Acts 9:1-6; Luke 19:1-10
When I read the story of Saul this week, I was drawn to how inconvenient it was for him! He was on his way to do God’s work and he had a terrible accident involving lightning and a fall from a horse, which changed everything. I began to tick off names of biblical characters who had their lives rudely interrupted by the living God. And it is a long list!
Joseph, tossed in a pit and sold as a slave; Moses, arguing with the light of the blazing bush, digging in his heels; Sarah, laughing at the ridiculousness of being with child; Isaiah or Zechariah going about their business in the Temple and being interrupted by God; Balaam, whose donkey was the voice of God.
Balaam was a seer, not of the people of Israel, who has an encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was the end of forty years in the wilderness. The children of Israel were coming out of the desert strong, headed into the heart of Palestine. In order to get there, they had to go through Moab and the king of Moab was terrified. He sent for a seer to come and curse them. He would pay well with riches and honor. Just come and curse these people for me. Balaam went. (BTW, this is a complicated story, so check it out in Numbers 22-24.) On the way, God got angry and stood as an angel with flaming sword across Balaam’s path. The donkey saw it and veered away – Balaam beat the donkey. Twice more, the same thing. The third time Balaam beat the donkey, the donkey turned on Balaam with the voice of God and asked, “Why are you hitting me?” Balaam said, “I am so angry I could kill you right now!” But the donkey reasoned with him: “Don’t you know me after all these years? Have I not been faithful?” This opened Balaam’s eyes and he looked around. Sure enough, there was the angel of the Lord, with the fiery sword. Surely the donkey had saved his life! And in the end Balaam was faithful in speaking what God gave him to say.
A talking donkey! That would get your attention! Not quite so dramatic, but a more popular story, there is the time the great rabbi invited himself to the little man’s home for dinner. Zacchaeus was going about his business when he heard a commotion and wanted to see what was going on. Being too short to see over the crowd, he climbed a tree to see this person who was causing such a stir. He was probably not the only one in the trees. Trees are made for climbing; children can hardly resist the temptation. Still Jesus locked eyes on Zacchaeus and invited himself over for dinner! “Go get ready! I’ll be there soon!” Zacchaeus was delighted, but the crowd was not. Since Zacchaeus was a tax collector, they resented him; but this was their prejudice speaking. Zacchaeus was a good man. His name means, “pure,” and names are significant in biblical stories. When the crowds complain about him, he says to Jesus, “Look this isn’t fair! I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I calculate wrongly and overcharge, I give back four times the difference!” (This story has been mistranslated every time I have heard it. Zacchaeus is not speaking of a future commitment, but is speaking in the present tense, describing his current actions. The present tense completely changes the story!) Jesus blesses Zacchaeus: “From now on treat this man with justice, he too is a son of Abraham. I have come to seek out the lost, the estranged, the forgotten, and return them to wholeness.”
When the story of Zacchaeus came to mind, I was thinking of the way it was an interruption in Zacchaeus’ life to have this intimate encounter with Jesus. But it was the citizens of Jericho who were interrupted that day. They had thought it was okay to hate this man, but Jesus said no. Those who are children of Abraham may surprise you. Open your eyes! The same lesson was in store for Paul.
God’s pull on our lives is not always gentle or subtle. Just ask Paul, or most any of the other apostles, for that matter. Our way is to live according to the traditions which gave us birth unquestioningly. These ways are what we live and breathe. It is the most natural thing in the world to follow what we have see others do.
Note: When we arrive at moments of stress, we will, 100% of the time, repeat the practice of our family of origin. This is the principle I develop when I work with couples wanting to be married; and it is the principle which weaves its way through the process in the divorce recovery group. We don’t want to believe it, but it proves true every time. We interact in the ways we experienced in our parental homes.
But don’t be completely discouraged. While we will always fall back into the patterns we learned in the world of our youth, if we learn to recognize the patterns, we can also learn to make other choices. The problem arises when we aren’t even aware of them, when we leave them unexamined and untested.
So, our God is the God of interruptions. The divine wake-up call. Pay attention! Wake up! Just because this is the only way you know, does not mean it is the only way!
