When was the last time the Lord got your attention? I mean, really shook you up and said to you, “Listen up”? Truth be told, it might not have been an altogether positive experience.
When things are going well, we tend not to give as much thought to the ways of God. But when calamity strikes – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, conflict in a relationship – we think more about God and how spiritual realities can come into play in what we are going through. It’s a quite natural response. A painful response, but quite natural.
But what about those times when God initiates the conversation? It’s a normal day. You’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, or you’re working on a project, or painting a room. And suddenly, out of the blue, there is that inner voice that doesn’t come from you. You know it instantly, and you know it instinctively. The voice has its source Elsewhere. It may take you awhile to figure out who that Elsewhere is, but finally the only explanation you can give to it is God. You finally come to the conclusion that God is speaking to you and wants your attention. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you?
If so, let me tell you how you can tell that your life is about to change. God will call your name twice.
That’s what he did to Saul of Tarsus. It happened on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus, and is told in a story that is quite familiar to us… or should be. After Saul has been knocked to the ground by a blazing light, the Risen Christ says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4).
I suppose it’s kind of like a parent who’s upset with her child. When my daughter really wants to get her eldest son’s attention, she does what most moms do; she calls him by his full name. “Alexander Raines Newberry, come here!” Well, as you may have noticed, the Bible isn’t big on full names. So, when people are addressed directly by God, their name is called twice. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
It puts Saul in pretty good company…
When Abraham is about to take the life of his son Isaac for a sacrifice, God calls to him, “Abraham, Abraham!” And Abraham answers, “Here I am” (Genesis 22:11).
When Abraham’s grandson Jacob comes to Beer-sheba, God calls out to him, “Jacob, Jacob!” And Jacob answers, “Here I am” (Genesis 46:2).
When a certain fugitive herdsman comes upon the strange sight of a burning bush that is not being consumed, he hears a Voice call out from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses answers, “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4).
When the Lord calls your name twice, you can be assured that he has a job for you to do. And, I have a feeling that if that ever happens to you, you will do what just about everybody else in the Bible does. You’ll put it into reverse gear and start to back up. You will say, “Thanks, Lord, but no thanks.” There’s just something in us that makes us not want to do what God requires… this innate reluctance to give witness of our faith. Maybe that’ s because it seems to us that God asks too much.
I went to seminary for three years, not counting my doctoral work. That’s six semesters, in addition to short-term courses taken between our regular semester work. I will never forget the feeling of those first days in class. The professor would distribute the syllabus for each student, listing the requirements of the course… the scheduled readings, examinations, papers… things like that. And my response was always the same. “He thinks this is the only course I’m taking!” I can’t do all this! It’s too much! And then, I would take it a day at a time, a class at a time, and before I knew it, the semester and the course were over.
I wonder if that’s not something of the way it is when God calls our name. When God lays out the requirements of our faith, the syllabus, if you will, we don’t think we can do it. So immediately, we start backpedaling, making excuses.
It’s a natural response for us to want to argue with God. Even that has biblical precedence. Both Abraham and Moses did everything they could to keep from doing what God wanted, and for good reason. They were hardly the cream of the crop. Abraham was old and Moses was a wanted criminal, with a speech impediment, no less. Not to mention that sometimes – oh, okay, pretty much all the time – God’s demands seem downright unreasonable.
Take a quick look at Abraham’s resume. He’s seventy-five years old when God tells him to leave his homeland with nothing but his wife, his nephew, and a tent. He’s pushing a hundred, and Sarah’s not far behind, when God tells him he’s going to be a daddy for the first time. Then, when he does finally have a son, God tells him to go out and sacrifice him to prove his devotion to his God. I think I’d argue with God about that one too, wouldn’t you?
When it comes to Moses, what are the odds that a sheepherder – a sheepherder with a price on his head and an inability to speak plainly – could stand up to the Egyptian pharaoh and win the confrontation?
You see? God, at least as God is portrayed in scripture, seems to ask some pretty strange things of his children. And he uses the unlikeliest people to get the job done. So it would be a surprise for them not to be reluctant about his demands. But when he literally knocks you to the ground and takes away your ability to see, you don’t have too many choices in the matter, do you?
That’s what happened to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road. It is, without doubt, the most dramatic conversion ever heard; a story so compelling that Luke tells it again twice before he finishes the Book of Acts. The greatest enemy of the church becomes its greatest advocate in just a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
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Flannery O’Connor, the famous Southern writer, once said of Paul, “I reckon (you can tell she was a Southern writer, can’t you?) I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”1 And knock him off his horse is what God did, whether it was a real, literal horse or his high horse.
