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You Want Change?
April 25 and 26, 1998

ACTS 9:1-20

You want change? Are you in a rut, tired of doing the same old things? Are you trying to break a habit? You want your life happier, more fulfilling?

Or, are you among those who believe people can't change? Are you cynical about the possibility of anyone, including yourself, improving, breaking habits, getting a new start?

Or, are you against change? Does change frighten you? Do you prefer to keep things the way they are? Are you a firm believer in the status-quo?

Saul was against change. Change frightened him to the point he became zealous, even violent, in his fight to keep the status-quo. He feared the Way, which was what they called the followers of Jesus. The Way was spreading. There were Christians not only in Jerusalem, but even in Damascus, which is the capital of present-day Syria, the country to the north of Israel. Saul believed Judaism was being threatened by the Christian growth. He personally organized a Search and Destroy mission, searching out Christians and forcefully bringing them to the chief priest

Saul was a Jew and a Roman citizen. Because of his parents' wealth and status in Tarsus, a city in what today is Turkey, Saul had the advantage of Roman citizenship, wealth, and education. He had a lot at stake which he saw the Christian movement undermining and threatening.

So, Saul and his cohorts set out from Jerusalem to go to Damascus to round up Christians. While they were walking, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around Saul. He was knocked to the ground, and a voice spoke, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul asked, "Who are you, Lord?" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Jesus! Jesus, the one who had been crucified by the Roman soldiers. The one who had been buried in a cave with a stone placed in front of the entrance. Jesus, the one whom his followers claimed had been raised from the dead. Jesus, the one whose followers Saul was now tracking and arresting. Jesus!

The voice continued, "Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." Saul got up from the ground, but he could see nothing. He had been blinded by the bright light. His friends had to take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Three days-- reminiscent of? Reminiscent of the three days Jesus lay dead in the tomb! You want change? Talk about change. Saul, the zealous persecutor, was now the victim. Saul, so sure of himself and the validity of his mission, was now helpless, having to be led about like a one-year-old infant.

Meanwhile in Damascus, a follower of Jesus named Ananias, had a vision. The Lord told him, "I want you to go a certain house on Straight Street, find a man from Tarsus named Saul, and lay your hands on him so he might regain his sight." Shocked and stunned Ananias said, "You want what? Saul is an enemy of yours! Look at how he has mistreated your saints in Jerusalem!" But the Lord was adamant. Have you noticed how it doesn't pay to argue with God! The Lord said, "I said 'Go!' I have chosen Saul to be an instrument to bring my name before Gentiles, kings and the people of Israel." So Ananias went, found Saul, laid his hands on him, 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." Talk about change! You want change? Ananias is now aiding the enemy! The very Christians whom Saul came to seek out and arrest are now helping him!

Immediately something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he again could see. Then Saul got up, was baptized, ate some food, and regained his strength. (Incidentally, the wording of the sentence and the sequence of events suggest that baptism was by sprinkling and not immersion.) For several days, Saul stayed with the disciples in Damascus. He went to the synagogues and proclaimed, "Jesus is the Son of God." Talk about change! You want change? Saul, the violent, vehement, zealous persecutor now becomes the confident, courageous proclaimer, and in so doing becomes the persecuted. Some of the Jews, thoroughly confused by Saul's dramatic change, tried to kill him. They watched the city gates day and night, but Saul's new Christian friends, in the darkness of the night, put him in a basket and let him down through an opening in the wall. He escaped and returned to Jerusalem. After Barnabas convinced the disciples that Saul was now one of them, Saul began preaching openly in the name of Jesus. His life was again threatened, so the disciples took him to the Mediterranean Sea, to Caesarea, and put him on a boat to Tarsus.

Meanwhile, Acts 9:32, "the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers." Living in the fear of the Lord, in awe, reverence, and worship, and in the comfort (interesting word) of the Holy Spirit, the church grew. The church spread beyond the boundaries of Israel, into Syria and Turkey. News came to Jerusalem that there was a growing number of believers in Antioch who needed leadership, so they sent Barnabas, who in turn, went to Tarsus to recruit Saul, and they spent an entire year in Antioch teaching new disciples and building up the church. It was in Antioch that disciples of Jesus were first called "Christians."

