No Preamble. No fancy dramatic illustration to capture your attention – we’re only a few seconds in to the sermon so hopefully I still have it.
Let’s dive straight into this story of Paul and Ananias – it is a fantastic story.
At its core this is a ‘Call Story’ – very much appropriate for this occasion today – it’s two ‘call stories’ in fact.
The dramatic calling of Paul’s epiphany is at the heart of the whole book of Acts. From persecutor to apostle – and it starts with the dazzling light, a voice from somewhere, blindness and then the regaining of sight. The rest – Paul’s teaching, preaching, faithfulness and church planting – is History we might say.
But the second story of the ‘calling of Ananias’, though much less dramatic, is equally, and perhaps more, important to us today on this Sunday of Introduction of your new minister.
There is also something I want to say today about spiritual blindness which is a big part of this story along with the whole concept of ‘the call’ of God.
Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the early church, and it has rightfully inspired Christians from every generation.
However, it is rarely found to be the story of you and I and the many other followers of God in the Christian Church. I have come across very few people in my time who claim a dramatic intervention of God in their life as the starting point of Faith.
There are some – maybe some of you here can point to a specific event occurring in your life, and such an event is undoubtedly dramatic. But for most of us, even if we pinpoint a moment in life when something changed in us. we recognise it was in fact part of a process – something was already there – brewing away in our life, and the event itself we point to is a catalyst that hurried something along.
For most of us I suspect – Faith has just been something that has progressed along – at varied speeds naturally – but generally – present for quite a while.
Paul’s Call story is one that may inspire us. It is also one that reminds us that in the life of faith we do encounter times when somehow God sends turbulence in our direction, or opens a doorway to a new path, and this is good – for sometimes we need direct intervention from God to put us on a new course – to jolt us out of ‘Blaise-ness’ – to correct a habit formed – to challenge us towards more influential service in our communities and world.
And as we see from Paul’s story – extreme as his shift is – God can do this; and God does do this.
I guess you, Alisa, will look back and say that a moment of intervention occurred in your life when you responded to a flyer saying there was an Associate Minister post available in a faraway city of Aberdeen, Scotland and something inspired and challenged you to send an e-mail of enquiry. And now look at you and your life path. A minister in the Church of Scotland – more than that the wife of a fine Scottish gentlemen and mother to two fine young Scottish (well half Scottish) boys.
We can all point to God breaking in on our lives – usually realisation comes with hindsight – most of us realise how God moves us along the paths of life.
Ananias story is even more important to us today.
We don’t know much about him of course but his ‘call’ is more likely the one most relevant to us – ongoing.
Ananias’ knowledge of Saul is that he is a persecutor, which he expresses in verse 13. The church in Damascus has been talking about Saul, and its members rightfully are afraid of him — he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths. Ananias didn’t know what had just happened.
He didn’t know that the risen Christ had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus just as Christ is now confronting him…”.
Though Ananias didn’t know about Saul’s epiphany, he did as God told him anyway. He trusted that Christ had a future purpose for Saul, even though Saul’s past, as he knew it, seemed to point toward a different future.
Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street to lay hands on Saul – was a decision to risk his life to do the will of God. The result of that reluctant leap of faith is that Saul’s eyes are opened, and he is baptized, becoming part of (and eventually a leader in) the very church he sought to wipe out.
Acts does not tell us Ananias goes on to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, found churches in urban centres across the Roman Empire, stand true to the gospel while on trial for his faith over and again, and end up under house arrest in Rome awaiting a trial before Caesar. But what Ananias did was obey God, strengthen Paul in prayer so he could do all of this.
What Ananias did was faithfully follow the lead of Christ, pray for Silas, and so play his part in the dramatic work that God had in store for Paul and of course the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches he established.
Now in case of any mistaken interpretation in what I am saying this morning.
I am not saying that all you good folks need to do as God ‘calls’ you to faithful service in this congregation is to pray for your new minister Alisa so that her eyes might be opened to all she needs to do, and all that can be done, and somehow like the superhero Paul do it all herself. Alisa is not Paul and we/ you are not Ananias in this story.
There is part of Paul and Ananias’s story in each of us – but most of the time we are most likely Ananias.
Those who are called upon to respond to God’s ‘call’ with obedience and faithfulness – even when God calls us into an unknown, or to do something, (or for someone), that appears ‘other’ than what we would normally accept as appropriate. For God has other ideas than what the world currently seems – the acceptable – and we, as God’s people, need to be led by God’s and not the world’s standards.
Like Ananias I think God is always calling you to prayer – to pray for your new minister – this means supporting her and her family and it means working with her. It also means challenging her and opening her eyes to ideas other than her own.
Like Ananias, God calls us make it a priority of our living to be faithful in service to God’s church and to the building of His Kingdom in the world.
Finally, I remind you that these Call stories today are contained within the whole backstory of spiritual blindness.
Paul dramatically lost his sight for a while. But, in the context of this story this is symbolic of his blindness to God throughout his life. Yet, his blindness to God was lifted in dramatic fashion. Ananias, as we said, did not know of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road. He knew Paul as persecutor – and brutal at that. This was Ananias blindness. But, in a dream, God lifted that blindness and he faithfully went and laid hands on Paul.
Most of us have had a journey to faith that has been a slow progression with many stops and starts along the way. Some can point to a more dramatic intervention. Looking forward – I am sure we all recognise that the progression of our relationship with God is an ongoing process.
We might say it involves regular calls to conversion as God through his Spirit will continue to prod and cajole us along – sometimes dramatically altering our course – sometimes more subtlety.
In that journey of Faith there will be lots of light and clear vision, yet there will be also long periods of spiritual darkness. I like the expression ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’. It explains that sometimes we just struggle to see the best option, or see the clear solution, or decipher the best plan.
In faith terms these are times of spiritual blindness. Every individual Christian has them. Church members, Church ministers, have periods of haziness where pathways to solutions and the right course of action are hard to find.
Every congregation has them too – times in congregational life where the right courses in terms of style and relevancy, and engagement with different generations and with the community, might not be as clear as we would like it to be.
If we are in any doubt that times of spiritual blindness are the norm, consider the story of someone who to us might be the epitome of strong faith and consistency of faith.
10 years after the death of Mother Teresa, papers were published – the private letters – which revealed she recognised long periods of spiritual blindness in her life.
Listen to what she wrote, ‘Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love —— the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One’.
The rawness of these words are startling; yet it is a reminder to all of us that even having come to faith, living as a people of faith, there will inevitably be times when our relationship with God seems less certain, when our ability to hear God is harder, when our vision of God is hazy.
Yet, in the story revealed to us today we can take strength – knowing that time and time again in our life we can expect moments of conversation, when the blindness will lift, and God will once again reveal Himself to us and reveal His Will for us.
Alisa, I pray you every blessing on your ministry here in Barnhill. Good folks of this congregation – look after you minister, enjoy your new start.
May both you Alisa, and you the folks of Barnhill, know the ‘Call of God’ and respond faithfully to Him.
May you not fear in the moments of challenge, when the path forward appears hazy – for God’s Spirit is working away – He will lift you from those times of spiritual blindness and reveal the Love He has for You, and will make clear what path he wishes you to take in order to best serve Him.