My all-time favorite comic strip is The Far Side by Gary Larson. One Far Side features a middle school classroom with math problems scribbled on the chalkboard. An embarrassed looking chubby boy with thick glasses is standing in front of the class, staring at the ground, crestfallen as his teacher scolds him, “You’re wrong, Billy—terribly, terribly wrong!” Poor Billy!
In the mid-90’s my family and I lived in Wyoming for awhile. We were coming up on a week of vacation and had no plans. While I was mowing our lawn I had an epiphany moment, and excitedly turned off the mower and ran inside. “Steph, let’s drive to Seattle next week, sound good?” She agreed, and a few days later we loaded our three kids in our 1989 Honda Accord and headed west. While having lunch in Montana I was looking at a map and was convinced I had found a short cut that would save us a couple hours. Steph looked at me dubiously, but I insisted, “I know I’m right—it’s a straight shot!”
Awhile later we found ourselves winding up a mountain and then the paved road suddenly became a rocky road and then narrowed to the point where there was literally no room to turn around, a steep slope on the right side and a sheer drop-off on the left, no option but to keep going forward. This continued for an hour or more and finally we arrived at a small clearing at the top of the mountain, a dead end. By this point I was feeling “less than blessed” and got out of the car to clear my head. After the kids ran around for a few minutes we all climbed back into the Honda and wound our way back down the mountain. My “short-cut” cost us several hours… oops ☺.
Sometimes in life we are convinced that we are right, that we know where we are going and why, only to arrive at a dead end, only to realize that like poor Billy, we are terribly, terribly wrong.
Last week on the season premiere of the popular television show Mad Men, Roger Sterling, a successful middle-aged advertising executive (played brilliantly by John Slattery), finds himself on a coach in a psychiatrist’s office. He reveals his cynical despair to the psychiatrist:
“What are the events in life? It’s like you see a door. The first time you come to it you say, ‘Oh…what’s on the other side of the door?’ Then you open a few doors. Then you say, ‘I think I want to go over that bridge this time, I’m tired of doors.’ Finally you go through one of these things and you come out the other side and you realize that’s all there are—doors and windows and bridges and gates—and they all open the same way and they all close behind you. Look, life is supposed to be a path—and you go along and these things happen to you and they’re supposed to change you, change your direction… but it turns out that’s not true. It turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor and stick in your pocket and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.”
In thinking certain experiences would change his life Roger Sterling has realized he is wrong. That can happen to all of us. It may be something relatively small like a math problem or a short-cut, or it may be much more.
During their Elevation concert tour several years ago the band U2 had a series of words or phrases that flashed in large letters behind the stage, one of which was this—“Everything you know is wrong.” Everything you know is wrong.
And sometimes you are not only convinced you are right; you are also convinced you know exactly where you are going, only to have an event change the entire trajectory of your life.
This can happen when you fall in love—nothing else matters. All your ambitions and goals seem like a narcissistic waste of time compared to being around the person you love. All you want is to be next them, to hear is their voice, hold their hand, get lost in their eyes. Sometimes a single smile can change the entire trajectory of the rest of your life.
In his play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare perfectly captures what this feels like in these famous words of Romeo upon seeing Juliet:
“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (II, i, 2-3).
Falling in love can change the trajectory of your life, but so can tragedy.
In the Oscar-winning 1980 film Ordinary People, Donald Sutherland plays Calvin Jarrett, a grieving father who has just lost a son in a boating accident, and whose other son—who survived the accident—has just returned home from a stint in a psychiatric hospital. As if this weren’t enough his marriage is also falling apart.
Calvin is out one afternoon for a run in a park, trying to let off some steam, and he stumbles and falls to the ground. The weight of his grief and stress are too much for him and he just sits there, staring straight ahead, unable to get up—the entire trajectory of his life has been changed and he has no idea what to do.
Today’s passage from Acts records one of the most significant events in the history of the church, the conversion of Paul (then referred to as Saul).
At his conversion Paul, who was convinced that he was right, learned that everything he knew was wrong.
At his conversion Paul, who was convinced he knew where he was going, had the entire trajectory of his life changed.
Paul had been a rising star among a religious sect known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were all about the Old Testament law, all about living a strict life of obedience not just to the Ten Commandments, but to all 613 commandments of the Old Testament. In his ardent zeal for the law, Paul had been vehemently persecuting Christians whose lives have been changed not by obedience to the law but by the grace of God, a concept utterly foreign to Paul’s worldview.
