Saturday, April 24, 2010
Matthew 7:7&8 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
I am certain many Christian's secret response to the scripture quoted above is just that. Though my own heart is not quite that cynical, I have wrestled with the fact that it often appears God is not listening, or that He chooses not to give any answer to prayer, or to open a door so I can find one on my own. In some of my darkest moments, it has seemed that God's only response has been a stone hard silence that leaves me feeling, if possible, even more alone than before.
I think many Christians come away from their early years in church - I know I did - from all of the marvelous stories of the Old Testament prophets and men chosen by God, thinking that God must appear to them - maybe by setting the artificial fern in the corner of their home-theatre on fire - and speak in a booming voice in order to be heard. Many of us think we must wait for God to clearly and vocally declare which direction we should take before we can take action. That would be nice, but there are a couple of a very good and very clear reasons why most of us are not directed in this way...
One is the Bible. The other, is Jesus.
B.C., and I mean before Christ and not before the Common Era (B.C.E.) as it is now called, God spoke to and through man directly. For a time He even abided with men as a living presence in the tabernacle. All of this time God promised men that He would one day do something to rectify the choice Adam and Eve made; that is, to restore the right relationship between Himself and man. God sent prophets who spoke with authority in His name. God moved men to certain actions by His direct word. God's will is sovereign and He will see that it is done, and at that time speaking to men and through men directly was necessary. In the book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, the author speaks to the fact that the Bible tells us this was necessary until the 'final' revelation of God came about, which is Jesus Christ. In the story of Jesus' birth, life, works, and death, we have the voice of God - and it resides in the Holy Scriptures.
Look again at the image at the top of this post. Jesus knocking. Most of us grew up with some form of this image, the meaning of which varies from Jesus knocking on our hearts, to a representation of the fact that we should knock on God's heart and ask for what we desire - and then we are assured that it will be granted.
And yet, was Jesus' request granted? Didn't he ask for the cup to pass away from him, so he could be spared the excruciating agony of a death on the cross? Someone told me the other day that they didn't understand why if God was so poweful, Jesus had to die. Couldn't God have spared his own son? Couldn't the Almighty have 'done' salvation some other way? The scriptures suggest that Jesus - however fleetingly - might have wondered the same thing. But the beauty of the story of Jesus' final hours is this - Yes! His prayer was answered because the pleading was not the end of it. The end was Matthew 26:42, 'THY will be done.'
And God's will was done, as it is in all our lives.
When we who are believers ask for something, our prayers are answered. When we knock, the door is opened and all is given to us - but, the answers, the gifts given are within God's sovereign will to choose. And that means that sometimes - often, in fact - with our mortal eyes we will not see those answers because we do not want to.
Not too long ago I read through Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ again. (A book I highly recommend.) In one section, where he is speaking with Gary Habermas, PHD, DD regarding evidence for the fact that Jesus was seen alive after the Resurrection by many witnesses, Strobel asks Habermas how this has personally affected him. Habermas then relates a story of the time when his wife was dying of cancer and he kept asking God to save her, asking God to change what was happening, and then, when there seemed to be no reply to those requests -as she lay breathing her last - God, why don't you do something about this? God had one answer, which came - typically - in the form of a question. "Gary, did I not raise my son from the dead?" Habermas would then counter with another argument and God would repeat his reply, "Gary, did I not raise my son from the dead?"
Though our questions, our pleadings, our requests and demands differ, God's reply is always the same - "Did I not raise my son from the dead?"
Yes, God did. The answer was given and the door opened over 2000 years ago.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
Damascus. One of the oldest cities in the world. A fair white jewel set in the midst of a vast verdant plain. ‘Pearls in a goblet of green’, someone had once said, describing her.
At this moment Saul felt as though he would never see it.
Six days out from Jerusalem. Over one hundred and thirty miles from home. After one hundred and forty hours of solitude forced upon him by the companionship of the members of the Sanhedrin –
a police force of sorts that as a Pharisee he was forbidden to speak or interact with. Tired and foot-sore. Troubled in his heart. Saul had begun to believe the glistening city was nothing more than an empty promise, an almost mythical land which, like Moses, he would be prevented from entering for failing to meet God’s expectations.
