A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Psalm 30:1-12; Acts 9:1-20
Let’s start today with a definition. The word we want to define is normal. The word is an adjective and means, “conforming with or constituting a norm or standard or level or type or social norm; being approximately average or within certain limits in, for example, intelligence and development.”
That’s the official definition of normal. (And I hope by sharing that with you, I haven’t lost you already!).
There’s nothing wrong with being normal, I suppose, or wanting to be that way. In fact, that is often our goal, is it not, because not being normal is considered to be bad. On the other hand, it could be argued that the opposite of normal is extraordinary, and that can be very good in most cases. But the chances are, more often than not, we think of not being normal as not a good thing.
On my recent trip to South Africa, we were traveling on the outskirts of town when suddenly the traffic backed up to a standstill. We discovered that it was because a very large – actually, it was massive, almost beyond description – a very large construction vehicle of some type was being moved on a flatbed truck and was taking up both lanes of the road. It looked like a farming combine on steroids, it was so big. Finally, they pushed it off on the side of the road so traffic could pass, and it was then that I saw the sign on the back of the truck. Instead of saying, “Wide Load,” like you and I occasionally encounter on the highways around here, usually when a mobile home is being transported, it simply said, “ABNORMAL.” Boy, you could say that again.
Generally, we don’t like abnormal, especially when it backs up traffic. In fact, we’ll take normal any day. Normal is good… good and acceptable. We’ll take normal any time.
The conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road could not possibly be considered normal by any definition of the word. I hope, when it comes to your own experience of welcoming Jesus into your heart and life, you don’t compare it with what Paul went through because his conversion was quite extraordinary indeed. Under no circumstances could it be considered normal.
When you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior (you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, haven’t you? If not, we should talk) how would you characterize what happened? Was it a natural response to the atmosphere of faith that had been prepared for you at home by your mom and dad? Did you just kind of slide into baptism with a gradual understanding that this is what you should do? Would it have been considered strange by your church fellowship had you not given your heart to Jesus and followed that decision with baptism? Was it something that everyone expected of you as a natural result of the nurturing you had received in the faith? Was that your experience?
Was it normal?
Those of you who did not grow up in a Baptist church may not be able to relate very well to what I am about to say, but I’ll try to say it in such a way that you will still understand. The chances are that those of us who were raised Baptist, especially as Baptists in the South, and who are at least of my generation or older, were witnesses to the occasional protracted revival meeting that just about every Baptist church had back in the day.
Generally, a professional evangelist was brought in, someone who had only a pocketful of sermons and preached them everywhere he went, and preached them so hard he got blisters on his throat. We’d sing Just As I Am every night for at least a week, sometimes two. During the singing of that final invitation hymn, the evangelist would preach a second sermon urging and cajoling the sinners in the pews to come and give their hearts to Jesus. And then, if no one came, he’d have everyone bow their heads – “Every head bowed, every eye closed” – and then he would start asking questions, urging the attendees to raise their hands if they felt in any way that Jesus was speaking to them. “I see that hand… yes, I see that hand.”
Do you remember?
I’m not making fun; I’m really not. At least that’s not my intent. But those revival meetings were not normal, not the usual Sunday fare. Oh, once the evangelist was gone, to preach that same pocketful of sermons somewhere else, the pastor would try to emulate him for a couple of weeks or so. But it didn’t work because the pastor wasn’t an evangelist, not like the guy with the fancy suit and pompadour hairdo. Any attempts on the pastor’s part to try and be like the guest evangelist came across as abnormal. We all knew, and looked forward to the time when, pretty soon, everything would be back to normal. Normal is comfortable to us. Normal is good. We like and prefer normal.
What is normal for you?
Let me tell you what was normal for Saul before his Damascus Road conversion experience. Evidently, if you’re a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” as he later described himself, you can get away with threats and murder; that is, if it is sanctioned by the religious authorities and is aimed at those who are acting abnormal. And the followers of Jesus the Nazarene are considered every bit of that… abnormal. They’re turning the normalcy of Jewish life into something it was not meant to be, and something had to be done about it. Someone needed to take charge, and Saul, he the native of Tarsus, figured that if it was not he who should do something about it, then who? If not now, then when? Taking matters into his own hands, he decides to head down to Syria where he is told that this new abnormal movement is gaining a foothold. Time to put a stop to it. As Barney Fife would say, “Nip it in the bud.”
We know what happened next. A blinding light, a voice from heaven, and as extreme a turn-around as anyone on this earth has ever experienced. In a matter of no time, Saul the tormenter became Paul the tormented. At that very moment, out there on the Damascus Road, Saul of Tarsus joined the ranks of the abnormal, almost, it seems, against his will.
