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April 29, 2001
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Acts chapter 9 and follow along as I read verses 1-6. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (RV2:29).
1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Somewhere in the soupy wetlands of the North American Piedmont, one of God's strangest creatures, the star-nosed mole, is burrowing deeper into his soggy world. With out-turned claws, he forages the earth for breakfast: a tasty grub perhaps, or a creamy caterpillar larva. Equipped with minuscule eyes, hopelessly weak ears and an inefficient smeller, this hairy little varmint with the body of a chubby rat somehow manages to survive in the dark, underneath the earth.
Question: How is it that a blind, deaf, olfactory-challenged creature can navigate in the subterranean darkness, and even thrive there? Answer: The star-nosed mole has an startling adaptation tht contributes mightily to its survival. The creature has a face that only a mother could love. Where most rodents sport a rather ordinary nose, the star-nosed mole has eleven pairs of pink, fleshy projections encircling a large snout. This "nose" fails miserably as a smeller, but as an instrument of touch, it transcends even the human hand.
The star of appendages ringing this mole's snout contains 25,000 minute sensory receptors and 100,000 nerve fibers - compared to 17,000 in the human hand. This fantastic sense of touch gives the mole a leg up in the battle for survival and means that this seemingly helpless mammal wandering blindly in the darkness actually lives a robust, abundant existence. The mole samples an area by touching the ground with all 22 appendages. Its brain processes this information in less than 1/20th of a second. If one of the appendages detects anything of potential interest (an unfortunate earthworm for example), the mole moves its nose slightly to bring the lowermost central pair into contact with the object. The organs on this lowermost pair are particularly well-supplied with nerves and can provide the animal with a higher-resolution "image," enabling the mole to know whether it has encountered something good to eat or something bad for the mole.
With the incredible sense of touch that the mole has in its nose, it can prosperas those of us who have tired to get rid of moles in the garden have discovered.
the mole has become a metaphor for those who burrow deep within an alien corporate or political environment but survive undetected, devouring secrets along the way. Thus, spies who are very well insulated and protected are often called moles.
Saul of Tarsus was that kind of spy. He had burrowed his way into the unsophisticated network of the leadership of the early church. He obtained warrants for the arrest of key figures and wreaked havoc wherever he went. He had assisted at the murder of Stephen, whose only crime was helping widows, preaching long sermons and insulting local religious authorities.
The Christians were aware of Saul's burrowing activities. At least figuratively, his poster was on the wall of every house where Christians met to worship and pray, including Damascus, where Saul was now headed to arrest a few more leaders and haul them back to Jerusalem.
Then the mole got pushed into the light. On the road to Damascus, Paul experienced a metamorphosis, a life-transforming encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. It was an event that revolutionized his life.
Acts 9 is one of the church's all-time favorite stories. Saul of Tarsus, perhaps the most vehement persecutor of Jesus' followers, is transformed into Paul the apostle, the Lord's own voice to the Gentiles. The famous Damascus Road theophany has been held up to all generations of the church as one of the most stirring and miraculous transformations ever recorded.
In 9:1 we see Saul as one who was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (v. 1).
The alliance formed in verse 2 is an unusual one and highlights the lengths to which Saul was willing to go to persecute Christians. Saul, a Pharisee, seeks out the Sadducee high priest of Jerusalem to obtain the necessary authorization to continue his fight against these miscreant followers of Christ. C.S. Mann ("Saul and Damascus" Expository Times 99 , 331-334) has suggested that this unique partnership between two rather unfriendly schools of Judaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, was undertaken with an eye toward their common concern about maintaining temple purity. Mann proposes that Damascus was one of the "check-in centers" along the journey for Jews making the annual pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. At Damascus, Alexandria and other central location the ritual purity of the pilgrims was examined and their identity as faithful Jews was established. Mann suggests that the Jerusalem priests were worried that believers, such as those professing to follow Jesus, would be willing to look the other way and perhaps even allow Gentile believers to continue undetected to join the throngs at the Jerusalem temple. Were a Gentile to enter the temple, the whole structure would be defiled, and so this must be prevented at all costs.
Perhaps C.S. Mann is right, perhaps maintaining strict ritual purity was part of Saul's motivation, but in any case, he intended to do his best to destroy the nest of believers in Damascus. Saul is obviously a dangerous and formidable enemy of the church, so much so that nearly every ' uses of the verb "to persecute" in the gospel of Luke and in the book of Acts involves Saul and his activities. He is like Darth Vader in the movie "Star Wars," the archetypal enemy of truth and light. And like Darth Vader, he is converted to the light.
The actual Damascus Road theophany is described in minute detail by Luke. While Sauls traveling companions hear something, they do not see anything--thus they are not full participants in the eventbut Saul both sees a flash of light and hears a voice.. The power of this voice and vision cause the mighty Saul to fall to the ground. When the voice accuses him, saying, "Why do you persecute me?" Saul responds by asking, "Who are you, Lord?" (v. 5). Thus, Saul accurately identifies the master of this voice - the Lord Jesus Christ.
The voice identifies itself to Saul and gives directions to the overwhelmed man. Saul is already transformed at this moment--although not into the believer and apostle he will be. V8 tells us that the man who was rampaging toward Damascus must now be led by the hand into the city, blind and helpless. Saul is no longer a fear-inspiring enemy - he is a completely dependent invalid - sunk into a stunned stupor from which he cannot even rouse to eat or drink.
Saul's dramatic vision on the road, and his ensuing career as the apostle to the Gentiles, naturally leads us to focus our attention on him during this story. But Luke gives equal time and space to the simple, obedient disciple of Damascus, Ananias. We are introduced to Ananais in v10-17 let me read these verses to you.
