Scriptures: Isaiah 6:8-13; Acts 9:10-19
Here I Am
As the liturgist noted, most people know about Saul, who became Paul. He was known for persecuting the Christians, in Jerusalem in particular. In fact, the beginning of this chapter, that we didn't read, says “Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord ...”
He was a Pharisee, zealous for the Law. He was a student of Gamaliel, one of the most famous Jewish sages of the time. He was a “righteous” man, at least in his own mind, and according to everything they knew of about the Law.
Because he saw the Christians as heretical and blasphemous, and misleading people about who God was, he was very zealous in pursuing them. He was there when Stephen was stoned, for instance, and may have been instrumental in bringing it about.
So this is the guy that most people know about, that many people focus on. He had this massive conversion experience, where he saw Jesus in a light, and the glory of Jesus as Savior and Lord, and God blinded him. He had to be led by the guys that were with him, to the house on Straight Street where, Jesus said told him, “You need to stay there and wait.”
I've always wondered about the guys that led him, if they weren't partaking in the vision that Saul had, what they thought of what had happened. We'll never know. It doesn't say.
While he was there in Damascus, in this house of Judah, he was praying. That's important to note, because God himself speaks about it.
We know how he contributed to the early church, and how we've been blessed for centuries by his contribution to the Gospel in the church. Paul wrote most of the New Testament.
But this morning I want to introduce you instead to the man who was one of the most instrumental believers in the early church, that nobody knows. His name is Ananias, and we know what a powerful contribution he made to God's work.
Now there are three men named Ananias in the New Testament, so I want to make sure we get the right one. The first one is dead, by the time this takes place. He was the one who, with Sapphira, went and sold some land, and after having promised to give all the proceeds to the church, held back part of it and didn't tell anybody. He thought he was getting away with something.
Peter looked at them each, as they came in, and said basically, “So you want to lie to the Holy Spirit? It would have been OK if you kept the money, if you just told us, but as it is, God's judgment be upon you,” and they fell over dead, first Ananias and then Sapphira later the same day.
The third Ananias was a high priest, the high priest who was with the king that Paul meets with in Acts 22. Sometimes he's confused – including by me – with the high priest in Jerusalem, Annas, and father-in-law of Caiaphas, another high priest. So they were both high priests, slightly different names, and different times.
The second Ananias is the one we're looking at, and he was the one who lived in Damascus. He was well-respected by the Jews, despite being a Christian. I don't know if that meant that he was a secret Christian, like Nicodemus was, and others, or if, because Damascus was not the central place like Jerusalem, they were a little more tolerant of these Christians, as long as they also follow the Jewish law. Without a doubt, Ananias followed the Jewish law as much as possible, made sure he was circumcised and all that, while being a Christian.
This is the man who made this contribution to God's work. As we get into looking at him, I have a question for you: How many of you here like to be comfortable? Raise your hands. How many of you here have a place where you feel most comfortable? Church, work, school, a favorite chair, couch, maybe bed?
In America today, much of our lives is spent trying to get comfortable. I believe it's safe to say that we all like to be comfortable. Well, let me share a truth that's in this story about Ananias that may upset a few of you today.
God does not care about how comfortable we are or how comfortable we want to be. He has not called us to be comfortable in serving Him. We are called by Christ to serve in obedience, as the liturgist said, regardless of the situation.
When I finally decided to answer the call to ministry, I was resistant for many years, as most of you know, though not all of you. When I did finally answer the call and said “OK, God,” that's when I discovered that surrender is not the same thing as defeat, as I experienced a peace and wholeness that I had not experienced previously in my life.
But in order to get me there, God had put a – what do they call it? – a burr under the saddle, a spur in me. I always tell people, God may not force you to do something, but He can sure make you uncomfortable where you are.
Saul was one who knew about being uncomfortable in service to God, and he was willing to serve God no matter where it took him, no matter what it cost him. Many believers today find it very uncomfortable when they're called to go on any kind of mission, when they're called to step outside their comfort zone, when they're called to be evangelistic.
