Who gets a surprise?
Rather than asking who gets a surprise, it might be easier to ask who doesn’t? Would there be anyone left? Saul certainly gets a life-changing shock – he starts off as a sword, intending to destroy the fledgling church and ends up as a ploughshare, who will produce an enduring harvest for the Lord Jesus.
Ananias, too, gets a shock. You want me to do what, Lord? He is one of many examples in the pages of the Bible who demonstrates that we have the freedom to say “you what?” when we sense God calling us. I also note though that, unlike Jonah, he doesn’t book himself on a ship sailing in the opposite direction. Hurrah for Ananias – a hero of Christian faith. Through his faithfulness, the local church had the amazement of finding their would-be destroyer now actively building them up.
There were, of course, surprises on the other side too. Those who travelled with Saul were “speechless”, having heard the voice from heaven though they didn’t see the vision. The Jews in Damascus who rejected Jesus were “confounded” or “baffled”; this wasn’t what they had expected when they heard the high priest was sending them someone to help. Finally, although the passage doesn’t say so directly, I expect there was a certain amount of shock and anguish back at the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. They had written Saul letters of authority because he was their champion. I wouldn’t have liked to be the person given the job of taking the news back home!
What about you? After our warm-up, did you manage to feel the surprise of what we can sometimes let pass as an over-familiar story?
God’s gifts to the church
Let us wrap up by considering the lessons this passage might have for us. There is the historical observation, that the one of the Christian church’s greatest enemies became one of its greatest heroes. Incidentally, it wasn’t the case that Saul changed his name to Paul on his conversion. The switch doesn’t come until some years later (in chapter 13) – like many in those days, he probably had more than one name and seems to have switched to preferring Paul as he increasingly ministered in a gentile environment. I’m going to switch to speaking of Paul now as I look at the wider context but, in case you haven’t come across this before, it is the same person.
It isn’t true that the early church was all about Paul – it was truly all about Jesus. However, he was a significant leader and we benefit from his teaching. About a quarter of the New Testament was written by him and there are also quite a few chapters in the Book of Acts written about him. Just as significant was the example of his life. Jesus turned him around. Having started off determined to destroy the church, Paul instead ended by building the church. He stuck with that faithfully, through thick and thin, through prison and even, eventually, to death as a martyr. When he set out to Damascus, he was intent on doing harm to others; after his transformation, he was willing to bear harm himself to serve others. If that’s salvation, it’s worth talking about, both then and now.
God has given many gifts to his church but could we say that the most surprising gift was Paul? I know the answer to sermon questions is normally “Jesus”, but (as Paul among others often explained) the Jewish scriptures were full of prophecies that should have led to us expecting the Servant King-Messiah. Paul, like his vision on the road to Damascus, was a bolt out of the blue – wonderful, transformative and an utter surprise.
Finally, what does this mean for us? I hope you enjoyed the exercise of approaching the passage with imagination and recapturing perhaps a little of what it was like to hear it for the very first time. I think that all of us will have many of our own experiences of surprise to draw on. Can anyone live a life that isn’t interrupted from time to time by surprises, both welcome and unwelcome?
That can be an unnerving thought but turn to Jesus, rest in him. To borrow some words from Psalm 121, “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Based on God’s word and on what I can discern from my own lived experience so far, I hope that one day each of us will be able to sit with Christ and look back over our lives, the twists and turns and apparent setbacks and see every stitch in place and the glorious pattern complete. We can’t avoid surprises and some of them, frankly, will feel painful and heart-rending. What we can do though is to face each one with Jesus, saying “Lord, take me forward and keep my eyes on you.”
Let me finish with a brief prayer, again drawing on Psalm 121: Lord, thank you that you watch over our coming and going, both now and forevermore. Amen.