Paul hated Christians, and persecuted them to the point of arresting and imprisoning them, separating parents from children, unmoved by the hysterical weeping of both, and even overseeing their execution, as was the case with the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Paul stood by silently, approvingly, as Stephen was brutally stoned to death.
Paul was so intent in his persecution of Christians that as Luke puts it, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” he headed to Damascus—150 miles away— to track down the Christians who had fled there, and further persecute them.
Paul was making a straight shot to Damascus when Luke tells something unexpected happened to him:
“Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do’” (9:3-6).
The brilliant and zealous rising star among the Pharisees was literally blinded by the light. In that moment he realized that everything he knew was wrong. In that moment the entire trajectory of his life changed.
Rather than arriving in Damascus confident and in charge, Paul found himself at a dead end, arriving helpless and blind, so overcome by what had happened to him that he could neither eat nor drink for three days.
Have you ever wondered what Paul thought about during those three days?
When it came to Christianity, everything Paul knew was wrong. Paul realized he had not just been persecuting Christians; he had been persecuting the Lord Jesus. Paul realized that he had wrongfully separated family members from one another, that he had wrongly approved the stoning of Stephen, that he had completely misunderstood who Jesus was and what he was all about. Paul realized that Jesus is the Friend of Sinners.
Paul was completely broken. I imagine Paul cried a lot during those three days.
And Paul’s conversion was completely an act of God, as the late Anglican scholar John Stott wrote:
“What stands out from the narrative is the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ. Saul did not ‘decide for Christ,’ as we might say. On the contrary, he was persecuting Christ. It was rather Christ who decided for him and intervened in his life” (Acts, p. 168).
The way Jesus met Paul in the midst of his spiritual darkness with the light of his grace reminds me of a beautiful song that Jennifer Nettles of the country band Sugarland wrote a few years ago about love shining its light for us in the midst of our darkness:
When you walk into the edge of those dark and lonely woods
When I ask “How was your day?” and you answer, “Not so good”
When nothing seems to be working out quite the way it should
I will shine the light…
When your worries won’t let you sleep and rob you of your days
And you’ve looked in all directions but you still can’t find your way
Or when you just need someone to remind you that it’s all gonna be okay
I will shine the light…
Sometimes we jump into the great unknown
Some roads we’re on we’ll have to walk alone
But waiting there in the end is a heart that calls you “Friend”
That’s me, clapping the loudest, welcoming you home…
I will shine the light
(“Shine the Light” on Sugarland’s 2010 album, The Incredible Machine).
On the road to Damascus, Jesus shined the light on Paul. And although Paul was initially “blinded by the light,” he later regained his sight. But he never saw things in the same way ever again. His conversion meant a literal 180 degree change in his life. Paul realized that the heart of true religion was not obedience to the law, but the grace of God, as he wrote to the Galatians:
“I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But God… called me through his grace” (Galatians 1:13-15).
In another letter Paul describes how his conversion made him realize that everything he knew was wrong:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more… 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” (Philippians 3:4-7).
In one of his last letters Paul again wrote about his conversion:
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience” (I Timothy 1:15-16).
Paul never “recovered” from his conversion or dismissed it as some kind of passing “spiritual phase.” He never “came back to reality” because Paul had experienced the life-changing reality of the grace of God. He spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel until early one morning when he glimpsed another light out of the corner of his eye… the gleam of the rising sun off the sword by which he was martyred.
What about you today?
Perhaps you are a rising star like Paul was, you know you’re right and you know where you are going—or perhaps you haven’t heard a word of this sermon because you’re daydreaming about the Romeo or Juliet in your life ☺.
Or perhaps like Roger Sterling you’re feeling overcome because the things you thought would change haven’t, or like Conrad Jarrett, your life trajectory has been changed by unforeseen tragedy.
If you think Christianity is about what you can do to earn God’s love, that God is keeping a meticulous scorecard of your life, that it’s about your “making another decision for Christ”–I have good news for you today: everything you know is wrong ☺.
The good news of the gospel is that the same Jesus who died for Paul also died for you.
Jesus has already decided for you; he has opened the door for you; his sovereign grace has changed the entire trajectory of your life, now and forever.
You are not on a dead-end road heading to “you-know-where” but rather to the arms of the One whose death and resurrection assure you that “it’s all gonna be okay,” who calls you “friend, and who will welcome you home.
- Acts 9:1 - 6