Have you ever had a time in your life where things changed for you dramatically, practically overnight? Certainly these times are kind of like that, but I mean when things changed personally…just for you – for you and no one else around you at the time. So I ask you to think about your own life, as we delve into the Apostle Paul’s life-changing years that started with his planned trip down “The Damascus Road.”
As you may already know, the Apostle Paul was one of the great leaders of the early church. At first, he was the exact opposite. Originally, Paul was the villain, “breathing,” as Luke put it in Acts, “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord [Jesus].” Luke tells us that one day Paul – then called Saul – was in the midst of asking the high priest in Jerusalem “for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if [Paul] found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, [Christians,] he might bring them bound to Jerusalem [to put them in jail].” Later in the book of Acts we find Paul admitting that at that time he voted to put some Christians to death – which they were, then, put to death!
Anyway, Paul received what he wanted from the High Priest – basically warrants for the arrest of suspected Christians, and, accompanied by a few others, was driven in a chariot towards Damascus, Syria. Then, on the way, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around” Paul [Saul], and he “fell to the ground and heard a voice” – Christ’s voice – say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?…I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter” Damascus, “and you will be told what you are to do.” And Paul had lost his sight.
Have you ever gone through a time when YOU have lost sight of things, so to speak? I know I have, several times. I mentioned just last week my first reception of a call from God to be a pastor – back in 1980. Well, then there came a time in college when I was agnostic, and then I had faith in God again, and then I graduated from college and went to seminary and got my degree, but then my first church was a hard experience and I went through a time when I had lost sight of my pastoral call. This period of me not being a pastor for a few years is what the greater church names as “being on leave from call.” I had left my first congregation abruptly – a little church in a little town in central Illinois, and, at first, I didn’t want even to guest preach anywhere. I thought maybe I could become a writer – a history writer, since I loved history so much. So, next, my ever-so-supportive wife Diane and I moved to Urbana, Illinois – where we had met in college – and she supported us by working at the U. of I. full-time.
What to do when you are sidelined – or you have sidelined yourself as I did back then? Well, we have all been kind of sidelined during this time of the coronavirus – and what have we done with our supposed “spare time?” You know, it’s tough to do anything with the “covid” kind of spare time because we have to be careful about ourselves physically as we go about…plus, we don’t have access to many things to help us as we were used to, and we don’t know what the future holds, even if God does. As I quoted in last week’s devotion, Proverbs 19:21 proclaims, “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” How can we move from being blinded-sided – as Paul was – by a crisis, and sidelined, to moving forward into serving what that Proverbs verse calls “the purpose of the Lord”?
Well, let’s look at how Paul responded. Paul, first of all, became active. After what happened on the Damascus road, in just a few days he turned Christian, became baptized and regained his sight. Then Luke in the book of Acts stuns us all with what Paul did next: “For several days,” Luke writes, “Paul was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’…proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” We, too, can help ourselves out of being sidelined by being active, by finding things – even little things – to do for others. Let me share with you a little metaphor about being active. Take your car, for instance. We are so used to our cars being dependable – we turn on the ignition, and it goes. But what about those times when we turn the key in the ignition, and nothing happens? I’ll bet that that has happened many times to each of us. For me it has happened due to any number of problems: the battery ran out, or the alternator no longer worked, or maybe the ignition switch—the starter – no longer functioned. Remember how frustrated you were whenever something like that happened?
Maybe God feels that way if we are downhearted or without confidence and we are no longer that vehicle by which God wants something to be done at that moment. Let’s at least be one of God’s vehicles that will “get out on the road,” so to speak, so that God can drive us anywhere and God can get things done!
Paul did that. Paul suddenly became a Christian and was so excited about His new Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that he couldn’t help but talk about Him! But he did more than be active. Paul described his early years as a Christian this way, which is our “Boost from the Bible” quote for today, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter one: Paul writes: “But when God…was pleased to reveal His Son to me, I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [that’s Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days.” Paul then tells his Galatian brothers and sisters that “after fourteen years” of being an apostle sent to convert non-Jews (Gentiles) Paul finally went back to Jerusalem to report on his mission.
Let us now notice what Paul sought to do, near the beginning of his new Christian life, after experiencing what he experienced on the Road to Damascus. First, he went away to Arabia, probably to learn more about Christianity – and, in Arabia, no doubt lived among non-Jews, who were the future target of his mission, also called Gentiles – and THEN Paul went for fifteen crucial days to Jerusalem to learn at the feet of the chief of Jesus Christ’s original twelve disciples, Cephas – Cephas, which is the Aramaic word for Peter, “the Rock.” What Paul learned from Peter was crucial – what it was like for Peter to follow the physical Jesus every day, key things that Jesus said and did, what it was like that crucial final week in Jerusalem, and how Peter and company reacted to seeing that Jesus had risen from the dead. At one point, Paul later shares a quote from Jesus that is NOT in any of the four gospels; maybe he got it from Peter! The quote is: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
In other words, when Paul was sidelined in his life – for at least three years – he made the most of it. Now that Jesus had recruited him for a mission, it was time to go away to Arabia and later sit at the feet of Peter, who no doubt not only shared the high points but also the low points of life with Jesus, as when Peter denied three times knowing the prisoner Jesus. Paul probably learned from Peter that, when we are not “in Christ,” we deny our Lord, and we sin all the more.
I, too, was sidelined from fulltime pastoral ministry for a time. After leaving my first pastoral call, and after Diane and I moved back to Urbana, Illinois, God recruited me to do several “pastor-type” things: be the chief supply pastor at a Lutheran church in crisis in Champaign; then be the interim pastor there after the pastor left; then help that church realize how it could treat the next pastor better than it had the previous three pastors; then I became supply pastor at several other congregations and got to see how THEY did things; I then visited several other denominational churches to see how THEY worshiped, which broadened my understanding of the many types of Christianity; and last but certainly not least, I was mentored in mission and ministry at our home church at the time, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Urbana…mentored by Pastor Paul Swartz, whom I later served under here at King of Glory. He was so kind to explain to me back in those Urbana days what “the evangelical mission of the church” is really all about – not to just “go” to church but to “be” the church, as he so often proclaimed. In these and other ways during my so-called “time off,” God prodded me and prodded me and prepared me to be a better pastor, so that, when I returned from the so-called “sideline,” I was more ready to serve the Lord.
Maybe you feel SIDELINED right now, either in your everyday life, or in your spiritual life. Look to the Apostle Paul’s example, as he accepted being put on the sideline for a while – if one describes such a time in a worldly way – yet what God was REALLY doing with Paul…and what God can do with us at this time…is keep preparing us and preparing us for the challenges and opportunities to share Christ that SURELY…SURELY…are to come! So…pray regularly to God with that in mind; keep asking, in prayer, for the Holy Spirit to prepare you, to keep your eyes open for ways to help, and also pray to God to give you the confidence that you ARE able to help others in some way! Amen!
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