Like many of you, I assume, we watched with interest the recent television series on the Bible. Did you see it? The late southern writer Flannery O’Connor once said of Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”1 There is no mention in the scriptures of Paul having ridden a horse, but in the TV series he did. Maybe the producers have read Flannery O’Connor more than the Book of Acts.
But the point is made… Saul’s Damascus Road experience was anything but normal.
Now let me ask you… do you have anything – anything – in your experience of life and faith that comes even close to such a dramatic event? William Muehl suggests that on any given Sunday when you look out at a congregation, you can imagine that many of those sitting in the pews almost did not come that day. Why? They considered staying home because in their minds their faith does not measure up to the faith of others in the congregation.2 It is something, as one commentator puts it, of a “faith inferiority complex.”3 Does Paul, especially when it comes to his Damascus Road experience, give you a “faith inferiority complex”?
If so, you might want to think about this… would you really want to go through what he experienced? Maybe what we ought to do is ask a question like this… when was the last time the Lord got your attention? I mean, really shook you up and said to you, “Listen up”? If that has ever happened to you, truth be told, it might not have been an altogether positive experience any more than Saul’s was, but it probably puts you in his company because that’s exactly what happened to him.
For you, it may have been when calamity struck… the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, conflict in a relationship. When something like that occurs, what happens to us inwardly? We think more about God – we can’t help but think more about God – and about how spiritual realities can come into play because of what we are going through. It’s a quite natural response. A painful response, sometimes, but quite natural… normal even.
What about those times when God initiates the conversation? It’s a normal day. You’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, or you’re working on a project, painting a room maybe, going to school. And suddenly, out of the blue, there is that inner voice that doesn’t come from you. You recognize that the voice has its source Elsewhere. It may take you awhile to figure out who or what that Elsewhere is, but finally the only explanation you can give to it is… God. You finally come to the conclusion that God is speaking to you and wants your attention. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you?
I had one recently, again on my trip to South Africa. And it happened, of all places, in an Irish pub. Chippy Walker and his friend Heather Wilson had taken us there for lunch after a morning spent touring schools at a couple of squatters’ camps outside Benoni, near Johannesburg. My traveling companion, Sam Chaffin, and I were asking them questions, primarily about what spurred them to be so involved in making a difference in the lives of the small children who came to the schools. It was obvious to us that they were giving their lives to serving these little ones, and we wanted to know why.
In the course of our conversation, we talked about apartheid, that terrible policy that separated whites from blacks on a level not seen in this country since the days of slavery. They talked of how South Africa has turned since apartheid was outlawed, and of the changes that were made in their own hearts. There are many things in South Africa which reveal they have a lot of work to do in overcoming the difficulties of the past, but in many respects they are making strides much faster than we here in the States seem to be doing.
I found my eyes filling with tears as they shared their testimony of what it means for them now to give of their time and energy to helping the ones Jesus called “the least of these.” They do it because they are Rotarians, an international group of people who believe deeply in “service above self,” but they also do it because they follow the One who gave his life for them on a Roman cross. As I listened to them, inwardly I heard another Voice, this one telling me that if my new friends Chippy and Heather could do this, then I needed to ramp up my own desire to live my life for others and not solely for myself.
The old song says that when this occurs we “see the light.” That’s kind of ironic because when Saul was accosted by Jesus on the Damascus Road, that light blinded him. He was led to the city of Damascus where, we are told, he was taken to a house on the street called Straight. The street is still there, and now a church is at the location where it is thought Saul was taken. The address is appropriate, because in Latin the street called Straight is via recta, the word from which we get our word rectitude. It means “uprightness.”
Here’s my point… if we have a problem relating to Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road because our experience is so normal, and his was definitely not, we can still connect with him when it comes to what happened on the street called Straight. It was there that Ananias baptized him and gave him a crash course on what it means to follow Jesus. It was there that Paul began his extraordinary journey of faith. It was there that the blinding light turned to a new vision of what it means to be an instrument of grace in the hands of God. If we can’t relate to that, perhaps it is time to re-think what it means for us to follow Jesus.
So don’t be satisfied with where you are in your faith. Never, never be satisfied. Don’t settle for normal, not until you find yourself on the street called Straight, a place where God takes that which is normal and makes it extraordinary indeed.
Lord, whatever it takes to get our attention and turn us more in your direction, give us the courage to ask you to do it. And then lead us to that place called Straight where we find our hope in you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Quoted by Joseph S. Harvard, Feasting On the Word, Year C, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 406.
2Ibid, p. 402.