One day while they were worshiping, the Holy Spirit told them, "I have chosen Barnabas and Saul to be missionaries." After fasting and praying, the Antioch Christians laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them out. They boarded a ship and sailed to the island of Cyprus. Talk about change! You want change? The movement called the Way which Saul had persecuted was now spreading throughout the Roman Empire. It was at this time that Saul began using the Greek form of his name. Saul is Hebrew, Paul is Greek which was the language spoken throughout the empire.

Paul went on three missionary journeys, starting churches. The adventures are exciting. Read the book of Acts at one or two sittings. Paul had many close calls, was finally arrested for stirring things up, and sent to Rome for trial and sentencing. The book of Acts ends with Paul in prison. Tradition tells us that he was eventually executed. While in prison, and during the missionary journeys, Paul wrote letters to churches. Most were written because of church fights. Some, like the letter to the Roman Christians, were summaries of his beliefs. Most of the letters in the New Testament were written by Paul, a legacy which formed the Christian Church.

You want change? Let the life of Paul inspire you. But, you perhaps say, no blinding light has shone on me. I have not been knocked to the ground. I have not groped in darkness for three days. Perhaps change in your life has not been as dramatic, but are you sure God hasn't spoken to you? Hasn't God touched you, nudged you, struck you? Haven't you felt helpless, vulnerable on occasion? Haven't you felt led-- doors opening, challenges presented? Haven't you, like Ananias, been asked to befriend enemies? To overcome hurt feelings, anger, hostility, and widen your circle of concern to include those you considered enemies?

As you look back on your life, can't you see how God has been working in your life? We call it Prevenient Grace. Pre meaning before. Before you consciously acknowledged the Lord, God was at work. God's grace has always been holding you, protecting you, knocking on your door, working on you. Surely, the blinding light which struck Paul was not the first time God had knocked on his door. When Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs, he was arrested, stood before the chief priest, and spoke fervently and eloquently about his faith. Paul, a young man then, was there. When the crowd dragged Stephen out of the city and threw stones at him, Paul watched and guarded their coats for them. Paul heard Stephen shout, "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" Paul heard Stephen pray, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Paul heard Stephen cry out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Paul watched Stephen die. I wonder, didn't the wall begin to crack? Didn't the hard heart of Paul begin to soften? God never gives up. God was at work in Paul's life before the blinding light. God is at work in all our lives.

You want change? Talk about change! Chuck Adams is becoming a member of our church during the 10:25 service. He had a profound spiritual experience in our church this Easter, and I've asked him to share it with you during a Faith Moment in a few weeks. Evelyn McCune is also becoming a member. Talk about change. She was born and raised in Korea, the daughter of Methodist missionaries. She married the son of Presbyterian missionaries, and was widowed when her children were ages nine and thirteen. She went back to school to train for a profession. She was so intimidated that she was afraid to open her first exam when it was returned to her. It lay on the table for days, until one day it fell off and opened to reveal the "A" she had received. Eventually she was a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and later she taught Asian History and Asian Art at Diablo Valley College where the salary was higher than Berkeley! She retired as soon as she could, and moved to Hawaii where she wrote a biography of her father, two books on art and a novel, The Empress, which is for sale at the Book Parade on Canal Street in downtown Merced.

Another new small group is being formed. A Book Discussion Group will begin Wednesday at 11:45, May 6, here at the church. The first book discussed will be The Empress. You are invited.

Evelyn moved to the Hampshire one month ago, came to church one Sunday, and then went to Stanford for surgery. She amazed the doctors with her rapid recovery which Evelyn attributes to prayer. It was the first time she personally experienced the power and undergirding of prayer. Talk about change! At age 90, Evelyn moved from Hawaii to Merced, and found a mission in the Hampshire helping those who are having difficulty adjusting to the move. Some find change difficult. Evelyn takes change in stride and helps others. And, she still writes!

You want change? You don't believe you can change? You are against change? You like the status-quo, your life just the way it is? Don't count on it! Look, listen, see with eyes of faith. The Lord has a great adventure in store for you. The best is yet to come.

© 1998 Douglas I. Norris