Depressed, angry, unable to escape his own dark thoughts, he refused to stop when his companions heard the first rumor of thunder that suggested a storm lay ahead. Night was falling. They had traveled all day with little rest, and he had no intention of passing yet another wet and weary night in the wilderness. Thunderstorms were common in this region and he, for one, was ready for a roof over his head, a dry bed, and some intelligent conversation. Wishing once again that the Sanhedrin had granted them mounts, Saul lifted his weary feet and headed for the crest of the ridge that signaled the end of the mountain range and the beginning of the narrow path that led through the foothills to the gates of the beautiful city itself, leaving the others to follow as they would.
As the skies darkened unnaturally and ominous clouds moved in, eclipsing the setting sun, Saul outpaced his companions and arrived a minute or two before they did. Relieved, he recognized Damascus’ ivory towers, painted rose-gold and tinged with lavender.
It was the last sight he was to see for three days and nights.
Without warning a brilliant light struck him, knocking him from his feet and onto his back. Saul lay on the ground, the dust of the dry sandy soil – untouched by the smallest drop of rain – rising up about him, choking his throat and irritating his eyes so that they filled with tears. As he sought to catch his breath, slamming his eyes shut against the pain, a majestic voice spoke to him both from without and within, filling his being with fear and wonder.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? ” the voice asked in tones at once severe and sad.; its’ sound sonorous as the thunder.
Saul licked his lips, his mouth dry. “Who….” He swallowed and whispered against his fear. “Who are you, sir?”
There followed seven words that changed the young Pharisee’s life forever. From the cradle until that moment, Saul’s life had been aimed straight as an arrow from the quiver toward one single goal: The fulfillment of the law.
Now, unbelievably he met it face to face.
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” The voice paused as a presence of pure light radiated through Saul’s firmly shut eyelids, searing the puny human organisms within. He gasped as he felt the hand of the Lord rest upon his heart, opening wide the barricade he had erected to keep God from speaking to his soul.
“You cannot continue to kick against the goads. But rise; go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”
If he could have Saul would have wept, for his heart was breaking. But his eyes were shut fast as though an impenetrable barrier had formed over them. And in the first moment of true enlightenment he had ever known –
He became blind.
On the trail his companions, having ducked beneath rocks and bushes, were surprised when the lightning struck with no sound. And later, upon arrival in Damascus, reported that the thunder which followed seemed to carry with it words they could not understand. Words, they said, that the young Pharisee in their charge had answered as though the God of their fathers spoke to him from out of the storm clouds as He had so long ago to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Perplexed they left him in the care of good Jews on the street called ‘Strait’, and went to inform those in power that the chosen messenger of the ruling council had been struck sightless. Helpless as a babe Saul lay on a narrow cot in the gathering darkness reciting odd passages of scripture, murmuring snatches of Psalms and crying without tears, for the inner surface of his eyes had clouded and thickened as though scorched, forming a barrier that would not yield to water or the ministrations of the cleverest physician.
Saul for his part wanted only to be left alone.
Alone with his thoughts.
Alone with his God.
For the greater part of the next day he knew a sort of restive sleep. In his waking moments, he would at first be overwhelmed by a deep sense of wonder and excitement, even gratitude, and then without warning, fall into despair and hopelessness. Finally, exhausted and spent, his heart and soul numb, Saul heard strange voices speaking close to his pallet as though he were deaf as well as blind.
“It is a sign from God.”
“But he has been blinded. What can that mean?”
“He has worked tirelessly ridding Jerusalem of the vermin called the Christ’s ones.” The voice paused, obviously disgusted with the misuse of the name of the Messiah. “How could God be displeased with him? Why would he be punished?”
The next time Saul awoke, he was alone. He thought he could smell the dawn and supposed another day had begun. The house he lay within was on the street called ‘Strait’, which ran from one end of Damascus to the other. It was the main concourse for pedestrians as well as merchants and militia, with its wide central avenue where traffic ran, and two spacious sidewalks where brightly colored awnings and scantily clad slave girls announced a great wealth of products and wares. From within the darkened room where he lay, awaiting his God, Saul could hear the casual passersby laughing and singing and he wondered –
Was he being punished?
