Have you ever had a prayer answered? Sometimes we pray out loud, asking God for things that we cannot get by our own efforts. Sometimes, we pray silently, privately, for things that we do not want to speak of where anyone else can hear. Sometimes, we only know that something is wrong and that we need God’s help.
The reading from Acts catches Saul of Tarsus in his moment of spiritual crisis. He had been raised as a Pharisee, trained by Gamaliel, one of the leaders of the Pharisaic movement. They, like most people in Judea, believed that ancient Israel had violated so badly the laws given to Moses that God had called the Assyrians and Babylonians to sack their cities, enslave the survivors, and drag them into exile. The Judeans who returned under Nehemiah taught their children to obey every word of the law. Following that tradition, the Pharisees strove for religious perfection. They studied the scriptures diligently, debated what the laws meant, and followed them precisely. Many Pharisees separated themselves from the sinful people who surrounded them. They reasoned that contact with unclean people would render them unclean as well. They considered themselves better than ordinary Jewish people who could not, or would not, put in the required training, discipline, and expense.
It is not obvious from the New Testament, but many ordinary people greatly admired the Pharisees. They were the rock stars of Judaism. To be a Pharisee was to be educated, pious, and important.
Like the Pharisees, Jesus knew the scripture by heart and obeyed its teachings. He had, however, a very different interpretation of what it meant. An early advocate of the rabbinic approach, he mingled freely with people from every walk of life. He called all of them to follow him, the wealthy and the poor, devout and confessed sinners alike. He reached beyond the decent God-fearing people of Judea to the hated Samaritans, to Canaanites, and even to Roman military officers. Most disturbingly, he claimed to be the Son of Man from the scriptures, the anointed one, the promised Messiah from the line of David who would establish the heavenly kingdom.
The Pharisees were horrified. They debated how to stamp out this blasphemous cult of the unclean. Tricking the Romans into crucifying Jesus had not worked. The Apostles were recruiting thousands of people into the new Way. They were spreading from city to city throughout the middle east. Suppressing them violently might trigger a civil war. It was better to arrest them quietly and terrify these enemies of God back into obedience.
Saul was the man for the job. He volunteered to go to Damascus with letters from the chief priest authorizing him to arrest the apostates and bring them bound to Jerusalem. But it did not work out that way. On the road, a vision from heaven blinded him. Jesus called him in person to repent and await further orders in Damascus. He left Saul to stew for three days in Damascus, too sick to eat or drink.
Why did God choose Saul, of all people? He was a horrible man! Cruel, self-righteous, and unforgiving, he was notorious for his brutal oppression of those following Jesus’ Way. Everyone in Damascus knew who he was and why he had come. No doubt, they were surprised and privately pleased that his punishment was so severe. Jesus had to appear a second time to convince Ananais to meet Saul and heal his damaged eyes. Ananais was probably astonished to discover that Saul had undergone a complete change of heart.
Did the overwhelming vision of Jesus shock Saul into repentance? Did the three-day punishment, blind and sick in Damascus, give him time to regret his poor choices? Did the miraculous healing draw Saul back into God’s family? Or had a secret prayer in his heart been answered?
As a Pharisee, Saul had memorized the scriptures that told of the Messiah. He knew about the miracles Jesus performed, miracles that deeply troubled the religious leaders in Jerusalem. He heard the wild claims about Jesus’ resurrection. He witnessed the solid faith of the Apostles when they were brought before the courts.
Was Saul afraid that the Apostles were right? In his fear, did he cry out silently to God?
One way we control our doubts and fears is by becoming fanatical. Saul was certainly that. After he switched sides, however, he became just as firmly convinced that Jesus was the Son of God. Never shy, he immediately declared his new convictions in the synagogues of Damascus. He accepted baptism and changed his name to Paul to show that he had been reborn in the faith.
Very few of us have conversion stories as dramatic as Saul’s. Very few of us have been as nasty as Saul. Our doubts and our anger are on a smaller scale. Similarly, our prayers and repentance are kept quiet and private. Each Sunday, during the Prayers of the People, we are invited to bring before God all our joys and concerns, including the ones we hold silently.
Those silent prayers are sometimes the ones that trouble us most deeply. We may be ashamed to admit them in public. Or we may think they are too trivial to say out loud, that we would be wasting God’s time. But God has, quite literally, all the time in the world and cares about all of us as individuals!
So, bring those silent prayers to Jesus. They are just as real as Saul’s troubles. We do not usually need a world-changing yank on our leash. A quiet, private conversation with God will leave us refreshed and ready to face the world again. An answered prayer can be life-changing, no matter how small it seems to be. Jesus can offer options you would never have thought of by yourself. You may never be able to say exactly what happened. But you know that your deep questions have been answered.
Have I had a prayer answered? Yes! It was small, insignificant, but surprising enough that I remember it. A few months after I started attending church again, after many years of absence, I prayed to God for guidance. The next week, I was invited to become a Sunday school teacher! The lead teacher explained that it really helps little boys if they have a male figure to look up to. My class included my daughter Laura, who was two years old at the time, and an extremely active boy named Matthew. Pride is not a virtue in Sunday school and some of the other men in the congregation were astonished. Regardless, I was delighted to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” to dance “Ring A Round A Rosie,” and to tell lots of bible stories to a ring of toddlers. For the bible stories, we sat cross-legged on the floor. Laura would perch on one of my knees while Matthew bounced on the other. It was a prayer answered and drew me into the life of the church more effectively than any bible study or prayer session could have.
Has God answered your prayers? Especially the really important prayers that you cannot speak out loud? Give God a try and see what happens!