Look at the story. Saul is helped by his traveling companions into the city. For three days he doesn’t eat or drink anything. A natural reaction for someone who has been struck blind by God, don’t you think? He is visited by Ananias, who lays his hands on Saul and tells him what has happened, why it has happened, and who did it… just in case he hasn’t figured it out already. Saul’s sight is restored, he gets up, is baptized (by immersion, of course!), has something to eat, visits the local synagogue, and commences to preach. Just like that. No reluctance there!
Not so with Ananias, the other major character in our story.. He doesn’t get his name called twice, but he is an important figure in what occurs. Why would God give him the unenviable task of ministering to Saul, the noted enemy of the church? Perhaps it is because God knows he doesn’t have to call his name twice. Ananias has a listening ear when it comes to the ways of God. Of course, he is reluctant to approach Saul. Who wouldn’t be? In a Bible study, a man was once asked what he might have done had he been Ananias. “First, I would put my things in order,” he said. “Then, I’d approach him very cautiously.” Saul’s vengeful reputation precedes him. But Ananias does what God tells him to do, even when his name is called only once.
Once, twice, three times. When was it that God last called your name? And why are we so reluctant to respond when our name is called? After all, it is a hungry world out there, starving to hear what we have to say, searching for what he have to offer. Yet, it is a suspicious world that has “been fed both poison and junk in the name of God.”2 A suspicious world is a violent world, as we know only too well every time we turn on the news or read the newspaper.
And for that reason, when God calls, people respond in different ways. Some say, even with a reluctance in their voice, “Here I am, Lord, use me.” Others put pillows over their heads.
Well, what does God want from us? God had a specific calling in mind for Saul. Why should we think any differently or any less when it comes to God’s call to us? You see, this story is not just about conversion; it is also about vocation, about a calling. God wants Saul to do more than believe in the Risen Christ; he wants Saul to do something about it. And there’s not one shred of evidence that in that regard Saul’s experience is any different from yours or mine. God wants our vocation, our calling, to be as a witness to the faith.
The first step in doing so is to say, “Here I am, Lord.” Let’s visit the story again. Ananias, the reluctant witness, (3) has a vision. In the vision, the Lord says to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus” (9:11). Ken Chafin comments that God gives Ananias specific instructions. “Few people have had their prospect card filled out by the Lord himself,” Chafin says (4). Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem” (9:13). Ananias does have something in common with Abraham and Jacob and Moses, doesn’t he? He argues with God!
But God isn’t in the mood to argue with Ananias. He simply repeats himself (5). “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel…” (9:15).
Here’s the question for you and me… What does God want from us? God had a specific calling in mind for Saul. Does he have the same for us? I believe he does, and here’s why… The message imparted to you and me is too important not to share with others who do not have it.
Tuesday I heard the remarkable story of a young man named Sean Swarner. I was so taken by his story that I talked about it Wednesday night and am doing so again this morning. He is the first cancer survivor to reach the summit of Mount Everest. At the age of 15, having first contracted Hodgkin’s Disease and then Askin’s Disease, he was told he had two weeks to live. From that point on, he has devoted his life to telling people his story. That story is what drove him to climb Mount Everest. And now, everywhere he goes, he asks this question: “What would you do if you were told you had only two weeks to live?”
It changes your perspective, doesn’t it? It gives a greater sense of urgency to what you do, what you think and say, to your most important relationships.
You and I have a story to tell as well. It may not seem as compelling as this young man’s, but it carries a lot of weight in the kingdom of heaven. We really can’t afford to be spending our time and energies in unimportant pursuits.
I mentioned Ken Chafin earlier. One time he had a long layover in the Atlanta airport, so he decided to get a long leisurely meal. Seated at the table next to him in the airport restaurant were four well-dressed, well-educated, attractive young women. He couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. For forty minutes (he put the clock on them) they discussed cottage cheese.
Where does your faith take you in terms of conversation and witness? Do you find yourself telling others about your faith, or do you talk about cottage cheese? The next time you are given the opportunity to give witness to what Christ has done for you, remember that you journey nowhere that God has not gone before you.
Are you a reluctant witness? Of course you are. We all are. But the next time you stand before someone to tell him or her about your faith, remember that God might just be calling their name through you. Once, twice… it doesn’t matter. That’s reason enough for you to overcome your reluctance.
Father, use us as your voice, reluctant as we may be. Help us to know that wherever we go to share our faith, you are there before us, standing beside us, calling us to be your presence. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (or are the author’s paraphrase).
1Quoted by William Willimon, Interpretation: Acts (John Knox Press: Atlanta, 1988), p . 73
2Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993), p. 11.
3Kenneth L. Chafin, The Reluctant Witness, (Broadman Press: Nashville, Tennessee, 1974), p. 12.
4Ibid., p. 13.
5Willimon, Ibid, p. 76.
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.