According to the law he had loved all of his life it was his just due, and yet Saul thought he had glimpsed another kind of God – one full of mercy and compassion. On the road he had felt a living presence reach out to grip his cold hardened heart, and into that moment of fear and awe had come the sweetest melody he had ever heard. He had known and been a part of love.
But where was that hand now?
Where was this living God?
“Brother Saul?” A hesitant voice broke his reverie, drawing him back from his remembrance of the light to the present reality of blackness. Suddenly the burden of Saul’s disability weighed even more heavily upon him, driving his heart into his ribs and riveting his sleight form to the rough straw mat. He turned his head away, seeking the cool comfort of the stone wall against his hot cheek and forehead.
His hearing already more keen, Saul heard a breath drawn, and listened as a light footfall entered the room. A curtain was drawn aside and whoever it was paused beside him. The breath was released in a sigh.
Saul’s spent body tensed, uncertain of their errand. “Well,” he asked through lips cracked and dry, “have you come to pity or to pronounce sentence? Are you God’s man?”
There was a moment of silence and then a man’s voice replied quietly, “Are you?”
Saul shifted on the pallet and turned his blinded eyes towards the sound. “I used to think that was what I wanted …to be God’s man. I was wrong. I am His slave.”
A cool hand touched his fevered skin startling him. “Yes, a slave. Beaten and broken. Left in the darkness…. Penance for what you have done?” There was a curious edge to the man’s voice, as though he was unsure of just who and what he was dealing with. “Or reward, do you think?”
A curious phrase. Saul swallowed hard. “And who are you?
Again there was silence as the hand was withdrawn. When the stranger spoke, it was not to answer.
“If you had asked me yesterday morning, I would have said this is less than you deserve for the agony you have inflicted upon our people. Many have died. Many more are demoralized and lost, bereft of husband, mother…child.” The voice broke, its owner obviously moved to anger. The next words were a sword thrust. “I have no pity for you.”
Saul held his breath, awaiting a blow. This must be a follower of the Nazarene, justly angry and cold with vengeance. It seemed God had judged him and found him lacking. It was no more than he deserved.
Saul waited in silence until the man spoke again.
“No, brother Saul,” he said, his words soft as a prayer, “I do not pity you.
“I envy you.”
Saul blinked as tears formed, stinging his blistered eyes. His voice shook. “Envy me? Why?”
“Has God not asked something of you?”
Saul thought back to the meeting on the road. There had been a command. Arise, go into the city and you will be told what you must do. He had forgotten until now.
“Yes. Yes, He has,” he replied.
The hand reached out again and touched his forehead, but this time it remained. A cool comforting reassurance of the presence of another living being. The stranger’s voice faltered as he spoke, but then continued with greater strength and resolution.
“As we the people of Israel have been chosen of God, so you – Saul of Tarsus – have been chosen by His Son. I have been sent to be God’s instrument. It is His will that you be freed from this darkness. For the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go to the street called Strait, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold he is praying and in a vision he has seen a man coming in and putting his hand on him so that he might receive his sight’.”
Saul sighed, the tension leaving his wounded form. “You are Annanias?”
It was true then. Saul had believed it but the wishful thinking of a fevered dream. In the midst of prayer, in his deepest moment of despair, a man had come to him and placed his hand upon his eyes and spoken words that lifted the veil of darkness, signifying the death of the old man and the resurrection of the new.
“Did you not believe I would come?”
Saul paused. “I didn’t dare to hope….” Not only to have his sight back, but to work for the Lord as he had always longed to. To be His voice, to carry the word of His son. Paul sobbed and began to shake. Shame overwhelmed him as he remembered what he had done in the Lord’s name and from his wounded eyes tears began to fall. “I am not worthy. I do not deserve another chance. All those I have wounded….”
Annanias sat on the pallet beside him and placed his other hand on his heaving chest. “All that has gone before is washed away the moment you confess your belief in the life and death of His son, in His death on the cross to take away your sin and grant you life eternal with the Father.
“Do you believe, Saul?”
Saul was without words. He nodded his head, his heart broken.
