Acts 9:1-31: Worst Case Scenario!

Today’s ANZAC Day. When we remember with thanks the sacrifice made by those in our Armed Services. Although, from what I hear, the TRAINING and SELECTION PROCESS can be almost as hard as the REALITY of war. I’ve heard both David H. and Andrew H. describe the selection process for the Navy Clearance Divers, and the Army SAS. And some of the tasks sound almost IMPOSSIBLE. Enduring and achieving the most difficult missions you can imagine, on little very sleep, rest or food.

Apparently, it’s the theory of “Worst Case Scenario”. If you’ve been through the WORST CASE SCENARIO, EVERYTHING ELSE looks easy by comparison. If you can survive the SELECTION PROCESS, and the TRAINING. Then you know that whatever else turns up, you can handle it.

The passage we’re looking at today has got a perfect example of a WORST CASE SCENARIO. We’ve got JESUS… up against his NUMBER ONE FOE. We’ve got the power of the gospel – up against the MOST UNLIKELY PERSON IN THE WORLD to ever become a Christian.

You might think you’ve got a friend at work who’s an impossible case. Or an atheistic lecturer at Uni. Or perhaps a family member who ridicules you constantly. Or a school friend, who you just can’t imagine EVER becoming a Christian. It may be that you’re here today, and YOU’RE not a Christian. And for whatever reason, you can’t imagine YOURSELF ever becoming a Christian. Well, let me tell you, however unlikely you think it happening, it’s NOTHING – compared to the guy we’re looking at here. And what we’ll see by the end of the chapter/ is that if power of the gospel can change THIS GUY/ then it can change ANYONE.

His name’s Saul. And we’ve met him before. This is the young man we saw at the end of chapter 7, cheering them on as they stone Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul is the guy saying, here, let me look after your coat so you can THROW HARDER. Right at the start of chapter 8 it says Saul is there WATCHING WITH APPROVAL. And a few verses later, he’s GRADUATED from holding the coats. Now he’s leading a house to house search; verse 3 in chapter 8, hunting for Christians. Doing his best to stamp out this new religion that threatened everything he stood for.

And by the time we get to chapter 9, he’s taking it A STEP FURTHER. Still breathing out murderous threats. He’s heard there might be some Christians in DAMASCUS. 300 kilometres to the North. So, v2, he goes to the High Priest, gets letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus. They say, “Please co-operate with my friend Saul here as he arrests, and beats, and chains up these people who follow the heretic Jesus.” And he sets out on the road north. Full of ZEAL. Ready for action. Mr WORST CASE SCENARIO.

But, v3, Saul, the HUNTER, is about to become the HUNTED. He’s about to have a life-changing experience. So big, it’s got a couple of EXPRESSIONS named after it – he SAW THE LIGHT, and had a DAMASCUS ROAD EXPERIENCE. V3.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

He doesn’t know who it is. And when he asks the question. The answer comes back, v5. “I’m JESUS, whom you are persecuting.” The same Jesus Saul was ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED was safely dead and buried. The same Jesus Saul thought was blaspheming God by claiming to be EQUAL with God. Except, rather than being under God’s JUDGMENT. HE’s been VINDICATED. He’s BEATEN death. He’s standing there, ALIVE and POWERFUL.

But that’s not the ONLY surprise for Saul. The NEXT, was this Jesus was siding with Saul’s victims. That as he persecuted defenceless Christians, he was actually TREADING ON THE TOES OF THE KING OF THE UNIVERSE. “You hurt my FOLLOWERS, you’re hurting ME!” I mean, that’s quite a mistake, isn’t it? It’s like a bully trying to beat up a little kid; and he doesn’t realise the little kid’s got a VERY BIG BROTHER. “You take on my kid brother, and you’re taking on ME!!!” Which completely swings the balance in favour of Jesus’ followers. And this powerful big brother gives Saul a command, v6. “Now get up – and go into the city. And you’ll be told what to do.” Who’s the boss NOW?

The other people with Saul, they’ve heard the noise, but they don’t know what’s happening. And, v8, when Saul opens his eyes, he’s LITERALLY been blinded by the light. So they lead him by the hand the few miles into Damascus, dazed and confused. It’s not quite the entrance he’d imagined. He’d pictured he’d arrive Mr Worst Case Scenario with letters of introduction in his pocket, LICENSED TO KILL. Determined to CRUSH CHRISTIANITY. Riding into town with his crew. Christians running and hiding. And him leading them out of town in chains. But instead. He’s led into Damascus – blind and helpless.

And for the next three days, he’s stuck in his room, not eating or drinking. I’m guessing, re-evaluating his whole life. And spending a good bit of time reading the Scriptures and praying. And re-assembling it all, this time around JESUS. And perhaps thinking about all his mistakes, and confessing his sin. Jesus – removing his SPIRITUAL blindness.

What a change. What a turn around! What a CONVERSION! But God’s got a way of doing that to people. Especially PROUD people. WORST-CASE SCENARIO people. Upsetting their plans. Turning their world on its head.

