Monday, April 11, 2016

Effort Repels Unconditional Love


April 10, 2016 – The 3rd Sunday of Easter
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
It’s the guy who offers to help when your arms are full but causes you to spill your groceries in the parking lot as he tries to take them out of your hands. It’s the husband who puts the butter back into the fridge because he didn’t know you had put it on the counter to soften it before making a cake. It’s the mother who instinctively licks her thumb before wiping the smudge off her thirteen-year-old son’s cheek while his friends watch and laugh. It’s the lean-in for a kiss when the woman you’re with just wants to be friends.

Have you ever known someone whose intentions were good but who ended up being as wrong as wrong can be? Has that ever been you? What do you do when you realize that everything you’ve done has actually made things worse? How do you handle that moment when you see for the first time that all of your parenting instincts have made your child as neurotic as you? What do you do when you come face to face with the fact that, despite working for everything that is good and right in this world, the real villain in the story is you?

For Saul, that fateful moment on the road to Damascus wasn’t just an epiphany that signaled a career change or a dramatic religious conversion. It was a total and complete repudiation of everything he thought had been God’s will for his life and for the world. Jesus didn’t show up to invite him into a new faith and a new life. This was God knocking him down and making him blind so that Saul could finally see that every instinct he had was in direct opposition to who God is and what God is doing in the world.

As you might recall, Luke is the author of the Book of Acts, which we read throughout the Easter season. And I love how he tells this story of blindness and sight. In the bible, stories of blindness are never just about physical sightlessness. They’re about a spiritual failure, too. “Though his eyes were open,” Luke writes, “he could see nothing.” Remember how the prophet Jeremiah described the “foolish and senseless” people of God as those “who have eyes but do not see?” Similarly, Luke wants us to know that even though Saul may have lost his sight in that blinding flash of light, he had been walking around for a long time with spiritual eyes that could not see the truth. And how things had caught up with him! Now, instead of leading the murderous cause against the followers of Jesus, Saul was “led by the hand and brought into Damascus.” Once powerful, he was now helpless. Once a champion for religious purity, he now couldn’t even take care of himself.

We get further insight into what sort of blindness this was when we read about Saul’s response to his affliction. As a treatment, he chose a fast—no food or drink for three days—because he knew that this was the sort of spiritual malady that a doctor could not cure. In response to his blindness, Saul chose an act repentance, and remember that repentance is literally a turning around—a change of direction, a reversal of course. When Jesus met Saul on the Damascene road, he stopped him in his tracks. His deep-seated blindness had finally broken through. He could go no further. He had to start from scratch. He had to find a new path.

Enter Ananias, the faithful though timid disciple of Jesus, to whom the Lord appeared in a vision. “Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord told him, “and…look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.” But Ananias was familiar with that name, and the sound of it filled him with fear. “Lord, I have heard from many about this man,” he said, “how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” But God wasn’t worried about that. He told Ananias to go anyway and lay hands on this murderous zealot because God had decided to use Saul’s passion for the faith to bring God’s name to Gentiles and kings. And the most remarkable part of it is that Ananias did what God told him to do. His every instinct had told him that Saul was an irreversible, ironclad enemy of the Way. But, when God appeared to him in a vision, Ananias could see what God was doing—enough to believe that God could do what no one would expect and turn the life of the arch-persecutor of the church completely around.

“Brother Saul,” Ananias said as he laid hands on him, “the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Notice that the offer of physical healing was inseparable from the promise of spiritual awakening. And, as he prayed, “immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and his sight was restored.” Something had occluded his vision—a reptilian-like covering that had blocked his sight. Now that it was gone, the transformation was as complete as it was instantaneous. Luke tells us that “he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Remaining with the disciples in Damascus, Saul “immediately…began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” This man who was determined to destroy the name of Jesus as a threat to the way of Israel’s God was now hailing the same Jesus as the Son of God who had come to save the world. Could there be an about-face more dramatic than that?

Don’t lose sight of how Saul found himself in that predicament in the first place. Of what was he guilty except loving God too much? What was his sin except working too hard to protect the faith that he held dear? For his whole life, Saul had been faithful. He had said his prayers. He had gone to synagogue. He had worshipped in the temple. As a Pharisee, he had kept not only the law but also all of the extra traditions of his faith. His persecution of the church was a direct outgrowth of his faith in God—the same God who was and is the Father of Jesus the Christ. How could this be? How could someone who loved God as much as Saul find himself not only failing to see what God was doing but actively, determinedly, and zealously fighting against it?

How? Because, as is so true when human beings try too hard to do what they think is right, Saul was blinded by his own efforts. The efforts themselves were what had gotten in the way. Jesus had taught that a right relationship with God was defined not by how holy someone’s life was but by how God’s love could make even a sinner holy in God’s sight. Jesus taught that holiness came from God, not from a life well-lived. And nothing could be further from the faith that Saul had practiced his whole life. Nothing could be more threatening to the faith Saul had inherited from his ancestors. Whatever it took, he was determined to destroy this ungodly sect, and it took a blinding encounter with the risen Lord to help Saul see that his own best intentions had led him to miss the truth completely.

How often do our own best efforts get in the way of what God is doing in our lives and in the world? In fact, it is our very best intentions that push the truth of God’s unearned, unmerited, undeserved love further and further away. Human instinct casts God as a parent whom we would please, a teacher whom we would impress, a deity whom we would endear to us with our very best. That is the reptilian blindness that is indicative of the human condition. We believe our efforts are good. We believe that we are judged on what we do and how hard we try, but the harder we try to do good the harder it is for us to believe that God loves us no matter what. Saul had given his whole life to doing what he knew that God would want him to do, but, until Jesus showed up and stopped him in his tracks, he was blind to the fact that he was doing the exact opposite of God’s will.

The death of Jesus shows us what happens when human beings believe that God can’t get it right without our help. Our instincts are flawed. Our eyes, though open, are blind. But the resurrection of Jesus shows us that God won’t let our misguided intentions stand in the way of what he is doing in the world. Let the light of Easter blind you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit and let the scales fall from your eyes. Admit to God that your plan for your life and the world—no matter how well-intentioned—isn’t as good as the grace-filled plan God has in mind. Surrender to the truth of the resurrection— that God’s love for the world isn’t a reflection of our efforts or intentions but is given to us despite them.

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