Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sermon: Acts 19:1-20 The Gospel Comes to Town

A couple of years ago, Dundonald was caught up in a wave of excitement, because of a new arrival. Everyone was talking about it; traffic through the streets was affected; there was no one who didn’t know what was happening. People would abandon their plans, just to go and get a glimpse of it all; in fact, one night at the Youth Fellowship we almost had no teenagers because they had all gone to experience it.

And what was it that had caused such a stir? The circus had come to town, and at a busy traffic junction, two elephants were grazing in the corner of the Lidl car park. Everyone was talking about these elephants!

In our second reading this morning, we heard about another exciting arrival - not the circus coming to town, but the good news about Jesus, for the very first time. Ephesus was an important city in Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), with an important temple. It contained the temple of Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. As we’ll see, the city was rife with idolatry, superstition, and magic. What will happen when the gospel comes to town?

When Paul arrives in Ephesus, he finds some disciples, twelve in fact. But as he talks to them, he quickly realises that they aren’t, in fact, Christians. They have only heard of John the Baptist, and only experienced his baptism. So Paul tells them about Jesus, the one John pointed to, and they are baptised in him. It’s then that the Holy Spirit comes upon them; They hadn’t been connected to Jesus. They thought they were disciples, but they hadn’t even started. It’s about being connected to Jesus.

Paul enters the synagogue, the Jewish meeting house for prayer and Scripture reading and teaching. For three months he argues persuasively, teaching them from the Old Testament about Jesus the King and his Kingdom.

But it’s there that he faces opposition - the Jews don’t want to know; they refuse to believe, so he leaves them, and goes instead to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Every day for two years, Paul argues and teaches whoever will come along. The effect is a bit like those elephants in Dundonald - everyone came to hear about Paul, but more importantly, they came to hear about the Lord Jesus: ‘all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.’

In the queue at the Post Office, waiting on a bus, at the school gate, everyone was talking about the word of the Lord. What an impact on the community! Jesus was creating a stir in the city of Ephesus. But that’s not all.

From verse 11, we see that ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul’ - hankies that had touched him were used to heal the sick and drive out demons/evil spirits. I know of at least one church in Northern Ireland that has a hankie ministry, but it’s important to remember that these weren’t ordinary miracles, but special ones in order to validate the word in this place. Remember that Ephesus was this ‘spiritual’ place, where most people were caught up in worshipping Artemis, so God enables Paul to ‘prove’ the gospel by these amazing miracles.

What happens next is perhaps one of the strangest moments in Scripture. Some Jewish exorcists see that the name of Jesus is powerful, and they think they’ll get into that game. They think that Jesus is just a form of words to use, just a mechanical use the name, get the power type thing. But watch what happens when the seven sons of Sceva do that: ‘The evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.’

You see, it’s not enough to be able to talk about Jesus; to know about holy things; to make a show of religious practice - it’s about being connected to Jesus. As Jesus says near the end of the sermon on the mount: ‘on that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

As these seven sons of Sceva limp away from the house, they’re reminded that Jesus is not just a plaything, not just a name to be bandied about; not just a formula to use to gain things; not just a magic incantation for us to get our own way. The Lord Jesus is powerful, and will not be messed with.

The seven sons of Sceva are a warning sign to us, but also to the people of Ephesus - we’re told that when everyone heard about this incident, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised.

The new Christians in Ephesus quickly realise that it can’t be Jesus plus any other form of religion or spirituality or power. Jesus will tolerate no rivals, because he is THE King. These new believers confessed their former ways, they shine a light on the darkness that used to be in their hearts; they turn away from it, as they turn towards the Lord Jesus.

But it’s not just an inward, hidden, turning around. It’s a public, visible, costly form of repentance. There’s a bonfire in Ephesus, but not for the Twelfth.

‘A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.’

Fifty thousand silver coins is the same as fifty thousand day’s wages - based on UK average earnings, this is roughly £3.5 million. And it all goes up in smoke, burned on the fire, to signal the turning away from these magic books and scrolls and incantations. There’s no going back, but why would they want to go back, when they have Jesus, who is the powerful one?

Every so often in Acts we get a little summary statement by Luke - we already saw one in verse 10, that all the residents of the area heard the word of the Lord. Well after these events, the seven sons of Sceva and the bonfire of the vanities, we’re told that ‘the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.’

What about us, here in Aghavea. As we hear the word of the Lord, how will we respond? Will we stubbornly refuse to believe, like those in the synagogue? Push Jesus away and refuse to have anything to do with him, put our fingers in our ears and not listen to him?

Will we seek to use Jesus for our own ends? A useful back-up strategy, to help us get what we want? A way of furthering our own ends? Jesus will not be mocked - his power and glory is not up for negotiation.

Or will we hear the good news about Jesus, believe it, and be connected to him; and as we turn to him, to turn away from our deeds of darkness and so destroy them that there is no way of return? It’s in this way that the word of the Lord is heard by all, and the word of the Lord grows mightily and prevails.

Lord, we long for this in our day. Come in power as we hear and receive your word. May we find our all in you, and humbly serve you in all our days. For your glory we pray. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd January 2012.

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