Monday, April 12, 2010

I Saw the Light

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of the compelling truth of the resurrection and the many witnesses of that event. “Last of all,” Paul says, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God –but by the grace of God I am what I am.” The story of how Paul's life was re-directed by the Risen Christ is told three times in the Book of Acts -- the last of these after Paul is arrested for proclaiming Jesus, risen from the dead, in the temple courts of Jerusalem. As Paul stands before two men who will decide his future -- Governor Festus of Judea and King Herod Agrippa of northern Palestine -- he describes how he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Then he ends with a prayer “that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Acts 26: 29).  It is for us who read his testimony two millennia later to decide if that prayer is still being answered.

I saw the light: “from heaven, brighter than the sun” (13). Paul explains that as he was traveling to Damascus to bring the followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem in chains, his heart was filled with “murder and threats” (9:1); and he was “furiously enraged” (26:11). Then, Paul very carefully describes the moment that changed his life. It was mid-day…when the sun was shining at full force…at that moment a light from above him (a light that was clearly NOT the sun, because it was “brighter than the sun” sent Paul and his men falling to the ground. All of them saw the light…and all of them were overwhelmed by its power. The word that Paul uses for this light is the Greek word phos. It's the same word John uses when he describes Jesus as "the true light" (John 1:9) that enlightens humankind and makes God known to us.  Einstein made a profound statement when he once said that Jesus was "the luminous Nazarene."  The Greek word phos is the root of our English word photon. Now photons are massless particles of electromagnetic radiation traveling at 186,000 miles per second. There are low energy photons like radio waves and high energy photons like gamma rays. But visible light is the only form of electromagnetic radiation that human beings can see…and in that piece of scientific fact I find a spiritual truth....

Christ is the Light that makes visible the invisible God. Whether you are using a conventional camera that focuses light on to a piece of film creating an image using mechanical and chemical processes, or a digital camera that focuses light on to a semiconductor that creates the image electronically…you can’t take a picture without light. You can’t do it! And you can’t truly see God without Jesus, the light of the world. Look at Jesus…his compassion, his forgiveness, his grace, his authority, his wisdom, his self-giving love, his mighty miracles, his enduring impact, and ask yourself if you do not see the words and works of God made visible in him, because if you don’t…forget him. But if you can’t forget him…maybe it’s because (like me) you’ve never seen anything…quite like him. Jesus: the light of the world.

I heard the voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me” (14)? After the light from heaven, Paul hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” Notice that the voice of the Lord is personal. It addresses Paul in his own language (the Hebrew dialect) and repeats his name, “Saul, Saul…. " When God speaks, he speaks in a way that we can understand…by his Spirit, in his word, through people and circumstances. Beyond this, the voice of the Lord understands our deepest need. "Why do you persecute Me? It hurts you to kick against the goads” the Lord says. When we continue to do the stuff we know is wrong it not only hurts the Lord, it hurts us. The Greek word for “goad” is kentron. A kentron was a pointed stick that was used to goad an animal in a particular direction.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be stuck with a kentron. I don’t want to have to be shocked into reality, before I start walking with the Lord. About 9 years ago, I came very close to a head on collision while driving down Centinella as my on year old daughter was screaming in the back seat. I was inattentive and barely missed a serious crash. That was a little kentron, a wake up call. I said, “Lord, thank you for your mercy. Thank you for this wake up call.” The voice of the Lord speaks personally, in a way we can understand, warning and coaxing us…that we might be fully awake to his grace and truth. The wise man will heed that voice, and turn to him.

I received the answer: “‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’” (15). The answer given to Paul’s question is upsetting to a culture like ours… a culture that honors diversity and tends to be suspect of any absolute truth claim (except, of course, the truth that that there are no absolute claims to truth). “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” That is to say, “I am Jesus, and I am Lord.” Make no mistake, Paul was a good Jewish monotheists, but within that monotheism, he saw, by direct experience, the person of Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus says in John 14:9, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus is not another god, set alongside the true God, he is the invisible God made visible.

