Preached at Vancouver First Friends Church
Feb. 22, 2015
Jesus said to those around him several times, “You who have ears to hear, hear!” He echoes the words of God to Ezekiel, “Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a bitter, disobedient, rebellious family, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a bitter, disobedient, rebellious house” (Ezek 12:2). Not all have ears to hear, and not all with the ability to hear actually listen so that what is said enters their hearts.
Jesus also echoes Deut. 29, where Moses says to all Israel, “Your eyes have seen all the LORD did in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; the great testings which your own eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles: yet the LORD has not given you a heart to perceive and understand, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, up to this day.” Then Moses called on Israel to enter into the covenant wherein they know that God is the LORD their God. “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to God’s voice, and hold fast to God. For the LORD is your life…”
God gives people hearts to perceive and understand, eyes to see, and ears to hear. Further, when God gives the ability to hear, we need to take into our inner selves the truth that we have one God and no other, that we will listen and do what God tells us to do.
Saul hears but doesn’t listen
We have an excellent example of hearing without listening in the life of Saul, also known as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Saul enters the story as an enemy to the Gospel. Saul may in fact have been one of the Jews who hauled Stephen in before the priests; Acts 6 mentions people from Saul’s home province as disputing with Stephen and being unable to win. Their frustration moved them to get people to witness falsely that Stephen had spoken against Moses and against God and had said that Jesus would change the customs which Moses had given them.
When Stephen is given a chance to speak in his own defense, this is what he says:
1) Stephen reviews the high points of Israel’s history
2) Stephen reminds the Jews of what God directly said at two moments in the history,
A) God promised Abraham that his descendants will possess the land after a period of slavery in a country not their own, and gave him the covenant sign of circumcision
B) God called Moses to deliver Abraham’s descendants from slavery; God sent him to rule and judge the same people who had earlier rejected his authority as a ruler and judge
3) Stephen reminds his audience of what the prophets Amos and Isaiah said to the people of Israel: “You have turned to idols and I will send you into exile in Babylon”; and “I do not live within creation or any house you build for me.”
4) Stephen brings it home to his audience with a prophetic word: you are stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your inner self and in your ability to hear.
A) You are just like the ancient Hebrews who turned to idols.
B) You always resist the Holy Spirit.
C) You and your fathers persecute every prophet God sends you.
D) And you have betrayed and murdered the Messiah.
E) Even though you are the ones who received the law from God’s direct messengers, you have not obeyed it.
5) Then Stephen said out of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, “I see heaven open and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.”
6) Unsurprisingly, this was Stephen’s last sermon. They were infuriated and began to stone him. As he died, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (clear echoes of what Jesus Himself had said on the cross).
In this sermon are several lessons for Saul: You are not right—you have attached God to the land, the law and the temple and are worshiping the creation rather than the Creator; you are blind and deaf to the actual presence of God in your midst through Jesus and the Holy Spirit; you are in agreement with those who betrayed and murdered Jesus and now you resist the Holy Spirit.
Saul took none of this into his heart but instead reacted against it with violence.
Saul took none of this into his heart but instead reacted against it with violence.
I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about Saul’s conversion into Paul, and she said, “Was he converted?” and that made me think about conversion in general. The inner meaning of convert is “to turn around” or “to cause to return” and literally this does not apply. Saul continued to journey toward Damascus, continued to believe in the God of Israel. So I wondered whether “repent” might apply; the Latin root of repent includes the idea of regret or penitence, but we don’t see that in this story. However, the Greek of the New Testament uses the word metanoia, which means essentially to change the direction of the inner self, to change attitudes and conduct. This is a good picture of what happened to Saul. Because of the direct encounter with Jesus, he changed how he saw everything, how he heard. He changed his mind.
Saul listens and changes his mind
Acts 7:58, 8:1-3; 9:1-9:31
Saul was already a believer in the one true God and was zealous against those he perceived to be traitors to that belief (“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, but brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, taught the law of the fathers with strictness and thoroughness, and I was zealous for God, as are you all today” Acts 22:3).
Saul was moved by the spectacle of the stoning of Stephen to embark on his own purifying mission; he was pleased by Stephen’s death; he agreed with those who stoned him. (“And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and I guarded the clothes of those who killed him” Acts 22:20). Saul condoned and encouraged violence.
Saul imprisoned people to preserve the purity of the faith (“I persecuted followers of the Way to their death, binding and delivering both men and women into prisons” Acts 22:4).
When Saul met Jesus, he did not recognize him (“And I answered, Who are You, Lord?” Acts 22:8).
When Jesus met him personally, Jesus said that Saul was persecuting him personally (“And he said to me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” Acts 22:8).
Saul’s subsequent physical blindness made obvious his previous spiritual blindness (“I could not see for the glory of that light” Acts 22:11).
But remember, he was a devout believer in the God of the Hebrew testament and was working to preserve and purify that faith (“And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat those who believed on You in every synagogue” Acts 22:19).
Thus we learn that a zealous defense of the truth and the true God may coexist with spiritual blindness to how God is presently at work. We also learn that persecuting those who love and follow Jesus is the same as persecuting Jesus.
The road from blindness to sight for Paul ran through the community he had persecuted—that very community had to risk reaching out to Paul in order for his healing to take place (“And there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and said the Lord said to him in a vision, Ananias…Arise and go into the Straight street, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prays and has seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard from many about this man and how much evil he has done to Your saints at Jerusalem: and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on Your name” Acts 9:10-14; “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and stood, and said to me, Brother Saul, receive your sight. And the same hour I was able to see him” Acts 22:12-13).
Jesus incapacitated Saul thoroughly enough to halt Saul’s persecuting activities, and then Jesus worked with Ananias to overcome Ananias’s justifiable prejudice and fear. Saul never returned to his condoning of violence.
After recovering his physical sight, Saul threw himself so zealously into defending the followers of Jesus that his life was in danger. The believers sent him home to Tarsus and then enjoyed a time of peace. Saul’s trait of zealousness didn’t much change but his direction in life did. Instead of being the defender of the Law and the Temple, he brought to the Gentiles the good news of Jesus, in whose resurrection power we also live. Instead of putting people into prison, Paul told us how Christ’s resurrection sets us free.
This speaks a truth about knowing the Law and hearing sermons: they do us little good by themselves. This speaks a second truth: when we refuse to listen, we justify our refusal and become violent against those who are listening. This speaks a third truth as well: meeting Jesus personally, which is possible every day of the week, and every day of our lives, blows away what we think we know and moves us to change our minds. Then, like Paul, we can be apostles of the Good News of Jesus.