Over the last year or so we’ve heard from people in our church who God’s done something similar with. People like Peter Christopher, accomplished and successful, but headed down an empty path. Or David Lim, proud and upstanding, but unforgiven and distant from the God who made him. Or Jack and Kiki Huang, ambitious, intelligent and motivated to succeed, but ignorant of a Saviour who died for them and set them free from guilt and judgment. Or Jake Shadwick, intelligent and moral, but unable to deal with the guilt of his sinful nature. Or Leanne Hall, at her rock bottom, helpless, enslaved to addictions, despairing.

But all of these people, and lots more sitting here today, experienced a Damascus Road experience. When they saw the light. When Jesus revealed himself to them. For some it took a DAY, for others it took A YEAR. But they met Jesus. And he humbled them, and forgave their sin, and gave them a fresh start. And TRANSFORMED them. Completely turned them around. God has a way of doing that to people.

Perhaps you haven’t had the sort of experience that SAUL had. But the RESULT can be the same for you! Perhaps you’re NOT a Christian. But you’ve had this GROWING AWARENESS OF WHO JESUS IS. Maybe over months, or perhaps YEARS. You’ve seen what people are like who follow him. You’ve heard and read about him in the Bible. And you’re coming to understand what he’s like. That he LOVES you. That he’s DIED for you. That he deserves to be the boss of YOUR LIFE, just like he’s boss of the world. Perhaps you’ve done ALL OF THAT. But you’ve never actually made the decision to FOLLOW him.

Today would be a great day to DO that. To bow your knee to King Jesus. To pledge your allegiance to him. To admit your sin. Your mistakes. And to vow to serve him. Or maybe you want to spend some more time thinking about it. Why not join our Christianity Explored course starting in a few weeks. Seven Monday nights, investigating what the Bible says about life with Jesus.

Back to the story. Next, v10, we’re introduced to another character. Ananias – a Christian in Damascus. Perhaps only a couple of streets away from where Saul is staying. And Jesus has a message for HIM TOO. He tells him, in a vision, to do the LAST thing in the world he feels like doing. Funny, isn’t it? A lot of the time when people say they feel God’s spoken to them, it seems like the thing they say God’s telling them to do is the thing THEY MOST FEEL LIKE DOING. But this is different. Ananias hears the voice of Jesus very clearly. And you can see what he says in verse 11. “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He’s praying. And he’s expecting you, because he’s had a vision too, to tell him you’re coming.”

And Ananias knows EXACTLY who Saul is. V13, he’s heard what he’s done to Christians in Jerusalem. He’s heard he’s coming to Damascus to make trouble. And the LAST THING Ananias wants to do is to face up to Saul. Will he be obedient? Last thing he WANTS to do. But he GOES ANYWAY. Because in verse 15, Jesus tells him the plan. He’s got a job for Saul to do; and it’s important. He says

GO! Because this man is my CHOSEN INSTRUMENT to CARRY MY NAME before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel. And I’ll show him how much he has to SUFFER for my name.”

It’s sort of a neat twist, isn’t it? This Saul who was such a determined Jew; who was so determined to defend God’s honour, and get rid of Christianity; Jesus is going to turn him into Christianity’s number one MISSIONARY. And to the GENTILES. NON-JEWS, like us.

But not only THAT. This Saul, who caused so much suffering AGAINST those who followed Jesus. Will HIMSELF suffer much FOR the name of Jesus. Who says God hasn’t got a sense of humour?

So Ananias, I guess in fear and trembling, heads up to Straight Street, knocks on the door. And Saul’s been expecting him. He puts his hands on Saul; and Saul’s sight’s restored. And in verse 17 and 18, he receives the Holy Spirit, and he’s baptised. And, rather than a persecutor of Jesus, he’s become a FOLLOWER of Jesus.

And look at the wonderful way Ananias addresses Saul. “BROTHER Saul”. Two guys from completely different worlds. A day ago one would have happily stomped all over the other. But when they both meet Jesus. They become BROTHERS. That’s the wonderful things about Christians. You can meet someone from a completely different background. Looks different. Speaks a different language. Expresses their faith in a different way to you. But when you work out they’re Christian, there’s a BOND. A connection. They’re a BROTHER. Or a SISTER. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me so that you may see again.”

Is Jesus calling YOU to be an Ananias? Is there a scary boundary for you to cross? A WORST-CASE SCENARIO out there for YOU to speak to? A family member? Neighbour? Workmate? Best friend?

Some of you know Tim Wilson. He’s a Prison Chaplain at Parklea Prison. A place with PLENTY of Worst-case scenarios. There’s a wing of the worst sorts of sexual offenders. Who can’t mix with the rest of the prisoners, or they’ll be KILLED. Tim feels Jesus is calling him to be an ANANIAS to those SAULS. And he’s doing it because if God can change SAUL, then he can change ANYONE.

Sadly, ONE of the problems Tim faces is connecting new believers into churches when they leave prison. Because churches are SUSPICIOUS. UNCERTAIN whether to TRUST this new believer. Which is what happens with SAUL, TOO.

