I Am Here

90% of what makes a gathering successful is the preparation. We tend to focus on the things, but the most important part is the people. How does God prepare us for encounters with people?

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Read Acts 9:1-18

How many of you have seen the Steve Martin movie The Man with Two Brains?  It came out in 1983.  There’s a scene in the movie in which Martin is asking the painting of his dead wife to give him a sign about whether it’s ok that he’s falling in love with Deloris.   He says, “Rebecca, if there’s anything wrong with my feelings for Deloris, just give me a sign.  Any kind of sign at all.” Immediately a spooky voice starts repeating, “Nooo, nooo, noooo…” and the room start shaking. The painting begins spinning around, and the lights flash on and off. The room gets windy and the walls start coming apart.  Through it all, Martin seems not to even notice.  After all the commotion stops, Martin says again, “Just any kind of sign. I’ll keep on the lookout for it.”[1]

I wonder if God might feel that way with us.  We ask for help or for a sign, but then forget to pay attention and watch for God to answer. Or we discount something that’s different than we expected or that takes us in a different direction than we’re already going.

In the passage we read today from Acts, Saul (also known as Paul) cannot ignore the sign because it stops him in his tracks.  He was on a mission to persecute anyone who was following Jesus. He’d gotten arrest warrants from the high priests in Jerusalem and was headed to Damascus to present those warrants to the synagogues so he could start arresting followers of Jesus.  His plan was to bring them back to Jerusalem in chains and present them to the high priests for judgment. 

The outcome of those trials would likely mean that those followers would be killed by stoning them, throwing stones at them until they died.  This is what we see happening to Stephen in the previous chapter of Acts.

Instead, Saul gets stopped on the road to Damascus by a blinding light, and hears Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Saul asks the obvious question: “Who are you?”  The voice answers, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.”

By this time, Jesus has already been crucified and risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, so Saul hasn’t had contact with the physical Jesus, but Jesus said, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me” (Matt. 25:40). In going after the followers of Jesus, Saul is persecuting Jesus.

After this, Saul is blind and must be helped the rest of the way to Damascus.  He spends the next three days in prayer and fasting, trying to understand why he’s lost his vision.

Meanwhile, there is a follower of Jesus named Ananias who’s also been praying and hears God calling his name.  Ananias says, “I am here.”  I’m listening. I’m ready. What’s next, God?  And God tells Ananias about Saul.

But Ananias has already heard of Saul and knows that Saul is a dangerous man who hates Christians.  So, not surprisingly, Ananias argues with God a bit.  But God says, “Go anyway, because I have chosen Saul to be my messenger to the non-Jews and to kings.”

Both Ananias and Saul hear God calling them by name.  I wonder how many of you have heard God calling you by name.

Not everyone does, but some people do.  Maybe sometimes God has to use our names to make sure that we’re not overhearing someone else’s call.

How many of you have argued with God about the wisdom of God’s plan?

I have. More than once. Ananias’ conversation with God reminds me of a conversation I had about 15 years ago with God. I was sitting in a seminar and was troubled by a situation being described.  A little voice in my head said, “You can do something about that.”  I said, “No, I can’t.”  The voice said, “Yes, you can.” I said, “No, I can’t.” God said, “Yes, you can.”  And so on. You get the idea.

In that prayer, I didn’t get specific directions about what to do next like Ananias did, but that experience had me on alert from then on for opportunities to do things differently and to make a difference. That experience was one of the reasons I ended up going to seminary.

Ananias got specific directions. God told Ananias to do something simple – go lay hands on Saul and pray for him.  When Ananias did that, God restored Saul’s eyesight, and then Saul went out and started telling people that Jesus is the Messiah, the opposite of what he was doing before.  Saul is more commonly known by his Latin name Paul, the great missionary who wrote many of the books of the New Testament and planted of many churches. 

Jesus says in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).  That’s exactly what Ananias did, not realizing that God had prepared Saul to meet Ananias as a friend instead of an enemy.

Who are you praying for?  It can be hard to pray for those who mistreat us, but that’s what Jesus says to do.

When we are praying for people, we begin to see them differently. There was a man who confessed to his pastor that even though he didn’t think of himself as hating people, there was one person he really hated for the way the person had wronged him, and he couldn’t seem to stop. The pastor advised the man to pray for the person every day for two weeks — pray for the person not about the person. When the man asked why he should do this, the pastor said, “I don’t believe anyone can keep on hating someone when they have consistently prayed for that person to be blessed by God. And, who knows, God may even answer those prayers and the person’s life be blessed and changed in ways we cannot even imagine.”[2]

In Psalm 41:6, David laments about something many of us do. He says, “They visit me as if they were my friends, but all the while they gather gossip, and when they leave, they spread it everywhere.”  Whenever we are tempted to gossip, instead let’s pray for that person.

We are used to praying for people when there are specific concerns – health issues, travel, significant events. But in Paul’s letters, he tells us to pray continually and to pray about everything and for everyone.

So, here’s what I’d like us to do this week to try that out: Set aside a day this week for viewing people differently. At the beginning of the day pray for all those who you are going to be in contact with that day in person, online, through the phone or however they may come. Ask God to help you think of each person you meet for the next 24 hours as a messenger from God, either someone you can help and pray for, or someone God can use to teach you something. Take notes for the day. At the end of the day ask the Holy Spirit how to be praying for those people or if anyone on that list is someone you should be getting to know better.[3]

And who knows what God might do.


[1] Watch this scene here: https://youtu.be/mkcKQmr7kRc

[2] O. Wesley Allen, Jr., https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/pauls-conversion/commentary-on-acts-91-19a

[3] Rev. Katy Stenta at https://katyandtheword.com/2021/05/12/gathering-gospelling-worship-iv/ and Martha Grace Reese in Unbinding the Gospel, pg. 120.

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