“Then let it be done.” The older man paused. His hand trembled where it lay upon Saul’s flesh. “Still…before I begin, I feel I must warn you. These also are the words of the Lord most High. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘for this man is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my sake.’ These hands, which the Lord has sent to you, do not bring comfort, but the promise of pain and hardship. I believe unlike anything you have known before.” When Saul failed to answer Annanias asked quietly, “He has said, ‘Go!’ Will you go?”
Saul shifted on his pallet and with the other man’s help moved onto his knees, grateful to feel the cold stone against his bones and flesh. He bent his head in an expression of servanthood and prayer, and voiced the words he had studied all of his life, but only now begun to understand.
“Here am I, Lord. Send me.”
Hours later as Saul sat in a small courtyard off the back of Judas’ house, his skin painted a dusky copper by the fading sun, tears ran freely down his cheeks and into his beard as he beheld with new eyes the glory of the world his Lord had created. Even the weak light made them tear, but that mattered little. What did matter was that he could see – really see.
At Annanias’ touch something like scales had fallen away from his eyes, and immediately his sight had been restored. In that same moment – as his human eyes awoke to the beauty of the day – his mind’s eye opened to God and he was overcome by visions. He saw himself as an old man in chains standing before the rulers of this world, knowing full well they planned his death. He watched as he sought to calm a group of men who shouted and scrambled, terrified, as a mighty wave buffeted the ship they were on, seeking to overturn it and cast them into the sea. He witnessed his own blood running crimson across broad gray stones, forming a small stream that ran from the pillar he was lashed to, to the feet of his Roman guard. He heard himself scream and felt the lash
Felt himself die…..
And yet at one and the same time he experienced the love of God in a way such as he had never known possible. Saul felt the waters of forgiveness wash over his wounded soul, healing him, freeing him from all he had been and done, from every wrong action of the past, from sin and shame, and he knew at once the wonderful, miraculous grace of the Lord. He saw the thousands – the hundreds of thousands of faces of those whom he would meet and teach, and watched as the knowledge of God’s mercy and the incomparable power He would grant them transformed their lives. Saul witnessed the inheritance of the saints as this transformation spread to his world and then beyond.
And he knew.
He knew the course of his life.
Unable to put these things into words, he had arisen quickly and gone to be baptized, making official and public what he had come to know – that the law was but the springboard of love, and the love of God was to be found in His son, Jesus Christ. And that this love was deeper and wider and longer and higher than anything man could conceive.
Now, with his stomach full and his strength returning, Saul sat making plans. He would go back into the city to show those to whom he had been sent to that he was a changed man. Annanias did not think this wise – and the others who had come to visit and to welcome him agreed. But he was determined.
The Lord had a great mission for him and he, for one, did not expect it to end at the close of the first week with him dead on the synagogue’s steps.
Saul turned and beheld his host. Judas was dressed in a long loose robe and vest. He held in his hand a water jar and cup. “Are you comfortable? Is there anything you need?” he asked.
Saul shook his head. “Thank you, brother. I have all that I need.”
The other man paused a moment. Then Judas asked boldly, “Are you certain you must leave us? Should you not rest? The Lord will surely allow time for you to grow strong. If not demand it.”
Saul shook his head. “It is in weakness that I am strong. It is in despair that I have learned to hope.” He smiled gently. “Only by losing that which I thought was life to me, have I found life.”
He stood and walked to the small balustrade that protected the roofed porch. “There is much I must learn. Many things I need to understand. I have met God’s son, but we are strangers. The law of God forms within the corridors of my mind, but it is the heart – the living heart of it I must learn and claim.” Saul’s eyes rested on the hills far away, the ones that had not long before rolled with thunder and the voice of God.
“As our Lord before me, I need to be alone with God.”
Image of the older Paul by Rembrandt
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Centuries later the words used to describe the young Pharisee’s attack on the church of Jesus, the Christ, were ‘brutal’ and ‘sadistic’. Like a wild animal savaging a body, Saul cruelly persecuted all of those who proclaimed the Risen Lord, and in his blindness – his heart as hard as flint – he cared not what families he destroyed, how many women he widowed, or orphans he left to fend for themselves. In their darkened antechambers, huddled miserably, afraid of the light, he knew they prayed to their accursed god to spare them from his wrath. And so, when they were ushered out before him, chained and bound, Saul looked into their eyes expecting to see shame and fear.
