A TALE OF TWO VOICES
A sermon based on Acts 9:1-20
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 5, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Sometimes, when you follow God’s lead, you never can tell what the outcome will be…
One day in May 1934, a 15 year old boy came home from school and set out to pitch hay to the mules with one of the hired hands at his family’s dairy farm in North Carolina. The two heard singing from behind the barn and the hired man wondered aloud what was happening. The boy said, “I guess they’re some fanatics that have talked Daddy into using the place.” It turned out to be a prayer meeting that was being held in the pasture of his family’s farm.
The 15 year old was a church-going kid, but the idea of becoming a minister had never been seriously entertained in his mind. His real interests lay elsewhere. He was ready to graduate from high school, to leave the dairy farm far behind and then one day to make his living by playing professional baseball. That was his dream.
That fall, an evangelist named Mordecai Ham came to town and preached an 11 week evangelistic crusade. (Anyone remember when revivals would last for eleven weeks—or longer? I honestly cannot imagine what that must have been like…)
At first, the 15 year old wanted no part of it. The evangelist was known for exposing and condemning the sins of the communities wherever he preached. There were even rumors that there were going to be protests staged at the revival meetings by some of the teenagers of the community in opposition to the preacher’s messages.
In the midst of these developments, a friend named Albert McMakin said to the young man, “Why don’t you come out and hear our fighting preacher?” He confessed that he liked the idea of listening to a “fighting preacher”…sounded intriguing. He wanted to watch the show. The deal was clinched when Albert offered to let his friend drive his dairy truck to the meetings. So he went that evening to the revival…
After attending just one meeting, he was hooked. He returned to the meeting night after night—sometimes even taking notes during the sermon. After a while, the young man began to realize that he was restless and even resentful in his soul. He later confessed that he realized that he was spiritually dead inside.
A few days later on November 1, six days before his 16th birthday, the young man responded and went forward during the invitation time. He had a life changing experience with the Risen Christ that evening and the whole tenor of his life changed. Though he had his doubts as to what God wanted to him to do with his life, he was never the same again after that night.
Sometimes, when you follow God’s lead, you can never tell what the outcome will be…
This young man, a few days shy of being 16, would soon give up his dreams of playing professional baseball so that he could follow God’s call. He would eventually become the most famous evangelist of the 20th Century. Over the last 75 years of his life, it has been estimated that he preached to more than 210 million people at the meetings that he conducted. In addition, 2.2 billion people more heard him via radio and television.
The young man’s name, as many of you have probably guessed by now, was Billy Graham. And it was due to the influence of a friend named Albert McMakin that he came to the point of decision in his life…and consequently was greatly used by God to expand the kingdom of heaven…Without an unknown friend Albert McMakin, none of us here would have probably ever heard of Billy Graham…
Today’s sermon text from Acts 9 is one of the most familiar stories in the book of Acts. It details the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus—who was a virulent enemy of the gospel of Jesus—into Paul, the apostle who took the message of salvation through Christ way beyond the confines of Palestine all the way to Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and some have suggested even as far as Spain. And a critical part of the story is a man named Ananias. Ananias played the part of Albert McMakin to the Apostle Paul’s Billy Graham…
By the time of the first verses of Acts 9, Saul had already acquired the reputation of being a ruthless persecutor of the church of Jesus. Not content to only root out these heretical Christians from the city of Jerusalem, he received the necessary authorization to expand his persecution of the church as far away as Damascus. So that’s where he was headed.
As he neared the city, he was struck down by a blinding light from heaven. And he audibly heard the voice of Christ speaking directly to him. This is the first of two times in this passage that God speaks directly to someone. The voice identifies himself as Jesus and asks him why he is persecuting him. Jesus then instructs him to continue into the city and to await further instructions. In addition to hearing the voice of Jesus, Acts tells us that Saul had been struck blind once he got up on his feet. And so Saul does as he was told.
Side bar here: The story of Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road is certainly a dramatic story—one of the most dramatic in all of scripture. It is a marvelous, glorious tale. It tells the story of how one man’s life was radically and completely altered once he had met the Risen Christ. He had once been a persecutor. And after that experience, he became an obedient and passionate follower of Jesus.
When I was growing up in church, it seemed to me that Saul’s conversion story was often presented as the model—the template—for what Christian conversion was supposed to look like. It was implied—and sometimes even taught explicitly—that every Christian ought to have some variation of the “Damascus Road Experience” in his or her life in order to be truly saved. Before we became Christians, we were taught that our lives were characterized as being very sinful and dissolute—we were all terrible, terrible sinners. One example of this kind of teaching was the old hymn that we frequently sang in the churches in which I grew up. It is a hymn that you probably know too:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Additionally, conversion was taught to be an instantaneous change of heart and life. It certainly was with Saul—no question about it. I remember an evangelist who came to our church who declared that he could drive a nail in the very spot where God had saved his soul. And then, he went on to say that if you could not make the same claim, then your claim to salvation was faulty by comparison.
All of this bothered me. I am sure that the words of that hymn were true for some people. Maybe even a lot of people. I have known people whose lives were touched by God in a dramatic fashion not too different than what Saul experienced. And I am sure that you know some too.
One of the people who I know experienced a dramatic conversion was a pastor that I had in Alabama. He was a Godly man named Daryl Jones. Up until his mid-thirties, Daryl was known throughout the community as a drunk…and a gambler…and a cheater…and a bootlegger. He was the very definition of a ne’er-do-well. Then he had an experience with the Risen Christ and everything for Daryl changed almost in an instant. The Lord helped him to clean himself up and eventually called him into the ministry. And he was a wonderful pastor to me and my family.
