Rev. Katherine Todd
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 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, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. 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.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
This scripture passage always stops me in my tracks. Every time I read it, I hear God’s righteous anger. I hear God’s impatience with outward displays of repentance. God is telling it like it is. No fluff.
The people say one thing, yet do another.
They seek God and delight to know God’s ways, AS IF they were a people who practiced righteousness.
The people have the outward appearance of religion while their hearts and motives and behaviors are far from God’s ways
They fast. They put on sackcloth and ashes. They mourn and make displays of repentance, but they do it for their own motives. Their actions don’t really change. Instead of turning away from sin, they sin all the more, continuing to oppress and exploit one another, to fight and bicker, to blame and point fingers, to turn away from the hungry and oppressed…
God SEES RIGHT THROUGH these pious religious acts.
Perhaps to the world and even among their peers, these folks appear very good. They do the right things. They follow the rituals. They know what to say. They show up. They seek after God.
But their hearts and their lives betray them before God.
And God wants no part of it!
The whole point of everything, the whole point of seeking God, the whole point of fasting, the whole point of praying, the whole point of sackcloth and ashes…it is all to bring us to true repentance and discipleship. The point of all this seeking God is that we might EXPERIENCE GOD and be transformed.
We are to leave DIFFERENT than when we came.
If you and I are coming to church and worship, week after week, and leaving the same. Then we are missing the point all together.
To stand in the presence of the Almighty, is to be changed.
And we are here to seek the presence of the Almighty God.
If we are leaving the same, then we have to ask ourselves why we are coming. What are we doing. Whose interests are we serving? What are our reasons? Do we have an agenda?
We gather as the church to seek God’s face and learn God’s ways.
So how are we putting into practice God’s ways?
Where is all this seeking God getting us?
John Newton composed the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.
He was not one you’d think of as a hymn writer or a lover of God.
In fact his early years were full of angst and pain. His puritan mother died just before his 7th birthday. His father was a stern sea captain who began taking him out to see at age 11. His continued drunkenness and recklessness led to his being impressed into the British Navy. But he didn’t last there long, but was caught trying to desert, given 8 dozen lashes and demoted to common seaman. During one voyage on a slave trading ship, the ship was damaged badly and would have sunk, but Newton prayed to God and miraculously some cargo shifted on the ship, plugging the hole in the hull and allowing the ship to drift to safety. This moment is renowned as marking his conversion to Christianity. His real transformation was slower in coming, however, as he later wrote: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.” But this moment did mark the beginning of his reading the Bible. And in doing so, he began to look on his captives with greater sympathy.
Still, he continued in the slave trade business, making 3 more voyages, until he had a stroke and retired. Even still, he continued to invest in the trade of human beings…
Ten years later, he became an Anglican priest. He began composing hymns to accompany the services, some 280 in all. Eighteen years after his retirement from the slave trade business, he wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. It would be sixteen more years, however, before he publicly renounced the slave trade in a blazing pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” In the tract he described the abhorrent conditions of the travel and he apologizes for how long it took him to publicly renounce the practice. He wrote: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
Despite Newton’s long journey to repentance, this final step of publicly denouncing the trade of human beings made an impact. The tract became very popular and was printed and reprinted. And in 1807, the English civil government outlawed slavery in Great Britain. Newton lived, just long enough to see it.
Newton is not a fine example of someone who followed after God quickly. It took him almost his whole lifetime to begin to “right” some of the grave wrongs and injustices committed in his life.
And yet he did follow.
Despite the time it took, despite the seeming gross inadequacy of the good he tried to accomplish in his later years, he turned…away from sin and toward righteousness.
And so many other figures we meet in the Bible are flawed. The famed prodigal son of Jesus’ parable does not turn around until he hits utter rock bottom, not until he’s squandered half the family’s wealth and assets, at the expense of his father and brother…
And yet he turns.
Even Paul, who authored so many of our beloved New Testament books only turned to God after actively and fervently persecuting the followers of Christ. He used the hold the coats of those who stoned Christians. He traveled far and wide hunting them. But God had other plans, stops him in his tracks, and begins to teach him through the risen Christ and through those very Christians he had only days before been seeking out in order to kill. Paul, then known as Saul, turns, away from evil and toward God, and God gives him a new name.
If you’d have asked him before whether or not he was following God, I am sure he would have given us a resounded, “Yes!” After all, he was top among his peers and colleagues in serving God, as he understood God to be. But it wasn’t until he met the risen Christ on that Damascus road that his understanding of God expanded and he was able to glimpse the Living God. Like the scales that fell from his eyes, the idols of God which he’d fervently followed fell away before the One true God who shattered all his boxes and limits and narrow ideas about God.
Reading the Bible, coming to church, seeking God’s face, worshipping together… all of this is meant to facilitate encounters between us and the Living God. Though our encounters may be less dramatic than Paul’s on that Damascus road or John Newton’s in the belly of that ship for human trafficking, these encounters are real. And they are meant to shake us out of our complicity in sin and evil – even the kind of complicity we once thought was good.
We cannot encounter the Living God and leave unchanged.
Our lives are not our own.
They have been redeemed at great cost.
We have been saved and called for PURPOSE.
And not our own purposes. We are called to step into the flow of God’s Spirit and to join our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend in carrying out God’s purposes.
Like Jonah, called to tell a sinful people the error of their ways, we may be called to reach out to folks we do not like and might rather see smote by the hand of God than given another chance.
Like Moses, we may be called to lead a stubborn and rebellious people, out of bondage and into freedom and that wholeness that comes from righteous living.
Like Joshua, we may be called to fight battles, where the odds are stacked against us, where the people are literally twice our size…
Like Joseph, we may be called to save a generation, ensuring there is food enough for all.
Like Rahab, we may be called to harbor spys and change course of history…
Like Paul, we may be called to persist, at great odds, in sharing the good news and nurturing the faith of new believers…
We cannot reduce God’s commands to prescriptive acts. There is not a magic number of good deeds we can do to be righteous before God. So what are our motives? What are our motives for giving? What are our motives for coming to worship? Why are we here?
If we give, may it be because God is calling us to trust God more with our finances and to empower others to be about the work of God in our time.
If we worship, may it be an opening of ourselves to the living God among us now.
May we find ourselves changed, week after week, in the presence of the Almighty God.
If we love, may it be because God has first loved us.
If we comfort others, may it be with the comfort God has shown us.
If we serve and give of ourselves, may it be because our God has given so much to us, and we will be found honoring and serving God with our gifts and talents.
This season of Lent is an invitation to truly humble ourselves before God. It is a season of opening ourselves to God’s presence, as we meditate on the life and death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is an invitation to open ourselves to encounter the Living God.
With the Psalmist, may we too pray:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
And may we be found faithful – not perfect, not always right – but a disciple,
one who spends time in the presence of the Lord,
learning God’s ways,
continually correcting our course,
continually growing and changing our ways,
that more and more and more,
whether early or late,
we may be found to be following after Christ,
not merely learning about God’s ways
not merely stepping away from our sinful ways
but stepping into the active and powerful working of God in our world right now,
speaking what God leads us to speak
working as God leads us to work,
and walking in God’s ways.
May it be so.