Posted in Acts, Ananias, Holy Spirit, Jesus, paul, Transformation

Ultimate Transformation

The next five weeks are going to take a deeper look at the Holy Spirit at work in the book of Acts.  Last week’s lectionary reading was the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples in a locked room and breathing on them the Holy Spirit, the ruach, the very breath of God that ignites, sustains and transforms.  Call this a 5 week special feature:  Ultimate Transformation with Saul and Ananias, A Mighty Woman with Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter, God’s People Expanded with Peter and the Gentile expansion pack, Dreams not Beans with Paul and Lydia, and finally Freedom with Paul and Silas.  All leading us toward Pentecost which for all intents and purposes IS the Holy Spirit’s day.  Blow, Spirit, blow!

You know that we have access to the Holy Spirit right here and right now.  The Holy Spirit is our advocate and comforter, interceding for us when we don’t have the words to cry out, intervening as a hedge of protection, guiding and leading us to where we should go and even giving us the words to say. 

I preached last week upstairs that we serve a show and tell God.  God shows us the ultimate transformation when Saul becomes Paul.  Saul is high on the hog, a big man on campus, a titan of Wall Street, a superstar of the Jewish faith when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus.  The Lord revealed his plans to a hesitant Ananias who says, yes, Lord, and he gets a firsthand look at what our Lord Jesus can do.  The practical point for today is two-fold – if we think we’re too far gone, irredeemable, not worthy or good enough our Jesus loves home improvement projects and if the triune God is telling you do something, no matter how crazy it sounds, we as members of the Way should hop to it!  If we follow the Spirit’s leading everything that was lost will be found in the sweet name of Jesus.

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

If we think we’re too far gone, irredeemable, not worthy or good enough our Jesus loves home improvement projects.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition first made the big home reno transformation scene with, “Move that bus!  Move that bus!”  Now it’s common place with Fixer Upper, Home Town, Zombie Houses, Love it or List it, and the list goes on.  We often get sucked into watching those shows because we want to see the great big transformation – the huge reveal at the end.  It’s rare that we see a transformation from sinner to saint as dramatic as that of Saul to Paul.  We know that there are stories out there, however and here is one such story. The story of Cain Lackey from Patrick County, Virginia.

Cain Lackey was known as the Meanest Man in Patrick County. He was rough and tough.  The year was 1892 and Patrick County, Virginia, was a place of dirt fields and mud roads. There wasn’t always enough food. People died because there were no doctors. Some places were almost impossible to get to because of the roads.

For all that, it was still very beautiful. There were the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, and the music of winding rivers racing over the boulders in their streambeds. In the western part of the county were rich fields and long grasses. There were dairy farms, and orchards so plentiful that the smell of the fruit was like perfume.

Two ministers, Brother Dove and Brother Elgin, were standing at the edge of a swamp.  Down below, a tough, wiry man was digging a ditch. Brother Dove was a revival preacher, new in town, and Brother Elgin warned him about the man who was digging: Cain Lackey, the Meanest Man in four counties.

Brother Elgin proceeded to tell Brother Dove about Cain Lackey, how he could carry a railroad tie the way most men carried a two-by-four, how he could out-wrestle and out-fight anyone else who’d ever passed through. And he told him about the famous fight against a man known as Champion Ben, who he’d laid flat with a single punch, and how it had required twelve men to pull Cain Lackey off the former champion.

Brother Elgin also told him about the man’s father, who kept him from school, worked him from dawn to dusk, made him sleep outdoors all summer long, and how Cain had built a working mill by himself at the age of ten.

No one could level another man with his fist like Cain. No one was stronger or meaner.  “Well, he certainly looks like the strongest man in the county,” Brother Dove said, watching the way Cain Lackey thrust his shovel into the swamp, and sent great clouds of mud into the air behind him.

“I’m going to invite him to the revival,” Brother Dove said suddenly.

“He’ll never come,” Brother Elgin said.

“He’ll definitely never come if we don’t ask him,” Brother Dove replied.