But sometimes it bothered me that I did not have that kind of testimony. I did not have this huge sea-change of a life experience when I gave my heart to Jesus. When I made my profession of faith in Christ and was baptized, I was a few months shy of being ten years old. I had not committed this long laundry list of terrible sins and debauchery. I had not been “sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore.,/very deeply stained within, seeking to rise no more.” That honestly did not describe my pre-conversion life. (Probably the worst of my little nine-year-old sins was that I was sometimes less than truthful with my parents and teachers…I stole a pack of my dad’s cigarettes to smoke with my friends. (That experience taught me that smoking was not a habit that I wanted to acquire)…and I would slug my younger brother from time to time, although the truth of the matter was that he usually deserved it. But because my conversion experience was not like Saul’s, it made me wonder from time to time if I had been truly saved or not.
My experience in the life of faith was not one of a seismic shift in who I was. I had been going to church for as long as I could remember. From a very early age, I had learned that God loved me. I had heard that Jesus cared for me and that he had died for me and that he wanted me to follow him. I had known that all my life. There was never a time when I did not know that. So when I walked down the aisle to make my profession of faith at a revival service, it did not signify a 180° change in my life. I was simply affirming and saying “Yes!” to what God was already doing in me. I was saying “Yes!” to giving Christ his rightful place of leadership in my life the best way that my little 9-year-old heart knew how to do. It was simply a natural, organic progression of the Spirit’s work in my life.
Eventually I came to understand this truth: Sometimes God does work in amazing ways to draw people to himself—especially those who have strayed far away from him. The grace of God is just that big, just that powerful and just that wonderful. God can reach down into the darkest depths of humanity and rescue anyone who calls upon his name and trusts in the Lord. I celebrate when the power of the Spirit does just that. But I have also learned that God does not always work in that same way in everyone’s life. We are all different. And because we are all different, there are differences in the ways in which God works within us. Not everyone’s conversion experience with Christ will resemble Saul’s on the road to Damascus. Some will—and some won’t. And that’s okay. When I understood that, I came to know that my conversion experience was no less real, no less valid than anyone else’s, including those whose conversion stories were much more striking and spectacular and colorful than mine was…
That went on a little bit longer than I had anticipated. Let’s get back to the text…When we left Saul, he had encountered the Risen Christ and had been blinded by the light. Afterward, he made his way to Damascus with the help of those traveling with him.
Next we meet a man named Ananias. Ananias is the second person to hear the voice of God in today’s scripture passage. But notice how his response is very different than Saul’s response. God gives him instructions to go to a certain place and seek out Saul. The Lord also tells Ananias that he has prepared the way for him and that Saul is expecting him.
Instead of immediately replying “Yes!” to the Lord and doing what the Lord has asked him to do, Ananias hesitates. He questions the wisdom what of God has commanded him to do. He reminds the Lord of who this guy named Saul really is—as if God was somewhat in the dark about Saul’s identity. He mentions how Saul has been persecuting the church and how he has been given authority from the chief priests in Jerusalem to continue his fight against the Christians. Ananias is afraid. He leaves no doubt that he does not think that this is a good idea and he tells God as much.
The Lord is not moved by Ananias’ appeal. He tells Ananias once more to go and gives him a hint as to what he is up to. He tells Ananias that Saul will be an instrument of bringing salvation far beyond the borders of Israel. Having heard the Lord’s command for the second time, Ananias swallows his fear and does as the Lord has directed him to do. When he finds Saul, Ananias lays his hands on Saul, Saul regains his sight, and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the beginning of a new chapter in the life of one of Jesus’ greatest followers—Saul of Tarsus who would soon become known as the Apostle Paul.
In the closing minutes of this sermon, here is one more thought that I want you to consider as we think about this story in Acts 9. The thought is this: Like Ananias, we do not get to pick and choose who God sends us to. Let me say that again: Like Ananias, we do not get to pick and choose who God sends us to.
It is no secret to anyone that our society is deeply divided. Our churches are in much the same predicament. We are divided along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, theology, politics, age, custom, and a whole slew of other issues. And what drives these divisions in our national life and in the church? What is it that makes these divisions deeper and harder to overcome? It is little more than one word that drives it. That word is fear—fear of the unknown, fear of the stranger, fear of the future. We tend to gather around people who look like us, think like us, dress like us, and vote like us. That is only natural, I think. It is only human nature to be that way. Because those are the people with whom we feel most comfortable.
But being fearful is not God’s intention for us. 1 John 4:18 tells us that “Perfect love casts out fear…The one who fears is not made complete in love.” Fear is what caused Ananias to shrink back initially from doing what God had told him to do. What would have been the result had Ananias followed his own inclinations and declined to go to Saul as God had commanded? How would the history of the church—and consequently of the whole world really—have been forever changed? Would God have found someone else to go to Saul instead? Would God have chosen someone else for the mission to the Gentiles? Who knows—but because Ananias swallowed his fear and trusted in the Lord, God was able to use him to set Saul on his path—all for the glory of God.
The sermon ends with this question: who is God sending you to today? Is there someone that the Lord is leading you to speak to and act in his name? Is it someone that for all appearances is a most unlikely candidate for the Kingdom?
God spoke twice in today’s text. The first time, the one who heard God speak immediately responded in the affirmative. The second time that God spoke, the one who heard God’s voice wanted to argue. Which one are you?
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 Info from www.billygraham.org/decision-magazine/october-2009/jesus-saves-an-ordinary-farm-boy/ (Accessed May 2, 2019)
 “Love Lifted Me” by James Rowe, stanza 1.