Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sermon: Acts 17: 1-15 A Tale of Two Cities

What happens when the Tall Ships come to town? Over this weekend we’ve seen huge crowds of people flock to see the ships, and enjoy the carnival atmosphere. Yet some people haven’t been so encouraging - there’s been some complaining about the traffic chaos, and the public transport (or lack of). There’s a mixed reaction when the Tall Ships come to Belfast.

But what about when the gospel comes to town? Surely with the good news of Jesus, there’ll always be a positive reaction. It’s the best news anyone could hope for. Surely everyone will welcome it and receive it with open arms, and all will be well.

Or what about when you decide to speak for Jesus in your home or workplace, or at school or in university. Why do people not welcome the good news? Why is there a mixed reaction, a divided response? Maybe you think that there’s something wrong with your method, that you just aren’t doing it right. Well, in our reading today, we heard of the apostle Paul arriving in two cities, bringing the gospel for the first time, and as you may have noticed, even he didn’t get a great welcome. As we’ll see, there is one message, two cities, and two responses - and it’s not all black and white, not what we would expect either.

Paul, along with his partners, is on his second missionary journey, having come over to Europe (Macedonia), at Philippi, where he spent some time in prison. The next stop is Thessalonica, and, as he always did, Paul goes to preach in the synagogue, the Jewish meeting house. Verse 2 tells us that he was there for three weeks, on three Sabbaths, and outlines his message: ‘he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”’

The Jews had the Old Testament, but without Jesus, they couldn’t make sense of it. Jesus is the key to understanding what it is all about. So Paul takes the time to highlight the central role of the Christ (Messiah), God’s promised King, and how the Christ would both suffer and be raised from the dead. Having then outlined the categories, the criteria, he then proclaims Jesus - the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, then shows that Jesus fulfils these perfectly. Jesus is the Christ.

It’s all very reasonable, reasoned and logical. Verse 11 shows that Paul’s message was the same in Berea as well - ‘they received the word with all eagerness’. The word is preached and proclaimed. Jesus is honoured, now surely everyone will accept it and believe?

Well, no - as we’ve seen, there are two responses, and not what we would expect. It’s not that one city fully accepts and the other city fully rejects - things don’t normally work out like that. Nor is it that the religious people all accept and the pagans reject - it’s not as simple as that. Yet there are some who believe, and some who reject.

Look at verse 4. This is from Thessalonica. ‘And some of them (that’s the Jews) were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.’ Both Jews and pagans were hearing that Jesus is the Christ and believing the word. It’s a similar response in Berea - here the Jews ‘received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.’ They don’t just accept what Paul says, they go and study for themselves to make sure he is speaking the truth - and then ‘many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.’ (12) Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all of the time - close bible study to ensure the preacher is on course.

Yet not everyone accepts the gospel. Alongside the joy of the good news, there is the threat of trouble and opposition from those who don’t accept it. Look back at verse 5. ‘But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason.’

These are the religious people, the people who should have been expecting the Christ, yet they reject the gospel, reject God’s word, and seek to cause trouble by stirring up a crowd, a rent-a-mob. As they take Jason to the city authorities, it’s clear why they reject Jesus:

They see Paul and Silas as ‘these men who have turned the world upside down.’ It’s a fair description. After all, nothing is the same after Jesus. Instead of going our own way, pleasing ourselves, looking after Number One, thinking we can save ourselves, the gospel message comes saying that we need a Saviour; that we are not the centre of our universe, but that God is.The gospel is revolutionary, because it is not what we naturally expect, or even want.

But even worse, they reject their true king. Verse 7, they’re still addressing the authorities, and they say ‘and they (Paul and Silas) are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ There’s one thing - they understood the message and implications of the gospel, but they completely turn their backs on it, and in a terrible irony, side up with Rome, rather than with Jesus.

In rejecting Jesus as king, they are doing what the Jews in Jersualem did that first Good Friday morning: ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ (John 19:15)

With all this going on - is it any surprise that many reject the gospel and then make life difficult for Christians? We may not face open opposition and persecution such as Paul faced - perhaps we’ll be left out of office parties or kept back from promotion because of our identification with Jesus, yet for many Christians in the world today, riots, mobs, prison, even death, are very real possibilities.

Back in March we had Patrick Sookhdeo with us, and his group, the Barnabas Fund, helps Christians facing persecution. Recently, Christians in Pakistan have seen their homes burned to the ground, churches vandalised, and some have even been burnt to death. The opposition to the gospel is real, and is the outworking of Jesus’ words in John 3: ‘the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.’ (John 3:19-20)

As Paul moves on to Berea, and finds a more favourable response, we see just how dedicated the wicked are to their wickedness. So angry are they that someone somewhere is hearing the good news of Jesus, that the Jews from Thessalonica travel about 50 miles to agitate the crowds in Berea. We would hardly walk 50 feet to tell someone about Jesus, yet here the opponents of the gospel walk 50 miles to stop it!

Paul is quickly sent on by ‘the brothers’ - those who have accepted the gospel, and moves on to Athens, where he will proclaim Jesus in the Areopagus.

A tale of two cities - Thessalonica and Berea. One message is proclaimed: That Jesus is the Christ, the King. And as we’ve seen, two very different responses - acceptance and faith on the one hand, and rejection and opposition on the other. What is there here for us? What challenges or comforts does the passage present?

The first, and the most important thing the passage raises is to ask us what our response is? One message and two responses - what will our response be? Do you fall in with those who receive the word eagerly, learning, growing, finding joy in the God of salvation? Have you heard the good news of the gospel and responded with faith?

Or do you find yourself among those who are hostile to the gospel, hostile to the one King Jesus? Maybe not openly, in causing trouble and riots, but more respectably, in working against the advance of the gospel, undermining those taking steps of faith, fighting against the progress of some.

For those of us who are committed to spreading the good news, there is comfort and encouragement here. There is no guarantee that all will be well and easy - there is a cost to discipleship and evangelism, yet the encouragement comes in the labour. We see the God’s word is powerful and effective in calling men and women to repentance - some in Thessalonica and many in Berea believed. So do not lose heart as you maintain your witness, even in times of difficulty and persecution - the letters that Paul later wrote to the Thessalonians are full of encouragement for them to continue: ‘And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Thes 1:6)

What happens when the gospel comes to town? Some respond with faith - praise the Lord! Some obstruct and fight - pray to the Lord! Ours, like Paul, is a call to continue to labour, to continue to proclaim that ‘Jesus is the Christ.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 16th August 2009.

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