But he did not find it.
One after another, those who were led into the streets in the early morning hours, or late after their last prayers were whispered – one after another they sang soft praises and blessings to their god, asking Yahweh to forgive their persecutor. Their sweet words stung like coals and left Saul angered, bewildered and confused. Like Stephen, these Christ’s Ones thought little of themselves or the danger they were in, but of him –
The one who persecuted them.
On this night, a young man near his age – a former acquaintance from the Temple School – spoke to him as the guards encircled the man’s wrists with irons and herded his delicate wife toward the torch lit street. The flickering firelight illumined a handsome face and dark eyes that sparked with keen intelligence.
“Saul, I have prayed for you,” he said, his voice as steady as the earth
Infuriated Saul retorted, “For me? Better pray for yourself. Or better, yet, for your young wife!”
The man closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before meeting his ferocious stare. “By the blood of the Lamb, Jesus the Christ, my dark stains are washed clean. Yours are still upon you, Brother Saul, and they cry out to Heaven from the ground upon which that innocent blood is spilled. Can you be so blind? Do you not recognize your God?”
As they led the man away, Saul leaned back upon the cool stones that lined one of the dark catacombs the Nazarene’s Chosen had occupied and sighed.
Far away, buried in false night, a pair of callused hands were clasped in prayer, the will of one untutored fisherman bent towards his Lord and friend. Peter asked for deliverance of his people from the fury of this man named Saul. He asked for God to strike down their enemy so that they might prosper in spreading the word of His son.
Little did Peter know that in granting his prayer, the God of infinite wisdom and power intended to change his world and his mission forever. And not only his world….
The people applauded when he passed by.
Members of the Sanhedrin praised him for his zeal and inflexible fury.
The High Priest had even taken time to thank him personally, assuring him of God’s favor.
But Yahweh, the one who mattered most, remained stubbornly silent. Since the day in the temple when God had touched his heart, Saul realized he had kept himself too busy to listen. But now as he knelt on his soft pallet, still troubled by the words of his schoolmate, he found the corridors of his mind curiously barren. Silent. Empty. As though the God of his fathers had been chased like the followers of the Nazarene into the shadows by his relentless pursuit of justice in His Holy Name.
As though no matter how hard he tried, he grieved Him still.
Moving into a position of prayer, young Saul raised his voice in a familiar Psalm seeking the Lord’s face.
“Why, O Lord do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
As the whispered words caught in a weary throat and tears traveled the length of his bearded cheek, Saul felt more than saw a shape shift within the shadows that encircled the lamp-lit room. Warily, he turned, catching a glimpse of a thin, sturdy frame; a narrow face masked by the darkness except for where the light revealed a pair of penetrating eyes that sought his out, cutting through the self-taught lies to the heart of his confusion. Startled, he rose abruptly, spilling oil and casting the room into utter darkness.
“Who? Who is there?”
Silence greeted him. Boldly Saul moved across the room, hands held out before him. In the place the man had occupied, Saul found nothing more than the coarsely woven robe he had shed earlier upon leaving the cool desert night behind.
Angered he whirled and shouted into the darkness. “It will do you little good to haunt me!” His breath came in harsh hurried gasps. Scattered locks of dark brown hair lay plastered to his forehead, and he was trembling. “Do you hear me? Little good!”
Real or imagined this god of fisherman and thieves was dangerous.
Balling his fists Saul sought to quiet his pounding heart, taking first one deep breath and then another. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would go to the Sanhedrin and ask for permission to pursue this Jesus’ followers out of the city, even to Damascus where they had fled into the arms of other Jews less likely to recognize the sedition they preached.
Tomorrow he would follow in the footsteps of his God who, when His people had failed Him, had showed no mercy. Had given no quarter.
And soon, as the Galiaean had died, so would his sect.
Tomorrow it would begin.
Even so Saul knew no sleep that night.
To be continued....
Image of the Apostle Paul by Rembrandt