I've spoken before of how we Presbyterians, despite our history of being some of the best evangelists in the world, seem to be, in modern days, very uncomfortable sharing faith, even with our neighbors, much less with strangers and others.
Now Ananias was praying. He was able to obey God because he could hear God's voice. It says “there was a certain disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and to him the Lord said in a vision, 'Ananias,' and he said, 'Here I am, Lord,'” like Abraham, like many before him. And like the song we sang this morning, “Here I Am.”
It almost goes without saying that before we can do the will of God, we first have to know the will of God. And generally speaking, we can know God's will by studying His Word. However, sometimes when it comes to God's particular will for our lives, like Ananias, believers must live close enough to the Lord to hear His voice.
That is, we need to be in a close enough relationship to be able to understand what He is telling us. That means we need to be in prayer. Ananias was praying when he had this vision. Ananias was able to obey God because he knew what the Lord wanted him to do. The Lord is much more likely to speak to someone with whom He is in fellowship.
Ananias was able to obey God because he feared the Lord. He also feared Saul. He had good reason to fear Saul. I didn't copy it off, but one of the sermons I read went through a sort of a conversation with God, (and I paraphrase) as Ananias was praying, saying, “Dear God,” and God said, “Ananias,” and he said “Yes, here I am.” God said, “I want you to do something.” Check [makes thumb-up gesture]. “I want you to go to the house on Straight Street.” Check [makes thumb-up gesture]. “I want you to talk to a man named Saul.” [Starts to make thumb-up gesture, stops.] “What?”
Based on his conversation with the Lord, we know that Ananias certainly feared Saul of Tarsus, and he had good reason. Basically it looked to Ananias like God was telling him to go and be slaughtered, to be martyred. He tells God, “Don't you know that this guy has been killing all of us in Jerusalem? And now he's been sent out by the chief priests from Jerusalem, with authority to put us in chains and drag us back there.”
Notice that God doesn't spend time debating with him. He simply repeats, “Go. For I have chosen this man to be my tool, for sharing the gospel with the Gentiles, and with many others.”
So at this point in time, you basically have two emotions, if you will, warring in Ananias. You have outright fear, phobic fear, of Saul, because of Soul's reputation, and what Ananias thinks might happen if he goes to see Saul and those guys that are with him.
Then on the other hand, you have his fear, or respect, reverence, and awe for Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior. It doesn't tell us in the Scriptures, but I'm imagining there was some time while Ananias was wrestling with this.
It tells us that it is OK to be afraid. It is OK to wrestle with things like that. It is not easy to speak out in public. It is not easy to open yourself up to somebody, even if you know them well, and take the chance of rejection and hurt and lashback. It's totally natural to be afraid.
We know that the Gospel that we share is one that most of the world will hate. Christians are still the most persecuted religion in the world. A 2018 poll – I think it was by Pew – said that 265 Christians a day are killed, worldwide. Not dying from passing peacefully, not even dying in drive-by shootings and things like that, but specifically from religious persecution. It's not an easy thing to share your faith.
The Lord, however, told Ananias what He wanted him to do. And eventually, in a timely manner, Ananias did it. The Lord told Ananias to go, and Ananias went.
And we learn that if God tells you to do something, do it. If the Lord tells you to say something, say it. Just make sure when you go, and when you speak, that you're doing God's will and not your own. How do we know that? His Word and prayer. I already mentioned that earlier.
Now once he was sure of God's leadership, Ananias acted sooner rather than later. And that's important for us. putting off what we know God wants us to do makes it much more likely that we'll never be truly obedient to Him.
I've said many times I'm king of the procrastinators. Sometimes it seems like the mantra is “don't do today what you can put off till tomorrow,” instead of the other way around. When we put it off, then that gives us another chance to hold off, and put off the fear. But eventually, we need to realize that we are in disobedience and rebellion to God. What have you been putting off doing for God, that you know He wants you to do?