Brother Elgin watched as the Brethren minister descended into the swamp. Brother Elgin could see Brother Dove step first ankle deep, then knee deep into the swamp, getting mud and gunk all over him. He watched as Brother Dove stuck out his hand to Cain Lackey. After a moment, Cain took the hand.

A few moments later Brother Dove was walking back to Brother Elgin. Mud clung to his boots and pants.

“What did he say?” Brother Elgin asked. Cain Lackey had already returned to digging. Not much seemed to keep him from work.  “He said he’d come. Is he as good as his word?”

“Yes.  If he tells you he’ll come he’ll be there. He’s just that way. He’ll do what he tells you. But if he tells you he’ll give you a whipping, he’ll do that, too.”

That night at the revival, the church was full. People had come from miles around to hear Brother Dove. There were young people and old people. There were children and mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and plenty of babies. All the windows were open, and still it was hot, very hot inside, yet no one left. No one wanted to leave, because when someone like Brother Dove came to preach revival it was something special, very special.

The songs were the sorts of songs that everyone already knew. A sweaty man in the front of the church moved his arms up and down, right and left, to direct the singing, but everyone already knew the songs.

Brother Dove looked out over the congregation, and then he saw, in the doorway of the church, a big man standing. It was Cain Lackey, all right, and he had a child in his arms.  He hadn’t thought about it, but he now knew that Cain Lackey was married, and had children. There was a beautiful child in his arms. There was no room for anyone else in the church, but when Cain came in the door, people were afraid of him and made room for him to sit down.

Opening his Bible, Brother Dove began to read, and to talk. It got hotter and hotter in the building, and Brother Dove was dripping with sweat, and so was everyone else. It had gotten dark outside, and it was getting dark in the church as well. He could barely see into the back row, and he wondered, what did Cain Lackey, the Meanest Man in Patrick County, think about what he was saying?

When it was time for the closing song, some were crying in the church, and some were squeezing forward so that Brother Dove and Brother Elgin and all the other Brethren ministers could pray for them.  Many people were coming forward.

Brother Dove could see a dark shadow, a silhouette of a man, standing at the back of the church. Cain Lackey was standing, but he could see there was no way Cain Lackey could come forward, even if he wanted to. The church was too packed.

And then he saw something that surprised him. Cain Lackey was standing on top of a church bench. He was holding a little girl in his arms, and she was fast asleep. This person who was supposed to be the worst person in Patrick County had a little girl asleep in his arms, and he was coming forward by walking on top of the church benches.

The other ministers stood back as if they were shocked, but Brother Dove welcomed Cain Lackey, and hugged him very tightly, him and his daughter. Then Brother Dove invited Cain Lackey to kneel while they prayed together. All along, the singing continued. Then a cool breeze blew in the window, a breeze that brought relief and comfort.

When he was through praying, Brother Dove raised his hands and suddenly everyone was quiet. No one was singing. No one was crying. Everyone was listening.

“Today you have seen a miracle of grace,” he said. “God has called this man to do great things. You will be the ones who will see these things. Welcome this man into our church!”

Cain Lackey went on to learn to read and write. He became a minister and built many churches. He was elected to public office and spent tax money to build roads to improve access to rural areas even though it made him unpopular. He worked to provide social services for poor people who had been ignored by other politicians. He smashed stills where he found them. He changed lives. Most of all, he lived a life of grace and service to Jesus Christ.  A life transformed.

Saul, much like Cain Lackey, had a reputation of being a very bad man, a big bully like I said in the children’s sermon.  Saul was a man to be feared.  Saul was very zealous in the Jewish faith.  He called himself a Hebrew among Hebrews, so fervent in the faith and traditions of his own people that he stood by and watched over the cloaks of the mob that dragged Stephen off and stoned him to death.   Paul himself recalls elsewhere how he was fervent in persecution, determined to eradicate the Jesus movement by any means possible. In Galatians 1:13 he says that he “violently” laid hands on Christians. It was an overall empty life.

Saul’s conversion is the greatest act of transformation in the New Testament. It’s one of those “if he can change I guess I can change” stories that we need to prove that our gospel truly transforms lives.

