On May 2, 2011, late at night, Navy Seal Team Six surrounded the compound of exiled terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. Just after 1 am, they stormed the building and killed Bin Laden before he could escape.That’s history, but imagine a very different scenario.
Imagine that, at 12:45 am the room was filled with an intense and blinding light, knocking Bin Laden to the floor. With his eyes covered because of the light, he heard these words:
“Osama! Why are you persecuting me? Why are you murdering my people?”
It’s a vision of the risen Christ that appears to him, knocks him off his feet, challenges him, and changes him completely into a passionate follower of Jesus. Jesus wants to use him to spread the Good News throughout the world, but first he must learn the faith, the scriptures and the Jesus way of life. Jesus sends him to the address of YOUR church where he will find a group of believers worshiping together. Now, imagine he is just outside, on the other side of that door, ready to come in. He wants to sit next to you, pray with you, talk with you and learn from you. Be honest: How do you feel about sharing your pew with the former head of Al Quaeda?
Are you frightened?
Do you feel safe?
Do you trust him?
Or would you rather he went to someone else’s church?
God saves all kinds of people, even people we don’t particularly like, or trust, and we may have a role to play in their discipleship. God may even save someone we are done talking to. An ex…a boss who treated us unfairly then fired us…a family member we aren’t speaking to any more. God saves all kinds of people and we may have a role to play in their discipleship.Maybe it’s even less dramatic than all of that. Maybe we’re just private people who aren’t all that comfortable around people we don’t know. But God knows them. God has plans for them, and we may be part of it.
Now we know how poor Ananias felt in Acts 9. He was a disciple of Jesus Christ who lived in the town of Damascus. He was in prayer one day when the Lord spoke to him.
“Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying. It has been revealed to him in a vision that you will lay hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. He is rounding up and arresting all who follow You!”.”
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for I have chosen him to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
This Saul was a Pharisee among Pharisees. He was obsessed with stamping out every last trace of the Church of Jesus Christ by whatever means necessary. Families were scattered. Believers were arrested. Many were executed, like poor Stephen from last week, and this Saul of Tarsus was responsible for all of it. How could God expect him to go to see a man like this How could God desire him to be in the same room as this man? Worse, how can God ask him to pray for Saul, to care for Saul, TO LAY HANDS ON SAUL?!?
These were logical questions. Could God really use someone like Saul? Would God really use someone who had been so cruel, so hateful towards Christians? Why would God convert, save, redeem, and use someone with such an unsavory and sordid past? But maybe that’s the point. Who is the last person on earth you would ever expect to give their lives to Jesus?Imagine they did, AND God used them as a very public champion for the faith. What a story THAT would be, wouldn’t it? Osama bin Laden as the next Billy Graham! That would get some attention, wouldn’t it? What a story he would have to tell! If God can accept and change a former terrorist leader, God may just be able to do something with me.
Saul’s conversion was dramatic, but Ananias didn’t know that. He was taking quite a risk by doing this. But ultimately, our comfort has nothing to do with it. Christ died to save and transform all kinds of people, sending us all out into our world to serve the purposes of God. We help God with all kinds of people. Some of those people we may actually already know. People we serve on the PTA with; people whose kids play baseball with our kids; kids who attend school with our kids. These may be people who look a lot like us: their lives are relatively put together. We’re probably comfortable with that. Our thinking about them and about God doesn’t have to change too much. Our hearts don’t have to be transformed. We don’t have to be converted. After all, good, respectable, contributing members of our community seem totally worthy of God’s grace–ideal candidates to be welcomed into God’s Kingdom.
But what about the person five houses down, who just moved in, and you’ve heard rumors about? Rumors about how their marriage has fallen apart–the affairs that have taken place, the arguing and fighting that followed. Rumors about the substance abuse issues that ruined their career. What about the person who you encounter as you’re out for a walk with your family? The one talking to himself as you approach and passes with no idea you are even there? How about the person who was just released from jail? Their charge wasn’t disturbing the peace or petty theft. It was something serious: murder, something that landed them on Megan’s list, or drug trafficking. Surely, Jesus wouldn’t call us to “go,” to someone like that would he?
Why not? We all have a past. We all have garbage we’re dealing with. We all need God to turn things around. Some of you are reading this because you have a past too.Jesus is making that past irrelevant to our future, and if God doesn’t care about the past, why should we? God always cares more about where we are going than where we’ve been. We believe that Jesus is the best hope we have to turn things around. We believe because it is happening for us. God never wastes an opportunity to further the Kingdom through our past. An ex-offender may be the perfect person to help new offenders give their lives to Jesus. A recovering addict can understand the struggling addict ‘s pain better than most. We can see that. That makes sense, but sometimes God may want to use us in the life of someone we have no common ground with. Their past may offend us, anger us, frighten us. But who are we to be offended? It may be someone we’d rather keep our distance from, but God wants to pull them closer. Now we know why Jesus said all that stuff about loving and caring for our enemies. God isn’t done with them yet.
“OK, fine,” we say, “but what is God giving this job to me?”
God doesn’t always send us into the assignments that make sense to us. God doesn’t always send us into the assignments that are a natural fit for us. Sometimes God will send the ex-offender to the PTA member because God needs to impress a person whose life has been relatively safe and respectable that there is a wild raging power in God that can overcome and turn around anything. Sometimes the quiet PTA member will be sent to the recovering addict to offer proof that life doesn’t have to be lived on a roller coaster. And maybe, just maybe God wants to stretch our faith too. We don’t grow when we are comfortable.
So how do we know what God is up to in our lives or anybody else’s? How do we scrape up the courage to go? Don’t overlook how much time Saul and Ananias spent in prayer in this story. They are not just talking with God. They are connecting at the heart level. Prayer is being completely honest with God about what’s going on around us and inside us. It is also time spent being in God’s Presence and drawing confidence and encouragement from God that makes even the scariest assignment doable. In our own power, we have every reason to be scared.But with God, all things are possible.
Before we finish, what did you hear today that gives you some hope?
What the biggest thing you learned today that will be helpful to you?
Write it down so you don’t forget.
Now, what are you going to do with that?
(Written with Joshua Rhone)
You know, over the last two days I was just thinking about St Paul and his pre-conversion life, and exactly the content of this post. Not writing anybody off. Loving and trusting God enough to be a light of Christ to whomever we’re sent, regardless of our opinions or comfort or (perceived) comparative righteousness. Thanks, Greg & Joshua. This was very helpful.
You are very welcome. Thanks for taking the time.