Jesus woke up the community of Jericho by having dinner with the tax collector, Zacchaeus, and then declaring him to be a child of Abraham. What about Paul?
Paul tells us quite a lot about the world of his youth. Listen to him in his letter to the Philippians: If anyone else has reason to be confident in human roots, 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. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ (Phil 3:4b-7). Apparently his family was long part of the Pharisaic tradition, because he notes that he was the son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6). Paul was educated in the Hillel school in Jerusalem, under Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most noted rabbis in history.
Suffice it to say, Paul was thoroughly nurtured in the Rabbinic tradition, and specifically, in the Pharisaic school. This was the air he breathed. He did not know any other context. He had to have his life interrupted before he could see that it was not “the Way.”
Luke picks up Paul’s story at the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Paul (called by his Hebrew name Saul, at this point in the story) is inspired by this bold, violent judgment on the followers of Jesus. He continues to work to root them out, to fan the flames of hatred with his search-and-destroy mission.
Paul believed he was pure and faithful, a true child of Abraham, just like his father before him and his father before that – all the way back to Abraham. He believed this from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. He was not curious about the Way of Jesus. He wouldn’t waste his time. There was no open window to this new way in the soul of Paul. It would take more than a talking donkey to get his attention!
For Paul the interruption was not a donkey, but cataracts! Sudden-onset cataracts. Some of us here have probably had cataract surgery. Both of my parents did, all four of my grandparents did. Normally, cataracts develop slowly as they cloud the lens of the eye, eventually causing blindness. This was an telling technique for God to choose with Paul. Here was someone, whose soul was becoming slowly dark as he kept the light of love from penetrating his heart. He had cataracts of the soul, but was not aware of it. He had learned exclusivism, hate and distrust. His soul was blinded to love and generosity and peace. Today we would call Paul’s actions “hate crimes.”
The lightning, the thunder, the voice of Jesus, left him suddenly blind, cataracts in his physical body. He was suddenly a novice again, having to relearn a world which now looked completely different. He had to navigate, listen, sense, in a whole new way. And he had the voice of Jesus echoing in his soul, questioning everything he had invested his life in. Evidently, Paul needed the interruption of darkness in order to disturb his self-assurance.
The God of interruptions didn’t stop with Paul. The hater needed to become loving, but the hated also needed to be released from fear. So we have the next interruption. Ananias, a follower of the Way of Jesus, had no interest in helping Paul. He knew Paul was coming to try to kill him and his friends. To go to him deliberately seemed foolish. But God would not let him off the hook. For Ananias there was no blindness or talking donkey. Just putting himself completely in the hand of God for life or death, listening, going to bring healing, no matter the cost.
When Ananias prayed for Paul, the cataracts fell from Paul’s eyes, so that he could see physically. At the same time, the cataracts of Paul’s soul were removed and God’s Spirit of love filled him. Paul saw that the way of love, the way of Ananias and Jesus, was the way of God. It took him a long time to relearn how to live in this way. He went away to Arabia for 3 years to be completely outside his Jewish heritage (Gal. 1:17). He needed to find his new way outside of the sea in which he swam all his life, the water of Judaism. And he came back with new eyes.
All this is to say that when your plans are interrupted, pay attention. God is at work in the world, doing God’s work, which we so easily identify with our work, our goals, our mission. But, maybe not. I make plans. I tend to think my plans will go as I designed them, but I am learning to say, “Maybe not.” That “maybe not” is right now for me what keeps the windows of my soul open and paying attention, to the best of my awareness. I am reminded that my plans are not God’s plans. Isaiah speaks for God who says: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is. 55:8). Paul, Balaam, Zacchaeus, Ananias would say, “Amen!” And so would I.
We need the God of interruptions! When we are so sure of ourselves, listen. When we fall into defending the ways of the past, be attentive. God may be doing a new thing. Are we listening? Are we paying attention? Are we willing to change with God?
May we hold onto the vision we have been given. May we live with passion and direction on the journey with Jesus. And may we be open to the moments when God changes our direction. The Spirit blows where it will, not necessarily where we will. May this God come to us in beautiful, powerful ways. And may we pay attention to the interruptions of our lives.