It starts OFF alright. Probably Ananias tells the local Christians what happens. And Saul spends a few days with them. But, before long, v20, he’s preaching to the Jews in Damascus. Down at the Synagogue, not preaching AGAINST Christians like he was before. But preaching to them, v20, that JESUS REALLY IS THE SON OF GOD.

Saul’s absolutely CONVINCED of that. I mean, why WOULDN’T he be, after what’s happened. And so his first instinct is to get around and tell people HOW WRONG HE’S BEEN. And people are absolutely dumbfounded, v21. “Isn’t this the same guy who raised havoc in Jerusalem among the Christians?”

And the trouble is, v 22, Saul’s doing it SO WELL. And again and again, he PROVES that Jesus is the Christ. The one the scriptures had been pointing to for so long. And so, eventually, in verse 23, the Jews decide to kill him. Traitor. But he’s smuggled out of Damascus in a basket, and heads back to Jerusalem.

Poor guy. He’s not even welcome THERE. The JEWS don’t want to know him. And the CHRISTIANS don’t EITHER. Have a look at v26. And I guess you can understand how they feel.

“When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join THE DISCIPLES – but they were afraid of him, not really believing he WAS a disciple.”

They think, Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe he’s trying to infiltrate so he can kill us. Paul’s caught in the middle. BOTH sides BOO him. Like someone wearing a Bronco’s jersey at a Parramatta/ Penrith game.

But there’s one person who believes in him. BARNABAS. Which is actually his NICKNAME. His REAL name is Joseph. We’ve come across this guy already. Back in Ch 4 v36. In the very early days of the church.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), {37} sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Generous, encouraging, considerate, forgiving, trusting Barnabas. But MORE than that. Firm and courageous TOO. Perhaps he hears Saul preaching. Or perhaps he’s heard the news from Damascus. But he takes Saul to the apostles, and explains what’s happened. how the Lord’s spoken to him on the road, how he’s preached in Damascus.

We need more Barnabas’s in church. Just like we need more Ananias’s. We need soft-hearted, brave people willing to cross the barrier that scares them. That’s outside their comfort zone. We need sons of encouragement who see the GOOD in people. People who have the FAITH to see that God can change ANYONE. Who are prepared to FORGIVE because God’s forgiven THEM.

And so, v28, Saul stays with them. And moves around Jerusalem, we’re told, SPEAKING BOLDLY in the name of the Lord Jesus, debating with the Grecian Jews. And as usual, THEY TRY TO KILL HIM. So the brothers take him down to Caesarea on the coast, and they put him in a boat to Tarsus. Back to his home town. To safety. And something like eight years pass. And we don’t hear from Saul again until Acts chapter 13.

Now I just want to finish up with a few observations. Things to notice. And the first one is, if you’d been one of the Christians back then, you’d be dumbfounded by what’s happened, wouldn’t you? And absolutely in AWE of the power of the risen Jesus Christ. You’d have a sense that you were part of something BIG. Because even your WORST CASE SCENARIO, even your worst nightmare – Saul of Tarsus turning up on your doorstep to arrest you – you’ve just seen, it’s all under control. The RISEN CHRIST can handle it. And he STANDS BESIDE you as you endure it.

Which has to be a re-assurance for those Christians in North Korea. Or Afghanistan. Or Somalia. Or Libya. Persecuted. Arrested. Beaten. Even killed. All because they follow Jesus. But this Jesus they follow/ can even deal with SAUL. And so in spite of appearances, what they need to do is KEEP TRUSTING THAT THE RISEN CHRIST CAN HANDLE IT. He can bring victory out of the most complete failures. He can bring conversions about in the most unlikely people. He can work ALL things for good.

And it’s an encouragement to those of us who know WORST CASE SCENARIOS. People you think are the MOST UNLIKELY to ever become Christians. The TOO HARD list. Too worldly. Too immoral. Too rich. Too content. Too academic. Too far gone. Someone you think, NEVER A MILLION YEARS would that person SUBMIT TO CHRIST.

Saul was like that. He turns up back in Jerusalem as a Christian, and they say, There’s NO WAY IN THE WORLD it could happen. Saul’s the guy who PERSECUTES CHRISTIANS. Now he IS ONE. Which is a reminder, isn’t it, that it’s NEVER TOO HARD FOR GOD. Let that encourage you.

Let that encourage you to KEEP PRAYING for the people you might have given up on. Whether it’s your husband, or your neighbour, or your brother who used to come to church as a teenager, or your son or daughter, or your workmate or your neighbour. Never say never. Because Jesus specializes in Worst Case scenarios. If SAUL can become a Christian, so can anyone else. Because the Risen Christ specializes in worst case scenarios.

Which is, interestingly, what Saul HIMSELF thinks. Let me leave you with Saul’s own words. Saul becomes PAUL. And becomes the greatest missionary of all time. And he writes these words to his young friend Timothy. 1 Timothy 1v15. He says

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I AM THE WORST. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, THE WORST OF SINNERS – the worst case scenario – Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would BELIEVE ON HIM… and receive eternal life.

And then notice how he finishes. Amazed at the grace God’s shown him. And we should say AMEN

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.

(And all God’s people said) Amen.

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