Ananias obeyed God by walking down the street to Judas' house, as God told him to. And when he was there, he did something amazing, at least to me. He was probably let in by some of the guys who were with Saul. He came to Saul, and he said, “Brother.”
Now technically, since they're both Jewish, I suppose he was a brother. And technically, if Saul had truly been converted, they were brothers in Christ. But do you realize the courage it took to come before this man, in what could very well have been a trap, and to treat him like one of the family?
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road” – so he shows that he knows what's going on – “as you were coming here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
So we have Ananias having been told what happened to Saul on the road (and there's no way he could have known that otherwise), and we already know that God told Ananias that Saul had a vision that this guy named Ananias was going to come and heal his blindness. So you have a fulfillment of God's word here.
Because they were both obedient. Saul went into town, and waited, and prayed. Ananias left and went where God told him to go, and did what God told him to do. “And immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again.”
Then he took some food, to regain his strength, because presumably he had been fasting while he was praying. And although we didn't read it, I want to note that Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. It wasn't a thing where Ananias just went and put his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, I heal you in the name of Jesus Christ,” and the scales fell off, and then Ananias went “Whew! I'm outta here!”
No, he spent several days with Saul, presumably teaching him, training him. Saul already knew the Jewish faith inside and out, but just as Jesus did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, where he opened the Scriptures up to them, so that they understood how everything in the Hebrew Bible pointed to Christ, he probably went through all of that with Saul, because then Saul turns around and immediately goes into the synagogues and he starts preaching that Jesus Christ is God, which really freaks a lot of people out.
You should read it sometime. It's an interesting story, as we see how much a man can be changed by grace, the transformation that had occurred. But I want to focus on Ananias, because Ananias fades into the woodwork now. We never hear from him again. It seems like he was a bit part in the story or the play.
And yet if Ananias had been rebellious against God, and refused to go and do what God had said ... Because I believe in the sovereignty of God, I believe God would found another way to work things out so that Saul was healed, but think about this.
If Ananias had refused to go to the house on Straight Street, then Saul would not have been healed in that way. Saul would not have been welcomed into the family as a brother. Saul would not have been trained in the early knowledge of the Scriptures, and what it meant to be a disciple of Christ, and how the scriptures pointed to Him being God.
If Ananias had not decided to obey God, to overcome his fear of Saul and his reputation, in order to show his respect and love for God, theoretically, most of the New Testament wouldn't have been written. We don't know how history might have changed. This bit part was critical.
It was crucial to God's plan, as God took somebody who was totally ordinary, totally unknown, though respected, not super-trained with seminary degrees, like Paul. Not super-zealous, like some hyper-evangelistic person.
I've told you many times a story about how my dad had a baptism fire after he was separated from my mom for eighteen months and came back home. He went through this period of time where, since I was a teenager he completely and totally embarrassed me, as everybody he would meet, he would come up and say, “Hi. I'm Roland Evans. Do you know the Lord?” which I felt was probably putting off more people than it was inviting.
We don't have to be in-your-face in that way. What we do need, though, is to be ready to share when God calls us to do so. Ananias was ready. He had prepared himself, by his prayer and relationship with God, by his knowledge of the Scriptures. He had prepared himself in terms of his willingness to follow God wherever God would lead him.
And he wasn't just a speaker of the word, but he was a doer, as he did the most important thing that we can do, what Jesus himself commissioned us to do in Matthew 28, “Go and make disciples.”
Conversion had already happened, in that Damascus experience to Saul. Saul was already, if you will, a follower of Jesus Christ. But it was Ananias who confirmed it, affirmed it, and then started him on his path as a disciple.
God can use you like that. You may feel, I'm not gifted, I'm not knowledgeable enough, I'm not strong enough, I'm not brave enough. But trust in God. And if you do that, He'll make a way. You may not gain a whole lot of recognition. You probably won't. But who knows? Maybe your mentoring of someone may bring about the next Paul, or Billy Graham, or someone else who makes a large impact for the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.
The potential is always there, because with God all things are possible, if only you believe, and follow Him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.