September 21, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE STORY OF THE CHURCH: SURPRISES
The third in a series of six.
Life is full of surprises. I was talking to a friend the other day. He’s a few years older than I am. He told me that nothing in his life has gone according to plan. Nothing. At an early age, he was real clear about what he wanted to accomplish. He even had benchmarks in mind for where he wanted to be at various stages in his life. But life for him had been a series of surprises. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant, but all of them unexpected. All of them interfering with his own plan for his life. He had to admit, his life had turned out pretty well. Maybe better than it would have been without all the surprises. It just didn’t turn out the way he thought it would.
Proverbs 16:1 says, “We can make our plans, but the final outcome is in God’s hands.” We can make our plans, but we’d better be prepared for a few surprises along the way.
The Book of Acts is full of surprises. Because the Holy Spirit is full of surprises. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable. And remember, in Acts chapter 2, on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s the day the church was born. With the Holy Spirit in charge. And it’s been a wild ride ever since!
There is a whole branch of Christianity that uses the word “Pentecost” in their name. These are the Pentecostal churches. They are the churches that let the Holy Spirit lead in worship. They have some wild worship. You never know what’s going to happen. Even the worship leaders never know what’s going to happen! Because, for them, there is only one “worship leader” and that is the Holy Spirit.
Most of us would be uncomfortable with that much spontaneity. In another church I served, one Sunday someone came up to the microphone to make a most mundane announcement about some upcoming church event. And then I saw Beth walking slowly up to the microphone. Beth was not scheduled to speak. And I knew Beth. So I knew this wasn’t going to be pretty. Beth announced that the Holy Spirit had told her to speak. Essentially what she said was that the previous announcement had not made God very happy. Well, her announcement did not made me very happy!
I don’t like surprises, especially in a worship service. And yet I would be the first to admit that there is nothing more deadly than a worship service where every last detail is carefully scripted and everything happens exactly as planned. There has to be room for the Holy Spirit. There has to be room for surprises.
There are people who love surprises and there are people who hate surprises. There are people who answer their doorbell and it’s someone just dropping by unannounced to visit and it’s wonderful. It’s the highlight of their day. And there are other people who answer their doorbell to that unexpected guest and it ruins their whole day. They have to try real hard to be polite because all they can think about is what they will no longer have time to do because of all the time it took to visit with this guest who will never leave!
Are surprises good or bad? Of course, some are good and some are bad. But in general, what is your attitude toward surprises? Do you welcome them or do you resent them? Is the word “surprise” a positive or a negative word for you? Well, like them or not, they are coming. They are here. Life is full of them. And life goes best when we accept them and look for the good in them.
Our scripture today tells the story of one of the biggest surprises in the Bible. And there are some other big surprises. Nothing can compare to the surprise of the resurrection. Nothing comes close. That’s in a whole different league. But among all the other startling surprises in the Bible, this one ranks right up there. No one could have seen this coming. Saul becomes a Christian.
Most of you know him by the name Paul so that’s the name I’m going to use from now on. It’s often said that Saul was given the new name, Paul, to signify that he was now a Christian, but that’s not correct. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Roman name. He used both names his entire life. But the Bible commonly uses his Roman name, Paul.
In the story of the church, the bombshell to beat all bombshells is the unbelievable news that Paul is now a Christian. It was so unbelievable, it was not believed at first. It couldn’t be possible. It was the surprise to top all surprises.
Paul is introduced briefly three times before the passage we read. We first meet him at the execution of Stephen. Stephen was a Christian who was martyred for his faith. We’re told that those who threw the stones at Stephen first “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named [Paul]” (7:58). Then after Stephen died, we are told that, “[Paul] was consenting to his death” (8:1) And finally, after Stephen was buried, it says, “[Paul] was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (8:3).
It’s quite clear. Paul was no friend of the Christians. He was a terrorist as far as the Christians of that day were concerned. He wanted nothing more than to eliminate all Christians from the face of the earth. The passage we read today begins: “But [Paul], still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and got arrest warrants to take to the synagogues at Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them and bring them bound to Jerusalem” (9:1-2).
Now you tell me. Does that sound like a description of a likely candidate to become a Christian? And yet that’s exactly what happens. Paul is blinded by a light that came down from heaven. He meets Jesus. He can’t see Jesus. He is blind. But he hears Jesus: “[Paul, Paul], why do you persecute me?” (9:4) The Message says it like this: “Why are you out to get me?”
That certainly was a surprise to Paul. He wasn’t expecting that. That wasn’t part of his plan for the day. But that’s how God works. God surprises us. That’s true in our lives. And that’s certainly true in the life of a church.
I have seen many things happen in the churches I’ve served that I never could have predicted. So many that there’s one thing I can predict with some confidence: God will surprise us here at church! God doesn’t send all the surprises. Some of them come in spite of God’s intent. Some are like a kick in the teeth. Even these God has a way of turning into good. But most surprises can be described as a “God thing.” We didn’t plan it. We didn’t expect it. We couldn’t even have imagined it. But here it is. A surprise which is exactly what we need.
