m all yours
Lord, let me just get one more accolade on my own, and then I’m all yours
Lord, let me just fix this one situation or this one relationship on my own, and then I’m all yours
Lord, let me just get this one addiction under control on my own, and then I’ll come openly to you.
The incredible thing that we only learn later on is that God never wanted you after you had perfected yourself, God never wanted you after you had made everything right, God never wanted you after you had proven something to yourself, God just wants you NOW.
God wants you with your inability to let go.
God wants you with your idolizing heart.
God wants you with your sin.
God will take care of that sin for you. God will show you that Jesus has already taken that sin to the cross for you and that you are in-fact completely free to live in the love of His Grace.
God will take care of those idols for you.
God will take care of you when you are afraid that you cannot take care of yourself, that your temptations are just too great, that your idolized desires are beyond your control.
God loves you exactly where you are as imperfect as you are AND God has no intention of leaving you there.
Friends, I know these things first hand.
I know that God will take a frightened, out of his depths, idol-obsessed young man.
I know that God will take YOU and show YOU the freedom to let go of whatever is preventing you from turning around and accepting God’s grace and purpose for your life.
I know that God will be patient, and kind, and forgiving; more patient, and kind, and forgiving than any human being could ever be while you lie to yourself and “sort it all out.”
And I also know that God will use incredible, unexpected, and even very painful things to get your attention should you wait too long.
Friends, I have been to the Damascus road.
I have been struck, not with blinding light, but with blinding pain, to finally give up my idolatry and to try to start accepting God’s offer of repentance.
The closest thing to a miracle that I have ever experienced was the night after my last idolized race in February 2016. A night of what I then described as “white-hot blinding pain.” Every nerve of my body was on fire, every muscle was cramped, I didn’t end up in a hospital or an ambulance but only because I couldn’t dial a phone or crawl to the door.
As I lay sweating and convulsing in agony on my Vancouver apartment floor, I knew that I was either going to die or I was going to live, but I was never going to worship that idol again.
And I didn’t.
None of us is ever finished in this task of being called to repentance.
Like Paul who wrote (long after his Damascus Road experience) to the church in Rome that he still “does not do the good he wishes to do but instead does the wrong he does not want to,” I am certain that I will never be “complete” in becoming freed from my idols and my disobedience to the Gospel, but when I am in a community of kind, loving believers, when I am in prayer with God, when I find myself lost in the words of Scripture, I believe that God has and will make me more and more able to see the Truth of the Good News.
So that you don’t worry about me or my health, I’ll close with this:
I still run, though much less often than I did.
Compared to where I was three years ago and before, I am heavy and slow and constantly out-of-breath, but I love it for the right reasons now.
In fact, yesterday morning, I did what I would never have done in those years. I went out into North Glenmore Park in Calgary and I ran, slowly, and breathlessly, without a care for how far or fast I was going.
I ran along in nature as snow was gently falling and I enjoyed God’s creation as I went.
I saw hundreds of little bluebirds feeding on insects, inches above the water.
I ran down narrow, grassy trails and saw deer and coyote tracks.
I saw pairs of mallard ducks paddling in pools barely deep enough to keep them afloat.
I saw all of scenes of beauty and creation and more, and as I walked to catch my breathe I saw myself, as much a part of this creation as any of these creatures, and I knew that God loved me and wanted me to be happy.
And may the same God that calls us closer to him, the same God who uses every experience of life to bring about revelation and repentance do the same for you.