If the triune God is telling you to do something, no matter how crazy it sounds, we as members of the Way should hop to it!

God uses Ananias, an ordinary Christian disciple to heal Saul.  This is the only time this particular Ananias is mentioned in scripture except when Paul is giving his testimony in Acts 22:12,  “A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well-spoken of by all the Jews living [in Damascus].”  When the Lord called to Ananias in a vision, he answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  After he’s given his instructions, Ananias vocalizes his fears and hesitations.   Word on the street was that Saul was evil and he had authority from the Chief Priests in Jerusalem to bind anyone invoke the name of Jesus. 

Every call from God is a personal call. God’s call comes to us person-to-person. It is not a conference call. Some of us respond by putting God on hold. Others of us use call-waiting and take other calls first. Then there are those of us who try to return the call collect – making God pay for calling us.  And yet Ananias answered Jesus.  He trusted Jesus, even if he may have harbored doubts and fears, and it is to Ananias, not Saul, that the purpose and plan for the new apostle’s life is first revealed. 

Ananias follows Jesus’ instructions.  The text doesn’t say if he had doubts or hesitancies, but the only way I “out” myself to Saul as a member of the Way with his reputation was to hear a voice from the Lord.  And even then…Ananias must have his own real transformation from righteous and respected Jew to faithful follower of the Way.  His was a transformation not recorded within the Bible, but he had to have one because he addresses this fearful enemy of his people as “Brother Saul” — demonstrating with his words his trust in the Lord’s transformative abilities. I would love an insight into Ananias thought process as he does the unthinkable. Outing himself as a follower of the Way and being the Jesus’ instrument bringing Saul healing. And while the vision’s words does not make the source of Ananias’ healing ability clear, Ananias himself knows better than to take credit for such a miracle. The Holy Spirit, Jesus’ presence here on earth, is the source of this healing. Saul is no longer an outsider persecuting the church; he is now a true brother in Christ.

“Here I am, Lord.”  Ananias’ behavior in this story gives us a game plan for what we should do. God wants Ananias, an ordinary man, a simple disciple, in an act of courage to lay hands on Saul – essentially to make a pastoral call on this terrorist. Here is Ananias’ reaction. Step 1: He answered. Step 2: He confirmed the assignment. Step 3: He went. Step 4: He laid his hands on Saul.  Step 5: He affirmed his new family member, when he called him “Brother.”  

Ananias understood and lived as a good Jew, who was now a follower of Jesus, a disciple of the Way. Proverbs 3:5-6 which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  He embodied the hymn “Trust and Obey.”

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will, He abides with us still

And with all who will trust and obey

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey

If we follow the Spirit’s leading, everything that was lost will be found in the sweet name of Jesus.

Lee Strobel once knew the emptiness and lack of direction of living without the Triune God – God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit – in his life. Though he was a successful journalist, by his own account he was not a happy man. He describes himself at that stage in his life as “profane and angry.” To prove his point he cites a time when he came home one night and kicked a hole in the living room wall just out of anger with his life. Can you imagine the impression his conduct made on his five-year-old daughter? But Jesus Christ came into Lee Strobel’s life and changed his life radically. He says that five months after he gave his life to Christ, his little girl went to her mother and said, “Mommy, I want God to do for me what he’s done for Daddy.” Strobel says that God changed not only him, God changed his family and changed his world. When true God-given transformation happens it leaves nothing untouched and changes your whole wide world.

It was hard to argue with a testimony like that.  The scales had fallen off Lee Strobel’s eyes and he could now see both physically and spiritually.  Just like Saul.  The text says, “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”  It was quite the transformation!  A week before he had given himself the task with the Chief Priests blessing to round up believers of the Way and today he’s preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  What blasphemy! To those Jewish ears.  But what a transformation!  A testimony!  Saul could sing quite literally, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

He who was lost, is found, indeed and he’s ready to preach Jesus’ transforming power far and wide.  Saul was not irredeemable.  Ananias trusts in God’s leading.  The result is revival then and now if we show and tell the world as the Spirit leads in the sweet, sweet name of Jesus – the One who has the power to transform our lives.

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