10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,
12 And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
13 Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:
14 And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.
15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
16 For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.
17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
The vision Ananias experiences from the Lord is every bit as startling as Saul's. In obedience, Ananias presents himself before the voice in his vision, saying "Here I am, Lord." But what a test of faith and nerve is set before Ananias! Incredulously, he listens as the Lord tells him not just to seek out this fire-breathing persecutor named Saul, but to heal him, making the now helpless Saul once again strong and dangerous. Little wonder that this disciple thinks that he should remind his Lord who it is he is talking about. Ananias says, "Have you forgotten Lord that this Saul is the chief enemy of your people? Ananias you see wants to give God a second chance, to get his message right. We often do that do we not? We pray and get an answer to prayer, but the answer is not what we expected, and so we say, Lord, I am going to give you another chance, Let us go for two out of three. This is an area where our attitude could stand some improvement. We are in the Lords army. That means we obey the Lords orders.
Give Ananias credit. He did obey the Lords orders. And God revealed to Ananias, his purpose for Saul. Saul is now to be the Lord's "instrument" - a term which literally means a "container or vessel." Thus, Saul will "carry" Christ's name to the Gentiles. As shocking as this news is to Ananias, the Lord does ease his disciple's mind a bit. Ananias' job is simply to go to Saul and heal him - for the Lord assures him that "I myself will show [Saul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (v. 16).
While Ananias may still harbor doubts about the wisdom of this plan, he nonetheless carries out his instructions. Note that in verse 17, Ananias even addresses this fearful enemy of his people as "Brother Saul" - demonstrating with his words his trust in Gods ability to transform the bad into good. Saul is no longer an outsider persecuting the church; he is now a brother in Christ. The vision that Ananias received did not make the source of Ananias' healing ability clear, but Ananias has enough spiritual intelligence to know better than to take credit for such a miracle. The Holy Spirit, Jesus' presence here on earth, is the source of this healing and thus will fill Saul at the moment of Ananias' touch.
As we read on in the chapter, we discover that the entire Christian community at Damascus is apparently as accepting of Saul as was Ananias. This former enemy is immediately baptized into the family of faith and then sits down to eat a meal with them. After being nurtured by this remarkable Damascus community for only a few days, Saul is ready to take his place in the saga of faith. Verse 20 says that Saul, the former persecutor, is now Paul who proclaims Jesus to be "the Son of God."
Saul had a conversion experience. It was a dramatic, name-swapping, identifiable point in time in which he was changed forever. Total transformation. He was a mole no more! He was not content to stay in the Straight Street Home for the Blind. He received both his spiritual and physical sight and left Damascus under the cover of night to become a beacon of light.
That is Paul's story, but it may not be our story. We are followers of the Way. We are Christians. We are disciples. But some of us had no Damascus Road experience, no blinding flash of light, no voice from heaven. Some of us had no specific date and time at which we can mark the beginning of our spiritual journey. Thus, we read Pauls story and feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. We are still moles, groping in the darkness. And that is okay, because the important question is not "When" we became a Christian, but "What" is the nature of our faith experience now. Some folks depend upon something that happened long ago and far away to establish their Christian credentials. Thus they may say, I was saved when I was twelve hears old, and so I am going to heaven. They may be one of the worst sinners and hypocrites the world has ever seen, but they think because they made some kind of verbal profession of Christ when they were a child that they are all right. The question that ought to be asked is: What is your experience of Christ NOW? Is Christ what our lives are about now? Is our daily experience of God a life that is bound in obedience to the living Word of Jesus Christ?
If so, our lives can be described as moles. In this world, we are living underground in an often alien and hostile darkness. But God has equipped us with extraordinary survival sensors that enable us to grow and mature, even in a world that otherwise has nothing to feed us.
Moles in the church are those unheralded, dedicated disciples who quietly get the job done wherever God sends them. We will never hear about them on CNN Headline News. We will never read about them in Time or Newsweek. But this coming week, like every week, hundreds of thousands of them will burrow out from Sabbath worship into the world and get to work.
They will maintain ethical standards in business. They will visit the nursing homes and the jails. They will staff a suicide hot line or dole out sandwiches in a food line. They will teach Sunday School. They will take a casserole to the neighbor who just lost a spouse. They will pray for the needs of others. They will paint, repair, vacuum, stuff envelopes, answer the phone, wash the linens for their church.
They are everywhere, and we do not even know it. They are moles in the church working for the kingdom.
They're like Ananias of Damascus in our text. We have heard nothing of this church mole in the Bible until now, and we will not hear of him again. He surfaces in Scripture here in Acts 9 and then disappears. He is just a faithful disciple who was there when God called upon him for an extraordinary mission: to risk his live to minister to the most feared terrorist of the time: Saul of Tarsus.
Of course, he had misgivings. Ananias was asked to lead this Saul guy into the Scripture, and in so doing identify himself openly as one of the very people Saul was hunting down.
But when called, he answered. When chosen, he stepped up to the plate. In the early church, as in the church at all times and places, disciples of Christ have been making a difference in the world.
The world could no doubt use a few more lions of the faith like the apostle Paul. That is a no-brainer. Of course we want another Paul. But most of the work of God is done by people like Ananias, people who are not famous, people who do not attract attention, church moles if you will
They are holy moleys! We need more of them, more holy moleys, more people consecrated to do Gods work here and now.
When God calls you by name as he did Ananais, will you say, "Behold, I am here, Lord." Will you willingly devote yourself to doing Gods will in your life. That is what we are supposed to be doing. The question you need to ask yourself is: Am I willing? Am I willing to serve God? Amen.
Source: Catania, Kenneth. "A star is born." Natural History, June 2000, 66ff).
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 07/18/01