A modern parallel to Paul’s experience is Sundar Singh’s conversion story after a period of bitter hostility to the gospel. Praying in his room in the early morning of December 18, 1904, he saw a great light. He writes:“as I prayed and looked into the light, I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ. It had such an appearance of glory and love… it was the Lord Jesus Christ whom I had been insulting a few days before. I felt that a vision like this could not come out of my own imagination. I heard a voice saying in Hindustani, ‘How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you; you were praying to know the right way. Why do you not take it?’ The thought came to me, ‘Jesus Christ is not dead but living and it must be He himself.’ So I fell at His feet and got this wonderful Peace which I could not get anywhere else… When I got up, the vision had all disappeared, but…the Peace and Joy have remained with me ever since” [B. H. Streeter, The Sadhu (London, 1921) pp. 6-8)].

Can we still meet Jesus in such a personal way today? Yes. In my own life…Jesus has spoken through those with the spiritual gift of prophecy, personal words, written down and given to me, words so important to me that I’ve carried them in a personal notebook now for more than 38 years now. And I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to a sermon, or come to a personal time of Bible Study, asking the Lord to speak to me through his word, and have heard him so clearly, that I knew it was Jesus, the Lord himself.

Finally, Paul says, I obeyed the call: “to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me…” (16-18). It was not the voice of the Lord per se, but it’s effect on Paul’s life that makes it so compelling to us today: “Get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose…to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”

Science fiction editor and author Sam Moscowitz tells of the occasion when L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology) spoke before the Eastern Science Fiction Association in Newark, New Jersey in 1947: `Hubbard spoke ... I don't recall his exact words; but in effect, he told us that writing science fiction for about a penny a word was no way to make a living. If you really want to make a million, he said, the quickest way is to start your own religion.’”(Messiah or Madman, p. 45). Many people look at religion as a scam…a way to make a million, to use and abuse people, and sadly there are many examples. But the compelling thing about Paul’s conversion, is that there was no material or social benefit from it. Paul was not involved in a pyramid scheme, he was not getting a commission based on how many Christians he could make. He became an instant outcast, an enemy of his own people. He was threatened by death numerous times and finally executed. He lost everything of material value as he obeyed this divine calling! Why? Because he was convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead…and that in Him there is power to stand, and power to turn from evil, there’s the gift of God’s forgiveness, and the promise of a life sanctified not by what I can do for God but by faith in what God has done for me in his Risen Son.

Last week I saw a man walking up the stairs as I was going down to the locker room, a man in handcuffs. As it turns out, he was an addict who got caught stashing heroin in the locker room at my gym last week. Now here is the amazing part of the story. The locker that he stashed the heroine in…was the locker of a parole officer who just happened to be working out that day, and just happened to pick that locker to put his clothes in. When the parole officer saw the stash, he closed the locker door, and waited for this guy to return and reclaim it, with five other police officers to back him up. When the guy came back to retrieve his stash, surprise! Here was a man who thought he could keep hiding…but his secret was brought out into the light. Later, a few of us were talking in the locker room about what had happened. I said to some guys inside: “You know that it was God’s grace that he got caught… because it was an opportunity for him to change course.”

Friends, we all have dark lockers in which we’re trying to stash the very things that are destroying us and getting us in their power: addictions, lies and half truths, boiling anger, unfaithfulness, arrogance, envy, and unbelief. We have two options. We can run from the Light. We can try to hide from God, and deny the power of evil over us. We can take our chances, and join the ranks of religious and golfing professionals alike whose sins have finally caught up with them. We can continue to let the darkness destroy our lives, our relationships, and our eternal destiny. Or, like Paul, we can come to the light! We can put our faith in the One who is the Light of the World, we can ask Jesus to illuminate every dark corner of our souls, we can confess our sin, receive his forgiveness, and be filled with the power of the Spirit so that we might begin to walk with him as his disciple for all eternity. We can run back into the closet…or we can run to the light.

King Agrippa smiled at Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul quickly responded with the sincerity of a radically converted man: “I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains.” Gracious God, answer Paul’s 2000 year old prayer again that everyone reading this today might see the light of your glory and grace, and share the gift of faith in your Son.

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