Conversion of Paul – Acts 9: 1-22
During January each year we celebrate the season of Epiphany – the manifestation or revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The season begins by celebrating the visit of a group of important Gentiles of unknown origin, the Magi, and ends with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple when Simeon declares Jesus to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles.’
Today, as the 25th January falls on a Sunday, we celebrate the Conversion of Paul, surely one of the greatest Epiphanies of them all. Here was a man, a devout Jew, a Pharisee, on a mission to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus and return them to the High Priests in Jerusalem. ‘Suddenly,’ the bible tells us, ‘a light from heaven flashed around him’ and he heard the voice of Jesus speaking directly to him. Within less than a week he was preaching in the synagogue proclaiming Jesus as ‘the Son of God.’
There are several interesting points to note about this conversion: Paul did not see Jesus, he only heard him; he went through three days of torment before the scales finally fell from his eyes and, even then, they only did so with help from a previous convert. We shall return to some of these points later on but, for the moment, let’s not be picky: by any standards this was a remarkably rapid and complete transformation in which Paul came to understand that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the son of God.
For most of us the revelation of God is much less dramatic than that of Paul on the road to Damascus and it is rarely complete within three days. Each of us has our own story to tell, but my own journey to faith has been more like doing a jigsaw puzzle – a slow process rather than a sudden Epiphany.
Is there anyone here who enjoys doing jigsaw puzzles? I’ve brought one along with me today. Does anyone fancy having a go at this one?
Show empty jigsaw box with no lid, no picture and no pieces.
Oh yes, I forgot to say. It has no lid, so there is no picture to help you. And yes, you’re right, there are no pieces either! So what sort of jigsaw is that? Well, that was the jigsaw I started with in my 20s as I sought for God: no picture, no pieces, just an empty box. So how and where did I start? To explain that I would like to tell you three little stories.
The first is about coffee time in the Teall household at Blatherwycke which takes place around 10.30 every morning. Come rain or shine we take our coffee through to our conservatory where we can sit in comfort and look out across our garden towards the park. Or, to be more accurate, I can look out across our garden towards the park; Pat’s view is at a slightly different angle so she sees a different part of the garden and the woods beyond. This difference in viewpoint can lead to the sort of difficulties we had one day earlier this month: “Look, look” cried Pat, “there’s a woodpecker on the trellis”. Now, I can’t see the trellis from my seat and, if I moved a muscle, it would fly away so I didn’t get to see the woodpecker that day. However, I can describe it to you because Pat described it to me in real time as she watched it and I trust her not to have been making it up. Her vision has given me a firm insight into what a woodpecker is like, even though I did not see it myself.
When I started out on my search for God with my empty jigsaw box my first glimpses of him were seen, not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of previous converts who were able to see him from their different perspectives. By trusting in their vision and judgement I was able to collect the first few tentative pieces of my jigsaw. Like Paul, I could never have done this on my own but, with help, I now had a few pieces in my box to encourage me on my way.
To help explain the next stage of my journey I would like to tell you about a news item I read recently on the BBC website. Apparently some of the major plane manufacturers are in the early stages of designing a passenger plane that has no windows. Windows, it would seem, are expensive to put in, they weaken the structure of the fuselage and they create drag and increase fuel consumption. From a carrier’s point of view they are lose, lose all the way, but how could they persuade the travelling public to accept them? Their answer is to install television screens where the windows would have been, all fed a picture from a camera on their side of the plane. Passengers would be able to see where they were going and, what is more, if something really interesting came up on, say, the port side it could be temporarily switched to the starboard side as well so that no one would miss it!
Are you convinced? No, nor me. I can’t help but wonder, if I saw the Houses of Parliament or the Taj Mahal on a screen, would I really feel that I had seen it with my own eyes or would there always be that nagging suspicion that I was seeing an image created by animators from the World of Disney?
Some of the pieces of the jigsaw in my personal box have been a bit like this. I have seen a glimpse of God, but not been entirely convinced that it was real. Perhaps what I was seeing was not what it seemed and was not really God at all.
Such doubts must have gone through Paul’s mind during those three days he spent in darkness, unable to see anything. Doubting is part of the human condition. It is uncomfortable and we all wish it didn’t happen, but for most of us it does from time to time. Fortunately, there is a further process that can help to dispel our doubts as I hope my third and last little story will show.
A couple of years ago Pat and I travelled from Fort William to Inverness by boat along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness. The first part of the journey passed Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom at 4409 feet or 1344 metres if you prefer. Or so we were told! Now you need to know that Pat and I had been to Scotland before on no less than 6 occasions and, being constantly enveloped by low cloud, had never actually seen any land above 500 feet. We were beginning to wonder whether the mountains were an invention of the Scottish Tourist Board that did not really exist at all.
As we started our journey along the Caledonian Canal we were hopeful that we might see some mountains and, if we were very lucky, we might even see the top of Ben Nevis. To start with it was heavy cloud but gradually the sky started to lighten. The lower slopes came into view and it looked as if, just round the corner when we got a better angle, we might finally see the summit. We rounded the corner, the sky looked promising but then, all of a sudden, there were trees in the way. Did we see the top or didn’t we? We weren’t quite sure but, then, just for a moment, there was a stretch with no trees and we saw it: clear and unmistakable, the summit of Ben Nevis, but only for a few seconds before the cloud rolled back once more.
Searching for God can be very much like this. We see tantalising glimpses for fleeting moments, but we have seen them with our own eyes and they are real. These glimpses are the pieces in the jigsaw that we need to recognise and to treasure so that, as we go through life, our picture and knowledge of God becomes more and more complete. Eventually, as we put together the pieces we have gathered on our journey, the picture will become clear, the scales will fall from our eyes and our Epiphany will be complete. It may not have been as rapid as Paul’s, but it will be no less real for that. Amen.