My latest favorite book is Rebuilt. It’s the story of a Catholic parish that God turned around. It was declining. It is now thriving. This comes from that book:
You might be wondering how we pulled off a successful capital funds campaign when there was growing unhappiness among many members. We don’t really know. We’ll call it a “God thing.” When you start moving in the direction God is giving, unexpected, unexplainable, amazing things start unfolding (page 56).
One of my favorite “God thing” surprises that I’ve come to expect in a church is the new people God leads to us. People like Calvin. There’s no Calvin in this church that I know of. Not yet. So I thought I could use that name. But this is a true story from another church. Calvin was a long-haul truck driver with an eighth grade education. He lived with his wife and kids in a trailer-park mobile home. It was wallpapered with Elvis Presley posters.
One day driving the interstate he was listening to the CB radios of other truckers as he often did. But this time was different. This time all the obscenities and pornographic stories disgusted him. He turned off his radio. He said a prayer: “God, save me. God, give me a clean life. I can’t live like this any longer.” He got home and announced to his wife: “I think I’m a Christian. Let’s go to church.” He didn’t fit in very well with the church they visited. Most of the people there had a little more schooling. Most of them had a little less Elvis in their homes. But as they heard his story and he heard theirs, it wasn’t hard to find common ground. He and his family had found a home in that church. Soon they were key players in that church’s ministry.
They invited the pastor and his wife over for dinner one night. Over to that mobile home with the interior design by Elvis. Calvin shared his story. He had never read a book in his entire life. But now he was half-way through the New Testament. He was telling Jesus stories to his children. The pastor asked where he got the Bible. Calvin hesitated. He said it was a Gideon Bible. He stole it from a motel room.
One of the biggest mistakes churches make is the assumption that the resources God has given them today are the same resources God will give them tomorrow. I’ve seen it happen so many times! We don’t have the right person for something we are called to do. Surprise! God provides that person. We don’t have enough money for some new ministry. Surprise! God provides those dollars. There is some barrier that his holding us back from being all that God wants us to be. Surprise! God removes that barrier. It really is amazing! There is no logical, sensible explanation other than to say that it’s a God thing.
Here’s one way to look at it. Here are 9 dots arranged in 3 rows of 3. The assignment is to connect all 9 dots with 4 lines. And your pen cannot leave the paper. People will spend a lot of time on that and conclude it cannot be done.
Actually it can be done. But the only way it can be done is by going outside the box. By thinking outside the box.
It sounds strange, but churches will often leave God out of their long-range plans. They stay inside the box that is familiar to them. They base their projections on what they can see and measure and predict. They don’t factor in divine surprises.
What if the church we read about in Acts had looked at their predicament? They were few in number. They were limited in resources. They were being hunted down like animals. There was this mad-man named Paul who was determined to wipe them all out. Things were looking bleak. Real bleak. But not to God! God had something up his sleeve. Paul was going to become a Christian. The killer of the church was going to become the pillar of the church! And that surprise conversion set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the church growing and prospering and spreading. Until, as Jesus predicted to his disciples in Acts chapter 1, it really happened: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8).
We left Paul blind and helpless, lying on the ground. Those who were with him helped him to his feet and led him into Damascus. They were helping Paul do what Jesus had said: “Rise and enter the city and you will be told what to do” (9:6). While waiting, we are told that Paul was praying (9:11). Waiting and praying. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what the disciples were doing in the Upper Room as they waited for Pentecost.
And then a new character is brought into the story. Ananias. Jesus had spoken to Paul. Now Jesus speaks to Ananias. Paul had been told to go to Damascus. Now Ananias is told to go to Paul. Put yourself in Ananias’ shoes. He knew who Paul was. He knew what Paul had done. No sane Christian would go to Paul. Christians knew enough to run away from Paul. Paul was out to get them. Paul was “breathing threats and murder”. Ananias went to Paul. It took a lot of faith and courage to go. But he went.
So Ananias went and found the house, placed his hands on blind [Paul] and said, “Brother [Paul], the Master sent me, the same Jesus you saw on your way here. He sent me so you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than something like scales fell from [Paul’s] eyes — he could see again! He got to his feet, was baptized, and sat down with them to a hearty meal (9:17-19).
Paul the killer is on his way to becoming Paul the pillar. Paul who believed the Bible ended with the Old Testament goes on to write half the books of the New Testament. Paul who wanted the church to die becomes God’s prime instrument through which the church grows and prospers and spreads.
What a surprise! One more thing about surprises before we close. The hero of this story isn’t Paul. Paul becomes a hero later on. But in this story Paul is a villain who becomes the passive beneficiary of the heroism of another. Ananias is the hero. Ananias is the one who does what Jesus asked of him, risking his life to do so. And here’s what I want you to get from Ananias: God sent the surprise. But without Ananias, God’s surprise would have ended with Paul blind and dazed and wondering what in the world had just happened. With Ananias, God’s surprise ends with Paul a Christian.
God sends the surprises. But God counts on us to turn them into blessings.
Dear God, you are always surprising us. And we are usually not all that thrilled. Your surprises get in the way of our plans. Your surprises, even the ones that are such good news are often received by us as bad news. Forgive us. And help us to get over trying to run our own lives according to the plans we have made. Help us to rejoice in your plan for us and the surprising way that plan is unfolding. In Jesus’ name, Amen.