You know, we have all gone through a lot of stress recently, haven’t we? And one way that we humans sometimes deal with stress is through ANGER. Now getting rid of stress by showing anger may be a way to feel sort of “better” afterwards, but, if that anger is directed at other people, THEY may not feel better, but feel worse. We have a term for this kind of anger – we sometimes call it “acting out.” How do we deal with acting out – which can become quite dangerous if taken to extremes? Well, even in the Bible we see people “acting out,” and we see different ways that, after God confronts them, they deal with it. It turns out that the two contrasting ways of reacting to God when one “acts out” are not only in the Bible, but they are about two men with the same name – Saul.
The first was King Saul, the first king of Israel. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. The other Saul was someone we know better as the Apostle Paul of the New Testament. We will see that when confronted by God, one Saul kept acting out, while the other Saul repented.
King Saul, after his anointment as king by the prophet Samuel, started out well in his reign over the people of Israel. When Samuel was searching for that first king, and Saul was found, Samuel proclaimed to the people, “Do you see the one whom the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.” Saul followed the Lord’s commands and did what the prophet Samuel advised. Early on in Saul’s rule Saul heard that the Ammonites were persecuting the inhabitants of Jabesh. Saul reacted, as we read in 1st Samuel eleven, verse six: “And the Spirit of God came upon Saul in power when he heard these words….” And Saul called upon the twelve tribes of Israel to join him in defeating the Ammonites, and there was success. After that some came to King Saul and wanted to execute those who had opposed Saul at the beginning, but Saul replied, “No one shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has brought deliverance to Israel.”
Yet in the coming months Saul began to disobey God and God’s commands, often due to rash and angry behavior, to the point where the Lord told Samuel, and Samuel told Saul, that God had rejected Saul as king. Now, Saul at first tried to repent and change, but when the prophet Samuel anointed young David as the next king, Saul began to turn away from even being sorry for disobeying God. Taking David into his own home to play the small harp for him, Saul on several occasions tried to kill David. Saul became jealous when people proclaimed that David was a better military leader than him. At one point David had to flee for his life, and Saul still acted out, even when David saved Saul’s life a few times. Saul even turned on the commandment from God not to consult a medium to try to learn the future – when the future is only in God’s hands. Saul’s heart was hardened, as they say in the Bible, and he could not hear God anymore. The medium, at Saul’s request, brought back the prophet Samuel from the dead, and when Saul asked Samuel what he, Saul, should do now that the Philistines seemed about to kill him and his army, Samuel replied, “Why do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to David.” Saul was stricken by these words, and yet Saul still would not surrender to the Lord, and he was killed soon after.
Notice I said that King Saul did not “surrender” to the Lord. What God wants, when we are acting out, is to ask ourselves why we are SO angry about something, and why we are acting SO differently, why are we acting out? It is basically to ask ourselves, “What is really bothering me?” If King Saul would have asked himself that question, God would have helped him find the answer – that Saul’s head had gotten too big when he was made king, making Saul think he knew better than the Lord on how to act and what to do. Do we ever fall into the same trap, spiritually speaking, as King Saul, and fail to repent to our God – failing to surrender our will to God’s?
One thousand years later a new Saul rose to prominence in the Bible, named after the first Saul – Saul of Tarsus, likewise a member of the tribe of Benjamin. Now often the problem with repentance is that one is too prideful, too much “of the flesh,” and Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) was at first that way. As he once put it, “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, BLAMELESS.”
How dangerous we are, and how easy it is for us to act out against others around us, if we feel as Saul of Tarsus used to feel – “blameless”! To give the most obvious example of this, the Nazis felt “blameless” when they killed the Jews, because the Nazis assumed there was nothing they could do wrong. It is the self-righteous person who denies the humanity of others around him or her and then feels no guilt about committing grave sins against those others with impunity! For instance when Stephen, the great deacon of the early church, was stoned to death, Saul of Tarsus was there and approved of that judicial murder. Saul, a Pharisee then, Luke tells us in the book of Acts, “was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women…committing them to prison.” And some of those poor Christians did not just languish in prison. Saul, now Paul, later admitted late in his life just how far he went: “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the Name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.” Saul sent many Christians to death!
He went on: “By punishing Christians often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.” And we know that in the midst of traveling to one of those “foreign cities,” Damascus, God spoke to him and he soon converted to Christ.
In contrast to King Saul, Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church, repented of his sins, stopped being, as he called it, “furiously angry,” converted to Christ, and became a missionary to the Gentiles. He, as he admitted, had been acting out; but then he let God turn his life around – to Saul’s new life as Paul. What was the difference? Why did Saul of Tarsus surrender and change his ways?
Well, of course the actual appearance of Jesus on the road to Damascus helped, along with the period of blindness which followed. But take note that when the blind Saul first arrived in Damascus, he no doubt heard the man who baptized him – Ananias – tell Saul what Jesus had said to Ananias (which is our boost for today): “Go to Saul, for Saul is a chosen instrument whom I have chosen to bring My Name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” Please notice that first in that list of people God was sending Saul of Tarsus to was the Gentiles – that is the key to Saul of Tarsus’s complete conversion, it seems to me. For Paul in his letters shows a great deal of knowledge of all the places in the Old Testament where God prophecies that one day the Gentiles will be saved. Being raised away from Israel and among many Gentiles, I have always wondered in my mind if the Apostle Paul was ultimately glad that God sent him to convert the Gentiles, for he probably had known many good Gentiles growing up in the Gentile city of Tarsus.
The other key to this conversion is the stoning of Stephen. Luke reports that Stephen was appointed not only deacon but was a great preacher at an important synagogue in Jerusalem, the Synagogue of the Freedmen – a synagogue full of freed slaves who had lived outside Israel, and thus were likely Greek-speaking Jews, as both Stephen and Saul of Tarsus were. Since Tarsus was in the province of Cilicia, and Cilician ex-slaves were in the synagogue of the Freedmen, it is probable that at that synagogue both Stephen and Saul met and argued over Christ there. Saul was present when Stephen was stoned and witnessed the great humility and righteousness Stephen bravely exhibited as he met death. Stephen, as he was dying, saw Jesus up in heaven; later Saul, on the Road to Damascus, saw Jesus here on earth.
All these things led the second Saul to do something that first Saul refused to do: he surrendered to God and completely repented of his ways…called himself the worst of all sinners…and allowed the Spirit of Christ to lead and guide him all the rest of his life. He no longer acted out and lived a life of humility. You and I are called to do the same. Though we are tempted to act out and sin against others during these stressful COVID days…these days that are also filled with anger and division in our society…we must confront our own “acting out” and turn instead to the Lord, the God who gives us the Fruit of the Spirit, so that we may always be a loving presence in people’s lives – joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. Let us continually be on the lookout and be ready to confront ourselves, saying, “Why am I acting out again? What fear am I letting take me over? I shall turn to the Lord for mercy…and for guidance.” That certainly is the way to go. Amen!
Go to kogcarmel.org and find King of Glory’s Sunday worship services as well – live at 10 am every Sunday. Archived worship services and boosts may be found at the bottom of King of Glory’s home page.